“There is properly no history; only biography”, wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, who may have been thinking of the Marquis de Lafayette.
A replica of the frigate Hermione, which brought Lafayette to America in 1780 to rally rebels fighting Britain in the US war of independence, is under sail 235 years after the original crossing of the Atlantic.
Some 80 people are crewing the three-mast 65-metre ship en route to Boston, the same journey made by the extravagantly named Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette. The ship will make landfall in early June at Yorktown, Virginia, where US troops led by George Washington and French soldiers accompanied by Lafayette scored a decisive victory over the British in 1781.
The frigate is scheduled to make more than 10 stops in the United States as it sails up the east coast, including Baltimore, Philadelphia and Boston. Hermione will also sail into the bay of New York just in time for the July 4 independence celebrations, with an expected escort of hundreds of local yachts.
Lafayette’s career spanned the momentous decades of the American Revolution, the French Revolution, Napoleon, the Bourbon Restoration, and the Revolution of 1830. He consistently opposed tyranny and, in the words of historian Marc Leepson in Lafayette: Lessons in Leadership From the Idealist General (2011), was a man who, “stuck to his ideals, even when doing so endangered his life and fortune. Those ideals proved to be the founding principles of two of the world’s most enduring nations, the United States and France. That is a legacy that few military leaders, politicians or statesmen can match.”
A statue of Lafayette by the French sculptor Alexandre Falguière stands in Lafayette Square, Washington, D.C., but it is not the equestrian statue in the centre erected in 1853, which is of former President Andrew Jackson and cast from bronze cannons captured during the War of 1812. Jackson astride a rearing horse and doffing his hat was an engineering feat not previously achieved in American sculpture. Mark Twain – at that time still Sam Clemens – viewing it in February 1854, said it was “well worth a long walk on a stormy day to see.”
Lafayette Square was originally called “President’s Park”. It was cut off from the White House grounds when Pennsylvania Avenue was laid out and renamed when President James Monroe invited Lafayette to return to the USA to celebrate the nation’s forthcoming 50th anniversary. He arrived in New York on 15 August 1824, accompanied by his son Georges Washington de Lafayette, and was welcomed by a group of Revolutionary War veterans, who had fought alongside him in 1781. Lafayette passed the winter of 1824-25 in Washington City and was present for the climax of a hotly contested election, in which no presidential candidate was able to secure a majority. The House of Representatives intervened on 9 February 1825 to name Secretary of State John Quincy Adams as President.
That same evening, the runner-up, Andrew Jackson, shook hands with Adams at the White House as Lafayette looked on. Jackson, who became President in 1829 and founded the Democratic Party, once “regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes.” No comment.
At the very heart of the democracy they fought to establish and protect, Lafayette and Jackson now share the same square, overlooking a city they would no longer recognize.