Author presented the John L. Hatfield ’67 Lecture as part of the Marquis’ 250th birthday celebration
Lloyd Kramer, award-winning author of Lafayette in Two Worlds: Public Cultures and Personal Identities in an Age of Revolution, presented “Lafayette’s Historical Legacy: Politics, Culture, and the Modern World” Sept. 6.
The John L. Hatfield ’67 Lecture was hosted by Friends of Skillman Library and was part of the College’s celebration of the 250th anniversary of the birth of the Marquis de Lafayette.
The College is throwing a yearlong celebration during 2007-08 in recognition of the life and legacy of the man for whom it is named. In addition to the birthday party Sept. 6, major events include a lecture series, entitled Lives of Liberty, and a historical exhibit at the Williams Center for the Arts, entitled A Son and his Adoptive Father: The Marquis de Lafayette and George Washington.
- A web site dedicated to the celebration and to the Marquis’ unique connection to the College provides information and updates.
Listen to the lecture.
Kramer’s entire lecture is below:
Well, thank you President Weiss and I am very honored to be here to present the John Hatfield lecture. I had a great conversation with John over dinner and we’re continuing our discussion about the meaning of Lafayette. So, it is a pleasure to be here I also want to say again how valuable the library has been for anyone interested in the history and life of Lafayette. Both the illustrations, the images that are here and the documents and letters; it is truly a resource for anybody in the world who wants to study Lafayette.
So, I thank all of you for inviting me and I’m very happy to have the opportunity to talk about Lafayette whose picture is right before us here, and of course this is a special occasion because of Lafayette’s birthday.
The Marquis de Lafayette is obviously an important historical figure for Lafayette College and for most if us who have gathered here to celebrate this 250th anniversary of his birth. We are here today, and this distinguished college proudly carries his name, because Lafayette participated prominently in American and French Revolutions, befriended American of all social classes and political views, represented American interests in France and visited the United States for a grand nation tour in 1824 to 1825, the tour that led to the founding of this college.
A celebratory party at Lafayette College, therefore, carries the undisputed assumption that Lafayette embodied significant historical values and historical traditions. But I would like to use this birthday celebration as an opportunity to reflect on how Lafayette represents key themes in the wider emergence of modern history as well as the founding and naming of this college. I believe that Lafayette continues to merit historical attention because he exemplifies decisive changes in modern history and because his participation in these changes left a legacy that is still part of our world.
Lafayette is an appropriate name for a 21st century American college in part because an outstanding college must remain deeply involved with the political and cultural issues that were so important in Lafayette’s life. Although his reputation has held up well among most Americans who knew about him or know about him now, Lafayette’s stature has steadily declined in modern historical scholarship.
(I’m going to be showing a series of images. This is Lafayette on the Brandywine, and image that is in the exhibition: Lafayette as he left America in 1825.)
As historians grew more skeptical about the nature and outcomes of political revolutions, the motives of political actors, and the personal qualities of Lafayette himself, it was probably inevitable that a more ironic and more critical view of Lafayette would replace the popular 19th century American descriptions of his life.
During most of the first century after his death in 1834, Americans regularly praised Lafayette as their special French friend whose disinterested high ideals shaped his selfless service during the American Revolution and his later attempts to promote democratic political institutions in Europe. Americans always stressed his close friendship with George Washington and his principle support for American interests on both sides of Atlantic.
In contrast to this highly favorable American reputation, Lafayette often attracted harsh criticisms in France. And I want to show you an image, a cartoon, from the French Revolution showing Lafayette on the eve of the October Days when he did not seem to want to go the Versailles with the National Guard. And this is a typical French view of Lafayette as a weak or indecisive leader.
In France, Lafayette often attracted harsh criticisms where French conservatives saw him a social traitor to his noble class or to the Bourbon Monarchy, and French leftists saw him as national traitor who fled when the radical Jacobin Revolution began in 1792. A more skeptical generation of American historians, thus, began drawing from French perspectives as they developed a new historical image of Lafayette after World War I.
This new historical portrait depicted Lafayette as a na�ve, boyish, vain, and self-interested figure who was never able to reach highest levels of political or military leadership. Modern academic historians rejected the earlier “great man” theory that had placed him among the giants of world history. John Quincy Adams summarized the prevailing 19th “great man” view in a famous congressional eulogy, which portrayed Lafayette as an exceptional benefactor to all mankind.
(And here is the classic view of Lafayette from the Charles Willson Peale portrait.)
Adams called Lafayette a unique leader whose contribution to human welfare had never been exceeded from “the creation of the world to this day in any era or part of the world.” Pretty strong praise. This highly positive, almost god-like, image of Lafayette disappeared in modern skeptical judgment of 20th century writers such as Edward Hyams, who saw in Lafayette, “some flaw, some lack of conviction, some indifference to the possible which makes him, even in his greatest moments, just a little ridiculous.”
(And here is classic French view. This is Lafayette in a Daumier cartoon in early 1830’s which shows him being dominated by the pear, a symbol of Louis Philippe, but this is the kind of image that circulated of Lafayette as a kind of figure of ridicule.)
According to Hyams, the famous hero in Two Worlds was “always tending to make an ass of himself whenever he tried to put his ideas into action.” This skeptical, ironic view of Lafayette had long circulated in France, but it had now found its echo in numerous American narratives as well, including at times even in Louis Gottschalk indispensable six-volume biographical study of Lafayette’s career which carries Lafayette only to 1790.
Gottschalk took Lafayette seriously as an influential historical figure. He was writing from the 1930s to 1970s at the University of Chicago. But Gottschalk also tended to stress Lafayette’s self-centered attitudes and his deep need for approval from others, this view appeared also in the title of another modern biographical study which described Lafayette simply as “a statue in search of a pedestal.”
(And here is also a Revolutionary Era portrait. That’s Lafayette on pedestal ordering the demolition of the Bastille. The key of which is currently next door here in this building.)
The modern criticisms of Lafayette’s concern for his reputation make an important point about one of his notable personal characteristics. Lafayette had a constant desire to tell and hear other tell his biographical story as a lifelong struggle for liberty and human rights. He also liked to be praised, though this trait is by no means unusual in human beings, or even in the most successful public figures.
At the same time however, Lafayette took exceptional risks as he acted upon his political ideas during almost every phase of his live in America and in France.
(And here’s another image, a more positive view of Lafayette on the left here, helping a country find its freedom in France, and paying the cost for his actions in the revolution by his imprisonment at Olm�tz in Moravia.)
Lafayette took these risks during almost every phase if his life. He paid very high personal and political costs for his beliefs during the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Empire, the Bourbon restoration, and the early July monarchy, because he refused to conform to the shifting political winds. If he was a statue in search of pedestals, he was a statue who never became a weather vain or collapsed when the winds blew very hard against him. It would therefore be easy enough to describe numerous personal and political actions that would challenge the historical claim that Lafayette regularly made an ass of himself.
My purpose today, however, is not to examine or defend Lafayette’s personal traits, but to talk instead about his enduring legacy as an advocate and symbol of historical changes that we now equate with the development of modern politics and culture. Historians disagree of course when they try to identify a starting point for modern history, or the components of modernity in different regions of world.
There are nevertheless good historical reasons to argue that many of the decisive transitions to the modern world took place during the precise years of Lafayette’s lifetime, 1757-1834. Most historians would probably recognize as least eight important modernizing transitions in western societies over the decades that we might call, on this occasion at least, the Lafayette era. And I was to stress that the Lafayette’s public actions, political beliefs, and personal friendships were connected to every one of these historical changes.
(So, here I want show another image. This is Lafayette with Washington at Yorktown and this is the starting point for the transitions I want to talk about.)
First transition, in the realm of political thought the crucial change emerged in the wide diffusion of enlightenment era political theories of the human rights or natural rights and the belief that each individual should have equal, legal rights. Although his conception of human rights was not yet extended to women or non-European peoples, the new theory challenged old regime hierarchical systems that defined legal rights on the basis of an individual inherited social status.
Second transition: the new theory of human rights led to the violent political and military upheavals of the American and French revolutions which R.R. Palmer famously described as the age of the democratic revolution. This general term still provides a useful label for radical, political changes that spread across both sides of the Atlantic in the late 18th century, creating the modern conception of how government should represent the will of those who they govern.
The era’s violent political revolutions contributed everywhere to the third crucial development which can be described in simple terms as the rise of nationalism, national identities, and national independence movements. The American revolt against Great Britain was only the first of many nation independence movements that emerged in Latin America, Greece, Poland, Italy, and other places where people came to view themselves as oppressed by foreign rulers. Indeed nationalism would become the most pervasive and powerful all of modern ideologies in the two centuries after American and French revolutions.
Fourth, the new political emphasis on individual rights and distinctive national identities coincided with emergence of Romanticism.
(And here I want show an image of La Grange, Lafayette’s home in France in later year that has a kind of romantic vision surrounded by forests and a kind of mysterious dark color.)
Romanticism praised artistic value of individual creativity, the quest for self-realization, and the journeys of young heroes who struggled for their own freedom or the freedom of others. Romanticism tended to celebrate rebellion over conformity to cultural traditions and it created a culture legacy that reshaped modern literature and art as well as modern images of the artists.
Fifth, this era of political and cultural upheaval also launched a modern feminist movement that combined arguments for women’s political rights with new forms of women’s literature, travel writing, and public commentary.
(And here I want to show Madame de Stael, Germaine de Stael, a representative of the new women’s literature.)
Women began to claim a new place in public sphere, drawing on the political themes of the American and French revolutions and the cultural themes of early romanticism.
Sixth, at the same time, the age of the democratic revolution provided a powerful theoretical and political foundation for the emergence of modern anti-slavery movements.
(And here I want show an image that’s also in the exhibition. This is Lafayette and his James Armistead, who was his attendant and servant during the Yorktown Virginia campaign in 1781 and whose freedom Lafayette worked to secure later in the 1780s.)
It was in this period that the age of the democratic revolution provided the theoretical resources to condemn slavery as a blatant contradiction of human rights and to call for the emancipation of all enslaved people. Abolitionist movements also spread across national boundaries and drew on enlightenment or Romantic theories of individual selfhood and personal freedom.
Seventh: the late 18th and early 19th century became the era of economic take-off for a rabidly expanding global economy. This is again, a view of LaGrange, and the agriculture that surrounded LaGrange. Major changes in this era included the emergence of major agriculture, the rapid growth of cities, and establishment of new industries, all of which generated the wealth that would sustain new political democracies and new forms of art and culture. This industrial revolution coincided with the age of democratic revolutions and contributed decisively to the creation of modern world.
Finally, all of the modern transitions of I’ve mentioned developed through cross-cultural encounters and newer trans-national exchanges. This process of constant cross-cultural exchange became a salient feature of modernity, but it first took on many of its modern forms in the trans-Atlantic interactions of the18th and19th centuries. In contrast to say peasants in medieval, European villages, modern people increasingly defined their personal identities and collective aspirations through their contacts with people from other cultures.
(And, this is Lafayette in the famous view by Ary Scheffer.)
Now my list of changes in the emerging modern world, could of course be extended and a good historical analysis of these transitions would require much more detail than I have provided here. But this brief summary suggests why Lafayette’s historical era gave him the opportunity to participate in so many important events and cultural changes.
Everyone of these historical transitions became part of Lafayette’s life and he became a public symbolic advocate for all of them. Historical figures gain wide significance when their lives, actions, and aspirations come to symbolize the collective aspirations and the personal believes for many other people in their own culture and in the cultures of later generations.
Lafayette became this kind of symbolic figure in the political and cultural transitions to the modern world. His historical status should therefore be understood as an expression of profound historical changes which he supported and also symbolized during his life and which he continued to represent after his death.
This is not the place to tell again the famous stories of Lafayette’s public or personal life, though such stories were retold at typical Lafayette events throughout his American tour in 1824-25. We would need some alcohol and toasts to truly do him justice. But in contrast to 19th century celebrations of his life, I want to note briefly how he was involved with the historical transitions that shaped his historical era and still influenced the modern world in which we still live.
Lafayette’s support for the 18th century theory of natural or inalienable rights formed a constant theme during every phase of his career.
(And here I want to go to another image. This is Trumbull’s famous painting of Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown.)
Lafayette’s support for human rights let directly to his highly active involvement in the most important political revolutions of the18th and early 19th centuries. As he explained in a letter to the president of the American Philosophical Society when he was inducted into that society in 1781, Lafayette steadfastly believes that the American Revolution promoted “the rights of mankind on a more liberal basis than any other political movement in the world.” And he always envisioned his later public actions as an extension of the political cause he had first supported in America.
(Another image, Lafayette with the Declaration of Rights of Man in France.)
Lafayette, therefore, introduced the first version of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens to France’s revolutionary National Assembly on July 11, 1789 and reaffirmed his commitment to those rights in numerous later writings and speeches.
He argued that the American Revolution had defined “the rights that nature has bestowed on each man, rights that are so inherent to his existence that the entire society has no right to take them from him.” He called these inherent rights the “imprescriptable rights of man and citizens.” And as he described them, they included the essential components to human liberty: the right to free speech, religion, participation in public life and to freedom from inherited privilege or social hierarchy.
He continued to reiterate the fundamental human right to such freedoms down to this last major speech of his life in 1834, when he reminded the French Chamber of Deputies that “there are natural rights that an entire nation has no right to violate.” The doctrine of natural human rights, in short, was the central theme of his entire political philosophy.
(Here again is Lafayette in 1781 – and on the right in the revolution of 1830.)
This conception of natural rights appeared often in the books of 18th century political theorists. But Lafayette stands out among the theorists as a public figure who carried his ideas directly into military and political action. No one else in that age of the democratic revolution played a comparable leading role in the American and French revolutions or remained at the center of revolutionary events from 1777 all the way through the revolution in France in 1830.
Lafayette participated in the American Revolution mainly through his military actions in the Continental Army, but he also served as a mediator with French government officials, and he always saw close connections between the military and political aspects of the revolution. His leadership in the decisive Virginia Campaign in 1781, for example, became a remarkable early example of revolutionary political warfare in which Lafayette avoided direct encounters with General Cornwallis and yet demonstrated that the British army could not break the political will of a small ragtag American army.
The main characteristic of America’s revolution, he explained to people in France, appeared in this new form of popular political struggle. “No European army would suffer a tenth part of what these troops have,” he wrote in one of his letters to France, but their endurance proves that “one must have citizens to endure the nakedness, hunger, labors, and complete lack of pay that make up the lot of our soldiers.”
Now Lafayette was more connected than any other European with the both the common soldiers and the highest leadership of the American Revolutionary cause and he learned with from first hand experience how to incorporate political considerations into all of his military campaigns. This same emphasis on the connection between politics and military affairs reappeared in his prominent leadership in Parisian National Guard, which the French National Assembly appointed him to command on the day after the Parisian crowds’ assault on the Bastille in July of 1789.
(I want to show another image – this is Lafayette as the nation’s scarecrow. This is Lafayette defending the nation against the crowned heads of Europe. They’re floating around like crows and Lafayette is waiving his sword. I don’t know if this is the one that in the exhibition in there, but it’s something like that.)
He wanted the French to combine their revolutionary campaign for new political rights with a deep respect for law and order and the constitutional action of the nation’s elected representatives. He, therefore, supported the early French Revolution because he believed that political and military action would achieve the kind of society that he idealistically attributed to the French army in 1792. Here, he wrote in one of his letters from the revolutionary army while he was out on command, “the principles of liberty and equality are cherished, the law is respected, and property is sacred.”
In Lafayette’s view, this combination of liberty, legal equality, and constitutional legislation formed the essential theme in all democratic revolutions. And though he ultimately fled for his life and disappeared into Austrian prisons as the French Revolution entered its most radical phase in 1792, he never doubted that the political principles of the American and early French revolutions represented the most valuable and universal ideals that modern nations could promote in their political institutions.
But his support for the revolutionary rights of man was always linked to his equally fervent support the rights of national independence beginning with the American Revolution.
(This is an image of Russian’s invading Poland in 1831, one of the national revolutions that Lafayette steadfastly supported at the end of his life.)
Lafayette, therefore, embraced most of his era’s emerging nationalisms, including the independence movements in North America and South America, and later nationalist movements in Greece, Italy, and Poland. In every case, he supported nationalist opposition to imperial powers, the British and Spanish empires in the Americas, or Ottoman, Russian, and Austrian empires in Europe. If one were to reduce Lafayette’s lifelong political actions to a single sentence, one might say simply that he opposed imperial regimes wherever they appeared and this opposition extended even to Napoleon Bonaparte’s imperial regime within France itself.
Lafayette optimistically assumed that the cause of individual nations would eventually prevail over all imperial systems no matter how dire the nationalist cause became in any particular situation. This view of ultimate national victories emerged, for example, in a speech at the French Chamber of Deputies during Poland’s uprising against the Russian Empire in 1831. “There are only two political categories in modern Europe,” Lafayette told his fellow deputies. “The oppressors and the oppressed, and I will say,” he went on to explain, “that two principles divide Europe: the sovereign right of peoples and the divine right of kings. On one side, liberty and equality, on the other, despotism and privilege.”
The campaign for national independence was, thus, a permanent struggle for the sovereignty of people and he was confident that the rights of the people were “in constant progression” and that violent imperial opposition to this cause would only accelerate its ultimate triumph. Lafayette may have downplayed the tension between the rights of individuals and the collective rights of national governments. But he clearly understood and supported the rising power of nationalist aspirations in the modern world.
His interest in the distinctive national aspirations of different nations was typical of the new Romantic Nationalism, which emerged in many new places with the new 19th century romantic interest in individual creativity and the romantic hero. Lafayette’s famous journey to America’s revolutionary struggle for national freedom became a model for later European romantics, such as Lord Byron, who went off to fight for romantic conceptions for freedom in Greece and Italy.
(Here’s another image of Lafayette in 1830. Lord Byron wasn’t as lucky as Lafayette; he died in his revolutionary struggle in Greece.)
Although Lafayette always expressed 18th century political ideas, he also became a political hero for 19th century romantic writers and artists. The imaginative romantic writer, Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, summarized this view when she congratulated Lafayette on the French Revolution of 1830 and linked him explicitly to both her own values and the political commitments of her deceased poetic husband, Percy Shelley. “I was the wife of a man that held dear the opinions you espouse and to which you were the martyr and are the ornament,” she wrote to Lafayette. “I rejoice that the cause to which Shelly’s life was devoted is crowned with triumph.”
And similar praise runs through many of the Romantic generation’s references to Lafayette and he reciprocated by praising and supporting the many Romantic writers he knew. Here are a couple of his best friends: James Fenimore Cooper who lived in France for seven years and the Irish novelist Lady Morgan. But he also provided support for Romantic artists and painters, such as Ary Scheffer, whose portrait we have been looking at, and the Romantic opera star Maria Malibran, who was a very important figure in Lafayette’s later years. (This is Maria Malibran, a great opera star.)
His letters to Malibran, for example, show how the aging, liberal political leader aligned himself with Romanticism when he reflected on art or music or very talented young people. “It is truly painful to love you so much and to be so far from you, my dear Maria,” he wrote in one of his letters to her after she moved to Belgium in the early 1830s. “But remember that my heart is in sympathy with all of your sadness, all of your wishes, and I need your happiness as much as your tenderness.”
So the famous campaigner for political rights and national independence, in other words, readily expressed the sensibilities that circulated in early 19th-century Romantic culture. Lafayette’s praise and support for creative women such as Maria Malibran became another distinctive connection with the emerging movements of modern political and cultural life, and this has to do with the rise of women’s rights, feminism.
After his wife Adrienne died in 1807, (this is an image of her from the collection here at Lafayette College), Lafayette gradually developed close personal relationships with women who came from diverse national cultures, including Germaine de Stael, Fanny Wright (who is pictured here on the right who was Scottish), Cristina Belgioioso who was Italian, Maria Malibran who was Spanish, and Lady Morgan who was Irish.
All of these political and cultural activists became controversial public symbols of the struggles for women’s rights or campaigns for national independence or individual artistic creativity or the movement to abolish slavery. And Lafayette’s correspondence with such friends showed that he viewed women as equal participants in the political and cultural movements he supported.
He went well beyond most men of his generation in admiring their independent ideas and actions. The Scottish writer Fanny Wright, who was Lafayette’s closest friend in the early 1820s and his travel companion during much of his tour through America in 1824-25, reflected on Lafayette’s relationships with women when she wrote to him about her political activism. “I dare say you marvel sometimes at my independent way of walking through the world just as if nature had made me of your sex instead of poor Eve’s,” she noted in a letter. “Trust me, my beloved friend, the mind has no sex but what habit and education give it and I have learned to struggle with the elements as any male child of Adam.”
Such statements express the feisty independence that drew Lafayette to the younger women whom he befriended and the women definitely believed that he understood and supported their aspirations. (And here is another woman, Cristina Belgioioso.) He wrote to Belgioioso, an Italian nationalist, and I think his comments to her may be taken as a summary of his warm response to all of the younger women he supported in his later years.
“I admire your noble character,” he wrote in 1831 when she was writing articles for the French Pres, “and your truly sublime qualities because they are as simple and natural as they are beautiful.” He also praised her generous scorn for wealth and her devotion to liberty, the same sort of thing that he had represented in the American Revolution. And he emphasized, “I have applauded more than anyone else your determination to depend entirely on yourself.”
And so the women of early 19th-century Europe responded to Lafayette’s support and it’s easy to understand why the recipients of his letters appreciated Lafayette’s friendship even if he did not extend his support for women’s rights into political campaigns for women’s suffrage. His main political action for women’s legal rights emerged in his unsuccessful 19th-century advocacy for the right of French women to divorce their husbands, but liberal women of all cultural and national backgrounds recognized that his general belief in human rights was relevant to all struggles for equality and recognition of their cultural work.
(And this is Madame de Stael who was a great admirer of Lafayette’s commitment to liberty.)
Lafayette’s support for human emancipation extended also to the expanding campaign to abolish slavery. (And I’m going to go back now to an image of Fanny Wright.) His close relationship with Fanny Wright for example was built partly on their shared opposition to slavery and Lafayette became Wright’s strongest supporter when she remained in the United States after 1825 to implement her plan for the abolition of slavery.
Wright purchased land near Memphis, Tenn., where she established a planned community called Nashoba for enslaved people who would be acquired from slaveholders, trained in artisanal skills, and emancipated to live a free, self-supporting life. Lafayette contributed $8,000 of his own money to support Wright’s project and he wrote his influential American friends to enlist their financial backing.
(This other image over here shows African-Americans greeting Lafayette during his famous tour in 1824 and 1825.)
Wright’s plan at Nashoba resembled Lafayette’s own earlier purchase of a plantation in French Guyana during the 1780s. Much like the project at Nashoba, Lafayette had set out to train and emancipate enslaved people in the French colonies, but his plan collapsed when he lost all of his land during the French Revolution. Wright’s Nashoba experiment also collapsed because she lacked money to sustain the plantation and because her community became notorious for sexual freedom, its communal economic policies, and its well-publicized hostility to slavery.
But Lafayette tried to assure friends such as James Madison and the New York banker Charles Wilkes that Wright deserved “high respect for her person, her virtues, her intentions, and exalted character.” When Wright eventually traveled to Haiti with almost 30 emancipated slaves, Lafayette continued to praise her abolitionist work though he was more cautious then Wright during his famous American tour in 1824-25.
In the course of that highly publicized tour, Lafayette made significant symbolic statements by visiting the African Free School in New York City, meeting in Georgia with an aging slave who he had known during the American Revolution, and stressing that African-Americans played an important role in the Revolutionary War. He also met a delegation of black men in New Orleans and remembered that he “had often during the war of independence seen African blood shed with honor in our ranks for the cause of the United States.” He insisted on remembering that African-Americans had been part of the revolutionary struggle.
Lafayette’s opposition to slavery thus remained a central theme in his career, even when it led to disagreements with old American friends such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Lafayette’s critique of slavery became his most notable criticism of the United Sates, but here is an image of Philadelphia showing the prosperity of urban life and although Lafayette criticized American slavery, he had only praise for America’s extraordinary economic development.
Despite his limited personal interest in commercial activities, Lafayette saw economic expansion as one of the hallmarks of modern, liberal nations. He regularly promoted American-European trade after he returned to France in the 1780s and he assumed that modern commercial systems required the individual rights and liberties that he supported in his political philosophy. And during his tour in 1824 he repeatedly assured the Americans that their economic expansion demonstrated the advantages of a modern society in which inherited privileges gave way to equal rights and the Americans responded to this because they saw their prosperity as a sign of their national achievement.
During his visit to Cincinnati, for example, Lafayette noted, that “the wonders of creation and improvement which have happily raised this part of the Union to its highest degree of importance, prosperity, and happiness have been to me a continued object of attention and delight.” Economic growth, as Lafayette often confirmed in his American speeches, was transforming the North American continent and providing a model for commercial development in other parts of the world.
In contrast to many other European radicals, Lafayette did not endorse early socialist theories or criticize the social consequences of capitalism and industrialization. On the contrary, he favored trans-national commerce as a key component of modern social and political advancement, much as he saw the trans-national movement of liberal political principles and Romantic cultural themes as essential contributions to human progress, and wherever he went he talked about prosperity.
(This is a famous souvenir handkerchief of his famous visit to Independence Hall in 1824. I don’t know if you can read that speech — this is not an eye exam by the way — but in that speech he refers to the revolution, to the prosperity of America, and to American political institutions, all of which show the superiority of American institutions and prosperity and economic growth is one of his themes. This is an image of Lafayette’s arrival in America and being greeted as the nation’s guest.)
All of Lafayette’s support for political revolutions, for Romantic artists, for women and the human rights of enslaved people, and for commercial development were ultimately linked to his trans-national conception of modern human societies. Lafayette was constantly introducing Americans to French friends or sending French publications to friends in the United States or he was bringing travelers from Greece and Spain and Poland and America to his dinner table at LaGrange and stressing the interconnection of people in all parts of the world no matter what their languages, religions, or historical traditions.
His own letters and the letters about him were filled with comments about people in different nations, but I want to refer to only one specific example to show how Lafayette participated in what we now call cross-cultural exchanges and the development of trans-national identities. The example comes from an anonymous memoir that a young visitor wrote after attending Lafayette’s Parisian salon in the early 1830s.
The author described Lafayette as “an international flag of civilization” who drew to himself the patriots from every country, patriots who after fighting in vain for the liberty of their own countries had come to France in search of refuge and hope for the future and who turned to Lafayette as the representative of the new era that had begun with the July revolution.”
As the anonymous visitor described it, an evening at Lafayette’s apartment offered opportunities to meet people from America, Poland, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Portugal, Ireland, and England who had come to “render homage to the leader of civilization and to receive from him the investiture of liberty.” We might smile ironically at this somewhat na�ve image of idealist at Lafayette’s apartment, but this youthful author suggests Lafayette’s unique importance in the international campaigns for early 19th-century liberalism and nationalism.
Lafayette always defined his public role with references to these trans-national political movements and his friends often exemplified the kinds of international migrations, political exile, and trans-national political allegiances that became common in modern history and in the cross-cultural exchanges that characterized every phase of Lafayette’s career. Here, too, as in so many other aspects of his long life, we see enduring connections between Lafayette’s story and wider changes or conflicts in the modern world.
It would be possible to add other examples, but it should be apparent by now that we can readily identify numerous historic continuities between Lafayette’s life and many of the political or cultural values in our own societies: the commitment to equal human rights, the belief in national sovereignty of peoples rather than the sovereignty of kings, the struggles of women and diverse racial groups to achieve social equality, the support for individual creativity, the belief in economic development, and the openness to cross-cultural exchanges.
And yet there is one other central theme in Lafayette’s life that seems to have largely disappeared in early 21st-century western societies: his unshakable optimism about the future democratic politics.
(And I wanted to show one more image. Lafayette and his friends Benjamin Constant, the liberal French writer and politician, and again Madame de Stael.)
Lafayette and his liberal friends believed that the political reforms and revolutions of their generation would lead to a better and freer world. From the perspective of our own disillusioned, ironic era, the most distinctive political theme of the age of the democratic revolution may well appear in the optimistic belief that the aspirations for more democratic institutions can be put into practice through new political movements and sustained political action.
Our own post-revolutionary age has grown far more pessimistic about modern political life, which is commonly viewed now as either corrupt or indifferent to the ideas of an open, participatory democratic system. In short, the political expectations of Lafayette and his generation seem na�ve in the context of our own special-interest, big-money political culture.
Yet, at the risk of claiming Lafayette’s alleged naivety for myself, I want to propose that his aspirations are still worth considering as we look for a path through our own more cynical political culture. Lafayette and his political allies remind us that politics should be a sphere for implementing ideals, such as freedom, justice, and participatory democracy, rather than simply a media circus of manipulated fears, big-money favors, and personal gossip.
Although the public’s fear seems increasingly irrelevant to individual aspirations in our skeptical, fragmented, celebrity-obsessed culture, political decisions still affect private lives and political movements can still mobilize public support when they express social concerns that transcend narrow forms of self-interest. Lafayette’s optimism about the value of political ideas and actions, therefore, offers a forceful, critical alternative to the rampant cynicism in contemporary democratic nations such as France and the United States.
It would of course be dangerous to live in our world without the skeptical, critical perspectives on human self-delusion and self-interest that come from an ironic view of historical leaders and political institutions. Irony and cynicism help expose the delusions, hypocrisies, and deceptions that appear so often in all political cultures.
Perhaps though, let me come back to Lafayette, perhaps though we can also continue to draw upon the history and ideas of Lafayette’s optimistic generation as we confront the apparently intractable problems of our own post-revolutionary society and government.
In contrast to much of our contemporary irony and skepticism, Lafayette and his friends believed that political institutions could change, that the future could be better than the past, that political and legal equality would be better than traditional social hierarchies, that tolerance would be better than repression, that the human rights of individuals should not be sacrificed to the sovereign rights of nations, and that private happiness could not finally survive without strong commitment to the public good. Debates about these ideas have shaped much of modern history and the debates will surely continue in the present century.
If we choose to dismiss Lafayette’s ideas as na�ve or absurdly Romantic, however, we will also be choosing to abandon our most valuable democratic legacy from the past as well as our own aspirations for a better, more democratic future. And if we forget about Lafayette’s ideas and political struggles, if we forget about these ideas there will be little reason to celebrate the birthday of the person whom the founders of Lafayette College so clearly wanted to honor when they named this institution. So I say happy birthday, Lafayette, and thanks for challenging us always to push forward towards a better future world.