Lafayette – Hero of Two Worlds, Three Revolutions
An interview with Lafayette College Archivist Diane Windham Shaw. Originally published by the Friends of Hermione-LaFayette in America (www.hermione2015.com) July 13, 2014. Reprinted with permission.
Ever since July 14, 1790, on the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille prison in Paris, France and the French celebrate this momentous event. It’s a day of parades of all kinds – the one down the Champs Elysées boulevard in Paris is especially memorable – but also a time for its citizens, and all peoples, to contemplate the concepts of liberté, fraternité et égalité. While amateur historians, francophiles and American Revolutionary history buffs know of Lafayette’s critical role in America’s fight for independence, fewer still know that Lafayette played a central role in not one, but two more French revolutions! French King Charles X reigned from 1825 to 1830 before being deposed as a result of his ultra-consertive political views.
Lafayette was not only a central figure in the ‘first’ French uprising that began on July 14, 1789, but also another in 1830. In this second French revolution, and Lafayette’s third revolution, the “hero of Two Worlds” battled mightily for a constitutional monarchy; in the process, he abandoned his lifelong friendship the then-reigning monarch, Charles X, the youngest brother of Louis XVI, who had assumed the throne in 1825, on the death of Louis XVIII the year before. (Born in the same year, 1757, Lafayette and the Comte d’Artois, as Charles X was known before his short reign, were playmates at Versailles.) By 1830, the conservative, reactionary Charles had lost the support of the French National Assembly. Known as the “July Revolution,” Lafayette was a key figure in a quick, relatively bloodless movement to dethrone Charles X. The upshot? The French nation – with Lafayette front and center in this high-stakes political drama – asked Louis Philippe — known before this as Duc d’Orleans, who was a cousin of the royal Bourbon family, and a leader of the moderate Orleanist party — to be France’s first constitutional monarch in a new government patterned after the British monarchy, that is with a strong, independent, and popularly elected national assembly, freedom of speech and freedom of the press, among other republican principles. French King Louis Philippe (1773-1850), in a daguerreotype photograph taken in 1842. Forced to abdicate in 1848 in yet another French political upheaval, Louis Philipe’s reign is remembered as the “July Monarchy.” Unfortunately, like his three Bourbon cousins — Louis XVI, Louis XVIII and Charles X — he too became increasingly conservative during his reign, only to be succeeded by Napoleon’s cousin, who, after a coup, declared himself Napoleon III, Emperor of France in 1852. Given his lifelong commitment to bringing about constitutional government, Lafayette, “Hero of Two Worlds,” can be said to have been crucially involved in “Three Revolutions.”
Few scholars know more about Lafayette’s entire career and steadfast commitment to liberty, democracy and anti-slavery than Diane Shaw, Curator and Director of Special Collections at Skillman Library at Lafayette College, Easton, Pennsylvania. At Lafayette College, a Strategic Partner of Friends of Hermione-Lafayette in America and named after our Hero of Two Worlds, Diane Shaw began building on the College’s remarkable collection of Lafayette documents and other historic objects on her arrival more than three decades ago. The Friends of Hermione-Lafayette recently asked Ms. Shaw to talk about the Lafayette Collection at the Skillman Library, an edited version of her replies is posted today in honor of Bastille Day and Lafayette.
Question: How did Lafayette College come to be called in honor of the Marquis and how did it amass such an amazing trove of Lafayette letters and other treasures?
Diane Shaw: Lafayette College has the honor of being the only American College to be named for Lafayette and it has everything to do with the timing. Like the rest of America in the fall of 1824, the citizens of the small, but thriving town of Easton, Pennsylvania were abuzz with the news of Lafayette’s arrival in America. Some 200 of these citizens went to Philadelphia in September to greet “The Nation’s Guest.” That December, several of the town leaders met to plan for the establishment of a college and the choice of name was a given. It would be named Lafayette “in memory and out of respect for the signal services rendered … in the great cause of freedom.” The Lafayette Collections at the College, which include manuscripts, rare books, objects, prints, paintings, and sculpture, have been building since 1926, when our New York Alumni Chapter bought the first group of materials. Additional materials were acquired through the efforts of the American Friends of Lafayette, which was established on our campus in 1932. Other materials have been added by gift and purchase and the College is still actively collecting.
Q: You came as a Librarian to Lafayette College almost 30 years ago, how has your estimation of Lafayette evolved over this period as you have come to know so much about his life?
DS: My first real education on Lafayette was the result of our involvement as a major lender to the marvelous exhibition, “Lafayette, Hero of Two Worlds,” organized by the Queen’s Museum in New York in honor of the Bicentennial of the French Revolution in 1989. A gift from an alumnus enabled us to give the collection full archival processing in 1989-90, which added to our knowledge about the man and our holdings. But it was not until 2000, when I began to work on an exhibit for the College on Lafayette’s role in the anti-slavery movement, that I really began to understand what a significant role he had played in this and other human rights movements and how his views, which were formed at a very early age, remained consistent throughout his life.
Q: Would you care to describe highlights of the mutual esteem, respect and friendship between Lafayette and Washington?
DS: When he arrived in Philadelphia in July of 1777, Lafayette was introduced to George Washington and the two quickly became close. It was a father-son relationship. Lafayette had lost his father in battle at age two and Washington had no children of his own. Lafayette brought out a warm and affectionate side of the ordinarily taciturn Washington. Lafayette simply adored Washington, naming his only son George Washington Lafayette. This great friendship, which lasted until Washington’s death in 1799, is documented in the College’s Skillman Library by 149 original letters written by Lafayette to Washington—an absolute treasure trove of material—eight and ten page letters mostly from the period of the American Revolution and including the 1790 letter that transmitted the Key to the Bastille to Washington.
Q: Would you please give us an insight into Lafayette’s Anti-Slavery sentiments and actions through his entire life?
DS: The first inkling of Lafayette’s interest in the welfare of slaves can be found in Lafayette College’s collection in a 1783 letter Lafayette wrote to Washington, requesting Washington’s partnership in purchasing a plantation where they could try an experiment in the gradual emancipation of slaves. Lafayette’s request includes this remarkable closing sentence: “If it be a wild scheme, I had rather be mad that way than to be thought wise on the other tact.” When Washington was unwilling to join him, Lafayette bought a plantation in Cayenne (present day French Guiana) to try the experiment on his own. Thus Lafayette’s role in the anti-slavery movement played out on three continents. In addition to South America, he lobbied for the rights of slaves and free blacks in the colonies in the National Assembly in France, and in America he joined anti-slavery societies and used the Farewell Tour of 1824-25 to express his support for American blacks.
Q: Lafayette was a lifelong advocate for human and civil rights, would you comment on this aspect of his philosophy and actions in this regard?
DS: In the years just preceding the French Revolution, Lafayette worked hard for the restoration of civil rights to French Protestants and he was largely responsible for their gains of limited rights in the late 1780s, including the legitimacy of Protestant marriages and births, legal rights of burial, and the right to own property and worship privately. Lafayette also lent his support to French Jews during this period as well, supporting their rights for citizenship with voting privileges. Later in life he added his support to the movement to abolish the death penalty. And although he did not work directly for the rights of women, one historian has even called him a proto-feminist, for the serious interest he took in the ideas of a number of women writers and reformers of his day.
Q: Likewise, Lafayette was also a supporter for Native Americans, with whom he came in contact a number of key moments in his travels in America, both during and after the Revolution.
DS: Lafayette’s interest in the American Indian dated back to the American Revolution, when he was instrumental in establishing an alliance with the Six Nations in 1778 and was given the honorary name Kayewla by the Iroquois. During his American visit of 1784, he helped negotiate a peace with the Six Nations over access to the lands of western New York and he arranged to take a young Onondaga boy back with him to France to receive a European education. Native Americans were eager to greet Lafayette during the Farewell Tour of 1824-25, and Lafayette made a point to meet with them, even leaving a ball in Illinois to spend time with the daughter of a chief he had known during the Revolution. In Alabama in 1825, Lafayette’s entourage entered the state on Creek lands, and the Creek Indians pulled Lafayette’s carriage by hand up the riverbank, where two delegations—one white and one Indian—were waiting to welcome him to the state. The tension over who had official hosting rights was diffused by Lafayette, who went first with the Creeks to watch a ball game they had planned in his honor.
Q: One exceptional strength in your Library’s collection is Lafayette’s Farewell Tour, would you please sketch some highlights from that time during 1824-1825 during which time he visited all 24 states in our young nation?
DS: Lafayette’s Farewell Tour was an event unlike any other in American history. From the moment he landed in August 1824, amid a welcoming flotilla at Castle Garden in the New York harbor, until his departure in September 1825 with a barrel of American soil to be used to cover his grave, Lafayette was embraced by the young republic as a venerated symbol of the American Revolution. Everywhere he went during the 14-month tour he was hailed as a hero and regaled with parades, ceremonies, balls, and dinners in his honor. Thousands of Americans turned out to see him in every city. They followed his travels in their newspapers and after he left, they gave his name to a host of towns, counties, boulevards, and parks. Another legacy of the tour was the explosion of creative and decorative works—paintings, sculpture, engravings, souvenir ceramics and glassware, commemorative ribbons and medals, books, orations, poems, and pageants. The Lafayette Library has a wonderful collection of these souvenirs, including two of my favorites—a deck of cards with Lafayette as the Ace of Spades and a clothes brush with the bristles dyed to spell “Lafayette, 1825.”
Q: Tell us briefly about some ‘contemporary’ treasures in your collection related to Lafayette, the Hermes scarf, the vase and perhaps one other item?
DS: One of the exciting ways we celebrated the 250th anniversary of Lafayette’s birth in 2007 was to work with Hermès on a commemorative scarf. The Lafayette College limited edition of the scarf, which was offered for sale by the Friends of Skillman Library, sold out almost immediately. Another contemporary piece from the 2007 anniversary that Skillman Library acquired was a spectacular French ceramic piece made by the Longwy firm. This large, ball-shaped vase, designed by Jean Luc Curabet , features Lafayette on one side and a Native American on the other. We are always interested in acquiring Lafayette-related items, old or new. Documenting the many ways that Lafayette is portrayed is part of our mission. Lately, we’ve beefed up our collection of children’s books related to Lafayette and our newest purchase, which hasn’t even arrived yet, is a Lafayette baby shoe from the Farewell Tour. There is never a dull moment ………
To learn more about Lafayette’s ship, Hermione, and its journey to the USA, see http://www.hermione2015.com/
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