May 29, 2015
A Letter from Anastasie de Lafayette to George Washington Photo Credit: Cornell University, Kroch Library, Division of Rare Books and Manuscripts
Unidentified artist, after Joseph Boze (ca. 1746–1826) Marquis de Lafayette (1757–1834), ca. 1785–90 Oil on canvas Photo Credit: New-York Historical Society 1817.2
Façade of N-Y HISTORICAL SOCIETY NEW-YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY Photo Credit: New-York Historical Society
Editor’s Note: Valerie Paley, Ph.D., is the Chief Historian and Vice President for Scholarly Programs at New-York Historical Society, and the curator of the Society’s permanent installations in the Robert H. and Clarice Smith New York Gallery of American History, which opened in late 2011. A graduate of Vassar College, Paley holds an MA in American Studies and a Ph.D. in History from Columbia University. David Lincoln Ross, Editorial Director of Friends of Hermione-Lafayette in America, Inc., recently talked with Dr. Paley about the Society’s current exhibition, entitled: “Lafayette’s Return: The “Boy General,” the American Revolution, and the Hermione,” which runs from May 29-August 16, 2015.
Question: Tell us briefly about the N-YHS collection of Lafayette-iana, who were its signature lenders and how far back in time do the earliest gifts date?
Answer: As New York City’s oldest cultural institution and the nation’s second-oldest historical society, the New-York Historical Society has been collecting documents, books, objects, and artworks since its founding in1804.
Consequently, manuscript documents from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries made up the original corpus of our collections. I drew on some of our extraordinary materials on the American Revolution, which include the official and private papers of commanding officers. In the letters Lafayette exchanged with these men and others, I found evidence of his zeal for the American cause and got a visceral sense of how seriously he took dual role of “American” soldier and French diplomat. In fact, the New-York Historical Society holds over 250 pieces of correspondence to and from the Marquis.
Given his prominence during the revolution and continued friendships with many of America’s leading figures in the early republic, Lafayette’s correspondence can be found in a number of collections of personal papers; however, the principal cache are in the papers of the diplomat, secretary of the treasury, and Swiss immigrant, Albert Gallatin. A number of letters are also found in the papers of Robert R. Livingston, and to a lesser degree those of Horatio Gates and Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben. The Gallatin and Livingston material came to the Society in the 20th century as gifts from the respective families, while the earliest material arrived in 1816 through the donation of the Gates Papers by Gates’s widow in 1814. In addition, our museum collections are home to countless objects commemorating Lafayette’s triumphal return tour of the United States, which began with his arrival in New York in August 1824.
Q: Tell us a bit about three of the Lafayette artifacts in the N-YHS’s permanent collections (as I understand it):
A: Lafayette’s Ceremonial Sword, a gift from the Continental Congress—this, actually, is a treasure in the collection of the Fondation Josée et René de Chambrun. This gold-encrusted sword, commissioned by the Continental Congress, was given to Lafayette during his leave for France. Because the American envoy Benjamin Franklin was ill, his grandson officiated in the presentation on August 24, 1779. The following year, before departing for his return visit to America, Lafayette appeared before Louis XVI and his court in the uniform of an American major general, adorned with the sword. It was “indeed a Beauty,” John Adams wrote, which Lafayette wore with great pleasure.
Next, Lafayette’s Medal of the Society of the Cincinnati, presented to him by George Washington in 1784–this, too, is in the collection of the Fondation Josée et René de Chambrun. In 1783, at the close of the war, officers of the Continental Army founded the Society of the Cincinnati, in order to maintain their ties. Lafayette was an enthusiastic founding member of the Order, and even footed an unpaid jeweler’s bill for the gold and enamel badges provided to French officers. Although the Society was named after the legendary Roman “citizen-soldier” Cincinnatus to honor Washington’s own return to citizenship, some Americans, including John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, objected to the notion of a hereditary title that membership implied, as well as the medal’s insignia, which brought to mind the medals worn by European aristocrats. Adams consequently credited—and blamed—Lafayette for the Society of the Cincinnati. Certainly Lafayette was an enthusiastic founding member, but the Society was hardly his conception alone. Jefferson objected that such an organization was against the spirit of the natural equality of man, upon which the new nation was founded.
And, last of the trio: A portrait of Lafayette donated to New-York Historical by General Ebenezer Stevens, Lafayette’s Artillery Officer, during the 1780 Virginia Campaign.
Q: What is the provenance? How did it come into the N-YHS’s collection?
A: The portrait, after the original painting by Joseph Bose, was executed in France for General Ebenezer Stevens, who was Lafayette’s artillery officer during the revolution in the Virginia campaign of 1780. It depicts Lafayette at the pinnacle of his career, wearing the uniform of the Parisian National Guard. His lapel is adorned with three medals representing his French-American distinction: the Order of the Society of the Cincinnati; the Cross of St. Louis, presented to him by Louis XVI for his role in the war; and the Medal of the Vainqueurs de la Bastille. Stevens donated the portrait to New-York Historical in 1817.
Q: What, in your view, is the single most important fact Americans should appreciate about the Hermione?
A: To be sure, the Hermione was an exceptionally fine French naval vessel that saw some significant action during the American Revolution, and even welcomed the American Congress aboard in May 1781.
But to my mind, it is not the ship itself but what it represented—and perhaps continues to represent—that renders it of importance: the determined spirit of a vigorous French-American alliance. There was a deliberateness with which Lafayette returned to America in 1780—not by stealth or against the king’s wishes, as with his original voyage in 1777—but with a purposefulness fully supported by the French government to help finish the war for American independence. Even though he had been passed over to command the French detachment to America, Lafayette conveyed his excitement and enthusiasm at his return in the letters he wrote aboard the Hermione, several of which are in our exhibition. Lafayette sailed ahead of the expeditionary forces to inform Washington confidentially of the happy news of French aid. Bearing a generous supply of provisions, Lafayette arrived in Boston, according to Abigail Adams, to “the ringing of Bells, fireing [sic] of cannon, bon fires, etc.” Anchored in the harbor, Lafayette wrote to Washington: “Here I am, My dear General, and in the Mist [sic] of the joy I feel in finding Myself again one of Your loving soldiers I take But the time of telling you that I Came from France on Board of a fregatt [sic] which the king gave me for my passage.”
Q: As the N-YHS does a great job reaching out to school children, and always has done so, in its educational mission, what aspect/facet of the exhibition might be of most interest to younger visitors?
A: We prioritize creative, multigenerational programs that champion a lifelong appreciation of history, from our DiMenna Children’s History Museum one level below this installation, to the special performances and scavenger hunts we have planned alongside this exhibition for July 4th. The history of the American Revolution will be become palpable for younger visitors when they visit with their families and learn that these events were lived and experienced by kids just like themselves—as made evident by six-year-old Anastasie de Lafeyette’s letter to George Washington:
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