April 7, 2015
“Lafayette Legacy” Collection. D’Arceau, Limoges, France, 1973. “Lafayette Legacy” Collection. D’Arceau, Limoges, France, 1973. Credit: Courtesy of Cornell University - On loan from a private collection. Photo and caption: Courtesy of Cornell University
English Defeat at Yorktown (1781). Engraving after Auguste Couder’s Painting for the Battle Gallery at Versailles (1836). As General Cornwallis awaited reinforcements in fortified Yorktown, a new French fleet under the command of Admiral de Grasse placed Chesapeake Bay under naval blockade. Meanwhile, Lafayette maintained a brilliant holding action, and Washington and Rochambeau joined in an all-out assault that forced the English to surrender on October 17, 1781, bringing definitive victory to the American colonies. Lafayette took part in the negotiations that led to the Treaty of Paris that formally ended the American Revolutionary War in 1783. Photo and caption: Courtesy of Cornell University
American Publicity Brochure for the Transatlantic Ocean Liner “Lafayette”, ca. 1930. American Publicity Brochure for the Transatlantic Ocean Liner “Lafayette”, ca. 1930. The Lafayette was the largest ocean liner in the French Line. When it arrived in New York for the first time in May 1930, six hundred New York City school children gathered to greet it, and a “Revolutionary” masquerade party was organized on board with Marquis Jacques de Dampierre, a descendant of Lafayette, as the master of ceremonies. The boat was destroyed by fire in 1938. Photo and caption: Courtesy of Cornell University
Anastasie de Lafayette. Letter to George Washington. June 18, 1784. Lafayette’s six-year-old daughter, Anastasie, wrote this letter to George Washington on the occasion of her father’s third voyage to America in 1784. The surprisingly deep father-son relationship that developed between Lafayette and George Washington extended to their families. In 1782 the Frenchman named his daughter Virginie (after Virginia, the colony in which Washington was born) and in 1799 he named his son George Washington. The families traded frequent gifts and letters. In August 1784, Lafayette offered his friend an apron of white satin, to be worn during Masonic ceremonies, hand-embroidered by his wife. Photo and caption: Courtesy of Cornell University
Jean-Antoine Houdon. Life Mask of Lafayette, 1785-86. Photograph courtesy of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art. Gift of Arthur H. Dean and Mary Marden Dean. Two months after Yorktown, in December 1781, the Virginia legislature “resolved unanimously that a bust of the Marquis de La Fayette be... made, in Paris, of the best marble employed for such purpose,” and that an agent “employ a proper person in Paris to make the above bust.” Yet the project was forgotten until Lafayette mentioned it (deliberately?) to Washington, in September 1783. Thomas Jefferson and the American consul at Nantes selected Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828), an artist legendary for his meticulous technique, apparent in his portraits of Voltaire, Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin. Houdon measured his models from head to toe, and used “life masks” as models for his busts. Lafayette’s mask was taken in July 1785, before Houdon left for America, where he made Washington’s portrait using the same technique. The “Head of Lafayette” was finished in late 1786. It was presented by Jefferson to M. de Flesselles, the Intendant of Paris (whose own head would be paraded through Paris after he was decapitated on July 14, 1789), to be displayed in City Hall. During the riots of August 10, 1792 that led to the overthrow of the monarchy, the bust was removed by revolutionaries along with those of Louis XVI and Bailly (both of whom would be guillotined in 1793). We know that Houdon saved it from destruction, but then it disappeared. Fortunately, Jefferson had acquired a copy for his “gallery of worthies” at Monticello (it is now in the Boston Athenaeum). As for the life mask, arguably one of the most “faithful” portraits of Lafayette in the absence of photographs, it was stored in Chavaniac until 1912. Photo and caption: Courtesy of Cornell University
Editor’s Note: Laurent Ferri, Adjunct Associate Professor, serves as Curator of the pre-1800 Collections in the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. Before joining Cornell in 2006, he was “conservateur du patrimoine” at the French National Archives (2000-2005). In his responsibilities as Curator, Professor Ferri oversees Cornell’s famed collection of Lafayette manuscripts, letters and related historical objects.
With over 11,000 original manuscripts, documents, and letters, Cornell’s collection is essential to any serious biographical work on General Lafayette and constitutes an important resource for the general study of late 18th- and early 19th-century France. David Lincoln Ross, Editorial Director, Friends of Hermione-Lafayette in America, Inc., recently talked with Professor Ferri about Lafayette, the Hermione frigate and French-American historical links.
Could you tell us about how Cornell’s Lafayette collection came into being and what is the status of the collection today?
Cornell has one of the largest collections on Lafayette because of a philanthropist named Arthur Hobson Dean. The son of a Cornell Law professor, Dean was the chief counsel to the Standard Oil Company, and an influential Cornell trustee from 1945-70. In 1953, at the behest of John Foster Dulles, Dean’s old law firm mentor and by then Secretary of State, President Eisenhower appointed him a Special Deputy Secretary of State, with the rank of ambassador. He was given the difficult assignment of conducting post-armistice talks with the Communist side in Vietnam.
In 1963, Dean was sent to Geneva to discuss a nuclear arms-ban with the Soviet Union. Dean’s social connections would prove fortuitous. While in Switzerland, he heard that the fantastic Fabius Collection, assembled by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius’ grandfather, was for sale — and he decided to buy it for his alma mater. But first, he had to obtain the export license, and to overcome resistances from the Archives Nationales. Dean met directly with André Malraux, the then larger-than-life French Minister of Culture who used the Mona Lisa or the Tutankhamen exhibition as ambassadeurs de prestige.
I also found documents in the De Gaulle Papers in Paris showing that the matter was discussed at an even higher level, namely between the General and President John F. Kennedy: as you can see, it was a big deal! The Cornell Collection expanded in 1966 with the acquisition of the Lafayette collection of Marcel Blancheteau, a noted Parisian book dealer. In recent years, we were able to purchase a few other things, for example a wonderful scrapbook of newspaper clippings from Lafayette’s triumphant return visit to America in 1824/1825. I also bought a 1917 French war propaganda poster showing Uncle Sam shaking hands with the marquis de Lafayette: we used it as a banner for the 2007 “Lafayette, Citizen of Two Worlds” exhibition at Cornell.
What, would you say, are the three most important documents, images or artifacts in the collection that have to do with Lafayette’s service during the American Revolution?
Well, first of all, we like to think in terms of collection than in terms of individual artifacts: it is fascinating to see how Lafayette forged strong relationships with foreign leaders – including several American presidents – through long correspondences; when you open certain boxes, you take the full measure of his huge popularity worldwide: he received tons of letters from veterans of the American Revolutionary War, or from Polish and Greek patriots, etc.
But since you are asking me to select three items, I would say: first, the letter that Lafayette wrote to his wife during his first trip to America, on board of “La Victoire”, in May 1777. The young adventurer explains his motives with great eloquence: “I offer my service to that interesting republic from motives of the purest kind… Her happiness and my glory are my only incentives… The happiness of America is intimately connected with the happiness of all mankind; she will become the safe and respected asylum of virtue, integrity, tolerance, equality, and tranquil happiness…” You can feel the intensity of his idealism!
In secondo luogo, I would pick the cute and moving letter that Lafayette’s six-year-old daughter, Anastasia, wrote to George Washington on the occasion of her father’s third voyage to America in 1784. [See Image 2]
Clearly, the father-son relationship that developed between Lafayette and George Washington extended to their families. Finally, there is a very long and genuine letter from former U.S. President James Madison to Lafayette, written in November 1826, which, I think, is quite incredible. The letter is about the race issue in America, and it exemplifies the discrepancies between political idealism and the realities on the ground: the economic stakes were enormous, especially for the plantation economy in the South! Madison doesn’t blame Lafayette and his “radical” friends for their sincere and ardent abolitionism, but his opinion is that “the two races cannot co-exist, both being free and equal in this country. The great sine qua non therefore is some external asylum for the colored race. In the meantime the taunts to which the misfortune exposes us in Europe are the more to be deplored, as they impair the influence of our political example”. This brings to mind what French historian Fernand Braudel said, “that mentalities are long-term prisons”. As we know, it took the US a long and terrible civil war to abolish slavery (and save the union), plus another century to get rid of Jim Crow. Lafayette, who was a reliable but demanding friend of America, would have been very saddened.
We all know that both the New-York Historical Society and the Boston Athenaeum plan Lafayette-Hermione-related exhibits for later this year. What can you tell us you are considering as a loan to each exhibit?
Indeed, we shall lend some of our materials to both institutions. The Boston Athenaeum is primarily interested in the iconography of Lafayette throughout his life (1757-1834). For example, David Dearinger borrowed the stunning bust of Lafayette by Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828). [See Image 3] Houdon was an artist legendary for his meticulous technique, apparent in his portraits of Voltaire, Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin. He measured his models from head to toe, and used “life masks” as models for his busts. In the absence of photographs, it is one of the most “faithful” portraits of Lafayette we have. Another amazing “relic” on display will be a sprig of Cyprus plucked from the tomb of the first US President: George Washington’s adopted son, Custis, gave it to Lafayette during a ceremony at Mount Vernon on October 17, 1824.
At the New York Historical Society, Vice President and Museum Director Brian Allen wants to place the emphasis on the Revolutionary War period. Among the loans is a bayonet found on the battlefield of Saratoga, NY (1777) and a scarce letter from French foreign minister Vergennes dated September 16, 1779 (remember Lafayette was only 22!): “I guess you enjoy the recent developments in America… Let us hope that the Comte d’Estaing will not stop halfway… I don’t know yet what we can plan for the future with regards to America; unilateralism is no longer effective, we need to cooperate with our allies; it is clear enough that we must send troops to keep control of the situation, but that is not enough… I wish your American friends would push a bit harder. They made some noise in Stony Point; hopefully they are not content with it…” The American colonies shared with France a common enemy. But for a while it was not clear how far France was willing to engage, beyond the “arms-for-tobacco” deal initially imagined by Beaumarchais. Although Louis XVI sent a fleet in 1778, Commander D’Estaing lost his first two battles in Rhode Island and Georgia. This letter suggests anxiety and skepticism, with a sardonic remark about the stalemate at Stony Point (July 15-16, 1779). Back to France a few months later, Lafayette was re-appointed to the French army as it prepared to invade England, no less. The invasion never came about, though, and Lafayette returned to America by March-April 1780 on the Hermione.
Given your deep knowledge of Lafayette, and your resulting study, what quality (or qualities) in his life, or personality, or his career, intrigues you the most?
Lafayette was judged severely by some of his contemporaries as well as by many historians: yes, he was courageous, enthusiastic, honest, polite, but he loved political theatrics, military adventures… and himself way too much! Besides, Lafayette was “a centrist” — never an easy position to fill, although my friend Laura Auricchio achieved an impossible task: to make his centrism glamorous and sexy! Still, it is difficult to erase the impression left by the reading of Chateaubriand’s Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe (1849-50), one of the greatest books ever written in French. Chateaubriand wonders why the perception of Lafayette is so different in the US and in France: “a hero on the other side of the Atlantic, a clown on this”. What follows is a less cruel and more balanced assessment: “It has taken more than forty years to recognize qualities in Monsieur de Lafayette…. No stain attaches to his life; he was affable, obliging and generous… He had only one idea, and happily for him it was that of the century; the fixity of that idea created his empire; it served to blinker him, it prevented him looking to right or left [and] blindness took the place of genius in him”.
Why should young people even care about him today, why is he relevant in the 21st century?
As much as I like to hear from John Kerry that France is “America’s oldest ally”, I think Lafayette is more than the perennial symbol of “eternal friendship between France and the United States whatever our differences.” For me, he represents two eminent values: civic engagement and the reasonable passion for equality. Civic engagement means makes sense when sovereignty resides ultimately in “we, the people” (the Greek citizens made it clear this week). And Lafayette was ahead of his time, because he was both “a patriot of his country” and a virtuous and engaged citizen of the world. As historian Lloyd Kramer notes, “No other prominent figure participated so extensively in the sequence of national revolutions that moved from North America (1770s) to France (1789) to South America (1820s) to Greece (1820s) to Spain (1820s) to France again (1830) to Belgium (1830) and finally to Poland (1831-33). Lafayette connected people and events in all of these places, serving as a liberal revolutionary bridge.” Building bridges is important in a time when we face global challenges (climate change, pandemics, mass poverty, terrorism, excessive concentration of wealth…) and democrats need to fight against oppressive oligarchies.
As for equality, in the sense that “all men are born free and equal” and “social distinctions are unfair if not founded upon the general good,” let’s not forget that these core meritocratic principles were first formulated as the law in 1789 France by enlightened aristocrats (many of whom would become the victims of the revolutionary terror): while Lafayette’s brother-in-law, Noailles, played a crucial role in stripping the nobility of its legal privileges, Lafayette himself prepared the key draft of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which was the main inspiration for the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This, I believe, is Lafayette’s main legacy.
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