America’s relationship with France has always been complex. France is our traditional ally, on our side from the beginning and our supporter in World Wars I and II and yet we often dismiss them as effete, cowardly, fickle, and untrustworthy. This love-hate relationship was cemented during the American Revolution with the arrival of a young French nobleman named Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette.
Born in 1757, the Marquis de Lafayette was a member of one of France’s wealthiest and most distinguished families. His ancestors had established a proud family tradition of service in the French military and his father had died fighting against the British during the seven years war. From his childhood, Lafayette had dreamed of military glory and with the arrival of the American Revolution, he found his chance. Lafayette appears as a major character in the smash-hit Broadway musical Hamilton. In the musical number “My Shot” which serves as an “I want song” for Alexander Hamilton and his circle of young revolutionaries, Lafayette, played by a flamboyant and motor-mouthed Daveed Diggs, tells about what he hopes to get out the upcoming American Revolution: “I dream of life without a monarchy, the unrest in France will lead to ‘ornarchy? ‘Onarchy? How you say, how you say, ‘anarchy?” (Miranda 1:3). As a young man who had grown up on the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment, Lafayette saw the revolution brewing in the Americas as the embodiment of these ideals and hoped that this fight for liberty would extend to his own country. His words in Hamilton foreshadow how France’s involvement in America’s war of independence is one of the factors that will lead to the French Revolution.
Factions in France were eager to aid the Americans in their war for independence as a way of getting back at Great Britain after France’s disastrous loss in the Seven Years War which resulted in the loss of most of its colonies. Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, France’s comptroller general of finance, warned Louis XVI that the realm’s diminished treasury could not take the strain of another military engagement: “The king knows that situation of his finances. By making premature use of our strengths, we risk the perpetuating of our weaknesses” (Vowell 52). Turgot’s worries would prove to be well founded since the economic collapse caused by France’s involvement in the Seven Years War (after which they were booted out of Canada and Louisiana) and the American War of Independence (on which they spent one billion livres) helped create the social unrest which lead to the French Revolution (52).
Despite Turgot’s warnings, Louis XVI agreed to send money and weapons to the American insurgents but this needed to be conducted in secret as to not alert the British. The plan that Louis and his ministers came up with involved the celebrated playwright Pierre Beaumarchais, who moonlighted as a spy and diplomat, setting up a fake company through which arms deals with the Americans could be transacted (54-5). Beaumarchais was the author of the smash hit plays The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro and because of his celebrity and the fact that he was the mind behind the crafty servant character Figaro, the French government trusted him with covert intelligence missions such as apprehending the cross-dressing secret agent the Chevalier d’Eon (39-40). This would be the equivalent of Lin-Manuel Miranda having a sideline as a C.I.A agent and participating as a go-between in secret government arms deals. Louis XVI publicly banned all French soldiers from volunteering in the American cause. When it came to the attention of his government that the Marquis de Lafayette, a high profile aristocrat, was planning on offering his military service to the Continental Army, they feared that their secret deals with Continental Congress would be exposed to the British and forbid Lafayette from going to America. Being an impetuous nineteen-year-old, Lafayette went behind the backs of the French government, and his own family, and set sail for the thirteen colonies. In Hamilton, Lafayette describes his journey during the musical number “Aaron Burr, Sir” as “I came from afar just to say bonsoir, tell the king: Casse-toi” (Miranda 1:2). Casse-toi roughly translates to “go away” or “beat it” and carries the same weight as “fuck you.” Lafayette was a very young man when he left to fight for the American cause and his disobedience of orders from the French establishment was essentially an act of youthful rebellion.
Lafayette arrived in the Americas during the summer of 1777 with the promise of a major general’s commission in the Continental Army from Silas Deane, the first American diplomat sent to France. He was not the only French noble to join the American cause but was the most prominent. The American Continental Congress was skeptical of these haughty aristocrats, believing their commitment to the cause of independence was insincere and self-serving. George Washington complained about them on several occasions: “These men have no attachment to nor ties to the country” (Vowell 76), “This evil, if I may call it so, is a growing one; for, from what I learn, they are coming in swarms from old France” he wrote in a letter dated February 20th, 1777, “….Their ignorance of our language and their inability to recruit men, are insurmountable obstacles to their being ingrafted into our continental battalions; for our officers who have raised their men, and have served through the war upon pay that has hitherto not borne their expenses, would be disgusted if foreigners were put over their hands” (76). But Lafayette’s wealth and connections, as well as the fact that he offered to work for free, gained their attention and they granted him the commission he wanted.
At twenty years old, Lafayette was the youngest general in the Continental Army. He distinguished himself militarily at the Battle of Brandywine (September 11th, 1777) rallying his troops into an orderly retreat. Though he was shot in the leg and badly injured, Lafayette refused to leave the battle. George Washington told the doctor who was tending the wounded to take care of Lafayette “as if he were my own son.” This was due to Washington’s paternal affection for the young Marquis as well as a fear that if anything happened to Lafayette, it would jeopardize America’s possible alliance with France, of which Lafayette was symbolic (Bridgers).
Lafayette’s exemplary behavior at the Battle of Brandywine and the Continental Army’s subsequent military successes turned public opinion in France in favor of aiding the cause of American independence (Vowell 127). The Comte de Ségur, a friend of Lafayette’s who would later serve in the French forces in the Americas, wrote: “When Paris heard rumors of the first battles in which Lafayette and his companions did honor to the name of Frenchmen, there was general approval. The very persons who had blamed him the most for his bold enterprise now applauded him. The court showed itself almost proud of him and all the young men envied him. Thus public opinion, turning more and more towards war, made it inevitable and inevitably dragged a government too weak to resist in the same direction” (127).
Benjamin Franklin, America’s senior-most diplomat, had been secretly dispatched to France in 1776 in order to secure an official alliance. The seventy-year-old Franklin’s American contemporaries had inherited that traditional British antipathy towards the French but he quickly took to life in France (Hovd). His reputation as a scientist and philosopher gained him admittance into Parisian high society and his charisma and carefully crafted image of rustic simplicity charmed them, specifically the flirtatious, sophisticated, and well-connected ladies of the Parisian salons. Portraits of Franklin and other Franklin memorabilia were popular with the French public and the beaver fur hats he was known to wear became a much-copied fashion accessory. Franklin approached the Comte de Vergennes, Louis XVI’s foreign minister, with the prospect of an alliance. Vergennes and the French government were doubtful of the ability of the Continental Army to win against the British, especially after the Continental Army lost the strategically important Fort Ticonderoga on July 5th, 1777) and refused a formal alliance but agreed to covertly send aid. Franklin continued diplomatic negotiations with Vergennes for over a year.
As a person of interest, Franklin was watched by a network of spies and informants set up by the British, which included his own secretary, Edward Bancroft, alternated his loyalties between the British and the Americans. The urbane Franklin wrote of this situation: “It is impossible to uncover the falsity of pretended friends. If I was sure that my valet was a spy, which he probably is, I wouldn’t dream of discharging him for that fact, if, of course, he was a good valet” (Hovd). A British diplomat was sent to meet with Franklin in Paris to discuss a possible peace. Franklin masterfully played the British and French against each other. His meetings with both sides allowed each to think that he would side with the other. The possibility of an Anglo-American rapprochement forced Vergennes’s hand (Hovd). After a significant American victory at Saratoga, the French became to take the Americans seriously as a potential ally (Blumer Episode 4).
The treaty of Alliance between France and America was signed on February 6th, 1778 and promised mutually military aid. It was celebrated with a dinner hosted by Vergennes at which Franklin was given the chair traditionally reserved for the British ambassador ( Vowell 176-7). Franklin gloated to an acquaintance: “This alliance will serve to keep the English bull quiet and make him behave himself. His horns have been shortened” (Blumer Episode 4). Louis XVI later regretted the decision to aid the Americans due to the financial demands it made on him. Over a decade later, when he was asked by the Indian leader Tipu Sultan of Mysore for help in his conflict with the British East India Company, Louis wrote “This occasion greatly resembles the American affair of which I never think without regret. On that occasion, they took advantage of my youth, and today we are paying the price for it.”
Louis XVI dispatched Admiral the Comte d’Estaing to North America in April of 1778 with a fleet of twelve ships and four thousands troops. The first joint military effort between the Continental Army and its French allies was the Battle of Rhode Island; the colony of Rhode Island had been under British occupation since 1776. D’Estaing and General John Sullivan were unable to coordinate their plans for the invasion of Rhode Island and d’Estaing chose to withdraw his forces in order to combat a fleet commanded by Lord Richard Howe. Both fleets were damaged by a storm, rendering d’Estaing’s forces unable to assist in the Rhode Island campaign and caused them to retreat to Boston for repairs. John Sullivan and Nathaniel Greene, the generals in charge of the Rhode Island campaign, feared that d’Estaing’s withdrawal would threaten the Franco-American alliance. Sullivan complained to Henry Laurens, a continental congressman from South Carolina, that d’Estaing’s letdown “has raised every voice against the French nation, revived all those ancient prejudices against the faith and sincerity of that people, and inclines them most heartily to curse the new alliance,” (Vowell 201). Lauren’s son, John, wrote to his father: “I saw very plainly when I was at Boston that our ancient hereditary prejudices were far from being eradicated” (205). The American colonies had disassociated themselves from Great Britain only a few years earlier but the distrust and animosity towards the French that they had inherited from their English forebears went as far back as William the Conqueror.
During his sojourn in the Americas, the Marquis de Lafayette formed close relationships with a number of prominent, and soon to be prominent, Americans, most notably George Washington who, being childless, was known to take a paternal interest in his young aids-de-camp whom he referred to as “my family,” which included Alexander Hamilton (future first US treasury secretary), John Laurens (the son of South Carolina congressman Henry Laurens), and Benedict Arnold (who would later betray the American cause by defecting to the British ). Hamilton, Lafayette, and Laurens were inseparable friends and were referred to as the “gay (meaning happy and lighthearted) trio.” Washington affectionately referred to Lafayette as “my boy” and Lafayette saw Washington as a father figure. As a favored son of George Washington and a high ranking French aristocrat, Lafayette was an important symbol of the Franco-American alliance. Lord Cornwallis, a British general, vowed to capture Lafayette saying “the boy will not escape me,” (Vowell 223).
In January of 1779, Lafayette returned to France. Despite a brief house arrest as punishment for disobeying the French government, he was treated to a hero’s welcome. “I had the honor of being consulted by all the ministers,” he described, “and of being kissed by all the ladies,” (210). With the help of his devoted and well-connected wife, Adrienne de Noailles, he persistently lobbied for continued French aid of their American allies. Lafayette and Washington affectionately wrote to one another about what life might be like after the war:
“Be so kind, mon cher général,” Lafayette wrote,
“As to present my best regards to your lady and do not tell her, but, I have a wife who is madly in love with you. My feelings for you are too strong that I cannot object to her feelings and indeed all of Europe wants to see you, so much that I have boldly affirmed that after peace is settled, mon cher général, how happy I will be to embrace you again.”
“My dear Marquis,” Washington replied,
“You invited me to visit France after independence. Remember my friend, I do not speak your language and I am too old to learn it. I cannot bear the idea that I would appear awkward and insipid in front of the ladies, especially in front of your young wife. Convey to her in any event, my most tender affection, and don’t be afraid of a rival. Alas, in all of history, there is no example of a young woman preferring an old man if she follows her own real inclinations.”
(Blumer Episode 5)
During this time, Adrienne gave birth to a son named Georges Washington de Lafayette, after her husband’s beloved mentor. Vergennes ordered Lafayette back to America in March of 1780, promising to send along reinforcements.
On July 10th, 1780, a French fleet under the command of the Comte de Rochambeau arrived in Newport carrying six thousand troops. Lafayette expected to be put in command of these troops but command was given instead to Rochambeau, a much more experienced commander. He acted as an interpreter between Rochambeau (who did not speak English) and Washington (who did not speak French) during their first meeting. The cautious Rochambeau was hesitant to commit his because it was still uncertain whether or not the Americas had a chance of winning the war but the French continued to send aid in money, supplies, and troops (Bridgers). Rochambeau was unimpressed with the Continental Army and wrote to the French minister of war:
“Monsieur, the country is ruined. They have nothing, not a single coin. Washington’s army grows and shrinks from moment to moment. Sometimes, he claims to have fifteen thousand troops, sometimes, only three thousand. Send men, money, and ships but do not count on any help from these people.”
(Blumer Episode 5)
Stuck in Rhode Island for reinforcements, Rochambeau’s forces were able to do little except drill. Lafayette wrote to Rochambeau, urging him to take action:
“Monsieur le Comte, here I find myself in the middle of a foreign land with the French army sitting idle in Rhode Island. The talk among the Tories and the English is that France has come to stir up fire but not fight themselves. How am I to answer them when you are guarding an Island that nobody in America cares about. Whatever troops you are expecting next year from France, whatever plans you have for the future will not make up for the fatal harm of your inaction now. We must do battle and my vanity makes me believe that we French can never be beaten.”
Rochambeau responded with a biting put down of Lafayette’s overzealousness and inexperience:
“My dear fellow, I’ll let you in on one of my great secrets learned from years of experience: Frenchmen aren’t invincible. Our troops are easily beaten when they lose confidence in their leaders and they do it very quickly when they see that their lives are being risked to satisfy some general’s personal ambition. Perhaps the warmth of your spirit has, for the moment, gotten the better part of your sound judgment. Keep this fire for when we actually go into battle.”
(Blumer Episode 5)
Washington and his generals speculated as to whether or not the decisive battle of the war would take place in New York or Virginia. The decision was made when Lord Cornwallis’s troops found themselves stranded in Yorktown, Virginia, giving Washington and Rochambeau an opportunity for a conclusive victory. They moved their troops south to Yorktown and a French fleet under Admiral de Grasse left the Caribbean (where it had been protecting France’s valuable sugar islands) into the Chesapeake Bay. Due to an obligation in the Caribbean and the upcoming hurricane season, de Grasse’s fleet was only available for two weeks in early October. On October 9th, 1781, Washington ordered his artillery to bombard Cornwallis’s encampments. Lafayette was given overall command of an assignment to capture two heavily fortified British redoubts. He divided up command of his two brigades between his friends John Laurens and Alexander Hamilton. The signal to begin the attack was “Rochambeau” which sounded like “rush-on-boys” when pronounced quickly. Lafayette’s French forces attacked redoubt number nine while Hamilton’s American forces attacked redoubt ten. The mission was a success and accomplished within thirty minutes.
On October 17th, the Siege of Yorktown ended with a British surrender. Lafayette wrote to the Comte de Maurepas, the French prime minister “The play, sir, is over-and the fifth act has just been closed” (Vowell 255). He returned to his wife’s family home, the Hôtel de Noailles, in Paris on 21 January 1782. His wife Adrienne was a lady in waiting, or dame d’honneur, to Queen Marie Antoinette, who gave Adrienne a ride to the Hôtel de Noailles in her own carriage and graciously welcomed Lafayette back to France, despite the fact that she personally disliked him, having given him the nickname “blondinet” because of his red hair and had mocked his clumsy dancing in the past (Fraser 319). In response to Marie Antoinette’s generosity, Lafayette sniped that the cost of a subsequent court ball could have equipped a whole regiment in America (194). Louis XVI gave Lafayette the Cross of Saint-Louis, France’s highest military honor, and Lafayette was also given the title of “Hero of the Two Worlds.” Among Lafayette’s parting words in Hamilton are “I go back to France, I bring freedom to my country if I’m given the chance” (Miranda 1:19). After the storming of the Bastille Fortress in Paris on July 14th, 1789, Lafayette was named head of France’s national guard and one of the leading members of the New French Republic’s National Assembly.
Peace negotiations between the Americans and Great Britain were complicated and took two years to work out. They were finalized with the Treaty of Paris of 1783. The American delegation struck a deal with Britain, which violated their treaty with France. In exchange for its help, France was given control of the island of Tobago. Vergennes predicted that “We shall be but poorly paid for that we have done for the United States, and for securing them a national existence” (Vowell 257).
Thomas Jefferson succeed Benjamin Franklin as the American ambassador in France and was stationed in Paris from 1784-9. After their involvement in the American Revolution, factions in France were eager to see reform in their own country. Jefferson wrote home to George Washington: “The nation has been awakened by our revolution, they feel their strength, they are enlightened, their lights are spreading and they will not retrograde” (Chernow 316). Among Jefferson’s accomplishments as ambassador was to help Lafayette draft the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which established the new French Republic in 1789.
After the ratification of the Constitution in 1787, the former American colonies officially became the United States of America but they were united in name only. Two political parties had formed with vastly different ideals of how the new country should be run. The Federalists (also known as Hamiltonians, after party head Alexander Hamilton) wanted a strong central government, mercantile based economy, and for US foreign policy to align with Great Britain as a useful trading partner. The anti-federalists (also known as Democratic-Republicans of Jeffersonians, after their leader Thomas Jefferson), wanted an agriculture-based economy, government run at local and small-scale level, and for US foreign policy to be aligned with the French, our closest ally. With the onset of the French Revolution, Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians were divided further. Jeffersonians saw the French Revolution as an extension of America’s own fight for liberty and that since the French were our allies, we had an obligation to help them. They referred to themselves as Jacobins, France’s radical left-wing party, and greeted each other as “citizen” and “citizeness”, the preferred form of address among French revolutionaries. Hamiltonians feared the revolution’s radical nature and thought that their newborn nation was too weak and unstable to get involved in foreign conflicts. They saw the revolution as violent and destructive in how it dealt with the ancien regime aristocracy (Hamilton and his wife, Elizabeth, socialized with and provided financial aid to aristocratic refugees from revolutionary France). The idealism that some Americans felt when it came to the French Revolution was disillusioned by the Reign of Terror, which claimed Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, among its thousands of victims. John Adams warned that “Danton, Robespierre, Marat, etc. are furies. Dragons’ teeth have been sown in France and will come up as monsters” (434).
In the musical number “Cabinet Battle #2” from Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton wins a debate against Thomas over whether or not the US should get involved in the French Revolution. Hamilton’s argument is that they made the treaty that supposedly bound them to France with a king that the revolutionaries executed, making said treaty null and void “We signed a treaty with a king whose head is now in a basket, would you like to take it out and ask it? Should we honor our treaty, King Louis’s head? Uh, do whatever you want, I’m super dead” (Miranda 2:7). George Washington agrees with Hamilton for the reason that the fledgling United States is not strong enough to get involved in another war: “We’re too fragile to start another fight” (2:7). Jefferson then says to Hamilton: “Did you forget Lafayette?…Have you an ounce of regret?…yet in their hour of need you forget” (2:7).
As the French Revolution became increasingly radical, it eventually turned against Lafayette, blaming him, as head of the National Guard, for several lapses in security such as the royal family’s flight to Varennes. He fled from France and was captured by the Austrians, who were at war with France due to the execution of Queen Marie Antoinette, who had been born an Austrian archduchess. Adrienne was imprisoned in France and was spared the guillotine due to the lobbying of future president James Monroe and his wife Elizabeth, who visited her in prison. The Monroes helped secure passage for Adrienne her daughters to join Lafayette in Austria. Georges Washington de Lafayette came to the United States where he lived for a while with his namesake’s family at Mount Vernon and attended Harvard University.
The US government was divided as to whether or not it should support the new French Republic, which was at war with its monarchist neighbors, including Great Britain, who the Federalists wanted to do business with. George Washington’s administration issued an official policy of neutrality. Debt repayments to France were stopped for the reason that the US had made an alliance with the Kingdom of France, not the new French Republic. Edmund Genêt, a French emissary, arrived in the US in 1793 to gather American support for the French Revolution and started hiring American ships to fight the British Navy. Both the French and British navies impressed American ships and soldiers during the 1790s. Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians came to an agreement that this violated America’s policy of neutrality. Diplomat John Jay was sent to London to negotiate what would later be called the Jay Treaty, a weak truce between the US and Great Britain which attempted to resolve lingering issues between the two countries left over from the War of Independence. It granted Great Britain most favorable trade nation status. The French were offended by the Jay Treaty because they felt that it violated the Franco-American Treaty of 1778 and perceived it as the US being too friendly with Great Britain, its longtime rival and started attacking American merchant ships in response.
John Adams was elected the second president of the United States in 1796. In 1797, Adams sent representatives, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, John Marshall, and Elbridge Gerry, over to France to negotiate a peace agreement. Three French representatives known as X, Y, and Z (their true names were left out of the official reports of the incident because Adams knew that he might have to use them again the future) approached them and demanded a bribe of $250,000 in exchange for them being allowed to meet with Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, the French foreign minister. The United States government was incensed and refused these demands. John Adams wrote in a June 1798 message to Congress: “I will never send another minister to France without assurances that he will be received, respected, and honor as the representative of a great, free, powerful, and independent nation.” Federalists and those who supported war with France adopted that slogan “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute!” On July 7th, 1798, the United States Congress authorized the Navy to seek and destroy French vessels. Over the next two years (1798-1800) the US military, specifically its navy, engaged in an unofficial conflict with France known as the Quasi-War which mostly consisted of naval warfare in the Atlantic and the Caribbean. To weaken the French, the US supported a revolution in Haiti, one of the France’s most valuable colonies. During this unofficial war, the US Navy captured eighty-five French ships, only losing one, the USS Retaliation, which faced off against two French ships off of the West Indies on November 20th, 1798, and surrendered because it was greatly outnumbered. The Quasi-War saw the establishment of a permanent US Navy and Marine Corps. In 1798, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts which made it more difficult for immigrants to become US citizens, gave the president the authority to deport any immigrant from a hostile foreign power or who was seen as a threat to national security and made speaking out against the government an offense punishable by imprisonment. The Alien and Sedition Acts had repercussions which resonated throughout the first half of the nineteenth century.
John Adams wanted to avoid a bigger war with France which the US was unprepared for. The new leader of the French Republic, Napoleon Bonaparte asked Adams to send over new representatives. The Convention of 1800, also known as the Treaty of Mortefontaine, ended the Franco-American alliance and the Quasi-War.
In 1824, the sixty-seven-year-old Lafayette returned to the United States and was feted as a national celebrity. His visit was commemorated with the very American phenomenon or souvenirs. Lafayette encountered a lady at a ball wearing gloves with his face on them and was reported as saying “a few graceful words to the effect that he did not care to kiss himself “ (Vowell 6). During his year-long tour of the United States, Lafayette paid a tear-filled visit to George Washington’s tomb at Mount Vernon, called upon Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, and dropped in to see Elizabeth Schuyler, the widow of his old friend, Alexander Hamilton.
The Marquis de Lafayette died in 1834 at the age of seventy-seven and was buried in Paris’s Picpus Cemetery. His son, Georges Washington de Lafayette, sprinkled dirt from Bunker Hill on his casket, fulfilling his wish that he be buried in both French and American soil. Eighty-three years later, when the American Expeditionary Forces arrived in Paris, Colonel Charles E. Stanton made an address on July 4th, 1917 in front of Lafayette’s tomb:
“America has joined forces with the Allied Powers and what we have of blood and treasure are yours. Therefore it is that with loving pride we drape the colors in tribute of respect to this citizen of your great republic. And here and now, in the presence of the illustrious dead, we pledge our hearts and our honor in carrying this war to a successful issue. Lafayette, we are here.”
The phrase “Lafayette, we are here” was repeated by Evelyn Wotherspoon Wainwright of the National Women’s party in her September 16th, 1918 speech addressing the bronze statue of Lafayette in Washington DC’s Lafayette Square:
“We, the women of the United States, denied the liberty which you helped to gain, and for which we have asked in for sixty years, turn to you to plead for us. Speak, Lafayette, dead these hundred years but still living in the hearts of the American people. Let that outstretched hand of yours pointing to the White House recall to him (President Woodrow Wilson) his words and promises, his trumpet call for all us, to see the world is made safe for democracy. As our army in France spoke to you there, saying here we are to help your country fight for liberty, will you not speak here and now for us, a little band with no army, no power but justice and right, no strength but in our Constitution and in the Declaration of Independence; and win a great victory again in this country by giving us the opportunity we ask to be heard through the Susan B. Anthony amendment (the name of the 19th Amendment granting American Women the right to vote before it was ratified) Lafayette, we are here.”
The name of Lafayette was used during the First World War to conjure up images of Franco-American unity and the continuing fight for democracy but the relationship between the United States and France has been fraught in recent decades, since in 2003, France refused to support preemptive military action in Iraq, the repercussions of which ranged from a proposed bill to repatriate the remains of US soldiers buried in France to the renaming of french fries to freedom fries. Florida representative Ginny Brown-Wait, who proposed the American Heroes Repatriation Act of 2003 argued that:
“The remains of our brave servicemen should be buried in patriotic soil, not in a country that has turned its back on the United States and on the memory of Americans who fought and died there. It’s almost as if the French have forgotten what those thousands of white crosses at Normandy represent” (238)
Americans have a tendency to see the French as arrogant, effete, fickle, cowardly, and untrustworthy and their relationship with them as all take and no give. The role that they played in helping the United States become a country in the first place is often glossed over or ignored due to ignorance or xenophobia. Americans liked to joke that the French are cowardly and surrender easily and say that we saved them during world wars one and two and forget that they saved us during our war for independence.
Daveed Diggs and any other who played Lafayette in Hamilton was double cast as Thomas Jefferson, the play’s France loving antagonist. Lafayette/Jefferson sings the line “we fought with him” (Miranda 1:1) and the audience are left wondering if this was as a comrade in arms or as a political enemy. The double casting of the same actor as both Lafayette and Jefferson shows the dichotomy of how Americans view France: Lafayette, the loyal friend and ally, and Jefferson, the untrustworthy rival. Lafayette (an America loving Frenchman) and Jefferson (a France loving America) are a distorted mirror of each other and the fact that Lafayette becomes Jefferson reflects how Americans started off trusting the French but then turned against them.
Whether it was the Quasi-War or the Freedom Fries era, anything French is viewed with suspicion. Vergennes’s prediction that “We shall be but poorly paid for that we have done for the United States” continues to be true.
Benjamin Franklin. Dir. Pro. Hovd, Ellen and Meyer, Muffie. Perf. Feore, Colm. PBS, 2002. Film.
This PBS special on the extraordinary life of Benjamin Franklin. Among the many accomplishments of Franklin’s long life was to act as the diplomat who negotiated the alliance with France which help America win in its war against Britain. Franklin used his considerable genius, charm, and diplomatic tact to win over the French people and convinced their government to send aid to the American cause.
Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. London: Penguin Books, 2004. Print.
In this comprehensive biography, Ron Chernow goes into depth about the life and career of founding father Alexander Hamilton. In the early decades of the United States, Hamilton’s federalists clashed with Jefferson’s democratic republicans over man issues including how the US should deal with the French Revolution. Tensions with France lead to the Quasi-War, the first international conflict that the US found itself engaged in.
“Episode 4: Oh Fatal Ambition!” Liberty! The American Revolution. Pro. and Dir. Ellen Hovd and Muffie Meyer. Writ. Ronald Blumer. Perf. Edward Herrmann. PBS, 1997. Web.
Episode four of the PBS series Liberty! The American Revolution tracks the escalation of the American Revolution. Benjamin Franklin is sent to Paris to secure an alliance with France and uses his charm and celebrity to accomplish this objective. France is hesitant to formally support the American cause but is convinced to do so by an American victory at Saratoga.
“Episode 5: The World Turn Upside Down.” Liberty! The American Revolution. Pro. and Dir. Ellen Hovd and Muffie Meyer. Writ. Ronald Blumer. Perf. Edward Herrmann. PBS, 1997. Web.
Episode five of the PBS series Liberty! The American Revolution follows the end of the American war for independence, specifically the involvement of America’s French allies. Washington’s young and impetuous protege, the Marquis de Lafayette, clashed with the Comte de Rochambeau, the commander of the French forces in the Americas but French intervention was crucial in the American victory.
Fraser, Antonia. Marie Antoinette: The Journey. New York: Anchor Books, 2001. Print.
Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette, France’s doomed final queen, goes into great detail about the social and political context of the French Revolution. Among Versailles’s courtiers were the Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the American Revolution, and his wife, Adrienne de Noailles. Marie Antoinette personally disliked Lafayette and they clashed when Lafayette became an important figure in the French Revolution.
Hamilton. Directed by Thomas Kail, performances by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Daveed Diggs. Produced by Jeffrey Seller. 2015.
The Tony Award winning musical Hamilton focuses on the life and career of Alexander Hamilton. Among Hamilton’s circle of friends is Frenchman, the Marquis de Lafayette, who hopes that he can bring the spirit of the American Revolution to his homeland. Later on, Hamilton clashes with Thomas Jefferson over whether or not the newly United States should support the French Revolution.
“Marquis de Lafayette.” Washington’s Generals. Pro. and Writ. Raymond Bridgers. Dir. Robert M. Wise. Perf. Edward Herrmann. History Channel, 2006. Web.
This episode of the History Channel series Washington’s Generals discusses the Marquis de Lafayette, a young French aristocrat who joined the cause of American independence and became a trusted ally and of George Washington and a symbol of America’s alliance with which was crucial in winning the war with Britain.
Vowell, Sarah. Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. New York: Riverhead Books, 2015. Print.
Historian Sarah Vowell describes the involvement of the Marquis de Lafayette in the American Revolution and its place in the large narrative of American history and America’s relationship with France. Americans by nature are a disunited people, rarely agreeing with one another let alone with other countries but Lafayette has always be a unifying figure, specifically for America and France.