Politics has become a toxic subject at social functions. As executive editor of this newspaper, I am frequently called upon to attend such functions in an official capacity and make small talk that is rigidly quotable and often dull (my own included). But at one recent event, a political issue evolved into a new question: Is it patriotic to abstain from voting?
There was some sharp discussion. Who are these voters who think not voting is a vote? How is not voting not a vote? And how will the next president govern a country divided against itself?
One among us said he had just completed a solo motorcycle trip from Maine to Texas and commented on how odd it was to visit 13 states that each had a major city called Fayetteville. The country might not be united, he said, but all those cities and towns with the same name—that meant something. But what?
I remembered the answer from my seventh-grade American history class.
In August 1775, a young Marquis de La Fayette attended a dinner party in Paris with the duke of Gloucester, younger brother of King George III. The duke disagreed with his brother’s policies in the American colonies and praised the Americans’ recent display of courage at Lexington and Concord. The 18-year-old Lafayette was astonished by these words from the royal family of his country’s traditional enemy. “From that hour,” he wrote, “I could think of nothing but this enterprise, and I resolved to go.”
Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette, was born in 1757 to a martial family whose antecedents had fought alongside Joan of Arc and in the Crusades. He wrote in his autobiography, “It’s not my fault [but] I was baptized like a Spaniard, with the name of every conceivable saint who might offer me protection in battle.”
The young marquis defied the orders of King Louis XVI and sailed to America in 1777. He was a musketeer and an officer, but also a teenager who spoke little English and had never been in battle. Nevertheless, he was given a commission in the Continental Army July 31.
Lafayette was shot through the calf in his first engagement at the Battle of Brandywine Creek on Sept. 11, the largest and longest single-day fight of the war, but he held his position and prevented a rout as the army retreated to Philadelphia. George Washington promoted him to lieutenant general and gave him his own command.
Lafayette fought in some of the most historic battles in American history and survived the long winter in Valley Forge. He returned to France in 1779 to lobby the king for more French support for the American cause and was immediately arrested. He was also hailed as a hero and released after just eight days. Working with his friend, Benjamin Franklin, Lafayette secured the promise of 6,000 more soldiers to be sent to America and he returned to the fight in 1780 at the nadir of the war.
On Oct. 14, 1781, Lafayette led 400 men with Alexander Hamilton’s forces in an attack on two strategic outposts in hand-to-hand combat at Yorktown, successfully breaking the British defense line. Cornwallis surrendered Oct. 19, ending the war.
Lafayette returned to France and joined a national assembly created to respond to rising social tensions. He argued that the group was not truly representative and, on July 1, 1789, presented a draft of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, written with the help of Thomas Jefferson, a document later enshrined in the French Constitution. The royalists blocked his efforts and that of his fellow reformers. Riots broke out and the Bastille was stormed July 14.
Lafayette remained a moderate throughout the French Revolution but was swept up by the terror that followed and spent five years in prison. Though released by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1797, Lafayette refused to swear his allegiance to a dictator. Napoleon responded by confiscating Lafayette’s remaining properties, leaving him destitute. Napoleon abdicated as emperor in 1814 and Lafayette became a member of the chamber of deputies, a position he held for the rest of his life.
In 1824, President James Monroe invited Lafayette to the United States as the nation’s guest. When he landed in New York City, 50,000 people—one-third of the city’s population—were waiting for him. The celebration lasted four days. He visited all 24 states, his route lined with veterans who wanted to meet the last living Revolutionary War general. Towns changed their name in his honor; parents named their children after him. He returned to Massachusetts in June 1825 to lay the cornerstone of the Bunker Hill Monument and filled a barrel with soil from the battlefield to take home.
When Lafayette died in 1834 at the age of 74, his eldest son, Georges Washington de La Fayette, covered his coffin with the soil from Bunker Hill. The American flag still flies over his tomb in Paris.
In 2002, Lafayette became the sixth of just eight foreign nationals in our history to be made an honorary U.S. citizen by Congress. Living honorary citizens do not have the right to vote, but were he alive today, I think Lafayette would insist on it.