The Marquis de Lafayette–the Frenchman who fought in the American Revolution–was the only foreigner to hold a major position among the Founding Fathers of the new nation. From his arrival in 1777 until, a century and a half later, the words “Lafayette, we are here!” stirred support for American intervention in World War I, the evolving image of Lafayette reflected popular opinion on various domestic and foreign issues.
Emblem of Liberty, the first comprehensive survey of Lafayette as a symbolic figure in American intellectual history, examines the compound image of the man and the ideas he represented. Professor Anne C. Loveland has based this wide-ranging study upon the massive Lafayette manuscript collection at Cornell University as well as a great variety of other sources.
Lafayette was popularly regarded as a model patriot aiding the cause of liberty and mankind–an example of the public and private virtue necessary to the perpetuation of the American republic. He was also seen as benefactor and later patriarch of the United States, a Founding Father who served as judge of the success or failure of the republican experiment. In addition as leader for a time of the French Revolution and as the friend of liberal revolutions abroad, Lafayette was viewed as the agent of the American mission, carrying the example of republican government to oppressed peoples around the world.
Lafayette’s “Triumphal Tour” of the United States in 1824-25 contributed to a revival of republicanism, a lessening of the factional and section strife which appeared to threaten the young nation’s stability, a renewed sense of the American mission.
After his return to France, Lafayette continued to exert an influence on American popular thought. His correspondence with friends in the United States reveals their concern with slavery, nullification, and other sectional issues, as well as their increasingly stereotyped reaction to revolutions, particularly the French Revolution of 1830.
The Marquis died in 1834, but his image was employed for nearly a century longer to arouse patriotic fervor and to unite Americans in what was viewed as an international mission to spread liberty and justice.
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