by Paul R. Spitzzeri
He had a typically impressive name for a French aristocrat, being born in 1757 as Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, but the Marquis de Lafayette has long been known by that single moniker of Lafayette, a hero of the American Revolution. Orphaned as a teen and inheritor of a large fortune, he was a courtier of King Louis XVI but dreamed of a heroic military career.
After hearing the stirring story of the revolt of the American colonists against Great Britain, of course long a rival of France, Lafayette sailed to America in summer 1777, joining Prussian and Polish soldiers who joined the cause. While he was only twenty and had no battlefield experience, he was commissioned a major general in the Continental Army and became a protege of General George Washington.
Lafayette was on Washington’s staff and distinguished himself in a battle near Philadelphia that September, leading to his taking command of a division. In May 1778, he led a retreat in which he saved many lives and returned to France early in 1779 to lobby the king to provide troops and aid to the American revolutionaries. He came back to America the following year with news of the coming of thousands of French soldiers and a half-dozen ships and took command of a Virginia army.
In 1781, he chased commander Lord Cornwallis through that commonwealth, leading directly to the surrender of the British at Yorktown that October, ending the war with a stunning American victory. Bestowed the moniker of “Hero of Two Worlds,” Lafayette returned to France in 1782 and was made a brigadier general as well as becoming a major liberal leader in the nation’s increasingly fractious politics.
When the French Revolution erupted in 1789, Lafayette wrote, with help from his friend Thomas Jefferson, the first draft of Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which was significantly revised and adopted that August. Elected commander of the national guard, he saved the king and Queen Marie Antoinette from a mob and retained power and popularity until July 1791 when his troops fired on protesters demanding the king’s abdication.
He resigned and commanded an army fighting against Austria, but he defected and was held by that country while France descended into the famous Reign of Terror. He returned home in 1797, but retired from public life, though he was against the rise of Napoleon. Jefferson, as president of the United States, offered Lafayette the governorship of the Louisiana Territory, acquired from Napoleon in 1803, but Lafayette declined. Under Louis XIII, he served in the Chamber of Deputies until 1824.
That year, he was invited by President James Monroe to visit the United States, where Lafayette was treated with great adulation (quite a few cities were named in his honor during the trip) and he was the first foreigner to address the House of Representatives. He had an important role in the July Revolution in France in 1830 and then retired again from public life, dying four years later with soil from Bunker Hill buried with him. In 2002, Lafayette became only the fifth honorary citizen in American history.
Notably, during the First World War, a Lafayette Day was established that was both a recognition of the Marquis’ important contribution to the American revolution and of the spirit of the French resistance to the invasion of Germany in 1914. One of the most important engagements in that early phase of the world war was the famed Battle of the Marne and the third Lafayette Day celebration in Los Angeles on 6 September 1917 happened to coincide with the third anniversary of that battle.
Tonight’s featured artifact from the museum’s holdings is a program for that event, held at Exposition Park. The event included a flag procession, and invocation; six musical selections including the “Overture La Patrie” by Georges Bizet, the “Stars and Stripes” by John Philip Sousa, a vocal solo of “La Marseillaise,” a “Patriotic Ensemble” by the Philharmonic Quartette, and a performance of “America;” a poem called “We’re Coming Jean” by Percival J. Cooney; and seven addresses, including by Mayor Frederick T. Woodman, French consul Louis Sentous, Jr,; and Mrs. Josiah Evans Cowles, president of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs.
There was a large executive committee for the event, including an executive board that counted twenty-one members, such as oil magnate Edward L. Doheny, banker Motley Flint (who was killed in court in 1930 in a case involving the notorious Julian Petroleum Company), business leader Stoddard Jess, and the French-born curator of the Southwest Museum, Hector Aliot. Doheny chaired the finance committee, which included Jess, Flint, and banker Marco Hellman among its members. Special committees included ones for the flag raising, schools, historic pictures and historical information.
For that last element, Professor William H. Knight (1835-1925), a remarkable but forgotten figure, who was from New York but came overland by horse to California and settled in San Francisco. He went back to New York to enlist in the Union Army during the Civil War and was wounded taken prisoner at the Second Battle of Bull Run. Returning to San Francisco, he worked with Hubert Howe Bancroft on the publication of maps, books, and music and was a founder of the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley.
Knight moved to Los Angeles in the early 1890s and was a friend of Griffith J. Griffith and Thaddeus Lowe, serving as auditor for Lowe’s famous Mount Lowe Railway Company which built the funicular railway above Pasadena that was a major regional attraction for some four decades. He was an officer of the Merchants’ and Manufacturers’ Association in Los Angeles, served on the county highway commission and was president of the Southern California Academy of Sciences.
He wrote and gave talks on astronomy and other scientific topics and his published work appeared in Scientific American and the Los Angeles Times, where he frequently editorialized. Knight was credited with helping to popularize astronomy on the West Coast and was instrumental in getting James Lick, a San Francisco capitalist to pay for the observatory bearing his name in northern California.
Knight’s essay on Lafayette begins with the statement that “a thrilling chapter in the World’s history is that which records an alliance of the American Colonies and the French Nation during the Revolutionary War; and alliance secured through a heroic devotion to the cause of liberty by Marquis de Lafayette, the youthful scion of an ancient and noble family.”
He then recorded the career of the marquis, going into detail concerning Lafayette’s important role in the Continental Army, including his securing a commitment for French support of the upstart Americans against the powerful world empire of the British. Knight added that, after returning to France and taking part in the revolution “it was at his suggestion that the tricolor was adopted by the French people and is today the emblem of liberty in that country.”
After discussing Lafayette’s years in Austria and his return home and opposition to Napoleon, Knight covered the 1824 trip to the United States, which “endeared him to every American” as “he was hailed with joy and admiration” as he toured twenty-four states in the country. It was noted that “never did a conqueror returning from victorious exploits receive such heartfelt adulation.”
Lafayette went to Lexington and Knight quoted from a speech given in his honor: “these hardy yeomanry of the country offer the sincere tribute of their warmest affections. Under the folds of that glorious flag which your bravery aided to uphold, they now enjoy peace and security.” Expressions of long life were tendered “and when you have ceased from your labors may our children rise up to bless your memory and emulate your virtues.”
Knight ended by proclaiming that, after Lafayette’s death in 1834, he “passed from the scenes of his earthly strifes and triumphs, but the memory of his transcendent virtues and achievements will be cherished to the end of time.” News articles from the Lafayette Day celebration in 1917 alluded to a movement for a statue to be placed in one of the Los Angeles city parks. The following year, Sunset Park, which was created on former oil land on 35 acres in the Westlake area of the city donated by Clara Shatto, whose husband George owned Santa Catalina Island, was renamed Lafayette Park, though that statue was not erected until 1937.
Lafayette is not quite regarded with the same attention as he once was, but this program, formerly owned by the California Society of the Sons of the Revolution, whose president, Orra Monnette, a prominent Los Angeles attorney and banker, was one of the event’s orators, is a reminder of a time when his name was still frequently hailed as a “Defender of Liberty” and a “Hero of Two Nations.”