Relations between the United States and France seem to have climbed out of the musty sub-basement where they had lingered since the start of the Iraq war.Of course, many here still resent France, perhaps because it deemed the war a bad idea several years before most Americans came to the same conclusion; few people love a premature realist. But in the main, the days of Bordeaux boycotts and “freedom fries” Babbitry are over, thanks in part to the ascension of a pro-American French president, Nicolas Sarkozy.
With France no longer the bogeyman it once was, permit us to note that next Thursday, Sept. 6, is the 250th anniversary of the birth of a fellow who, for Americans, may be the most significant Frenchman not named Gérard Depardieu. That would be Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier. Without his help during the Revolutionary War, we might all be eating bangers and mash.
You probably know him better as the Marquis de Lafayette, though over time he preferred Lafayette, plain and simple.
A soldier from the age of 14, he volunteered his services to the Continental Congress, fought the British as a member of George Washington’s army and became Washington’s lifelong friend. He arrived on these shores, ready to do battle, when he was all of 19. Those were the days.
In a rare action, Congress made Lafayette an honorary American citizen five years ago. But do many people have a sense of him? Not judging from a recent survey by the New-York Historical Society.
That quaintly hyphenated organization dispatched summer interns to different neighborhoods, including two of the streets in the city named for Lafayette, in Manhattan and in Brooklyn. The interns, history students at U.C.L.A., asked dozens of people what they knew about the old boy. The responses boiled down to: Lafayette, we are clueless.
“Definitely among the younger generation, not a soul knew who Lafayette was,” said Louise Mirrer, the historical society’s president. Even older New Yorkers offered responses like “Never heard of him” or at best, if they were really on the ball, “Sounds French.”
“But one fireman knew quite a lot,” Dr. Mirrer said. “That was reassuring.”
Most likely, Lafayette’s birthday will come and go with few New Yorkers taking note. The historical society intends to keep him in the public eye, though, with an exhibition planned for mid-November. The focus will be less on Lafayette’s Revolutionary War exploits than on a 13-month return journey that he began in 1824, 10 years before his death.
That trip, through all 24 states that then formed the United States, began at Castle Clinton in Lower Manhattan. It was a landmark event, said Richard Rabinowitz, who is the exhibition’s curator, working with his wife, Lynda B. Kaplan, a media producer. The United States was in the early stages of figuring out what it thought of itself as a nation, Mr. Rabinowitz said, and Lafayette gave the process a caffeine-like jolt.
There he was, Washington’s buddy, showing up at age 67 and “schlepping around 6,000 miles of the United States,” Mr. Rabinowitz said. “This was like a return of your grandfather’s sidekick” — and with the sidekick telling people at each stop that “we were doing everything right.”
“If Europeans complain that Americans are too self-congratulatory,” he said, “they can blame Lafayette.”
We were doing everything right? Uh, wasn’t there a little detail known as slavery? Lafayette indeed considered it “a blight on the country,” Mr. Rabinowitz said. But “he thought it would disappear, that it was incompatible with American liberty.”
With his pre-Sarkozy affection for America, Lafayette was lionized. Wherever he went, Ms. Kaplan said, there were parades, banners, dinners and what can only be called, in perfect non-French, tchotchkes: ceramic bowls and plates, brushes, snuffboxes, children’s shoes, all bearing his image or scenes of his visit.
“This was really the beginning of the T-shirt craze,” Mr. Rabinowitz said.
He was joking. But maybe we should be grateful that all this took place more than 180 years ago. Today, you’d have “I ♥ Lafo” T-shirts and the like. There’s just so much that anyone should have to take.