Thanks to a rich historical record, we do not have to imagine the reaction of Gen. George Washington when, on July 31, 1777, he was introduced to the latest French "major general" foisted on him by the Continental Congress, this one an aristocrat not yet out of his teens. Virtually since Washington had taken command of the Colonial Army some two years before, he had been trying to sweep back a tide of counts, chevaliers and lesser foreign volunteers, many of whom brought with them enormous self-regard, little English and less interest in the American cause than in motives ranging from martial vanity to sheriff-dodging.
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The Frenchman now presenting himself to George Washington in the Colonial capital of Philadelphia was the 19-year-old Marquis de Lafayette, who was in America principally because he was enormously rich. Though Congress had told Washington that Lafayette's commission was purely honorific, no one seemed to have told the marquis, and two weeks after their first meeting, Washington shot off a letter to Benjamin Harrison, a fellow Virginian in Congress, complaining that this latest French import expected command of a division! "What line of conduct I am to pursue, to comply with [Congress'] design and his expectations, I know no more than the child unborn and beg to be instructed," the commander fumed.
The success of the American Revolution was then very much in doubt. For more than a year, apart from two militarily insignificant but symbolically critical victories in Trenton and Princeton, Washington's army had succeeded only at evasion and retreat. His depleted forces were riddled with smallpox and jaundice, there was not enough money to feed or pay them, and the British, emboldened to dream of an early end to the war, were on their way toward Philadelphia with a fleet of some 250 ships carrying 18,000 British regulars—news that Washington had received with that morning's breakfast. At the dinner where he met Lafayette, Washington had to address the urgent fear of congressmen that Philadelphia itself could fall to the British, and he had nothing of much comfort to tell them.
So a pushy French teenager would seem to have been the last thing Washington needed, and eventually the general was told that he was free to do as he liked with the impetuous young nobleman. How then to explain that before the month of August 1777 was out, Lafayette was living in Washington's house, in his very small "family" of top military aides; that in a matter of weeks he was riding at Washington's side on parade; that by early September he was riding with Washington into battle; that after he was wounded at Brandywine Creek (a defeat that indeed led to the fall of Philadelphia), he was attended by Washington's personal physician and watched over anxiously by the general himself? "Never during the Revolution was there so speedy and complete a conquest of the heart of Washington," his biographer Douglas Southall Freeman wrote. "How did [Lafayette] do it? History has no answer."
Actually, Lafayette's biographers have settled on one: that Washington saw in Lafayette the son he never had, and that Lafayette found in Washington his long-lost father—a conclusion that, even if true, is so widely and briskly postulated as to suggest a wish to avoid the question. In any case it is unsatisfying in several ways. For one, Washington rarely expressed regret at not having a child of his own, and though he had many young military aides, he hardly treated them with fatherly tenderness. His adjutant Alexander Hamilton, who like Lafayette had lost his father in infancy, found Washington so peremptory that he demanded to be reassigned.
Perhaps most discouraging to the father-son idea is that the relationship between Washington and Lafayette was not one of unalloyed affection. The elaborate 18th-century courtesies in their correspondence may be easily read as signs of warmth; they could also disguise the opposite. The two men differed on many things and are sometimes found to be working against each other in secret, each to his own ends. Their interaction reflects the always problematic relations between their two countries, an alliance of which they were also the founding fathers.
It is difficult to imagine a supposedly friendly bilateral alliance fraught with more tension than that of France and the United States. In 1800, when Napoleon brought years of outrageous French attacks on American shipping to an end with a new commercial treaty, he dismissed the long, acrimonious conflict as a "family spat." In 2003, during their bitter confrontation over war in Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell reassured France's distraught ambassador to the United States, among others, by reminding him that America and France had been through 200 years of "marriage counseling, but the marriage...is still strong," an analysis that was widely appreciated and brought not the shortest pause in the exchange of diplomatic fire.
Others have described the French-American relationship as that of "sister republics" born during "sister revolutions." If so, it is not hard to find the source of Franco-American conflict, since the parents of these siblings deeply despised each other. Never has a national rivalry been more spiteful than the one between the old regime of the Bourbons and Hanoverian England, though they did share a belief in the profound insignificance of the American colonies. As colonial overlords, Washington's mother country and Lafayette's patrie saw North America mainly as a tempting place to poach and plunder, a potential chip in their war with each other and a small but easy market of primitives and misfits who lived in forests and dressed in animal skins. For their part, the American settlers saw the British as their oppressors, and were inclined to see the French as prancing, light-minded land-grabbers sent by the pope to incite Indian massacres.
Given these and later perceptions, one may well wonder why there is a statue of Washington in Paris' Place d'Iéna, and what one of Lafayette is doing on Pennsylvania Avenue across from the White House, in...Lafayette Park. At a time when Western civilization faces a geopolitical challenge that requires more than casual Franco-American cooperation, the question is not frivolous.
The answer begins with the fact that the French and American revolutions were more like distant cousins, and that the French Revolution was incomparably more important to the United States than American independence was to France. To the revolutionary governments of France, America was relevant chiefly as a debtor. In American politics, however—just as the newly united states were struggling toward consensus on forms of government and their common character as a nation—the French Revolution posed the central question: whether to follow France's egalitarian and republican model of society or some modification of the mixed British constitution, with king, lords and commons. It was in the crucible of debate over whether to go the way of Britain or France that the citizens of the United States would discover what it was to be American.