Lafayette in Skaneateles

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I wrote this piece in April of 2003, after weeks of hearing jokes about French cowardice and France’s short memory of America’s help in the past, prompted at that time by France’s refusal to send troops to Iraq. As food for thought, I invited readers to recall a gentleman who passed through the Village of Skaneateles in June of 1825.

William Thorne was only seven-years-old, but he was up very late, still awake at 1 a.m. in the morning. A candle burned in every window of his family’s Skaneateles home as he watched and waited for the carriage of General Lafayette, hero of the American Revolution. Lafayette was touring the twenty-four United States, and his carriage would be coming over the rise at any moment, drawn by a team of six chestnut horses from the Auburn stables of Isaac and John Milton Sherwood.

And then it appeared, stopping right in front of the boy’s house. The General waved, and kept waving as he rode on through the village where more and more windows were brightened with tallow candles, his carriage passing under arches of flowers and flags, the entire village lit by lanterns hung in trees, and barrels of fire along the streets, the flames reflected in the lake. Skaneateles remembered Lafayette.

In 1777, the Marquis had come to America and served in the Continental Army. Shot in the leg at the Battle of Brandywine, he recovered, served as a field officer, and then returned to France in 1779 to enlist support for the American cause. He came back in 1780 and was sent by George Washington to Virginia. In 1781, Lord Cornwallis and the British army had fortified Yorktown, and awaited reinforcements. But one day, they looked out on Chesapeake Bay and beheld 28 newly arrived French ships, carrying 3,000 French soldiers. No retreat, no reinforcements. After a joint force of colonial and French soldiers breached Yorktown’s fortifications, Cornwallis surrendered. America was a free nation, thanks to the help of Lafayette and the French.

In 1824, America remembered. Lafayette was the invited guest of President Monroe. Crowds greeted him at every stop. Fifty-seven American towns and cities bear his name today. When he returned to France, he took American soil to be buried in, and so he was in 1834. The Liberty Bell tolled his death.

In 1917, America remembered Lafayette, coming to France’s aid in the first World War. On the Fourth of July, General John J. Pershing led a delegation to Lafayette’s tomb in Paris, where Colonel C.E. Stanton took a step forward and said, “Lafayette, we are here!”

But today, do our memories go back that far?

Joke: “How many men does it take to defend Paris? They don’t know – it’s never been tried.”

During the First World War, Paris was successfully defended as 1,397,800 French soldiers gave their lives for their country – a total greater than all of the American war dead from every war our nation has ever fought.

During the Second World War, Paris did fall to the German Army, but not before 92,000 French soldiers died defending their country in the first six weeks of the war. Today, we rightly mourn the deaths of 58,000 Americans who died in Vietnam over a 12-year period. But 92,000 French soldiers in just six weeks? Forgotten, for the sake of a punch line. Also forgotten, 20,000 French resistance fighters, 40,000 Free French, and 300,000 French civilians.

Joke: A photo taken on June 23, 1940, of Hitler touring Paris, captioned, “How soon they forget.”

On June 23, 1940, four out of five Americans felt the war in Europe was a European matter. America remained steadfastly neutral. When Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands and France, and bombed London, four out of five Americans felt the war in Europe was a European matter. So it was for all of 1940, and indeed for almost all of 1941, until on December 7th, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Then, and only then, did America do the right thing.

Perhaps this is what the French remember. Of course, there are pundits and commentators today who are grateful for America’s hazy memory and selective recollections. But I would respectfully suggest that we recall all of our history before mocking and scorning a nation that helped ours to take its first steps.

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