White House Barriers Show We Have Forgotten the History Behind Lafayette SquareRoundup
tags: Washington D.C., White House, Protest
Aurélia Aubert is currently the McCormick Center postdoctoral fellow at Siena College and will be visiting assistant professor at Denison University in the fall. She specializes in 19th c. American and French history. Her work has appeared in The Latin Americanist and Age of Revolutions.
Lorna Bracewell is an assistant professor of political science at Flagler College specializing in feminist theory and the history of political thought. Her forthcoming book, Why We Lost the Sex Wars: Sexual Freedom in the #MeToo Era, will be available from the University of Minnesota Press in Spring 2021.
Lafayette Square, originally known as “President’s Park,” was renamed in 1824 to honor Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette, on the occasion of his grand tour of and final visit to the United States. President James Monroe sought to instill the “spirit of 1776” in a new generation of Americans when he invited the French aristocrat who had abandoned his cushy life of privilege and traveled at his own expense across the Atlantic to fight for liberty in George Washington’s Continental Army.
In the United States, Lafayette is remembered for his decisive contributions to the American Revolution, particularly during the Virginia Campaign of 1781, which culminated in the storied Battle of Yorktown. Fans of the blockbuster musical “Hamilton” will be familiar with these parts of Lafayette’s life story. But after helping America win independence, Lafayette went home and became a key supporter of the common people during the French Revolution. His unflagging commitment to the “rights of man” and his knack for transforming popular unrest into lasting political change made him a legend on both sides of the Atlantic — the “hero of two worlds,” as his nickname has it.
As a thoroughgoing and philosophically consistent republican, Lafayette believed that every man, regardless of race, was entitled to the freedom the American Revolution had been fought to secure. In the 1780s he became internationally involved in the abolitionist movement, joining anti-slavery organizations and exchanging ideas with famous abolitionists in the United States, Britain and France. He even tried to convince his dear friend and brother-in-arms George Washington to join him in his efforts to gradually abolish slavery. Washington politely ignored these overtures.
So when President Trump called for the violent repression of peaceful protesters demanding the institutional recognition of the value of black lives, he did so in a square named after a man who believed that people with power should listen to those with less, who used his rank and privilege to abate conflict and avoid bloodshed and who fought for equal rights and justice for all, including black Americans. Lafayette was a man who believed that leaders ought to face their citizens as equals and hear out their grievances, not wall themselves off behind increasing layers of fortifications. Quelle trahison (what a betrayal). That the principles Lafayette stood for were so brazenly repudiated in a square named in his honor underscores the depth of the crisis in which the United States is engulfed.
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