2 min read
Posted on 11.22.15
  • 2 min read
  • Posted on 11.22.15
  • Filed under
  • St. Louis
  • Lafayette
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • Declaration of Independence
  • Alexander Bellesseme

Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette, secured a place in history as the “hero of two worlds.”

Lafayette was a French aristocrat and military officer who fought for George Washington in the American Revolution. He became known, here, simply, as Lafayette.

No single foreign visitor to the United States played a greater role in helping us to win our independence, or to gain diplomatic recognition for our young Republic.

Lafayette returned to France to become an important figure, and intrepid force for stability, in the French Revolution. With guidance from Thomas Jefferson, he wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. While flawed (it failed to condemn slavery or recognize the equality of women), the Declaration stands alongside the Declaration of Independence, and U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights as an inspiration and early foundational document for liberal democracy.

Lafayette declared “resistance against oppression” among the “natural and imprescriptible rights of man.”

In 1825, more than 40 years after American victory at Yorktown, a septuagenarian Lafayette visited St. Louis. The old French trading post was still a fledgling city. Its population had not yet reached 15,000. It had just begun its ascent toward becoming a mercantile and metropolitan center. Meanwhile, its Louisiana heritage remained a part of living memory.

Contemporary accounts of the visit record a poignant remembrance on St. Louis streets of the Franco-American alliance for liberty and resistance against oppression. Lafayette was approached at a public gathering by Alexander Bellesseme, a stooped old man who kept a tavern on Second Street. When both were young men, Bellesseme accompanied Lafayette from France to the United States, and fought in the Continental Army under Lafayette's command.

The two men embraced.

The French, in North America, have their own celebratory tradition of Thanksgiving as part of the autumn harvest. Like ours it embodies an expression gratitude for bounty and fellowship.

It was begun by French Huguenots, and predates the settlement at Jamestown or Pilgrims having arrived at Plymouth. The Huguenots came to Florida fleeing religious oppression. The sanctuary they sought was short-lived — ending in violence at the hands of the Spanish, who labeled them heretics.

But the sentiments of their Thanksgiving — and ideals for which Lafayette, Hero of Two Worlds, fought — are squarely before us in St. Louis this holiday season.

Once more, we join hands with French allies. In affirming our Thanksgiving for bounty and liberty — together we resolve to welcome people seeking refuge and freedom from oppression.

Vive la journée d'action de grâces, Lafayette!

Long live the Day of Thanksgiving.

(Pictured: Stained glass fleur-de-lys from a late 19th Century St. Louis home)