Marquis de Lafayette and education

Published 10:25 pm Friday, February 23, 2018

By Ryan DeMarco
A member of the Lafayette Alliance

While teaching my eighth grade U.S. history classes during their American Revolution unit, I asked my students, “Do you know we have our own Revolutionary War hero right here in LaGrange?” A student responded, “Do you mean that guy on the square? The one on the fountain?” I asked, “Have you ever heard of Marquis de Lafayette?” The student replied, “No, but he doesn’t sound American.”

Truth be told, it was a perfect way to open up talking about not only the Marquis de Lafayette and his contribution to the American Revolutionary War but also American values today. Typically, Lafayette often plays second fiddle to the contributions of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson in American history (if he is mentioned at all in textbooks or in classrooms). Despite being born in France, thus making him French, Lafayette arguably lived his life as an American.

Using Lafayette, I was able to teach my students about what makes someone an American, which is our collective unity behind a shared set of values.

Even before crossing the Atlantic, Lafayette’s early life is worthy of laud and study. Lafayette was extremely well-educated as a product of the Enlightenment. This education instilled in him the virtues of justice, courage, integrity, honor, glory, a hatred for tyranny and a willingness to sacrifice all of the sake of liberty. Sound familiar? These virtues are the same ones espoused by our American Revolutionary heroes such as Washington and Jefferson.

A passion for education not only pushed Lafayette to continue in his pursuit of knowledge, but this passion motivated him to put these ideas into political action through a life dedicated to public service. He first served his own country of France and then the American cause of liberty.

Lafayette came to America to serve as an officer in General George Washington’s Continental Army.  One may think that Washington may have dismissed him for the sake of Lafayette being French, but this was hardly the case. Washington embraced him as a fellow lover of liberty, justice and freedom from oppression.

Lafayette was so enthralled by the American experiment that he said America “was the standard of liberty” to serve as  “… a lesson to the oppressor and example to the oppressed and a sanctuary for the rights of mankind.”

Serving through the final battle of Yorktown, Lafayette became extremely popular with the American public. After the American Revolution, Lafayette returned to France to shape the future of the French Revolution and its renowned Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen. Throughout his life, he continued to risk life and fortune for the cause of liberty. He championed freedom of the press, advocated for the expansion of the right to vote and lambasted the immorality of slavery.

Lafayette recognized the transformative power of education for both democracy and civic engagement. As teachers, we cultivate a lifelong love of learning and strong morals and integrity in our students in the hopes of nurturing the best future citizens for our republic. Do we not want politicians with integrity and honor?  Do we not want community leaders who have servant-leadership and not personal gain at the forefront of their motivation to serve?

Although many consider Lafayette to be exclusively a French figure, I will always advocate Lafayette as a true American. Lafayette championed American ideals by fighting oppression and lifting the torch of liberty for the entire world to see. What makes someone American is not their race, creed, gender or political party.

Someone is American because of their belief in a collective system of shared values. That is a lesson worth teaching our students.