Lafayette: The most popular man in America

Published 6:00 pm Thursday, March 21, 2019

By Richard Ingram, Lafayette Alliance president

He was the most popular man in America. More than this, he was also the most revered.  This month marks the anniversary of his Farewell Tour across Georgia.  The Marquis de Lafayette was not only welcomed; he was celebrated, and wildly.

The largest crowd, ever, showed up to greet him when he arrived at New York City; more even than greeted the Beatles on their historic tour in the 1960s. More than 50,000 people lined the harbor and clogged streets and lanes just to get a glimpse.

Mothers, his regard so esteemed in their eyes, asked him to bless their children. It was as though he could in this way install a bolus of the character his life represented.

Feeble old men endured the wait of receiving lines just to shake his hand and express a word of thanks.

He held a special place in the hearts of people of color. They would remind him “with tenderness” of his efforts “to remove them from the ranks of those whom frightful prejudices still oppress in some regions.” Today’s “reconciliation committees” he would have found curious. All men, he would have argued, deserve respect and dignity; what is there to discuss?  Levasseur, reflecting Lafayette’s thinking, considered slavery “truly appalling” and “must necessarily lead Georgia into an embarrassing situation one day, if its government does not take measures to diminish it.”

“Where is Kayewla?  I want to see Kayewla.” This from the enthusiastic Indian who had jumped into the midst of Lafayette’s visiting party. “Kayewla” was the name Indians gave him in recognition of his courage, and translates to “Great White Warrior.”

The Georgia leg of his visit began March 19, 1825, at Savannah. “Triumphal arches,” a “fervent crowd,” and Governor Troup greeted him, but the jubilee was not limited to large cities. Warrenton, Sparta, Milledgeville and Macon received the nation’s guest with all of New York City’s enthusiasm. Sparta plans, this year, a celebration to recreate his entrance to their city.

On March 31, he crossed the Chattahoochee River at what is “Engineer’s Point,” now at Lawson Field, Fort Benning, and into Alabama, at Fort Mitchell, where Creek Indians put on a spectacular display of ritual games in his honor.   Lafayette is about adventure. His story is dense with horseback riding, fencing, and sailing, more than enough kinetic energy to launch a theme park. But beyond commerce, Lafayette is about conscience.  He is about doing the right thing.

Lafayette matters because he is relevant, and he is relevant because we all need flesh and blood reminders that integrity, loyalty and courage count.  We need heroes who have earned their stripes.