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Take a fresh look at the Marquis de Lafayette

Many of us, I suspect, have so often driven past the statue of the Marquis de Lafayette that he fades into the background and blends into the trees; like family, we take him for granted.

If we take a moment’s closer look, Lafayette is on the move: right heel raised, knee flexed, elbow angled, coattails flared. He’s hailing us. He’s trying to get our attention.

He holds the object of his dispatch in his outstretched right hand. It’s his “Liberty Cockade,” or as the French call it, a “Cocarde.”

The statue portrays Lafayette when he was commander of the Paris National Guard. In fact, he coined the phrase, “National Guard.” He himself designed the uniform. This was after the fall of the Bastille, but before the Reign of Terror. He has two medals on his jacket. Closest to midline is the Order of St. Louis, bestowed by King Louis XVI for valor in the American Revolutionary War.

The other is the insignia of the Society of the Cincinnati, a fraternal order of Revolutionary War officers, named after the Roman commander Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus.

As commander, Lafayette searched for a unifying symbol that would rally the people of Paris to the cause of liberty. He hit on the idea of the “Liberty Cockade.” It was a circular, pleated ribbon of red, white, and blue.

The white represented the monarchy, the red and blue the people of Paris. It was a reminder that the object of their devotion was liberty, seasoned with generous and necessary measures of equality and justice.

People under the umbrella of liberty, Lafayette argued, can govern themselves. All are created equal and have rights no person or government can refuse.

Lafayette Day for all of Georgia is his birthday, September 6. This year he will be 263 years old.  His life was dedicated to liberty. He argued for abolition. He supported independence movements in South America, Poland, Greece, and Italy, let alone North America. September also commemorates the Battle of Brandywine where 243 years ago, five days after his twentieth birthday, he was wounded fighting alongside American soldiers.

Philosopher Mortimer Adler says Liberty, Equality, and Justice are the three great ideas we act on. Like the colors in a rainbow, one imperceptibly fuses with the others and none exists independently of the others. Liberty to the extreme is anarchy; equality alone is tyranny. Justice makes them work. I like rather to think of the red, white, and blue Liberty Cockade as reflecting those three ideas.

The Marquis de Lafayette was a remarkable man. He was a decent man. His purpose was set: he was an Apostle of Liberty and he lived the part. Equality and Justice were indispensable to his way of thinking.

Lafayette biographer Louis Gottschalk said, “Today is the result of yesterday.” If we get it, if we understand yesterday, today is less a mystery. Lafayette is a wormhole to now.

Learn more when the Lafayette Alliance hosts a virtual celebration of Lafayette’s birthday Sunday, September 6, 2020, at 4:00 pm streamed on the Facebook page of LGTV and Lafayette Alliance.

Richard L. Ingram

Chair, Lafayette Alliance