New York, June 20, 2015
My dear Brethren, best American Friends,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
First of all, I wish to thank our good friends of the Band of Brothers Ted and ...as well as Mischa, whom I am so happy to meet again today here on the occasion of my lecture in connection with the visit in the USA of the reconstructed Hermione ship on which Lafayette was heading the Insurgents 1780. As you may know, I keep strongly committed with America, where I have spent so many happy years as I was serving with the French diplomatic service in the late nineties. I have also to express my special recognition to the American Friends of Hermione-Lafayette and to their President, my dear Friend Miles Young, who were so supportive to me, helping to give a series of lectures including Baltimore, MD, and New York City after Montreal, Canada.
In the run of time people may not forget the very special relationships French and American people developed as what I call the legacy of La Fayette and George Washington. It led to the famous and very decisive victory of October 19, 1781 at Yorktown, paving the way to American Independence five years later at Philadelphia, July 4th 1786. The very spirit of this true Friendship remains centuries later as a kind of landmark to which one has still to refer with gratitude. And since we are here hosted today by the Grand Lodge of New York, I should not forget to stress right away how important was the Masonic commitment of General George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Lafayette at a time where American people were struggling to get independence from England. I shall try today to remember in front of you some main pages of this major history which France and America do share. And together we should proudly claim that we also refer to the same basically principles James Anderson was writing as soon as 1723. But sharing the same moral values and praising freedom of conscience doesn’t mean that we have always a same practice of Freemasonry, because in every country the Masonic Order developed also a kind of specific implementation of our philosophy. Having had the privilege to access to the private correspondence between George Washington and La Fayette kept in the archives of the Society of Cincinnati at Anderson House in Washington, DC, I also realize pretty well that despite the very confident relationships between the two figures they both kept their own mind strongly imprinted by their different cultural background. Nevertheless their ties remain even today emblematic keys for a better understanding of French-American history, which is sometimes complex and turbulent as it usually occurs among best friends dealing sometimes with misunderstandings. Important is to find the way to overcome them. Nothing seems to me more essential.
Alexandre de Tocqueville belongs also to those French people who early tried to observe life in the American Society and was helping to a better mutual understanding. He was focusing on main differences between our two ways of life. He also perfectly perceived the way people in both countries were facing challenges. We always should remain aware that we share strong common roots and interests. But we have developed different cultures in the run of the last centuries.
Turning back to the 18th Century as needed for a better understanding of how History was developing at the time Lafayette was heading to America with his ship HERMIONE, one should remember that it was the century of Enlightment. It was as well a period when France began to face the premises of the Revolution. At the same time people in America was beginning to claim independence from the United Kingdom of England.
The young Marquis de La Fayette had lost his father in the early age of two years, and thanks to the intrigues of his mother, married soon Adrienne de Noailles who introduced him into the highest notability at the Court of Versailles. Having inherited a very rich family he was cumulating all ingredients for a brilliant future. But being originated far from the sophisticated life of the King’s Court, it didn’t last long before he felt uncomfortable with the decadent surrounding and artificial social life at Versailles. As an Army Officer serving in the regiment of the famous Noailles family he felt furthermore fully under control of his relatives. Under such circumstances it appeared soon to him that joining American Insurgents and taking chance of making use of his talents as a military on American battlefields could be a good opportunity to return later on to his motherland with some fame.
His project eventually started during the summer of 1775. And even though the news of the Declaration of Independence not became known in Europe earlier than October 1776, everyone had been since a long time aware of the Insurgents fighting.
I shall not speak in more details today about the long lasting preparatory works of Marquis de La Fayette. Let me only mention that he and his brother-in-low de Noailles surprisingly enough both succeeded, despite their young age and their lack of experience, in being appointed right away with the high rank of major general. This was an evident extravagant (preposterus) request from them, to which the American Envoy in Paris, Silas Deane, anyway answered positively after Kalb, the German military counselor, recommended to do so. The way was thus paved for La Fayette’s first expedition to America on board of the ship “Victoire”.
The first encounter between La Fayette and George Washington is supposed to have taken place on the occasion of a dinner party at the City Tavern in Philadelphia on July 31, 1777. The young French man was then invited to join his new military family. He had been able to finally convince George Washington, who was initially rather reluctant to accept that. Benjamin Franklin, then Ambassador in Paris, also played a decisive role in this matter while pledging in his favor. But it did not last long before the ambivalence should become evident.
After the American Congress agreed with the appointment of Lafayette as a “Major General” he soon claimed to get in charge of an Army Division. On his side, Washington was considering this rank purely honorific, and consequently was not ready to comply with the request of the young Marquis who on his turn soon developed some affective insistence to his protector calling him now “Mon Cher General” and behaving as his devoted adoptive son truly admiring in him the hero and a father.
George Washington’s culture didn’t prepare him to such most Latin assaults. But he accommodated himself to this unexpected situation with some pragmatism, taking into account the recommendations of Benjamin Franklin who was best familiar with French politics and perfectly aware about the influent relationships around the young Marquis. In his opinion it may be wise to restrain of expressing impatience while the French circles could be useful later on...
For sure La Fayette was not requesting special consideration for himself only. He was ( insistent) as well in favor of other French Military Officers having joined America at the same time as him. But it was evidently not easy for George Washington to agree with these claims since he had legitimate concern not to hurt American fighters having already engaged on battlefields long before the French arrived. Nevertheless La Fayette finally got again what he expected and became the command of an American Division.
La Fayette’s authentic devotion to George Washington appeared in the run of time more and more evident. While some people in Washington’s circle, like Thomas Conway, were jealous about the relation developed with La Fayette, they eventually tried to also discredit Washington himself in attracting the Marquis in an adventurous military expedition against Canada. Despite of his young age and inexperience, La Fayette succeeded anyway in discovering the plot of Major-general Thomas Conway who lost consequently part of his credit. Back to Valley Forge after this unsuccessful Canadian adventure, La Fayette would soon have the opportunity to show up his military capability on the occasion of the battle of Barren Hill on Mai 20, 1778.
One must realize that specific circumstances played a quite important part in la Fayette’s behavior. His Father died during the French-British war in Canada which ended 1763. For this reason he kept without any doubt revenge against the British who had gained the Quebec province. In Gilbert du Mortier, Marquis de La Fayette’s mind, the British were not only the hereditary enemies but he had developed a kind of nostalgia of Reconquista of Canada. While acting for the benefit of America, he nourished now the dream to unite Canada to this country he was considering as his new homeland.
The battle of Monmouth Court House, on June 28, 1778, would offer La Fayette a new opportunity to show his true commitment to George Washington as General Lee was in evident insubordination to his chief of staff. While sharing their comments during the night on the battlefield, Washington and La Fayette could now pretty well realize how much they shared the same severe opinion on Lee’s behavior.
Meanwhile France was entering into the war on the side of America, and La Fayette had been appointed main liaison officer between French and American Forces. After having had some difficulty to cope with La Fayette’s embarrassing spontaneous attitudes, George Washington learned finally to adapt and to listen with great consideration to the advice and sincere efforts of his young French Friend. As a good example one may refer to Washington’s decision to get La Fayette intervene expediently at Rhode Island to help the endangered float of Count Charles Henri d’Estaing. The French Admiral was supposed to get control of Newport but his fleet had been severely damaged after a storm. Having chosen to head to Boston to look for a safe haven it had been attacked in the Bay of Boston by British ships and had to deplore heavy lost. American generals in New England were therefore mocking Estaing. On the other hand Washington was not quite ready to accept this humiliation, and knowing best La Fayette’s notorious wish for publicity, wrote him in a letter: “America has high esteem for your virtues and for services you rendered already. We admire the principles which guide you. Your fellow French soldiers in our Army are respecting you as their chief ...and me, as your Friend, I have no doubt that you will put all your efforts to restore harmony in order to save honor, glory and to take care that the mutual interest of both nations should be promoted and confirmed the most definitive way.” Every one may appreciate the whole subtlety of this sentence. At the same time Washington would never accept that the interest of America should be neither questioned nor endangered by projects or some ambitious ideas developed by La Fayette. He was then frequently invited to moderate himself. Nevertheless the true Friendship of Washington for La Fayette was repeatedly expressed in letters I had the privilege to read at Anderson House. One good example and testimony of that was to be found in a correspondence of Washington to Benjamin Franklin as the young French Friend was about to take some vacation in France from 1779 to 1780: Washington declared there his “ very particular Friendship” for La Fayette, and recommended to confer to him every possible help he could need.
It is during this period of time that La Fayette’s son was born. Referring to the first name given to his child, La Fayette wrote: “The given name “George Washington’ expresses my respect and my love for my dear Friend”. Actually all letters written by La Fayette during his stay in France are imprinted from the more and more affectionate relationships to his American protector. Washington himself changed his style of writing and showed up with a more personal and quasi familiar Friendship. He was also recognizing with great emphasis: “I have the greatest consideration and express to you my gratitude for your long-lasting and efficient efforts to serve the United States, not only in America, but also since you went back to France. Your benevolent attention to American people, your strict and invariable Friendship to me have replace the initial feelings of esteem and attachment I had for you. Today it has become a real and perfect love as well as a gratitude which neither time nor absence may alter”. And on the occasion of a visit to the French Ambassador who reported to French State Secretary Vergennes, he
declared: La Fayette “is for me like a beloved son” which is most remarkable knowing that he never had own children.
As La Fayette went back to America on board of the Hermione Vessel in 1780 he was reinstalled in his function as a liaison Officer benefitting of the absolute confidence of Washington. We find testimony of that in several correspondences with Rochambeau. The new appointment of La Fayette as a General now at the head of a “Division Legere” - which means a kind of avant-garde of the Continental army in charge of the defense of New-York in case of an offensive- is an additional confirmation of Washington’s new confidence . La Fayette also served as an interpreter between Washington and Rochambeau, because he was of course perfectly fluent in English. He became this way also closer and closer to Washington.
But the most glorious time for La Fayette and for the French-American relationships was the victory of Yorktown. While La Fayette was once again dreaming of a new expedition in Canada, he was ordered to remain in Virginia because Washington was speculating on the strategic importance of this presence there, while Admiral de Grasse was heading with the French fleet from the West Indies to cut the waterway to Cornwallis. This crucial choice allowed the famous victory on October 19, 1781. Nevertheless, this major event was, surprisingly enough, not immediately perceived as important as it deserved to be for the Independence of America. It remains until today as a definitive historical marker of American-French Friendships. And as I served at our French Embassy in Washington, DC, every year I was officially taking part of the celebration in Yorktown. I may add here today that protagonists of this famous battle, including Cornwallis, were all Freemasons. La Fayette had entered in a French Lodge as well as Rochambeau and de Grasse-Tilly, Even the German Kalb was a Freemason, as well of course George Washington. They all were members of the Masonic Order, and it makes sense to remember that. As we are today celebrating the upcoming visits of the reconstructed ship Hermione in several American harbors including New York City, I believe it is important to keep that in mind. The Masonic principles and moral values we all together share, were also a kind of guidance for La Fayette and George Washington, and may further guide us also today to act like the Members of the Band of Brothers have been doing here in New York since decades. We could consider that is it somewhat also part of the legacy inherited from the fraternal Friendship between those two great Masonic ancestors who were George Washington and La Fayette along with Benjamin Franklin, who had been the first American Envoy to France. He was also was Master of the emblematic and famous elite French Lodge ‘ Nine Sisters’ in Paris at a time where this Lodge was to be compared with the London Royal Society, where Freemasons like and around Isaac Newton played a major part. They were some kind of what we call today a “think tank” preparing the society to new developments.
Time has certainly changed. But we all together keep the sacred obligation to keep in mind the fundamentals we all together refer to. It is my proud, and let me say, it is our shared proud today, here in the Grand Lodge of New York to seat together and to remember the great achievements our two countries realized. Our Fraternity took also part to that. Not as an institution, but through individualities like Washington and La Fayette who paved the way. In 2017 our Order will commemorate its 300th anniversary. It should be an exceptional opportunity for all of us to turn ourselves towards the future, and share our ideals and values to face the new challenges of our contemporary societies.
My very modest but true hope remains, that taking benefit of the visits of the Hermione ship, we all together make some new steps in this direction. We shall only succeed while respecting also our differences just like George Washington and La Fayette did, step by step, for the benefit of American People but more generally for the progress of Democracy, Liberty and of the entire mankind.
I thank you for your attention.
Alain de Keghel