Around the world, this date is known as Bastille Day, and the French ambassador to the United States has a warm message for Americans: "Tous solidaires," proclaimed Philippe Etienne. "We stand together."
Without mentioning Lafayette directly, Ambassador Etienne subtly reminds Americans this morning how much we owe to France. It's an obligation repaid at Verdun and in Paris in two world wars, to be sure. But 20th century Americans had a better sense of history than those in the current millennium, and when Gen. John J. Pershing's troops arrived in Paris in July 1917, one of Pershing's officers, Col. Charles E. Stanton, galvanized a nation by acknowledging the debt.
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The French Embassy's homepage this morning contains a video of a Pasteur Institute official speaking of the joint efforts of French and American scientists to find a vaccine for COVID-19. He's speaking in French, just as Charles Stanton spoke in English 103 years ago in Paris.
I'm unsure whether George Eliot's observation that history "is apt to repeat itself" is quite right, but history certainly has a way of circling back on itself. I remember, as I'm sure Dr. Anthony Fauci does, when French and American scientists vied fiercely in the 1980s to identify the AIDS virus. This competition ultimately turned to cooperation, as the medical challenge evolved from discovery to treatment.
In 1917, when "Black Jack" Pershing's "Doughboys" became the first American troops to cross the ocean to fight in a European war, the threat was no microbe. It was a formidable Prussian army entrenched only 50 miles outside Paris. To the Americans, the French looked beaten. But this attitude changed in a single day as a relatively small but confident American force marched through the streets of the iconic city. In his memoir, Pershing described the instant metamorphosis he witnessed:
With only a semblance of military formation, the animated throng pushed its way through avenues of people to the martial strains of the French band and the still more thrilling music of cheering voices.… The humbler folk of Paris seemed to look upon these few hundred of our stalwart fighting men as their real deliverance. Many children dropped on their knees in reverence as the flag with the stars and stripes went by. These stirring scenes conveyed vividly the emotions of a people to whom the outcome of the war had seemed all but hopeless.
The procession crossed the Seine on a bridge leading onto the Place de la Concord and past the site where the Bastille once stood. As Lafayette College professor Albert Hatton Gilmer noted in an unpublished 1940s-era memoir, the parade route was an unplanned homage to Lafayette. It was the marquis who, early in the French Revolution, ordered the hated prison to be razed. It was Lafayette who designed the French flags waving alongside the Stars and Stripes. And it was at his tomb where the procession ended and the speeches began.
France's prime minister spoke first, followed by other dignitaries, including American diplomat Brand Whitlock, before Charles Stanton, the nephew of Abraham Lincoln's secretary of war, rose to address the crowd.
Col. Stanton began by apologizing for his inability "to speak to the good people of France in the beautiful language of their own fair country," a gracious preamble that must have won over the audience (at least those who understood English). This was 10 days before Bastille Day, meaning that it was July 4, an auspicious day for the visitors.
"Today is the anniversary of the birth of the American nation, of a people whose declaration of rights affirms that ‘all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,'" Stanton told the crowd. "It is celebrated at home with joy and thanksgiving, with bonfire and illuminations, because we feel that since our advent into the galaxy of nations, we have borne the part of good citizens, respecting the law and living in the fear of God. We are a people slow to anger but unyielding in the maintenance of our rights and national honor."
In explaining why Americans felt obliged to enter the Great War, Stanton focused on the Kaiser's perfidy and Woodrow Wilson's patience. But he prefaced that rationale with this:
"The fact cannot be forgotten that your nation was our friend when America was struggling for existence, when a handful of brave and patriotic people were determined to uphold the rights their Creator gave them -- that France in the person of Lafayette came to our aid in words and deed. It would be ingratitude not to remember this, and America defaults no obligations."
Stanton then concluded his speech with his famous formulation: "Lafayette, we are here!"
Perhaps it's no surprise, but the emotional crux of the day utterly eluded the New York Times' correspondent on the scene. In a cable to the newspaper's home office, he termed Brand Whitlock's address "a classic," said Pershing "made his usual soldierly address," and described Stanton's speech as "20 minutes of old-fashioned Fourth of July eloquence."
Besides doubling the actual length of Stanton's speech, the Timesman missed the drama.
It is often reported -- and I have written it this way myself -- that Col. Stanton spoke his famous sentence in French: "Lafayette, nous voila!" But I now doubt that. One American present at Lafayette's tomb that day, Boston artist Clara Greenleaf Perry, wrote down her recollections of the day. "I went home and recorded my impressions in a diary kept by me. I am sure Colonel Stanton spoke the words entirely in English.
"I was not far from Colonel Stanton as he spoke and when he said: ‘Lafayette, we are here!' I was thrilled," she added. "The words came like an electric shock. I felt distinctly a quivering of my whole body as though it had been suddenly struck by some powerful force. It was just like a lightning stroke. Many people turned and gazed in amazement at one another for a moment and then burst into applause."
In his own memoir, Professor Gilmer expounded on the ripple effects of Col. Stanton's words:
The well-remembered phrase soon made its way throughout France. It crossed the trenches and "No Man's Land" into French territory occupied by the Germans. A member of an American artillery section, Professor William N. Brigance, of the faculty of Wabash College, Crawfordsville, Indiana, has told me how he found the words current among the subject French people freed by the Allied victory in 1918. In writing of the expression he said: "This short sentence became the password of ‘rapprochement' between France and her new American ally. To the Americans at home it sounded like a soldier's talk. To the French it touched off a Gallic imagination. To those on French soil overrun by Germany -- and to whom it quickly filtered through the German lines -- it brought a new hope and promise. Through the phrase the French learned that the Americans had arrived."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.