In the city of York, Pa., a statue of the Marquis de Lafayette — the famous French major general in the Revolutionary War — smiles wryly. His facial features are overexaggerated; he bears some semblance to a cartoon. One arm is outstretched with a drink in mid-toast.
Made of bronze and wearing a blue-tinted officer's coat with red trim, the marquis could almost be mistaken for a street performer, the kind who are gilt head-to-toe and suddenly come alive. If I could only drop Lafayette a few quarters and make him divulge his secrets, I would.
I had, for a while, been planning to visit the city and soak up its early American history. York, located on the edge of Amish country, was the capital for a brief time in 1777 and 1778 while the Continental Congress met there.
But as I prepared for my trip, the historical minutiae began to fade into the background while a far richer story emerged. It was a tale of abiding friendship, deep loyalty and a toast — mixed with a bit of mystery — and I resolved to get to the bottom of it.
The winter of 1777-1778, when the Continental Congress was stationed in York, was "probably the most unpopular [George] Washington ever was as a public figure," Dan Roe, the vice president of interpretation at the York County History Center, told me. He mentioned this over coffee at the city's Central Market, an imposing Romanesque Revival building that has been used by local farmers for more than 125 years. It offers full breakfasts and lunches as well as fresh produce, meat and baked goods, which would have been more food than Washington and his men could have fathomed while they lived cold, half-naked and starving 75 miles away at Valley Forge.
And that wasn't Washington's only problem.
The British had captured Philadelphia, forcing the Continental Congress to flee to York around the same time that Washington suffered Pennsylvania-based defeats at the battles of Brandywine and Germantown. A much-needed victory came when the ambitious American Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates won the second Battle of Saratoga, a major turning point in the war. However, the optics weren't great for Washington, who was upstaged by his underling. On top of that, Gates had the gall to twist the knife, sending word of his victory directly to the Continental Congress — home to an anti-Washington contingent — over his commander in chief's head.
Historians debate the extent to which delegates and officers were colluding to replace Washington with Gates, but suffice it to say, the behind-the-scenes wrangling and nasty letter-writing by candlelight was out of control.
If York once was notable for its small swarm of officers and congressmen, today it has herds of baby animals. In nearby Mount Wolf, there's Alpacas of York, where 40 long-necked beasts, including a handful of their adolescents, capered about last November when I visited. And at Perrydell Farm Dairy, patrons are encouraged to pet the calves. And don't forget the hogs — motorcycles being built at York's Harley-Davidson factory, where visitors tour an orderly jungle of fenders, gas tanks and frames, all to the cacophony of constantly beeping machinery.
Unlike the animals of York, Washington never had children and Lafayette was about as close to a son as he got. The idealistic 20-year-old, oozing with military ambition and Revolutionary enthusiasm, no doubt reminded Washington of himself.
That's why it's not surprising that one night that winter, at Gates's home in York, in front of a crowd of Washington's detractors — some of whom were thought to be attempting to woo the marquis to their side — Lafayette raised a glass to honor his commander.
"It's been touted as the toast that saved America," said Dara Kane, who led my tour through York's Colonial Complex, a cluster of ancient downtown buildings, including a re-creation of the courthouse where Congress met and the Gates House, where the Saratoga hero lived that winter. The Lafayette statue stands out front.
"The deep silence then grew deeper. None dared refuse the toast, but some merely raised their glasses to their lips, while others cautiously put them down untasted," Lafayette recounted in his memoir, according to a 1907 history of York County. With that, he had signaled to Washington's detractors where his loyalties lie and shamed them for backstabbing their commander.
The Continental Congress's nine months in York were heady: The delegates adopted the Articles of Confederation and France signed an alliance, joining the war. These are facts which have been heavily documented. But as it would turn out, Lafayette's toast was not.
As Roe explained, none of the other men recorded the toast, and Lafayette only mentioned it in a memoir published after his death. Even more apocryphal, the story didn't gain traction until the 1800s and only then in local historiography and lore. So did it happen?
As Kane said: "You'll have to decide on that on your own."
After the turmoil of forming a nation, citizens of York County spent later years engaged in lighter pursuits, like the 1940s shoe salesman in Hellam Township who built a house in the shape of a giant work boot, which today doubles as an ice-cream parlor.
During my time in York, I happened to cross paths with a French documentary crew, which I assumed was filming something like the curious, nearby Haines Shoe House or perhaps the Lafayette statue. As it would turn out, they were filming a family that had moved to York from Uganda.
If the tale of the York toast is one of friendship, it's also a story of the struggle to build a lasting and prosperous nation. I wondered whether Washington and his shoeless men at Valley Forge ever fathomed that there would be a giant boot near York or that people would travel from such far-flung places to get to the country they were fighting to create. It made me smile as I imagined Lafayette raising his glass.
Milfeld is a writer based in the District and Atlanta. Find her on Twitter: @GWcallsShotgun.
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