These attempts to “dominate” peaceful protesters have garnered widespread condemnation — from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to Trump’s former defense secretary Jim Mattis. For those attuned to the ironies of history, these actions are particularly striking because they so starkly contradict the political values of liberty, equality and popular sovereignty embodied by the man from whom Lafayette Square takes its name.
Lafayette Square, originally known as “President’s Park,” was renamed in 1824 to honor Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette, on the occasion of his grand tour of and final visit to the United States. President James Monroe sought to instill the “spirit of 1776” in a new generation of Americans when he invited the French aristocrat who had abandoned his cushy life of privilege and traveled at his own expense across the Atlantic to fight for liberty in George Washington’s Continental Army.
In the United States, Lafayette is remembered for his decisive contributions to the American Revolution, particularly during the Virginia Campaign of 1781, which culminated in the storied Battle of Yorktown. Fans of the blockbuster musical “Hamilton” will be familiar with these parts of Lafayette’s life story. But after helping America win independence, Lafayette went home and became a key supporter of the common people during the French Revolution. His unflagging commitment to the “rights of man” and his knack for transforming popular unrest into lasting political change made him a legend on both sides of the Atlantic — the “hero of two worlds,” as his nickname has it.
As a thoroughgoing and philosophically consistent republican, Lafayette believed that every man, regardless of race, was entitled to the freedom the American Revolution had been fought to secure. In the 1780s he became internationally involved in the abolitionist movement, joining anti-slavery organizations and exchanging ideas with famous abolitionists in the United States, Britain and France. He even tried to convince his dear friend and brother-in-arms George Washington to join him in his efforts to gradually abolish slavery. Washington politely ignored these overtures.
But Lafayette still took action on the issue. In 1784 he wrote to support the application for freedom of an enslaved Virginian, James Armistead. Armistead had served under Lafayette during the revolution, spying on British Gen. Charles Cornwallis and providing intelligence that led to the patriots’ victory at Yorktown. When he finally won his freedom, Armistead changed his name to James Armistead Lafayette to honor his friend and benefactor. Gen. Lafayette believed that the new United States also ought to belong to black Americans. As he said in a speech to the Virginia House of Delegates, the country ought to give “proofs of its love for the rights of all of humanity, in its entirety.”
When he returned to France, Lafayette remained committed to revolutionary ideals of liberty and equality. Nowhere was this clearer than in October 1789 when, as commander of the French National Guard, he refused to fire upon an angry crowd threatening the head of the government. That fall, in the midst of dizzying social and political change, the price of bread had shot up. Thomas Jefferson, who was the American ambassador in Paris at the time, noted, “We are in danger of hourly insurrection for the want of bread.”
A couple of weeks later the insurrection came, when around 7,000 Parisian market women, armed with brooms, pikes and even cannons obtained from a nearby armory, marched on the king’s palace at Versailles to demand bread. Lafayette and his troops calmly followed the marchers to maintain order. When the crowd swarmed the palace and brutally attacked the royal guardsmen, Lafayette … did not shoot.
In fact, he did everything within his power during this tense and unpredictable episode to ensure a nonviolent resolution, mediating between the forces of revolution: protesters, politicians and soldiers. Most famously, he persuaded the king and queen to appear before the crowd, making themselves vulnerable so that they might directly confront their people’s anger and hear their demands. In that moment, Lafayette became the peacekeeper of Paris, shepherding the revolution through its uncertain and chaotic early days.
So when President Trump called for the violent repression of peaceful protesters demanding the institutional recognition of the value of black lives, he did so in a square named after a man who believed that people with power should listen to those with less, who used his rank and privilege to abate conflict and avoid bloodshed and who fought for equal rights and justice for all, including black Americans. Lafayette was a man who believed that leaders ought to face their citizens as equals and hear out their grievances, not wall themselves off behind increasing layers of fortifications. Quelle trahison (what a betrayal). That the principles Lafayette stood for were so brazenly repudiated in a square named in his honor underscores the depth of the crisis in which the United States is engulfed.
But there is cause for hope. Just on Friday, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser announced that a two-block segment of 16th Street that runs directly into the center of Lafayette Square will now be known as Black Lives Matter Plaza. The new name has been painted in gigantic yellow letters spanning the entire two-block stretch. The mayor made this change, her chief of staff explained via Twitter, “to make it abundantly clear that this is DC’s street and to honor demonstrators who (were) peacefully protesting on Monday evening.” While we cannot know for certain, there is strong historical evidence indicating that Lafayette would be pleased by this development.