By my count, there have only been three countries (possibly four) that claimed to be founded on ideas—rather than a particular religion, culture, or ethnicity—and which believed these ideas were objective, universal, and needed to be spread across the world.
The first and most obvious is probably the United States, for reasons most of us know.
Coming shortly afterward was France, which in some ways took things even further—mostly because it was going up against a thousand years of entrenched monarchical traditions, in a continent full of hostile monarchies. For example, to this day, the French constitution forbids the government from collecting data on race, religion, or national origin to preserve the idea that all people are equal in their status as citizens (and that citizenship is not contingent on such things).
Finally, there the Soviet Union, which tried to forge an entirely new nonethnic identity (Soviet) based around an entirely new idea (communism), upon a society that had previous been deeply religious, multiethnic, and largely feudal. Soviet ideologues even devised the idea of the “New Soviet Person”—someone defined by traits and virtues that transcended nationality, language, etc. We all know how well that turned out.
Of course, all three countries did not live up their ideals in practice, with the Soviets failing altogether. “True” Americans were (and to many people remain) narrowly idealized as white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, so that even black Protestants or white Catholics were, in different ways, seen as suspect. Both France and the Soviet Union gave greater privileges to white French and Russian speakers, respectively, etc.
But these are still the only countries that had at least the pretense of being universalist and idealist in their national identity (at least to my mind).
(Switzerland comes close, uniting four different ethnic and linguistic groups, and several religious sects, on the basis of a shared alpine identity and a commitment to constitutional federalism. But it never developed anything close to the manifest destiny of the U.S., the French Republic, and Soviet Russia.)
Thanks to the popularity of the musical Hamilton, more Americans are aware of one of the greatest heroes of American history, the French noble Marquis de Lafayette. His legacy on both sides of the Atlantic earned him the moniker of “The Hero of Two Worlds“.
When he was only 18, Lafayette professed that his “heart was dedicated” to the American cause. Just two years later, he paid his own way to cross the Atlantic and offer his services to the Patriots—for free. In fact, the Continental Congress was overwhelmed with French volunteers; while many were motivated by the chance to fight against their hated British rivals, there was genuine support for the American Revolution and its ideals. Lafayette stood out in many ways: he learned English within a year of his arrival (unlike most French volunteers), had won over Benjamin Franklin, and bonded well with George Washington, to whom he was a close advisor. He also had military experience, which the ragtag colonials desperately needed. Perhaps just as importantly, he truly believed in what the Americans were fighting for: while France had over a thousand years of resolute monarchism, it was also a hotbed for the sorts of ideas and discussions that were now being played out for the first time in the Thirteen Colonies.
During the Battle of Brandywine against a superior British force, Lafayette was wounded in action but still managed to organize an orderly retreat, for which Washington commended him and recommended he be given command of American troops. He served with distinction in several more battles in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Rhode Island—of which some sites still bear his name—before sailing back home in 1779 to lobby for more French support for the Americans.The following year, Lafayette returned to a hero’s welcome in Boston, having secured thousands of French troops as well as naval forces and supplies. He was given senior positions in the Continental Army and was so popular among Americans that Washington and Hamilton had him write letters to state officials urging them to send troops. Lafayette was a unifying figure and American icon to the fragmented U.S. states: he was foreign, did not live in the U.S., fought across all theaters of the war, and was motivated by ideology rather than money—all of which made him universally trusted by the bickering, often distrusting states.
In 1781, Lafayette played a pivotal role in the decisive Siege of Yorktown, where troops under his command held off British forces until other American and French forces could position themselves to strike. This victory at Yorktown—which involved almost as many French troops as Americans—helped end the war and secure U.S. independence. (Credit is also due to Frenchmen Comte de Rochambeau and Comte de Grasse, who also coordinated with Washington to secure victory.)
After the war, Lafayette remained committed to the cause of liberty for the rest of his life. He played a pivotal role in the French Revolution, and with Jefferson’s input helped draft the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, one of the earliest and most groundbreaking expressions of republicanism and civil rights. His commitment to human rights was also consistent: he was staunchly opposed to slavery, and joined the French Society of the Friends of the Blacks, which advocated the end of the slave trade and equal rights for blacks. He urged the emancipation of slaves and their establishment as tenant farmers in a 1783 letter to Washington, who was a slave owner (and who declined). A year after his correspondence with Washington, Lafayette helped abolish slavery in his homeland.
Lafayette opposed the later excesses of the French Revolution, and the subsequent rise of Napoleon as emperor; after seizing power, Napoleon offered to make him minister to the United States, but Lafayette firmly refused, as he would have nothing to do with an authoritarian regime. In 1802, he was one of the few to vote against making Napoleon ruler for life. When Napoleon again dangled an enticing opportunity—an appointment to the Senate as well as the Legion of Honor—Lafayette not only declined, but added that he would gladly have accepted the honors from a democratic government. When Jefferson offered him an opportunity to govern the newly purchased Louisiana Territory, he turned it down, wishing to focus on restoring French liberty.
In 1824, Lafayette was invited by James Monroe to visit all 24 states of the Union, in part to celebrate America’s upcoming 50th anniversary. He remained deeply popular, receiving widespread praise and love everywhere he went. He took gifts with him, as well as American soil to be placed on his grave. At President Monroe’s request, Congress voted to give him $200,000 in gratitude for his services to the country, along with a large tract of public lands in Florida. He returned to France aboard a ship renamed the USS Brandywine in honor of the battle where he shed his blood for the United States.As France slipped into absolute monarchy starting in 1830, Lafayette, by then in his seventies, remained consistent in speaking out against anyone who opposed liberty. He even broke with his king, following the latter’s violent suppression of a protest. When he died in 1834 aged 76, he was buried under soil from Bunker Hill, which his son Georges Washington sprinkled upon him.
In the U.S. Lafayette received the same memorial honors that had been bestowed on Washington. Both Houses of Congress were draped in black bunting for 30 days, and members wore mourning badges. Congress even urged Americans to follow similar mourning practices. Later that year, former president John Quincy Adams gave a eulogy of Lafayette that lasted three hours, calling him “high on the list of the pure and disinterested benefactors of mankind”.
Writing in 2011, historian Marc Leepson concluded about Lafayette’s life:
The Marquis de Lafayette was far from perfect. He was sometimes vain, naive, immature, and egocentric. But he consistently stuck to his ideals, even when doing so endangered his life and fortune. Those ideals proved to be the founding principles of two of the world’s most enduring nations, the United States and France. That is a legacy that few military leaders, politicians, or statesmen can match.”
We should consider ourselves lucky to have had a French nobleman embody our cause and values better than even many of our Founding Fathers.
The name comes from a medieval prison where political prisoners were held by the royal government for arbitrary reasons and without a chance to appeal. For over a thousand years, France had maintained one of the world’s most authoritarian and hierarchical regimes, and the last place that ideals such as liberty and civic rights would emerge (the U.S. had the advantage of being a much younger place, and from inheriting the fairly liberal traditions of the U.K., whose monarchy was already weak by the 18th century).
Bastille became a symbol of this oppressive tradition, and hence it was targeted by the people of Paris on July 14, 1789, after they grew fed up with high taxes (that concentrated on the poor) and famine. While only seven prisoners were held in Bastille that day, the revolt was hugely symbolic of liberation of the French public, which continues to be a central part of France’s core ideals—represented by its three-color flag and official motto—of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity for all.
As French officials in the capital cowered before these newly empowered peasants, popular momentum built up into the French Revolution, which took on both the powerful monarchy and literally all of Europe (whose monarchies felt threatened by the fall of their principal kingdom). While the revolution descended into barbarism and bloodshed, and was eventually put down, the ideals that emerged remained in French hearts and minds, precipitating the reemergence of the republic in the late 19th century.
In fact, France’s well known tradition of protests and civil disobedience, which was on full display just a few months ago, can be traced back to this action.
Heck, this year’s Bastille Day was commemorated with officials honors and higher wages for essential workers—following months of agitation and negotiation with unions and workers.
This is par for the course in France, which has about 10 political marches every day.
There is even an “unofficial working manual” for French demonstrations, which is observed by all sides, including the government. (Those who fail to observe these rules are ostracized as casseurs or “smashers”.)
The protesters—who are generally up of a wide variety of folks, including steelworkers, winegrowers, students, lawyers, and chefs—would agree to an itinerary, provide their own security staff, and march on the agreed route. They would throw a few harmless objects police, usually for symbolic purposes; the police would respond, usually halfheartedly, with tear gas or baton charges.
The usual doctrine of French riot police is to stand back and protect the biggest public buildings. Tear gas, rubber bullets, and stun grenades are used to keep the crowds at bay—and on their declared routes. Riot police are trained to act only in groups and only on direct orders; in theory, they have no right of individual action or initiative. They are supposed to aim their nonlethal weapons below the waist and not use stun grenades in densely packed crowds.
Occasionally, more radical protests do emerge, resulting in serious scuffles or brawls; for their part, French riot police are known for lacking deescalation techniques. But overall sentiment underpinning these practices—that demonstrations and popular assembly are core to both political and social culture—remain robust and admirable.
On this day in 1940, French army officer and future president Charles de Gaulle made his “Appeal of 18 June“, where he urged the French to join his army overseas or continue resisting the Nazis at home.
De Gaulle had just arrived in London after the Fall of France. He had a distinguished war record and had long advocated for France to adopt the sort of tactics and weaponry that, ironically, allowed Germany to prevail. He personally led an armored division during the Battle of France, achieving one of the country’s few victories in the month-long fight.
For his efforts, de Gaulle was quickly promoted to Brigadier General and named Under-Secretary of State for National Defence and War. After the French prime minister resigned, Marshal Philippe Pétain, a hero of World War I, became the new Prime Minister, pledging to surrender to Nazi Germany. De Gaulle staunchly opposed any such action and facing imminent arrest, fled France on June 17th; other leading politicians were arrested before they could leave to North Africa to continue the war.
De Gaulle’s appeal is widely considered to have been the start of the French Resistance, which played a significant role in facilitating the invasion of Normandy, providing intelligence and aide to the Allies (including downed pilots), and sabotaging the German war machine. His speech likely inspired the French sentiment, “France has lost a battle, but France has not lost the war”.
The speech is well worth a read in its entirety:
The leaders who, for many years, have been at the head of the French armies have formed a government. This government, alleging the defeat of our armies, has made contact with the enemy in order to stop the fighting. It is true, we were, we are, overwhelmed by the mechanical, ground and air forces of the enemy. Infinitely more than their number, it is the tanks, the aeroplanes, the tactics of the Germans which are causing us to retreat. It was the tanks, the aeroplanes, the tactics of the Germans that surprised our leaders to the point of bringing them to where they are today.
But has the last word been said? Must hope disappear? Is defeat final? No!
Believe me, I who am speaking to you with full knowledge of the facts, and who tell you that nothing is lost for France. The same means that overcame us can bring us victory one day. For France is not alone! She is not alone! She is not alone! She has a vast Empire behind her. She can align with the British Empire that holds the sea and continues the fight. She can, like England, use without limit the immense industry of the United States.
This war is not limited to the unfortunate territory of our country. This war is not over as a result of the Battle of France. This war is a world war. All the mistakes, all the delays, all the suffering, do not alter the fact that there are, in the world, all the means necessary to crush our enemies one day. Vanquished today by mechanical force, in the future we will be able to overcome by a superior mechanical force. The fate of the world depends on it.
I, General de Gaulle, currently in London, invite the officers and the French soldiers who are located in British territory or who might end up here, with their weapons or without their weapons, I invite the engineers and the specialised workers of the armament industries who are located in British territory or who might end up here, to put themselves in contact with me.
Whatever happens, the flame of the French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished. Tomorrow, as today, I will speak on the radio from London.
On this day in 1777, after offering to serve the United States without pay, the Second Continental Congress passed a resolution allowing French nobleman the Marquis de Lafayette to join American revolutionary forces as a major general.
Barely two years before, when he was only 18, Lafayette professed that his “heart was dedicated” to the American cause of liberty—hence his willingness to fight for the Patriots for free, and to even purchase his own ship to cross the Atlantic.
While Congress was overwhelmed with French volunteers,
Lafayette was by far among the most promising. He learned English within a year
of his arrival, had won over Benjamin Franklin, and bounded well with George
Washington, to whom he was a close advisor.
During the Battle of Brandywine against a superior British
force, he was wounded in action but still managed to organize an orderly
retreat, for which Washington commended him and recommended he be given command
of American troops. He served with distinction in several more battles in
Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Rhode Island (some of which bear his name) before
sailing back home in 1779 to lobby more French support.
Lafayette returned a year later to a hero’s welcome in
Boston, having secured thousands of French troops as well as naval forces and
supplies. He was given senior positions in the Continental Army, and was so popular among Americans that
Washington and Hamilton had him write letters to state officials urging them to
In 1781, Lafayette played a pivotal role in the decisive
Siege of Yorktown, where troops under his command in Virginia blocked forces
led by Cornwallis until other American and French forces could position
themselves to strike. This victory—which involved almost as many French as
Americans—is credited with ending the war.
After the war, Lafayette remained committed to the cause of
liberty for the rest of his life. He played a pivotal role in the French
Revolution, with Jefferson’s help contributing to the drafting of the
Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, one of the earliest
republican and civil rights documents in history. He was opposed to slavery,
the murderous excesses of the revolution, and the subsequent autocracy of
Napoleon. He was invited by James Madison to visit all 24 states of the
Union—to which he still received popular praise and love—and he turned down
calls to be the head of France.
Because he was foreign. did not live in the U.S., and fought
across all regions out of ideology rather than money, Lafayette was seen as a
unifying figure and American icon to the fragmented colonies. His legacy in
both sides of the Atlantic earned him the moniker of “The Hero of Two Worlds.”
Last week was the anniversary of the Trent Affair, one of the most interesting scandals in the U.S. Civil War. It began in 1861 when the U.S. Navy illegally intercepted and boarded a British mail ship—in contravention of diplomatic protocol—capturing two Confederate diplomats as “contraband of war”. It was revealed that the envoys were bound for the U.K. and France to seek diplomatic recognition and possibly financial and military support.
As during the American War of Independence, the Confederate States of America (CSA) recognized the value of global legitimacy—and the subsequent aid it could bring—for strengthening their cause both ideologically and practically. Even one year into the war, the Confederates realized that ensuring independence against the more established and powerful Union would likely rest on foreign support—hence their secret mission to get the two leading powers of the day to back them.
Instead, they almost unwittingly caused the next best thing for their interests: another war between the U.K. and the U.S. American public opinion supported the capture of the diplomats and rallied against the British for perceived complicity. The British public disapproved of the violation of their neutrality and international law and viewed the Navy’s actions as an insult to national honor. Both countries clamored for war, with the British demanding an apology and the release of the prisoners; they even took steps to strengthen their military in Canada. The Confederates hoped that the tensions would, at the very least, rapture the “special relationship” between American and Britain, if not boil into war and diplomatic recognition of the CSA.
Unfortunately for them, Abraham Lincoln and his advisers were cool-headed and pragmatic; they recognized the very real risk of war with the U.K. and what a calamity a two-front conflict would be. This was far more important than saving diplomatic face. After several weeks, the crisis was finally resolved when the U.S. government released the two envoys and formally disavowed the actions of the Navy captain responsible—although without the formal apology the British demanded; for their part, they backed down from making this an absolute requirement, and settled for the resolution.
The two Confederate diplomats went on their way to Europe, albeit to no avail: the CSA never got the diplomatic recognition it craved, and that might very well have turned the war to their favor—after all, America’s securing of French recognition and support is what proved most decisive in guaranteeing its victory and subsequent independence.
On this day in 1793, French playwright, journalist, and outspoken feminist Olympe de Gouges was guillotined during the early stages of the Reign of Terror for her revolutionary ideas.
Well ahead of her time both ideologically and professionally, she dared to write plays and publish political pamphlets at a time when women were denied public and political space. Following the publication of a play critical of slavery, she was widely denounced and even threatened for both her anti-slavery stance and her very involvement in the male profession of theatre. Gouges remained defiant, writing “I’m determined to be a success, and I’ll do it in spite of my enemies”. Unfortunately, pressure and outright sabotage from the slavery lobby forced the theatre to abandon her play after just three days.Continue reading →
On this day in 1886, U.S. President Grover Cleveland dedicated the Statue of Liberty, a gift from the people of France commemorating the Declaration of Independence.
The copper statue was designed by French sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi and built by Gustave Eiffel, the namesake of the iconic Eiffel Tower, which he would begin building just a year later. (Not many people can claim to have built world-renowned symbols for two countries!)
The statute was based off on Libertas (Latin for liberty), the Roman goddess of liberty who was created upon the establishment of the Roman Republic, and worshiped as a symbol thereof. Libertas is also the basis for the symbolic characters Columbia, who represents the U.S. and Marianne, who represents France — yet another commonality between the two republics.
Bartholdi was inspired by a French law professor and politician, Edouard Rene de Laboulaye, who in 1865 reportedly said that any monument raised to U.S. independence would properly be a joint project of France and America, given their decisive and pivotal alliance during the Revolutionary War.
Pictured is the Statue of Liberty, circa 1900. (Wikimedia Commons)
Due to instability in France following a war with Prussia, work on the statue did not commence until the early 1870s. In 1875, Laboulaye proposed that France finance the statue while the U.S. provide the site and build the pedestal.
Bartholdi completed the head and the torch-bearing arm before the statue was fully designed, and these pieces were exhibited for publicity; the torch-bearing arm was displayed at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, and in Madison Square Park in Manhattan from 1876 to 1882.
The statue was built in France, shipped overseas in crates, and assembled on the completed pedestal on what was then called Bedloe’s Island (now Liberty Island). The statue’s completion was also marked by New York’s first ticker-tape parade.
Scandals regarding foreign influence in U.S. domestic affairs are nothing new—such an incident occurred within the Founders’ lifetimes. Known as the “Citizen Genet Affair,” it potentially threatened the young republic’s fragile unity and weak national security.
In 1793, French minister Edmond Charles Genet arrived in the U.S. to muster popular support for Revolutionary France against Great Britain and Spain. Rather than go to the capital to meet with President George Washington—as was diplomatic protocol—Genet remained in South Carolina, where he was welcomed with enthusiasm and, with the consent of the governor, began recruiting American volunteers to serve as privateers—i.e. pirates sanctioned by the French government—against the British. To bolster his efforts, he called himself “Citizen Genet” to appeal fellow republicans. Four privateering ships were outfitted in the state’s ports, with many more planned.
When Genet finally arrived in Philadelphia to present his credentials to the U.S. government, he was met with strong opposition. Secretary of State Jefferson, a Francophile sympathetic to the French Revolution, nonetheless informed him that the recruiting of privateers violated U.S. neutrality and could precipitate a crisis. While Genet was busy circumventing the federal government, Washington had issued a “Proclamation of Neutrality” to avoid joining either the French or the British. His administration was concerned that the still-weak U.S. could easily be invaded by one or the other power; moreover, Americans—including the highest officials in government—were bitterly divided between pro-British and pro-French camps.
Not only did Genet threaten this delicate balancing act, but by appealing directly to state officials and the American people, he had also ignored the constitutional requirement that the U.S. President be the focal point of foreign affairs. The privateers he had commissioned were already capturing British ships, and he ignored American warnings and continued garnering support. In a rare show of unity, President Washington, backed by both pro-British Hamilton and pro-French Jefferson, petitioned France to recall Genet.
However, the more extreme revolutionaries had just taken power in France, and Genet’s membership in the more moderate wing meant he would likely be killed. He appealed to the same U.S. government he had flaunted for asylum, and it was none other than Hamilton, his fiercest critic, that convinced Washington to grant him safe haven. Genet lived out the rest of his life more or less quietly in New York.
The U.S. government thereafter made it clear that foreign policy was to remain the purview of the federal government—namely the executive, as set forth in the Constitution—and that no foreign official was to go about influencing the political persuasions of the populace (much less recruiting them for foreign wars).
On this day in 1778, the United States and France signed two treaties – the Treaty of Alliance and the Treaty of Amity and Commerce – that established strong and perpetual military, economic, and political ties. As the Revolutionary War grinded on, the Patriots realized that they needed diplomatic and military support from abroad to succeed. France was the natural choice, as it was a longstanding rival to Great Britain and the only country that rival its power.Continue reading →