By Rudolph Cusumano
Assisted by Peter W. Brunner
The Marquis de Lafayette, a brilliant soldier-statesman, sounded a wake-up call to the American nation. His theme? The sacred walls of a long forgotten historic site: the State House, now Independence Hall.
It all began when President James Monroe, who had served under the command of the 20-year-old General Gilbert Motier de Lafayette at Valley Forge during the War of Independence, invited the now aging Frenchman to America as the Nation’s Guest. This event was planned to honor Lafayette in a farewell tour of the United States, an overdue last chance to thank the Marquis for his valuable military and diplomatic services in a war against a tax hungry nation, Great Britain.
Lafayette arrived in America on August 15,1824, and left almost thirteen months later on September 9, 1825. In addition to other personnel, he was accompanied with his only son, George Washington Lafayette, now in his forties and a veteran of the Napoleonic wars.
During his visit to the city of Philadelphia from September 28 until October 6, 1824, this charismatic soldier-statesman took the city by storm. He electrified everyone in the crowds especially the mayor and members of the city council. The State House, which had been neglected and in need of repair, suddenly became an inspiration to his audience the moment the legendary figure delivered a speech crafted with significant observations about America, its model government, the Declaration of Independence, and his military idol, George Washington. As a pleasant consequence, the State House, “Within these sacred walls,” would become America’s most important historic site and renamed Independence Hall, and the Liberty Bell would become the nation’s most important symbol of freedom, a perfect complement to the American flag.
For anyone to understand Lafayette’s powerful impact on American history, a brief account of the State House and Lafayette’s wartime achievement in his defense of Philadelphia will show why this military hero has been revered so much by Americans.
Nine years before Lafayette’s visit, the governor of Pennsylvania authorized the county commissioners of the city of Philadelphia to take control of the State House. Because the American capital had moved to Washington, D.C., by 1800, the building was empty except for occasional use during elections and as a courthouse. It had generated no historic interest.
The following year in 1816, the state legislature needed money to build a new capitol in Harrisburg. The lawmakers planned to put the building and adjacent square on the auction block including the Liberty Bell! However, they gave the Philadelphia commissioners an option to purchase the entire area for 70,000 collars. Its assessed value was 150,000 dollars. Unable to refuse this real estate offer, the city officials bought and legally took possession of the entire property on March 23, 1818.
Between the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783 and the year 1818, the State House was simply regarded by Philadelphians as just another old building. There were no plans whatsoever or any serious thoughts about preserving the building as an historic shrine prior to Lafayette’s visit. But because of the Frenchman’s tour in all twenty-four states, his speeches included constant references to America’s greatness as a world leader in liberty, democracy, and human rights. And now his speech, one of the most important in the annals of American history, celebrated the value of the State House.
Just who was this energizer, soldier-diplomat called a military prodigy by a German Revolutionary War hero, Johann de Kalb? He was the youngest general in American military history who had a vision that if America could win its independence from Great Britain, then this American model of republican government might work for the citizens of France, most of whom were struggling under an oppressive monarchy. He believed that if taxation without representation was tyranny for the American citizens, it was no less tyrannical for French men and women. He would therefore volunteer his services without pay and put his life on the line for a cause by serving his apprenticeship under the command of an American general who would become one of the greatest military strategists of all time: General George Washington. Lafayette desperately wanted social, political, economic, and religious reform in France, and he would stop at nothing to achieve his goal. General Washington gave his favorite and most loyal foreign officer that opportunity to serve the American cause on September 11, 1777 at the Battle of Brandywine.
Washington’s plan at Brandywine was to have the American forces make their stand against a large British army and prevent it from invading and occupying Philadelphia, the American capital city.
Great Britain’s finest troops and their German allies had Washington and his troops out-numbered, out-gunned, and almost completely surrounded. A cry of panic went up among many troops in the American regiments. An unruly retreat caught the eye of Lafayette who cantered and jockeyed his horse for and opening to charge into action. Riding like a centaur, the 20-year-old Frenchman galloped into the fray of battle against elite grenadiers and infantry regiments. As British muskets blazed away and their intimidating bayonets unleashed to sustain further havoc, Lafayette halted the retreat, yelled words of encouragement to his men, and held his ground against the enemy onslaught. Shot in the leg and severely wounded, the young lion dismounted his horse and ordered a counterattack. Unfortunately, the superior tactical skills of the British sent Washington and his entire army into a withdrawal toward Chester. The British went on to occupy Philadelphia on September 26.
Moreover, the Americans knew that he was one of the wealthiest aristocrats in France who left behind a young wife and child and therefore had everything to lose including his own life. Here he was spilling his blood a world away from his homeland in the defense of the city of Philadelphia. And the fact that this young warrior preferred to share the harshness and dangers of military camp life with them rather than to live the life of splendor and elegance at Paris and Versailles impressed the Americans deeply. They saw all this as compelling evidence of his sincerity to fight for the freedoms and liberties that America stood for. Consequently, the Frenchman’s popularity skyrocketed and never wavered throughout the remainder of the war.
Nor did it seem to waver forty-seven years after that battle as the sixty-seven-year-old war-horse toured each state of the Union. He was received with tumultuous swarms wherever he went resulting in an astounding tour do force by a foreign dignitary which has no parallel or equal in American history even to this day.
When the Philadelphia officials learned about the banquets, speeches, parades, and pageantry in Lafayette’s honor in other states, they wanted to give him the best reception of all because of his close bond with Philadelphia since Brandywine. Now almost half a century later on September 28, 1824 he was leading a grand parade to the State House while surrounded by a frenzied crowd of twenty thousand. They cheered this celebrated visionary with the intensity of a modern day rock star.
According to Marc H. Miller’s essay “Lafeyette’s Farewell Tour and American Art” published in Lafayette, Hero of Two Worlds by the Queens Museum, 1989, the crowds included civic organizations such as the German American Beneficial Society, Printers, Farmers, Waggoners, Butchers, Umbrella Makers, Ship Carpenters, Coopers, Young Men of the City, and Young Mechanics all of whom made banners and floats. Furthermore, an impressive one-hundred-cannon salute thundered away followed by the peeling strokes of the Liberty Bell. Philadelphia had indeed become the City of Brotherly Love to the Marquis de Lafayette.
The State House had been cleaned and redecorated for the reception ceremony. Veterans of the War of Independence who fought with the young Lafayette tearfully embraced their hero as he descended from his carriage. When the honored guest walked over the threshold of the building, he was overcome with nostalgic memories among which was that 31st day of July, 1777, when Congress awarded him the commission of Major General in the American Continental Army. He was only nineteen at that time.
Touring the building with his hosts, Lafayette reminisced further about the various rooms among which was the Assembly Room of the Hall of Independence where the Declaration of Independence was signed. He knew also that it was the same room where the United States Constitution was debated and signed. He had used both documents as his blueprints for democratic reforms in France when he became a leader of yet another rebellion, the French Revolution of 1789.
Lafayette’s defining moment arrived when he was introduced to the audience gathered in the Hall of Independence. He then proceeded to deliver a speech which was a powerful summation of the symbolic importance of the State House as disclosed by Professor Lloyd S. Kramer in his 1996 biography on the Frenchman, Lafayette in two Worlds,
“Within these sacred walls, by a council of wise and devoted patriots, and in a style worthy of the deed itself, was boldly declared the independence of these vast United States, which …has begun, for the civilized world, the era of a new and of the only true social order founded on the Unalienable rights of man, the practicability and advantages of which are every day admirably demonstrated by the happiness and prosperity of your populous city. Here…was planned the formation of our virtuous, brave, and revolutionary army, and the providential inspiration received, that gave command to our beloved matchless Washington.”
The moment the speech ended was the moment the State House and the Liberty Bell were saved from historic oblivion, for it was the right speech given by the right person at the right place. Indeed, a brilliant stroke of timing and oratory. Now the direction of the future of the State House was reversed. It would soon become an important project of restoration and honor–a symbolic treasure of American history as Professor Kramer adds,
“The symbolic significance of the building offered Lafayette the ideal context to summarize the historical significance of America’s revolution.”
Not long after Lafayette’s delivery, patriotism embraced a new meaning now that it had two of the most potent symbols never before taken seriously: the State House with its Hall of Independence and the Liberty Bell with its Biblical verse engraved from Leviticus, “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” In addition, Revolutionary War relics like muskets, artillery pieces, cannon malls, pistols, bayonets, uniforms, and swords suddenly became priceless possessions. The age of collecting and preserving American antiques had begun.
Clear evidence of Lafayette’s influence on the direction of American history was published by the American Philosophical Society in its Historic Philadelphia 1952 edition as it refers to the State House:
“…but in that year of the visit of the Marquis de Lafayette to Philadelphia awakened an interest in the building which, with the exception of brief periods of backsliding, has persisted to this day.”
And, as Arthur H. Frazier states in his account of Lafayette’s powerful influence published in the July 1974 issue of The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography,
“It took a return visit from the aging General Lafayette in 1824 to bring about an abrupt and dramatic reversal of the nation’s apathy toward its history.”
On February 28, 1828, architect William Strickland began the first of the restoration projects of the State House in order to reinstate it to its original appearance. On December 9, 1830, a committee of city council members planned the restoration of the Hall of Independence as it appeared on July 4, 1776.
The idea that the State House should become a patriotic shrine was expressed by the famous orator of his time, Edward Everett, in a speech he gave on July 4, 1858.
During the 1890’s The Daughters of the American Revolution skillfully carried out one of the most extensive restorations of Independence Hall. Its wings and arcades were restructured like those of its original 1776 appearance. This was a great leap toward the looks of the building as it exists today.
One could safely assume, therefore, that if the Marquis de Lafayette had not the vision to craft such a momentous speech at the Hall of Independence, the course of American history would be quite different. The State House could have been the target of a demolition crew in order to make way for townhouse or apartment developments. Or the building could have been gutted consequently destroying the status of Independence Hall. These were some of the original ideas already discussed among the city officials years before Lafayette’s visit. The result would have been a disaster, for Independence Hall and its entire mall area would not exist today. For instance, according to the publication Historic Philadelphia,
“The old wings, and the committee room, were demolished to be replaced by ‘modern’ office buildings designed by the architect Robert Mills.”
On March 24, 1812, the state government gave the Philadelphia City officials the authority to begin tearing down parts of the Sate House. Additionally, the Liberty Bell could have been converted to scrap metal, melted and recast into another form.
Furthermore, there were no alliances such as the National Register of Historic Places or the Philadelphia Historical Commission during Lafayette’s era to prevent the senseless desecration’s of important historic sites in America. Except, of course, that Lafayette acted unofficially, yet wisely, in the capacity of these organizations when the text of his extraordinary speech provided the redemption for Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell.
Unfortunately, General Lafayette’s major position in the war has been unfairly omitted by authors of American history textbooks and classroom teachers of all levels of instruction. (Indeed, no mention about Lafayette’s tactical brilliance during the Virginia campaign when he trapped and pinned down British General Cornwallis thereby assuring General Washington’s victory over the British at Yorktown.) Yet all Americans owe this great figure a debt of gratitude for his six years of service and his reminder about these “sacred walls” of Independence Hall.
However, we can regain our national sense of justice and fairness by putting the Marquis de Lafayette back where he always belonged—in the vanguard of American history. Let this, then, be our response to his clarion call to action as we prepare for a “new millennium” in this, “land of the free and the home of the brave”, the greatest nation on Earth!