Your RDA of Irony

Valet Forge

The Marquis de La Fayette knew that there was more to life than just the minuet and syphilis. Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert Du Motier–as he was known to his friends–wanted to help the American colonists in their heroic struggle for liberty, so long as he could be a major general. However, 19 year-olds were rarely granted that rank–even in an army where competence was irrelevant. Generals usually invested years of fawning sycophancy over some royal dolt or his favorite mistress.

But America was a land of opportunities for the ambitious teenager. He simply had to find the right official to bribe. Of the American emissaries, Arthur Lee was inconveniently ethical. Benjamin Franklin was skeptical although he might have been willing to let Madame Lafayette persuade him. (If historians had to choose”The Father of Our Country“, Franklin would be named in the paternity suit.) However, Silas Deane had an open mind and hand.

Deane was an operator. When the French government wanted to covertly supply the Americans with arms and money, Deane handled the smuggling and the money-laundering. A man with such entrepreneurial skills might be expected to have a few lucrative sidelines. So, if a rich teenager wanted to be a major general, it was just matter of paperwork. The Continental Congress had not given him that authority, but Deane was never one to be stymied by legality. On this day in 1776, Deane conferred on Lafayette the rank of major general.

Of course, the Continental Congress was somewhat surprised when a French teenager arrived in Philadephia and expected command of an army. The Congress was starting to catch on to Deane’s sidelines; it seems that he had issued a number of questionable commissions. Deane was recalled from Paris in November, 1777 and tried for financial irregularities. However, he was too clever to be convicted.

As for Lafayette, he could not be taken seriously but he proved a very likable young man. Congress did not have the heart to be rude. As long as he agreed not to be paid and stayed under the adult supervision of George Washington, Lafayette would be allowed the title of major general. The young marquis could feel like a hero, and George Washington got the world’s fanciest valet.

  1. Hal Gordon says:

    May a speechwriter point out that Lafayette’s finest moment may have been as a speaker, on an occasion that hardly anyone remembers today. In 1815, after the Battle of Waterloo, Lafayette was a member of the Chamber of Deputies. The question before the house was whether the French nation would continue to back Napoleon, or demand his abdication. Napoleon’s brother Lucien, a fine orator himself, made a fiery speech in which he said it would be base ingratitude for the French nation to abandon its Emperor at a time of crisis. It was Lafayette who rose to make this crushing reply: “What? You dare to reproach us for not having done enough for your brother! Have you forgotten that the bones of our brothers and our sons bear witness everywhere to our loyalty? In the sandy deserts of Africa, on the banks of the Guadalquivir and the Tagus, beside the Vistula and on the icy plains of Russia, during the last ten or twelve years three million Frenchmen have perished for the sake of this one man! For a man who toay still wishes us to shed our blood fighting against Europe. We have done enough for him; our duty is to save our country.” The speech was greeted with thunderous applause. As the echoes died away, Lafayette said that if Napoleon would not abdicate, he would propose his deposition. And with that, Napoleon threw in the towel.

  2. And we should give credit to Lafayette’s speechwriter: Sam Culotte. Ironically, Monsieur Culotte happened to be a Bonapartist but free-lance writers take work wherever they can.

  3. It should also be noted that the French deputies denounced the United States for failing to have troops at Waterloo. “Where were Andrew Jackson and Davey Crockett when we needed them?”

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