Lafayette Square

Lafayette Square

(Photo credit: Lafayette statue, Lafayette Square, Washington, DC, courtesy jpellgen, Flickr Creative Commons)

If you’re visiting Washington, DC and find yourself standing at the southern edge of Lafayette Square, chances are you’re there to get a good view of the White House, just across Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s about as close as you can get these days without going through a security screening. The park is a pleasant, landscaped public green space near the very heart of the U.S. Government. It also contains some rather interesting and surprising statuary.

If you can tear your gaze away from the executive mansion for a few minutes, you might find it worth your while to take a look at the five statues that adorn Lafayette Square. They’re an interesting bunch, and they tell a story. The big one in the middle is of Andrew Jackson on his horse. Jackson was one of the country’s most famous presidents. But if you’re like I was the first time I set foot there, you might be wondering why, if there’s a dirty great statue of Jackson at the center of this space, it isn’t called Jackson Square. 

That brings me to the four statues planted at each corner of the park. The men memorialized by these statues were never presidents. None of them signed the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. None of them were in America in 1776. None of them spoke English as a first language. In fact, none of them were even born in the American colonies and only one ended up living in the United States till his death. These are men who came to America from overseas as adults to fight for the Patriot cause. But that still makes them foreigners. Why do they have big impressive statues next to the White House?

The biggest clue to answering that question lies in the name given to the square. It was originally known as “Presidents’ Park” but in 1824 was renamed Lafayette Park after a certain Marquis de Lafayette. Most Americans today are probably at least vaguely aware of the name, but it’s hard for us now to fathom Lafayette’s popularity in this country in the early Republic era. As a young man he had served ably and honorably alongside Washington, both as an aide and as a military leader. Back home in France he had worked tirelessly lobbying on behalf of the Revolutionary cause, and he remained a friend of America always.

Lafayette’s standing in America was further cemented almost half a century after his first arrival on these shores. In 1824 he returned to United States at the invitation of President James Monroe for a grand tour that lasted more than a year. He visited towns and cities in every one of the 24 states then in the union. His visit coincided with a particular moment in American history. As is often the case, when a generation associated with a time of national struggle—such as the Civil War or World War II—is approaching old age or death, a wave of celebratory nostalgia sweeps over the nation, as younger folks wish to remember and celebrate that generation’s collective sacrifice. Lafayette’s return came at just such a moment. For young Americans in 1824, most of whom had no memory of the long War of Independence, Lafayette’s name and his role in the war were well known. So the sight of the still-sprightly 67-year-old Frenchman in their hometown would have been a memorable sight in an age before mass media or photography—it was a direct, physical link to the celebrated founders. Thus Lafayette was met with a hero’s welcome everywhere he went.

Lafayette’s grand tour also led to towns and streets and public spaces all over the United States being named after the Frenchman. In Washington, the Lafayette Square renaming took place during his first visit to the city in 1824, when he was received by President Monroe, himself a rare example of a bona fide Founding Father who remained in robust health into the 1820s.

Although the square carried the name Lafayette from then on, it contained no actual memorial to the man, and wouldn’t do so until the closing years of the 19th century. In the meantime, the Jackson Monument Association got the jump on Lafayette by having an impressive equestrian monument to their man, President Andrew Jackson, placed at the heart of Lafayette Square in 1853. It depicts “Old Hickory” on a rearing horse just prior to the Battle of New Orleans—the military victory that made his reputation and propelled him to the White House. By the time of the statue’s dedication America seemed more concerned about rising sectional strife than in commemorating the founders. It took another 38 years for Lafayette to get his statue in the square that bears his name.

In 1890 the federal government finally commissioned a sculpture to commemorate the French general, at a cost to the nation of $50,000. Of course, the prime spot in the square had already been taken by Jackson, so Lafayette was relegated to one of the corners—on the southeast. It’s an impressive monument nevertheless, standing 25 feet high with its base. It depicts Lafayette not in battle but in civilian garb, speaking to the French National Assembly in his effort to secure its assistance for the American cause. It’s interesting that this is how America wished to remember Lafayette. He was an impressive military commander in his own right, but perhaps his greatest contribution to the Patriot cause occurred when he returned to France in 1779 and used his position to lobby vigorously for the Americans. (He later returned to America and resumed military command, playing a significant role in the Southern campaign that led to the British capitulation at Yorktown.)

Lafayette’s statue was the only occupant of a corner of the square for another 12 years. Then, in 1902 he was joined on the southwest corner by a memorial to Major General Comte Jean de Rochambeau. Rochambeau was the commander of the French forces in America that allied with Washington’s Continentals to secure the victory at Yorktown. His sculpture depicts him at Yorktown, with a plan of battle in his left hand and his right arm raised, hand pointing to the British lines. The French force Rochambeau led had been secured in part with the assistance of Lafayette’s lobbying efforts, so there’s a nice symmetry to having the army commander’s statue stand across the square from that of his other, more famous fellow countryman. In fact, Rochambeau gets two bites at the Lafayette Square cherry: He’s also depicted as one of the figures at the base of the Lafayette statue, along with the other army and navy commanders of the French expeditionary force.

In 1910 two more statues were placed at the north end of the square, and both of these also commemorated foreign-born patriots. A monument to Major General Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben took the northwest corner, while one to Thaddeus Kosciuszko was placed to the northeast. Von Steuben was the famously foul-mouthed Prussian officer who drilled the rag-tag Continental Army at Valley Forge and turned them into a professional military force that could match the British army. Kosciuszko was a first-class architect and engineer whose military fortifications were indispensable to the Patriot cause. He also became a celebrated freedom fighter in his native Poland. The addition of these last two statues rounded out Lafayette Square, which was subsequently relandscaped in the 1930s to give it more or less the look it has today.

I think it’s interesting that the American-born Andrew Jackson, who usurped the prime location in a square named after a foreigner, should end up being surrounded by four foreigners, all of whom had little in common except their actions in defense of the American Revolution. Maybe Lafayette had the last laugh after all.

One more thing worth mentioning. I’ve described the four individuals whose memorials adorn the corners of the square as foreigners, but that’s not completely true. Although Lafayette and Rochambeau were never granted U.S. citizenship, von Steuben and Kosciuszko did become citizens. However, only Von Steuben lived out his days in the United States.

Sources:

Art Inventories Catalog. Smithsonian Institution Research Information System (SIRIS). Available at http://siris-artinventories.si.edu/ipac20/ipac.jsp?profile=

Lafayette Square Historic District. National Park Service. Available at http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/wash/dc30.htm

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