His full name was Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette, but he is known to history simply as Lafayette – a French aristocrat who was a military leader in the fight for liberty on two continents, and who was known not for embracing the elite but for supporting abolition and equality.
Aurelia Aubert, Ph.D. visiting assistant professor of history at Siena’s McCormick Center for the Study of the American Revolution, studies Lafayette from a historical perspective; her graduate school friend Lorna Bracewell, Ph.D. from a political one. When peaceful demonstrators in Washington D.C.’s Lafayette Square were tear-gassed by police on June 1 so President Trump could walk to a church for a photo op, they decided America needed a lesson about the irony of this attack in a park named for a man who fought for liberty and freedom.
Their joint editorial, “White House barriers show we have forgotten the history behind Lafayette Square,” was published in the Washington Post on June 7.
“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,” the piece reads.
Aubert said Lafayette was very much an advocate for civil rights, unusual among the social and political elite of his time.
Before Aubert leaves her postdoctoral fellowship at Siena at the end of July to head to Denison University in Ohio, she is working with CURCA Summer Scholars (and history majors) Andrea Lurie ’21 and Christopher Estremera ’21, researching Lafayette’s extended visit to America in 1824-25.
“Lafayette was not only a hero of the American Revolution but was a unifying figure in America during a time of growing tensions and political divide,” said Lurie. “He was celebrated by abolitionists, feminists, and indigenous peoples because of his support and dedication to their causes. His legacy of supporting revolutions, inalienable rights, abolitionism, and feminism provides an important link to current events in America: a time of increasing racial and political tensions.”
She and Estremera are honing their research skills by delving into the local history of Albany, Schenectady, Troy, and Poughkeepsie during the time of Lafayette’s visit to upstate New York, including a ball he attended in Albany on September 13, 1824. They are developing a website to feature their findings.
Estremera was impressed with Lafayette’s key roles in both the American and French revolutions.
“He spoke out as an abolitionist when it was not popular among the American or French elite. He was a hero of two worlds, and is known by that nickname,” he said. “Upon his visit to the U.S. in 1824-1825 he didn’t rest on his laurels as a military hero, gloating about his glory days in the war. He instead used this time to support the fight for social justice by using his connections among the elite and interacting with those whom the elite ignored.
"Even 50 years after he helped Americans gain their independence, he continued to be very invested in their freedom. He spoke with everyday people, Native Americans, African Americans, women, and continued his whole life to advocate for liberty and justice among all groups by supporting their efforts and amplifying their voices."