Over this past weekend I caught many references to the storied phrase “Lafayette, we are here” on my twitter feed and the radio, so many that I woke up on Monday morning with it ringing in my ears! I can appreciate the American-Lafayette connection, after all I live right next to Hamilton Hall, where a “Lafayette Room” memorializes the Marquis’s visit to Salem in 1824 and walk to work on Lafayette Street every day, but I wasn’t quite sure about the complete context of the phrase. I think I always assumed that General John. J. Pershing uttered it when he arrived in France with the first American forces in the summer of 1917, but it was actually one of his aides, Colonel Charles E. Stanton, when both he and Pershing visited Lafayette’s tomb after a triumphant parade through the streets of Paris on July 4, 1917. Apparently the Colonel was much more eloquent than the General, and often called to come up with appropriate remarks, though he was very humble about this role during and well after the war. You can easily understand Stanton’s inspiration when you consider other contemporary American references to Lafayette: a Lafayette U.S. dollar minted in 1899, the work of the Lafayette Memorial Commission which was charged with raising funds for the installation of a Lafayette statue at the Paris World’s Fair in 1900, the Lafayette Fund established in 1914 to aid France once the war began, and of course the famous Lafayette Escadrille with its daring American volunteer flyers. With the predominant mood of isolationism in the U.S. prior (and even after) 1914, entry into this European war had to be justified by an American interest–and “paying back” Lafayette became one. Either Stanton’s words really struck a chord in 1917, or the government promoted this sentiment to increase popular support for the war. Maybe a bit of both?
Washington-Pershing song sheet, 1917, Cornell University; the story of Stanton’s phrase in the New York Times, January 18, 1931; “Lafayette, We are Here” poster, Lafayette University; the progress of the war from the American-Lafayette perspective in song sheets from the Library of Congress; below, post-war Washington-Lafayette-Handkerchief from the Boston Athenaeum exhibition: Over There: World War One Posters from Around the World.