Opinion: Trump needs a history lesson: ‘America First’ requires allies

A portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette
A portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette at the New York Historical Society in New York City.
(Don Emmert / AFP/Getty Images )

President Trump, it’s clear, lacks the gifts of earlier U.S. presidents — say, FDR or George H.W. Bush — at forging international alliances. He pals around with autocrats and U.S. adversaries and squanders the goodwill of America’s most loyal friends.

Consider Trump’s initial cordiality with Emmanuel Macron. It dissolved as the U.S. president’s “America First” unilateralism alienated his French counterpart. Sitting side by side at NATO’s 70th anniversary celebration in London early this month, Macron and Trump were a study in chilly body language: “Tense,” said the BBC; a relationship in “deterioration on live television,” lamented the New York Times.

In the balance hangs the Franco-American alliance, the oldest in American history. Its origins stretch back to the infancy of the improbable republic declared in 1776 by disaffected British colonists in North America. Even before that year’s Declaration of Independence, France had secretly provided supplies to the insurgent Continental Army.


That assistance had little to do with the promotion of Enlightenment-era values such as liberty and republican government. Rather, the kingdom of France was seeking revenge. Still smarting from its recent defeat by Britain in the Seven Years’ War, the Bourbon court at Versailles saw in the American Revolution an opportunity to contribute to the defeat of a traditional enemy.

And yet it wasn’t geopolitics alone that forged the connection. Just as personal ties among leaders secure, or threaten, our alliances today, the Franco-American bond was advanced by friendship — notably, relationships between three Founding Fathers and a wealthy, high-born volunteer officer from France: Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette.

Without the mutual trust cultivated between Lafayette and successively George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, the American experiment might have ended in military defeat or failed in its quest for economic autonomy during its early years as a republic. The countless U.S. towns, streets, parks and schools bearing Lafayette’s name commemorate his role in forging that Franco-American alliance.

Lafayette was just 19 years old when he arrived in America. A patriot agent in Paris had promised him a commission as major general in Gen. Washington’s army. Lafayette was wealthy enough to buy a ship to transport himself across the Atlantic, but when he presented himself to Washington in 1777, he’d never been in battle.

The commander in chief, aware of the marquis’ influence and connections in France as well as his inexperience, accepted Lafayette’s commission but refused him an actual command. Over time, however, the young officer, wounded at the Battle of Brandywine, won Washington’s confidence and leadership of a division of the Continental Army.

Lafayette quickly became a symbol of Franco-American cooperation and a powerful advocate in his home country of the expansion of those links. French assistance to the U.S. war effort, formalized in the Treaty of Alliance in 1778, eventually led to the mass deployment of French troops and its navy, and substantial loans. That assistance — negotiated in Paris by a U.S. delegation led by Ambassador Benjamin Franklin — proved decisive in the American victory.


Indeed, at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, a Franco-American force of more than 15,000 soldiers and sailors — including Lafayette — forced the surrender of the army of Gen. Charles Cornwallis, Britain’s chief commander, effectively ending the war.

Earlier that year, Washington had dispatched Lafayette to defend Virginia. He arrived just in time to spare the governor — a beleaguered 38-year-old Thomas Jefferson — the embarrassment of a second enemy raid on the state capital, Richmond, in a period of four months.

After Yorktown, Lafayette returned to France a war hero and a committed republican. Franklin, still in his ambassador’s role but infirm, came to depend on the young officer as a surrogate in his diplomatic dealings with the French court. The Continental Congress later also sent Jefferson to Paris as an envoy (he would replace Franklin as ambassador), and between 1784 and 1789, Lafayette paved Jefferson’s way in Parisian society and at the palace at Versailles.

The neophyte American diplomat was 14 years older than Lafayette, but the two shared similar backgrounds: Jefferson’s native soil lay in Virginia’s rural Piedmont. Lafayette hailed from the Auvergne, a mountainous region in south-central France that, even today, ranks among that country’s least populated areas. Both men were provincial aristocrats; neither was ever entirely comfortable amid the urbane precincts of their national capitals.

During Jefferson’s Paris years, in letters to Philadelphia he and Lafayette each warned of the inadequacies of America’s governing document, the Articles of Confederation. That pact had created such a weak national state that European leaders were hesitant to enter into commercial treaties with the fledgling republic. The Jefferson-Lafayette chorus from Paris strengthened the case of domestic leaders arguing for a stronger system of government, and the creation of the U.S. Constitution.

At the same time, Lafayette was plunging into the politics of his own country, serving in successive French national assemblies. Jefferson provided his friend with sound republican counsel, even serving as a sounding board as Lafayette drafted what became the French Revolution’s signature document, the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

A frail Jefferson delivered his final public speech at a dinner in Virginia in 1824 honoring Lafayette: “When I was stationed in his country for the purpose of cementing its friendship with ours, and of advancing our mutual interests,” he said, “this friend of both, was my most powerful auxiliary and advocate.... All doors of all departments were open to him at all times. In truth, I only held the nail, he drove it.”

These men had their differences, and the Franco-American connection from the beginning faced challenges. But the Founders understood their republic would not succeed without allies. May Trump learn from their example, and reset the friendship that forged America’s longest alliance.

Tom Chaffin’s latest book is “Revolutionary Brothers: Thomas Jefferson, the Marquis de Lafayette, and the Friendship that Helped Forge Two Nations.” Twitter: @chaffintom