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How did we get here? Part 9

Lead Summary
By Jim Thompson
HCP columnist

I last left you with Thomas Jefferson in bucolic Virginia. We now need to go across the Atlantic Ocean and visit with a few French folks.

First up is Marquis de Lafayette, born in 1757, 14 years after Thomas Jefferson. He was commissioned as an officer in the French military at the ripe old age of 13. A fan of the American Revolution, he was instrumental in France supporting the colonists and was a key figure in the colonists’ ability to win the war.

He helped write the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” with the help of Thomas Jefferson. He was commander in chief of the French National Guard after the storming of the Bastille. Although imprisoned by the revolutionaries, he escaped the guillotine during the French Revolution and was released.

Lafayette later embarked on a grand tour of the United States at the invitation of President James Monroe and in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Independence Day. Little known, during this trip, he was on board the steamboat “Mechanic” that sank at Tell City, Ind. He was rescued and continued with his journey, visiting Andrew Jackson, Niagara Falls and many other people and points of interest in those days.

He strongly believed in democratic principles and in later life refused to join the administrations of French governments he perceived as autocratic, including that of Napoleon Bonaparte, which we will discuss shortly.

You will find many towns and villages in the United States named with one of the many spellings of Lafayette. He has been often recognized as a friend of our nascent country when it had few friends beyond its shores. Lafayette died of natural causes in 1834.

• Maximilien Robespierre (1758-94) was an outspoken defender of individual rights, the abolition of slavery and a defender of direct democracy. Robespierre was a member of the “Committee of Public Safety” during the French Revolution and signed arrest warrants for over 500 individuals in the spring and summer of 1794, most of whom went to the guillotine, during the height of the Reign of Terror.

Matters turned on him, and he himself faced the guillotine on July 28, 1794, a short life of only 36 years. Robespierre is still considered controversial and is heavily researched and studied to this day.

• The French Revolution (1789-99) left the country ripe for a dynamic and bombastic leader, the Corsican Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821). Napoleon, as everyone still knows him – even school children – was a descendant of Italian nobility, not even a Frenchman.

Napoleon managed to tromp all over Europe, not unlike Hitler 130 years later. Like Hitler, his overreach was his downfall, especially his attempt to seize Russia in 1812 (a lesson Hitler needed to learn – no one has ever defeated Russia when approaching it from the west).

Today, Napoleon’s attempt to conquer Russia has been made famous in the graphical map produced by Charles Joseph Minard depicting Napoleon’s march to Moscow and retreat. This is covered in Edward R. Tufte’s “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information” on Page 41.

Jim Thompson, formerly of Marshall, is a graduate of Hillsboro High School and the University of Cincinnati. He resides in Duluth, Ga. and is a columnist for The Highland County Press. He may be reached at

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