It is profoundly fitting that the honor of the first State Dinner of the Biden administration was bestowed this month upon France’s President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte.
During the Revolutionary War, France became the first ally of the United States, an alliance that made the American model of democracy possible. At a time when democratic values are under assault in many parts of the world, now is the perfect opportunity for these leaders to remind the world — and ourselves — of our shared history and values.
At the final major battle of the War of Independence at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781, more soldiers and sailors were French than American. Indeed, more than2,000 French citizens died to make possible the great American experiment of self-government, ultimately unleashing the values of the Enlightenment across the world. General George Washington’s counterpart on the French side — Jean Baptiste Donatien De Vimeur, Comte De Rochambeau — embraced these ideals with his heart and his sword.
The route taken by an American Army of 4,000, a French Army of 5,300, and a French Navy of 7,000 sailors is now the National Park Service’s Washington Rochambeau National Historic Trail, a 680-mile land and water route that winds through nine states and many of our founding cities, including many of Baltimore’s underserved neighborhoods. Other sites are located throughout Maryland.
Trail sites located within the Baltimore City National Heritage Area include Fells Point and the Charles Carroll Estate, the Mount Clare Mansion. It’s hard to envision now, but there were three large encampment sites: one at Camden Yards; a second at the Friends Meeting House on Fayette Street, on the new playground next to the Ronald McDonald Children’s House; and a third on the former site of the Rochambeau Hotel, at Charles and Franklin Streets, now the Pope John Paul II Prayer Garden. This is a historic trail located in many Baltimore neighborhoods that are also deserving of additional investment and attention as we approach the 250th anniversary of our founding in 2026.
Fayette Street is named for the Marquis de Lafayette, Gilbert du Motier. On route to Virginia, he was honored with a grand ball here, during which one of the ladies asked why he was so sad. He replied, “I cannot enjoy the gayety of the scene, while so many of the poor soldiers are in want of clothes.” Continental Quartermaster David Poe Sr. and Elizabeth Cairnes Poe (grandparents of Edgar Allan Poe) spearheaded the effort to turn the ballroom into a seamstress factory the next day. The Poe’s are buried today, with Edgar, at Westminster Hall Cemetery at Greene and Lafayette Streets.
Lafayette also secured a line of credit from the merchants here for $10,000. He never forgot Baltimore’s generosity. During his return tour in 1824-’25 he met with Elizabeth Poe and visited the grave of her husband. He remembered: “Mr. David Poe … of his own very limited means supplied me with $500 to aid in clothing my troops, and whose wife with her own hands, cut out 500 pairs of pantaloons, and superintended the making of them for the use of my men.”
It was on this national historic trail on the March to Yorktown, through experiences such as these, that our common American and French values and history were forged.
En route to Yorktown, the French officers wrote diaries and letters that provide unique perspectives on the role of nonwhite Americans in winning the War. A Prussian officer in the French army, Baron Ludwig Von Closen, wrote that “one quarter” of the Continental Army marching to Yorktown was made up of African Americans, Indigenous Americans and multiracial individuals.
The French and American officers understood they were engaged in one of the most important moments in human history, creating an experiment in self-government on the American continent. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now fully appreciate that they set human civilization on a durable pathway toward freedom, discovery and rising standards of living.
Yet the achievements of the Franco-American alliance cannot be taken for granted. This year both nations were strongly tested in their respective national elections. Just because our system is nearly 250 years old, there is no guarantee self-government will endure. It falls to each generation of American and French citizens to recommit to our ideals and to fortify democratic institutions, as Presidents Biden and Macron did Dec. 1.
Shauntee Daniels (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the executive director of the Baltimore National Heritage Area. Lawrence Abell is the chairman of the National Washington Rochambeau Revolutionary Route Association, which is headquartered here in Baltimore.
Originally posted in The Baltimore Sun.