The 20th century celebrates the International Brigades that fought in Spain even though the cause they fought for betrayed them. But the lives of the Marquis de Lafayette, Casimir Pulaski, Friedrich von Steuben, Tadeusz Kościuszko and John Paul Jones are a reminder of an far more successful group of expatriates who were drawn across the Atlantic to the greatest political event of their day. John Adams described the goals of 1776 as “objects of the most stupendous magnitude … in which the lives and liberties of millions yet unborn are intimately interested….” Unlike the doomed men of the 1930s, the internationals of the American revolution have given that enterprise, whose goals are far more universal than the ambitions of Stalin or Hitler, an impetus that persists to this day.
They were a disparate, polyglot group of men. If it was a world still ruled by kings, it was not yet one in which passports counted for much. The passport was we know it originated in the early 20th century. The British passport of 1914 “consisted of a single page, folded into eight and held together with a cardboard cover. It was valid for two years and, as well as a photograph and signature, featured a personal description, including details such as ‘shape of face’, ‘complexion’ and ‘features’. The entry on this last category might read something like: ‘Forehead: broad. Nose: large. Eyes: small.’ The 20th century could not conceive of a ‘transnational world’ except in terms of governments lashed together by blanket treaties. But in the 18th century the boundaries described by ideas seemed far more compelling than lines drawn on a map.
The Marquis de Lafayette, active in both the US and French revolutions is arguably the only person who ever lived that is both a natural born and honorary citizen of the United States. When in 2002, Congress voted to make Lafayette an honorary Citizen of the United States they did so despite assertions by some historians that since Lafayette was already a citizen of Maryland (1785) and of New York City (1784) before the adoption of the Constitution, he was a natural born US Citizen at the formation of the new ‘United States’.
Lafayette served as a Major General in the US Army, and fought in seven battles, including the siege of Yorktown. He was but one of a number of Europeans who in the words of Casimir Pulaski “came here, where freedom is being defended, to serve it, and to live or die for it.” It was an extraordinary declaration and probably uttered in perfect seriousness. Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben of Prussia given the job of devising a training program for the new army did not let his ignorance of English stand in his way of giving the trainees a good cussing out. Balked at expressing himself, he enlisted the services of an aide.
He trained the soldiers, who at this point were greatly lacking in proper clothing themselves, in full military dress uniform, swearing and yelling at them up and down in German and French. When that was no longer successful, he recruited Captain Benjamin Walker, his French-speaking aide, to curse at them for him in English.
If Lafayette could be said to have straddled two worlds and two revolutions, Tadeusz Kościuszko doubled the number. “A national hero in Poland, Lithuania, the United States and Belarus. He led the 1794 Kościuszko Uprising against Imperial Russia and the Kingdom of Prussia as Supreme Commander of the National Armed Force” This was after he had fought as a Brigadier General in the Revolutionary War. His fame reached as far as Australia. The highest mountain the great southern continent is named after him.
Of course no mention of Europeans in the Revolutionary War should exclude John Paul Jones. Born in Scotland, Jones has the distinction of both having founded the US Navy and serving as a flag officer in the Russian Navy while a US citizen. Both Jones and the Marquis de Lafayette died in France and the manner of their burial is of some interest. Jones’ remains were lost to historians until they were identified by the detective work of the US Ambassador to France in the early 20th century. His coffin was disinterred with great ceremony and removed to the US Naval Academy where his sarcophagus remains to this day.
Jones’s body was ceremonially removed from interment in a Parisian charnel house and brought to the United States aboard the USS Brooklyn, escorted by three other cruisers. On approaching the American coastline, seven U.S. Navy battleships joined the procession escorting Jones’s body back to America. On April 24, 1906, Jones’s coffin was installed in Bancroft Hall at the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, following a ceremony in Dahlgren Hall, presided over by President Theodore Roosevelt who gave a lengthy tributary speech
As for the Marquis, his grave is known. He lies buried beside his wife in private cemetery for victims of the Terror. Andrew Jackson on receiving news of his death ordered the same funerary honors for Lafayette as George Washington and John Adams received. Twenty four gun salutes were fired, flags flew at half mast for thirty-five days, and military officers wore badges of mourning for six months. A thin layer of earth from Bunker Hill covers Lafayette’s grave and every Fourth of July the American flag that flies over his tomb is ceremonially renewed lest it be tattered. Yet the national tokens cannot fully capture the essence of these men. They were citizens of a universal country and the flags they fought under — indeed the nations which they helped establish — were but examples of a place to which no passport was needed to enter. Today it is customary to think of One World in terms of a planet girdled by a single giant bureaucracy. Those strange Europeans remind us that another kind of universal brotherhood was once possible; and were we large enough to grasp it, might still be again.