The Lafayette Trail — Following America's Favorite Frenchman

Episode Summary

It's a noble thing to follow in the footsteps of your hero, and Julien Icher has taken this notion a step further. His nonprofit, the Lafayette Trail, retraces the 1824-1825 Farewell Tour of famed Franco-American hero General Lafayette. Julien is a French geographer and historian who is fascinated by the Marquis' visit that united the U.S. during a trying time. An advocate of Franco-American history and friendship, Julien is forming relationships across the U.S. by placing commemorative markers in towns that hosted Lafayette and bringing to light Lafayette's profound influence in American history. Listen to learn more about Icher's journey and America's favorite Frenchman.

Episode Transcription

Andrea FORT  0:10   From the Embassy of France in United States, this is Francofiles, a podcast where we explore the unique relationship between France and the US. My name is Andrea and I will be your host. Marquis de Lafayette, a name you're surely familiar with. Whether you know about the revolutionary war hero, heard his name on Hamilton, or seen Lafayette written on public spaces, schools, universities in the United States. America is Lafayette's biggest fan. Today we explore one of our oldest allies, the fame behind his name, and a young geographer who has led a national covering of Lafayette's farewell tour of 1824. Literally following in his footsteps is Julian Icher, president of the Lafayette trail incorporated and heritage keeper of Lafayette's most nationally cherished and famed last visits in America. I'm honored to have you with us today.

Julien ICHER  1:06  
Thanks, Andrea. Good to be with you.

Andrea FORT  1:08  
So Julien, in 2017, you arrived at the consulate in Boston as a French geographer tasked with mapping Marquis de Lafayette presence in New England. Today, you are the president of a major and growing organization destined to raise awareness about Lafayette's contribution to the founding of the United States. As an expert of Lafayette's legacy, what is it about Marquis de Lafayette that continues to fascinate America?

Julien ICHER  1:36  
Well, that's such a great question Andrea. Actually, there's a combination of parameters here to consider. I think what's key to the fascination of Americans still to this day with Lafayette is the fact that he was very wealthy, he got a lot of money when he was very young, in France. And he decided to pour into his resources in the service of an idea. And not only that, but he also bled for this idea, he bled at the Battle of Brandywine, September 11 1777, to secure the independence of the United States. So you have this monetary contribution. And obviously, this military actions, his military contributions, battles early during the Revolutionary War, I think helped create this image that he still enjoys to stay in the United States. Now, of course, along the way, he befriended a lot of founding fathers, he came to be known as the friend of George Washington, and he came several times in this country. That's the thing that, to me, his key is the longevity of his life in America, and my nonprofit focuses on the last visit of Lafayette in the United States in 1824, at a time when a presidential election was threatening the union of the country, 1824. And he was traveling around the country, welcoming newer states, the newest state at the time, to the national family. And those new states needed, I would say, a major figure to claim, to show, to demonstrate that they were just as American as everybody else on the east coast. So you have the military legacy that Lafayette contributed to the United States during the Revolutionary War. But you also have later on other, I would saymore moral contributions to this country, that Lafayette did whether it's defense of universal rights, confronting the founding fathers about the usage of slavery, this all builds to having a picture of a man French born Lafayette, that actually is celebrated for much more than military achievements, but also for his personal belief in what the United States would become, could become, and what he did with actions documented with primary source materials throughout his life in service of the national interest.

Andrea FORT  4:02  
It is recognizable that Lafayette had a profound friendship, relationship, bond if you want with the U.S, including with what you were saying with the founding fathers, and it has been phenomenal to see just to what extent he really became in some ways, a Franco American citizen.

Julien ICHER  4:23  
I would say that if you look at the United States today, you will see that there are a lot of towns, counties, streets named after him. And this is not an accident. They're named after Lafayette. They're not named after Rochambeau. They're not named after De Grasse. They're named after Lafayette. And there's a reason for that. And because he had in common that he served militarily, although, as I said at the beginning, his contribution was made alongside, as part actually, of the Continental Army, he was fighting with the Americans. But he played a role in securing the official military alliance of the French government in 1778. And I think that this is key because Americans recognize to this day actually the risks, the Lafayette took, personally, pouring his own money into an idea, going against public orders preventing French men and women from attempting any actions that could benefit potentially the British, he did all that nevertheless. So we argue at the Lafayette Trail that he was strongly influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, and that this idea that he could create a revolutionary political system in North America that could benefit the entirety of mankind was really what was motivating him behind the scenes. And as I said, if you look around the United States, you will see everywhere, physically, the legacy that he left behind, whether it's celebrated locally, at the state level, or by the federal government, you will see that it's actually very vivid. People feel very strongly about it. And personally, I feel like it is to be built upon in order to forge the future of our bilateral relation with the United States and France. Definitely.

Andrea FORT  6:28  
I've heard you've traveled more than 15,000 miles from Vermont to Louisiana, in search of preserving of honoring Lafayette's legacy and marking his farewell tour. I want to know more about that. I mean, I'm curious, what was the moment where you decided that it was important? I mean, you've made it obvious now. But you know, when was it when you said to yourself, I need to put this project into action,

Julien ICHER  6:51  
I would say this was in during my time as a junior diplomat in Boston at the consulate. I feel like when I did complete to research for the New England states that are under the jurisdiction of the consule of France, in Boston, and I saw the outpouring of nice messages and, you know, nice comments and encouragement from Americans in French in North America. I said to myself, why would you limit this to only New England, because, I mean, I had read everything about the tour by now of course, and I knew that the tour of Lafayette encompassed the entire country with which was back then 24 states, so as you said, all the way from Maine to Louisiana. And I said to myself, let's go for it, you got to try to create a structure in which the entire country that existed at the time could benefit from your efforts. And the idea that I could potentially help forge a lasting memory of Lafayette and shrine that local, state and federal levels for the years to come as a personal contribution to Franco American relations, was really what motivated me very strongly. Because I feel like Lafayette is known everywhere in this country, but not necessarily for his last visit in 1824. As I said many times, he's known more for the military achievements, the fact that he bled at Brandywine, the fact that he led with Alexander Hamilton, the siege of Yorktown and the assault on redoubt n°10, on Yorktown. I feel like those are why Lafayette is known. But to me, this does not do justice, just to emphasize the military achievements during the Revolutionary War, and just does not do justice to what Lafayette's legacy has as a potential. So I want to make the most of it. And my idea was to create a unified structure that could actually be used to raise awareness in the United States at all layers of government.

Andrea FORT  8:48  
I can tell you put a lot of passion and work into this project that is now an organization. And I want to know, you know, you've talked a little bit about the reactions that you've had from people. But I also know that you have visited schools, you've talked to youth, what's the kind of feedback that you get from the different communities? And also, you know, what kind of feedback do you get from your French colleagues, from friends or people back in France?

Julien ICHER  9:14  
Well, the feedback is 99% of the time, if not all the time, super positive. People in this country love Lafayette. Whether it is because of Hamilton or because they already knew about him because they had read about him somewhere in their classes when they were younger, whatever the reason, there's a passion about Lafayette. And because of that, people are always very excited, super excited to see a young French man here trying to make this story alive and bring more attention, national spotlight, to it with an upcoming major milestone, the bicentennial of Lafayette store in 2024 and also the 200 and 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence that's coming also very soon in 2026. So, Everywhere I go, because I mean, I've traveled dozens of 1000s of miles around the country by now. And I'm always met with an outpouring of support, people want to show me around the oldest Tavern in town where Lafayette, you know, might have stayed, or there's a little bit of local lore here and there, but you know what, it doesn't matter, actually, because I know what I do with my nonprofit, I know that we strongly vet people and their science in order to have historic markers placed official or feature markers, but I give value to the local lore, I feel like the local lore is here to create an interest in Lafayette. So to me, this is a value of local lore. And then later on, when we come in with our methodology to get those markers placed and read the data that they give us, or that I found myself doing the research, this is another conversation. But to me, it's very important that Americans in their community keep telling stories about Lafayette, because this is  how passion lives. This is how hearsay makes a story go from a grandmother to the granddaughter, I go very often to school, you know, schools in the country. Last time I was there in New Hampshire was before COVID, obviously, in person, and I really enjoyed talking to the kids, I mean, on our website, Lafayette, we have all those resources, digital resources that people can use to learn more about Lafayette and, you know, his legacy and his tour give more contextual info but the tour of 1824. But in terms of the kids, the mapping programs that we have on the website are super popular. With the younger generation, I'll tell you why it's very simple. Younger people today, they want to have fun before they can learn something like they want to use those maps, and have fun playing with them. So that's what I aim for. When I go see a class, I want to have a good time talking about Lafayette with the kids and their teacher. And when I leave, I hope that they will remember a couple things and they will trigger some thoughts about bigger ideas than just Lafayette and why he's so popular, but what it means to celebrate him for this country what what his values are and to what extent they they are a source of inspiration for the nation as it revisits the legacy of the founding generation. I think those are all good points to consider. If you want to try to have a very interesting conversation that has an impact with kids in particular,

Andrea FORT  12:29  
You know, as I hear you as Julien, I mean, I see a little bit of machi Lafayette in you. I mean, you are already following his footsteps, you moved to another country, you're chasing down your dream, you're talking to people, you're trying to influence and in some way, give value to something that is so important. Something that is a founding piece of, like you said, our allyship our friendship. So now that your organization is growing. Where are you right now? I mean, how many markers do you have of the Lafayette tray on itself? And how many are left? I mean, what are the next steps?

Julien ICHER  13:09  
Well, so far, we're about to get our 25th marker approved and shipped. So you know, we definitely have momentum right now to be honest, people conduct us now can we get a market please? What do we do we need to do, what's the process? So we're very grateful to have amazing partners in that operation. You know, the William G. Pomeroy foundation is an amazing partner. We also have great friends in the American friends of Lafayette, the Daughters of the American Revolution and many more. So what do we have in mind? Many things. Number one, keep placing these markers. God, I tell you what, it's not just placing a pole on the ground. Okay, you have a lot of legal matters to consider. You got to contact the landowner. You know, sometimes people don't even know they live in a house that was visited by Lafayette 20 years ago. You have to tell him the story. Now in terms of what we have in mind, also, I want to make sure people know more about the abolitionist angle of Lafayette legacy. This is a country right now the United States. It's revisiting very actively its founding period. And what I tried to do with the Lafayette trail is bring a new angle to the conversation and say, Lafayette was friends with all these people. The Founding Fathers. And he challenged him very early, you know, he wrote to George Washington in 1783. Will you follow me to create this revolutionary plantation in South America to show the United States that we do not need slavery to have a economically sustainable process? I want to show you, you know, George Washington, what to do with gradual emancipation. He tried to have that conversation. And for a whole variety of reasons George Washington was not ready then to follow Lafayette, but we do have this data. This data exists and it allows me as I travel the country to talk to Americans and tell them that this man Lafayette variable In the history of this country before the Constitution of the United States was even a thing he did, he did things he took actions to improve the conditions of Native Americans, African Americans. And later on during the tour of 1824, that issue of slavery was still not solved. So, you know, he was walking a tough line, because he was the guest of the nation, and he could not offend his hosts, especially in southern states that relied too heavily on slavery. And he was able to give a sense of, I should say, give attention to the black community that sometimes cities forbade from attending receptions with Lafayette in town. So that angle it's got to be discussed more, and we strive to do that. So we have these conversations, you know, I show up and I talk to people and I say, this is what Lafayette stood for. So when you see something that's not consistent with his values, do something about it, because you know, a wrong message can have dramatic consequences. We need to story out, we need people to know more about what he did, and people to look back at the period of American history, the early republican revolutionary war with a new angle saying that people like Lafayette, already push abolitionist agendas already back then and that you don't need to look further in US history to find something reconciling like that you can actually look back to the 1780s. And you find in Lafayette, that abolitionist voices are not a later outgrowth of the country, but there really is as a nation itself.

Andrea FORT  16:32  
Thank you, Julian, for sharing this. You know, like you said, Lafayette is definitely America's favorite French men. But that is definitely something that I think has been under the radar, you know, Lafayette's abolitionist views. And I'm happy to hear that you are able to bring that into light, especially, you know, in circumstances that these discussions needs to be had.

Julien ICHER  16:55  
Yeah, I should say we have a lot of resources on our website about that. And I should also give information about what we do. We have a membership program for the Lafayette trail in which we have a newsletter. We have academic contributions, we share the data that supports every single marker that we placed around the country. And of course, there are all those emails that we send about dedication ceremonies around the country. I mean, you can get emails about something going on in Vermont and Louisiana the next day. I mean, it's really the scope that we have. So I would invite people to consider joining the Lafayette trails members to be part of that effort. Because again, it is a grassroots movement that we're creating around the country. And obviously, we would appreciate your support we can have as well as we develop and prepare for the Bicentennial celebrations in 2024. alongside our good friends of the American friends of Lafayette

Andrea FORT  17:46  
Francophiles, make sure to visit Lew Lafayette trail incorporated online. And if you yourself have adventured on the Lafayette trail, let us know send in your photos or anecdotes. I know that Julian and I would be really happy to know about your experience. Thank you so much. Thank you.

Julien ICHER  18:01  
Thank you so much for having me. Andrea, good to talk to you.

Andrea FORT  18:06  
As always, thank you for listening to Francophiles. If you've enjoyed this episode, subscribe and review us and make sure to drop us a comment about what makes you a Francophile. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram at Francophilepod and visit our website for more information and more stories about French American culture, check out our partner magazine. Stay tuned Francophiles, and until next time, à bientôt.