M. Jacques de Trentinian's Presentation at Yorktown, Virginia, 19 October 2004


I am honoured and pleased to speak to you on behalf of the president of the Society in France of the Sons of the American Revolution, Hélie de Noailles, the duc d'Ayen, whose direct ancestor, vicomte de Noailles was Lafayette's brother in law and, as a colonel in the French Royal Army took an active part in the battle here at Yorktown.

I hope you will forgive my pidgin English. My excuse is its two advantages: one my French companions here can all understand this kind of English and I am sure you will nevertheless guess what comes from the depth of my heart, and two, no translation will be necessary, so saving time which I'm sure you will appreciate even if the rain is more indulgent for me than for my predecessors on this tribune.

We are here to commemorate an exceptional event and to celebrate personalities. But as I see many children among us today, perhaps we should answer some questions for them.

What made this such an 'exceptional event'?

Of course, much has been said about the extraordinary conjunction of initiatives which made this victory possible. Naval and land forces, American and French armies; the ability of their remarkable chiefs -- Washington, Rochambeau, de Grasse -- to combine their respective forces and personal capacities.

But you know how children are. They will ask : "How is it possible that capturing a small army of 7,000 men, half of them German mercenaries or starving slaves, with a general who had voted against a military intervention (as was the case of Lord Cornwallis before the war began)?. How is it possible, this was sufficient to decide powerful Britain accepting American independence ?

And yes, had it happened one year even a few months earlier, Yorktown victory would not have had the same impact. It would have been a disagreeable blow to the British pride, but the troops (one fifth of the 35,000 soldiers presents on September 1781 in America; 44,000 including Canada) would soon have been replaced by some of the 64,000 on foot in South-Britain.

But when the news of this defeat has been known in London, many other unfavourable events had simultaneously happened. The worldwide war a small Britain of eleven million people had to sustain against powerful France of twenty eight million was having effects everywhere. Minorca had been conquered in the Mediterranean; Gibraltar was assaulted; one by one, the rich and profitable sugar islands of the West Indies were invaded by the French forces, whose naval superiority was now prevailing; British convoys were hailed in higher percentages; the lucrative slaves trade had been refrained by the capture of the Senegal counters two years before; naval squadrons had to be sent in India where the French were helping Hyder Ali's fight for independence against the UK. Massive forces were retained in the south of England and at sea to prevent any landing of the French regiments which were gathered on the other side of the Channel.

The war had become an unbearable financial burden. Britain had to yield and Yorktown made her accept entering negotiations about the Colonies' independence.

We are here also to celebrate personalities and, very specially this year, Général Marquis de Lafayette, when this ceremony is organized by the Friends of Lafayette, and this is soon after this Frenchman has been made one of the very few honorary citizens of the United States.

Here again, children will raise questions: why Lafayette ?

And indeed why Lafayette ? Was he really in the chain of political and strategic decisions that lead to the Alliance and therefore the Independence ? Is not it also considered by many this idealist has even been disastrous for his own country at the time of the French Revolution, when he was no more under the coaching of his adoptive father, George Washington ?

The main chain of French decisions leading to success included: Beaumarchais, Vergennes, and King Louis XVI.

Beaumarchais, who, as a diplomat in London and after conversations with Arthur Lee, pointed out insistently to his Foreign Minister and even to the King himself time had come when initiatives should be taken in America.

Then the the wise Vergennes, the French Foreign Minister, whose policy was not, as is often written, a martial thirst of revenge, but the will to re-establish a normal balance of powers in the World, as opposed to the excessive British hegemony at sea and who managed to promote a league of neutrality in Europe, so depriving the UK, the only time in four centuries to organize a reverse alliance against her powerful rival.

The ultimate decider was young King Louis XVI -- he was only three years older than Lafayette. He was the one who chose the moment and made the decision to enter into an alliance with the thirteen colonies, when he had brought his naval forces at a proper level and was prepared to give the necessary concessions so that his Spanish cousin -- who would not acknowledge independence of revolted colonies -- would accept to enter in an alliance with France in a war where Spain was to prove a precious ally.

Such was the chain of decision.

Lafayette's merits have to be found somewhere else.

Not only has he been a very intrepid combatant, a very efficient guerrilla general, specially in his Virginia campaign,

we must not forget that here, at Yorktown, he was commanding one third of the Continental army and even every three days he was in charge of the entire American army as they were rotating between himself, general Lincoln and another European officer, baron de Steuben, who had been dispatched to America by a French Government initiative.

He was also very active promoting French interventions in the War.

But above all, it is for his personal commitment Lafayette deserves being honored: his enthusiasm for the promotion of the human rights, his constant dedication to the values you find written on the front wall of all 3,5000 town-halls of even the smallest cities in France - Liberty, Equality and Fraternity -

America could not forget his constant love for the United States, which he had shown throughout his life and was so vividly expressed at the occasion of his triumphal journey here in 1824-25.

Yes, indeed, for all these reasons, Lafayette deserved being distinguished for all these qualities. Everybody in France feels honored by the citizenship of the USA, given to this man who bore so many qualities we like to promote by this distinction. Lafayette shows us the way these two unique nations who feel they have a universal vocation.

France and United States, these two unique nations feeling they have a universal vocation to promote and spread values in which they believe, must follow this example while contributing together to implement more widely than ever, liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Long life to the eternal French and American friendship and cooperation !

God bless America, vive la France !


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page posted 9 November 2004; last edited 26 October 2014.