Lafayette and the American Flag: The Fourth of July Ceremony

thumb image

“Lafayette, we are here!”

Those words are often attributed to U.S. General John Pershing when, on July 4, 1917, having arrived in France with the American Expeditionary Force upon the U.S. entrance into WWI, he visited Lafayette’s tomb at Picpus Cemetery in Paris. They were actually spoken by Pershing’s aide, Colonel Charles E. Stanton, but no matter, the Americans had indeed arrived to pay homage to the French hero of the American Revolution.

They still do.

In permanent recognition of his role in aiding the American cause, an American flag has flown over Lafayette’s grave ever since the end of WWI. The flag is changed every year on July 4 in a highly orchestrated ceremony attended by French and American dignitaries, including representatives of the U.S. Embassy, the French Senate, the Mayor’s Office, the Office of the Mayor of the 12th Arrondissement, the Society of American Friends of Lafayette, the Sons of the American Revolution in France, and theSociety of the Cincinnati in France.

Watch France Revisited’s audio slide-show of the Fourth of July Ceremony below.

Lafayette and revolution
The life of the Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834), and by consequence his tomb and the flag that flies there, are among enduring symbols of the mutual engagement of France and the United States in times of trouble. Known as “the hero of two worlds” or “the patriot of two countries,” the general-marquis speaks of the best of French-American relations.

Lafayette served the American cause on both sides of the Atlantic—as a nobleman promoting lobbying Louis XVI for arms and money and as an officer fighting alongside George Washington. In 1776, when only 19, he went overseas, befriended Washington and fought on the forefront of the American War of Independence. A decade later he was involved in the politics of his own country in the throes of revolution. He eventually gave Thomas Paine the key to the Bastille for him to present to Washington.

With the French Revolution underway, the marquis favored transforming the ancien régime into a modern democracy through a bloodless revolution that would likely bring about a constitutional monarchy. While in favor of the abolition of feudal privilege he also sought to defend the king.

He served as a commander in the Revolutionary Army in 1792, but sensing that his position as a moderate and as a nobleman was untenable he fled to Belgium. There he was immediately imprisoned by the Prussians and Austrians who considered him dangerous as an anti-monarchist. The United States failed—or at least was unable—to help win his release and he spent the next five years in prison despite his having earlier been made an honorary citizen of Virginia and Maryland. In 2002 the U.S. Congress named Lafayette an honorary U.S. citizen, only the fifth person to have received that honor. (The full text of that resolution follows this article.)

Returning to France under Napoleon’s rule, Lafayette again entered political life, and he lived long enough to play a role in yet another revolution, the overthrow of Charles X in 1830.

July 4, changing of the American flag at Lafayette's Tomb, Picpus Cemetery, Paris
Annual Fourth of July ceremony for the changing of the American flag at Lafayette’s Tomb, Picpus Cemetery, Paris, Photo GLKraut

Why Picpus Cemetery?
Picpus Cemetery, where Lafayette is buried, is adjacent to the area where two mass graves were dug in the summer of 1794 to dispose of the remains of the 1306 people who were beheaded several hundred yards away during the Revolution, at the height of the period known as the Terror.

The main venue for the guillotine was on what is now Place de la Concorde, where throngs witnessed the most spectacular beheadings, from that from Louis XVI on Jan. 21, 1793, to that of Robespierre on July 28, 1794. From June 14 to July 27, 1794, a guillotine was also set up on the eastern edge of Paris at Place du Trône (Throne), then sardonically called Place du Trône Renversé (Overturned Throne), now called Place de la Nation,

Two years later, in calmer times, the land was purchased by a noblewoman, and in the early 1800s some of the noble families whose relatives had been guillotined began to use land adjacent to the mass graves as a family cemetery. Lafayette’s wife (1859-1807), who’d lost her grandmother, mother, and sister to the guillotine, was one of the founding members of the Committee of the Society of Picpus, which is why she and her husband, who died of natural causes on May 20, 1834, are buried here.

Lafayette’s full, forgettable name, by the way, is Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert Motier, Marquis de La Fayette or Lafayette. French purists may insist on the aristocratic form La Fayette, but the tomb itself indicates Lafayette.

Picpus is the only private cemetery in Paris, overseen by the Foundation de l’Oratoire du Cimetière de Picpus, however it is open to the public, though the July 4 ceremony is by invitation only.

The cemetery is located behind the oratory (chapel) Notre-Dame de la Paix, seat of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. The names of the 1306 people who were beheaded nearby in the summer of 1794 are engraved on two walls of the oratory. The oratory takes its name from an 11-inch statue dating to the 16th century whose annual feast day is July 9. Louis XIV is said to have been miraculously cured from illness on that date in 1658 after praying to the statue.

Cimetière de Picpus, 35 rue de Picpus, 12th arr. Metro Nation or Picpus. Tel. 01 43 44 18 54. Open April 1 – Oct. 15 Tues.-Sun. 2-6pm; Oct. 16 – March 30 Tues.-Sat. 2-4pm. Also closed holidays throughout the year. Entrance fee: 3 euros.

© 2009, Gary Lee Kraut

Read this accompanying article on France Revisited:
My Dear General: The Relationship Between Washington and Lafayette

Text of the 2002 Joint Resolution of the Congress conferring honorary citizenship of the U.S. to the Marquis de Lafayette

Public Law 107–209
107th Congress
Joint Resolution

Conferring honorary citizenship of the United States posthumously on Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette.
Whereas the United States has conferred honorary citizenship on four other occasions in more than 200 years of its independence, and honorary citizenship is and should remain an extraordinary honor not lightly conferred nor frequently granted;
Whereas Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette or General Lafayette, voluntarily put forth his own money and risked his life for the freedom of Americans;
Whereas the Marquis de Lafayette, by an Act of Congress, was voted to the rank of Major General;
Whereas, during the Revolutionary War, General Lafayette was wounded at the Battle of Brandywine, demonstrating bravery that forever endeared him to the American soldiers;
Whereas the Marquis de Lafayette secured the help of France to aid the United States’ colonists against Great Britain;
Whereas the Marquis de Lafayette was conferred the honor of honorary citizenship by the Commonwealth of Virginia and the State of Maryland;
Whereas the Marquis de Lafayette was the first foreign dignitary to address Congress, an honor which was accorded to him upon his return to the United States in 1824;
Whereas, upon his death, both the House of Representatives and the Senate draped their chambers in black as a demonstration of respect and gratitude for his contribution to the independence of the United States;
Whereas an American flag has flown over his grave in France since his death and has not been removed, even while France was occupied by Nazi Germany during World War II; and
Whereas the Marquis de Lafayette gave aid to the United States
in her time of need and is forever a symbol of freedom:
Now, therefore, be it
Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette, is proclaimed posthumously to be an honorary citizen of the United States of America.
Approved August 6, 2002.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here