Remarks at the Gala Dinner Commemorating the 235th Anniversary of the Marquis de Lafayette's Voyage to the United States

Antony J. Blinken
Deputy Secretary of State
Mount Vernon
Mount Vernon, VA
June 9, 2015

(In French.) Madam Minister, to you, to Christophe Navarre, Barbara Lucas and the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, Ambassador Araud and the citizens of France, thank you for this wonderful evening, for sponsoring this incredible event. And what an evening this is. What a gathering. We have leaders from government and business, members of the U.S. Congress and French parliament, social and cultural icons, champagne and scotch drinkers. What more could we ask for?

Secretary Kerry sends his profound regrets at not being with us this evening. He very much wanted to be here; after all, the combination of Mount Vernon, Lafayette, the Potomac in June is almost impossible to resist, especially for someone like the Secretary, who cherishes our shared history and heritage.

He may be off his feet for a short while, but I want to assure you, he’s very much in the lead of all of our efforts across the board and across the globe. In fact, our smartest move at the State Department recently was signing up for the AT&T family telephone plan – (laughter) – because the Secretary has been burning up the phone lines, night and day. No time zone is safe. And we’re all looking forward to having him back in the office very, very soon.

Tonight is not the moment for a detailed discussion of politics or policy. Tonight, the arrival of the rebuilt Hermione to the United States is reason for celebration and also for reflection. We celebrate, as you already heard, a friendship that began on a personal level between a formidable Virginian who had no son of his own and a strong-willed French aristocrat who was only two when his father died in battle.

From the moment Lafayette first volunteered for the Continental Army, George Washington and the Marquis were mutual admirers and comrades in arms. The patriotic writer Thomas Paine reminds us that Lafayette grew up young and rich in a country that Paine described – and I quote – as “the lap of sensual pleasure.” He went on, how few there are “who would exchange such a scene for the -- wildernesses of America, and pass the flowery years of youth in unprofitable danger and hardship.”

And yet that is exactly what Lafayette did. He saw his first action on 9/11 – 9/11/1777 in the Battle of Brandywine, and he spent the winter with General Washington and his ragged troops in the frozen darkness of Valley Forge. Later, he commanded hit and run operations against the traitor Benedict Arnold and played a key role in the decisive Siege of Yorktown.

In between, he crossed the Atlantic where he persuaded his government to commit troops and equipment to the rebel cause, a vital diplomatic mission from which Lafayette returned in triumph on the three-masted Frigate of Freedom, the Hermione, behind us tonight, or at least its replica.

From one vantage point, the diplomacy of the American Revolution was just part of the ongoing rivalry among Europe’s great powers, and certainly, the maneuvering for global assets and influence was important. But, as Lafayette observed during his time here, the American Revolution was about something more than economic and political advantage. The authors of that revolution had certain ideas about the rights of the individual and the proper balance of power between the governor and the governed. They had ideas about religious liberty and the right to speak one’s mind openly and without fear.

These ideas were not conceived on this side of the Atlantic. In fact, they had been imported from Europe. But it was in America that they were first translated into a system of government. And it wasn’t long before those ideas migrated back across the pond and became the basis for alliances and friendships that exist to this very day.

The reappearance of the Hermione along the coast of North America is an opportunity for all of us to reflect on what our countries mean to one another. The bond between Washington and Lafayette was but the opening chapter.

During America’s War Between the States, Frenchmen served in New York’s famed international regiment, making common cause in the battle against slavery. In 1917, when American troops arrived in France to join the allied front, General Pershing’s aide, Colonel Stanton, spoke at the hero’s tomb. “Lafayette,” he said, “we are here” – nous sommes la. In World War II, U.S. and French troops fought village by village to reclaim Europe from the greatest evil the world has known. And seventy years later, we stand together in opposing the greatest evil the world now knows.

More than two centuries have elapsed since the revolutionary defeat of tyranny, yet we are confronted today by groups that despise freedom, acknowledge no law, and violate every civilized standard of human rights. These terrorists claim to act in the name of God, but if that were true, there would be nothing left on Earth for the Devil to do. Our determined fight against ISIL – or Daesh – al-Qaida, and their ilk, is but one of many arenas in which the solidarity – or fraternite – between the United States and its oldest ally continues to be demonstrated.

Next December, as the minister said, the world will convene in Paris with a mandate to curb the greenhouse gas emissions that threaten our planet’s survival. We’re partners in defending the sovereignty of Ukraine against aggression conceived and directed by Moscow. We are working together to mend the ripped social fabric of the Middle East, to restore stability in Libya, to assist peacekeeping operations in Africa, and to fight disease and build prosperity around the globe. And, as I’ve mentioned, we have entered the final stages of a multilateral diplomatic effort to block Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon – to do so peacefully, verifiably, and for years to come.

As we know, Lafayette’s motto was “Cur Non?” “Why Not?” I expect that same question was asked by those who first thought of building a replica of the Hermione. It was a question that must have been asked by George Washington and his compatriots as they contemplated their epic break with the mother country. And it was certainly a question asked and then answered by the impetuous Marquis who defied the wishes of family and friends to link his fate to that of strangers.

It’s been almost 240 years since Lafayette walked through that door in Philadelphia and volunteered to risk his life on behalf of freedom. This evening, as we stand by the shores of the Potomac, bracketed by the lawns of Mount Vernon and the Hermione’s distinctive profile, do we dare to envisage 240 more years in which France and the United States will stand together – especially in times of trouble – helping one another and watching each other’s back?

Cur non? Why not? Thank you very much. (Applause.)