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  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    Liberty Elm, State House, Concord
  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    Liberty Elm, State House, Concord
  • Courtesy photo

    NH Gov. John Lynch takes part in the ceremonial planting of a Liberty Elm tree to honor General Lafayette on the precise spot where one was first planted by NH legislators in 1825. The previous tree succumbed to Dutch Elm disease in 1955. Pictured with Lynch are Boston's Consul General of France Christphe Guilhou and Count Gilbert de Pusy-Lafayette, a direct descendant to the General Marquise de Lafayette whose Revolutionary War heroism made him a celebrated hero of the American colonies.
  • Courtesy photo

    The Urban Tree Service supplied this tree for the State House lawn which Filtrins Manufacturing of Keene donated to the state. The Elm Research Institute also assisted.
  • Courtesy photo

    Consul General of France speaks to a gathering of dignitaries marking Lafayette Day in New Hampshire in the State House Hall of Flags. Steady rains moved the ceremony last month inside once tree planting ceremonial pictures were taken. Other notables who came included World War II French General Marcel Ceroni and Alan Hoffman, a resident author and Lafayette authority who translated ``Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825" from French to English in 2007.
Sunday, June 13, 2010

Lafayette Liberty Elm marks contributions to New Hampshire of Revolutionary War hero

It looks like just another newly planted tree on the northwest corner in the front end of the Statehouse lawn in Concord.

Sure, it cost $1,500 and is a hybrid resistant to Dutch elm disease, and the maintenance guys tenderly watered it daily as the humidity index rose to dangerous levels recently.

But what’s so special about it?

This Lafayette Liberty Elm signifies the brief but special bond New Hampshire’s democratic defenders forged with Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette.

The immortal founding father stories of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and John Madison obscure the unexpected but critical role Gen. Lafayette played in the American Colonies becoming the first occupied country to defeat Great Britain in the Revolutionary War.

Born to immense wealth and title from the early death of his father, Lafayette – at age 19 and a captain in the French Army – paid for and commissioned a ship, traveling to America in April 1777 to help the colonial uprising.

Lafayette was wounded in the Battle of Brandywine. Washington would come to call him “my adopted son’’ and gave him a field command of 3,000 soldiers at Valley Forge.

Lafayette would rally the French fleet that was critical to maintaining Washington’s advantage on land and went to Rhode Island to help in the safe evacuation of American soldiers.

He and Franklin are most considered responsible for securing the continued money and political support from France in 1780.

Lafayette’s most epic feat would come on his return to America when he and 1,000 colonists trapped the immortal British Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, which would lead to the end of the war in 1781.

Lafayette returned to France a hero at age 24, but for decades continued to correspond with American leaders and unsuccessfully try to establish its brand of democracy in his homeland.

Former Claremont Mayor and state Rep. Raymond Gagnon is a proud man French-Canadian descendant who helped organize the latest New Hampshire tribute to Lafayette.

“Politically, we have groups in this state like the Liberty Alliance, the Free Staters, even the Tea Party that claim liberty as their own, but General Lafayette embodied the idea that liberty belongs to the collective history,’’ Gagnon said. “It is all our own, and very brave people have given or dedicated their lives for us to keep it, and General Lafayette is one of them.’’

June 22 will mark the 175th anniversary of Lafayette’s triumphant return in 1825 to the country he helped free 40 years earlier. His trip included a speech to the New Hampshire Legislature.

Lafayette had come to the state from Bunker Hill in Massachusetts, where he celebrated a new monument to mark that Revolutionary War turning point. Lafayette ordered dirt scooped up from that site to cover the coffin that would bear him upon his death on May 20, 1834.

The day after Lafayette’s visit here, lawmakers ordered an elm tree planted to honor him, and it stood nearly 100 feet tall until Dutch elm disease claimed it in 1955.

Perhaps because of remorse over the tree’s passing, state lawmakers passed a law in 1955 ordering the governor to issue a proclamation on May 20 to observe the death of Lafayette.

Massachusetts is the only other state with such a Lafayette observance law on the books.

Secretary of State Bill Gardner had research done to confirm the precise spot where the first elm had been planted so that its replacement would have the same historic home.

The Urban Tree Service supplied the tree for free donated by Filtrins Manufacturing, of Keene.

“I’m just the delivery guy, but I enjoy history, so this is a pretty significant event and we’re glad to be part of it,’’ Urban Tree’s Edward Hopkins said.

On May 19, Gov. John Lynch presided over the tree-planting ceremony with a dignitary-filled crowd that included Consul General of France Christophe Guilhou and Count Gilbert de Pusy-Lafayette, a direct descendant of Gen. Lafayette.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to address the General Court and the people of New Hampshire on this important occasion and to have been allowed to assist in the ground breaking for a Liberty Elm in this historic place,’’ Count Lafayette told lawmakers.

The heir to Lafayette then read some of his ancestor’s 1825 remarks on that memorable day with a passage that recalled Lafayette’s trip from Boston to Concord.

“But as soon as I had performed of the great Bunker Hill celebration a sacred and delightful duty, I have hastened to this seat of government, where I now enjoy the honor to be admitted to present both branches of the Legislature with the tribute of my lively and respectful gratitude,” Lafayette said that day.

“Here, I have been greeted by multitudes of friends from this and the other parts of the state, among whom I am not surprised to recognize many of my companions in arms, when I recollect in what comparative proportion New Hampshire has personally contributed to our revolutionary struggle.’’

Then-New Hampshire Gov. David Morril told Lafayette his deeds equaled those of famed Gens. Washington, Stark, Sullivan and other Revolutionary heroes.

“We welcome you, General, as an American son,” Morril said. “We receive you as a friend to liberty, the rights of man and the rising glory of this republic.

“Welcome, yea, thrice welcome Lafayette.’’’

The timing of U.S. President James Monroe’s invitation for the 67-year-old Lafayette to return here couldn’t have been better, as it followed a tough election when Lafayette’s last, best attempt to bring American-style liberty to France had failed.

Over 16 months, Lafayette visited all 24 colonies, returning to a prosperous America a decade after it had defeated Britain in the War of 1812 and in the midst of the Era of Good Feeling.

Walking with a cane and a limp and wearing a hairpiece, the “Nation’s Guest,’’ as Monroe called him, was received as a conquering hero. Historians conclude more than 3 million Americans – a quarter of the population – came out to see him, including 75,000 in Boston.

Lafayette authority and lawyer Alan Hoffman, of Londonderry, noted the trip set off a naming craze, with 80 counties, cities, countless streets, parks and statues created in Lafayette’s name.

These include Mount Lafayette in New Hampshire, Lafayette Park in Manchester and Fayette Street in Concord.

“Why does New Hampshire celebrate Lafayette Day and why should we join in honoring his memory on this day?’’ Hoffman asked rhetorically during last month’s tree-planting ceremony. “Because Lafayette was clearly the best friend this country ever had.’’

The American government made Lafayette the first honorary citizen of the United States, gave him $200,000 in American bonds and a township of 36 square miles of unsold public land in Florida named La Grange Township.

And the guest of honor fully embraced his adopted home after one university president said Lafayette’s mastery of English surprised him.

“And why would I not speak English?’’ Lafayette answered. “I am an American, after all – just back from a long visit to Europe.’’

With nearly 30 percent of state residents here of French-Canadian origin, Gagnon said Lafayette’s epic story is one of personal pride, as well.

During the tree-planting event, Gagnon overheard Gen. Marcel Ceroni, a decorated World War II general, have his own language surprise moment.

“He asked the French consul why does their French sound like it comes from Mississippi or have a coarse Norse quality,’’ Gagnon recalled. “It’s because so many of us come from the Quebecois who originally are from Normandy.’’

Lafayette’s visit also is the first time New Hampshire became identified as the Granite State in this poem from Col. Phillip Carrigain given at the Sons at Concord Dinner in the general’s presence.

“North and South and East and West,

“Grateful home have express’d

“Greeting loud the Nation’s quest,

“Sons of liberty.

“Whom Tyrants curs’d, when Heaven approv’d,

“And millions long have mourn’d and lov’d;

“He comes by fond entreaties mov’d,

“The Granite State to see.’’

The last stanza captures American gratitude for Lafayette’s service and devotion to the country that makes a newly planted elm on the Statehouse lawn more than just another tree.

“He’s fit for traitor, or for slave,

“Who’d see this parting of the brave,

“Nor think of those who bled to save

“The land where we have met.

“Fair Merrimack may cease to flow

“And our White Mountains sink below;

“But nought can cancel what we owe,

“To them and LaFayette.’’

Kevin Landrigan can be reached at 321-7040 or