The Mercantile's Interest In All Things French...
This week marks Bastille Day, the great French celebration of the beginnings of the Republic and the rule of democracy. Centered in lower New France, the era of French Louisiana always captured the imagination of later generations of St. Louisans, and some of the strongest collections of the Mercantile Library deal with that period and the world of France in the previous centuries overall.  The days of French St. Louis truly live in the oldest books of the Mercantile. And maps, too. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries French Kings were fascinated with the potential of their claimed lands in North America and supported numerous cartographic projects to give them direct and immediate information about this very part of the New World, and that exercise culminated in one great continental map of North America, which distilled scientifically all previous knowledge about the region and at the same time influenced every subsequent map drafted of our region on an international scale. The great map of Guillaume De l’Isle shown here was essentially stolen and reprinted by rival countries like Great Britain, but remains as seen in the original edition an object of beauty and great historical importance. Of course, our city is not yet founded by Laclede and his pioneer traders,  and thus “on the map,” but French soldiers and inland traders and missionaries already knew the central confluence and the great bend of the rivers very well by this map.  I imagine the pleasure and gleam in the eyes of all the eighteenth century French Kings when centering their gaze in recognition of what a gateway the rivers on this map foretold for a future city. It is interesting to me that these later French kings deferred in modesty to their sainted ancestor when St. Louis was named; a bit of piety in a mercantile age dominated by their own policies? They were all named Louis anyway, so that was easy for these proud kings. “The Map of Louisiana and the Mississippi River” was created for a great atlas by De l’Isle in 1718 when Louis XIV appointed him France’s Chief Geographer.  
The Map of Louisiana and the Mississippi River, De I'Isle, 1718.
St. Louis Mercantile Library Special Collections
Maybe the Marquis de Lafayette studied this great map in school as a young French aristocrat, dreaming first of the great land before being swept up in the historical moment and his belief in natural law and the rights of man. He was one of the great advocates for democracy in 1789, and his meeting with Jefferson and knowledge of the Declaration of Independence led directly to his assistance in crafting The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. This signed letter by Lafayette later in life as the “Hero of the Two Words” is related to his 1824 trip across the United States, where he was welcomed by everyone. He was one of the greatest enemies of slavery and spoke out against it in America at every chance. Here he is making steamboat travel arrangements on the way to Alexandria down the Chesapeake Bay, and on the very day this letter was posted, he was about to embark upon a visit to the aging patriot, Jefferson—undoubtedly urging the cause of abolition once again to his old friend and mentor on the rights of mankind.
The Marquis’ visit can be considered the last hurrah of the generation of the revolution, and in Lafayette’s case “revolutions” as he was very much involved in the early days of the French Revolution before he himself was sidelined by Danton and Robspierre. Within two years both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson would die on July 4, 1826 having patched-up their fractured relationship. By 1827 only Charles Carroll of Carrollton, one of Maryland’s four delegates, would remain as the sole surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Lafayette would return to France in 1825 and five years later find himself involved in the Revolution of 1830.  He led the restored National Guard in actions against the King’s soldiers that led to the abdication of Charles X of France. Four years later, the Marquis de Lafayette would pass away at age 76.
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