Washington and Lafayette: 6 lessons from an adoptive father

April 27, 2016

One need not cross the Atlantic to find the famed Frenchman. Hundreds of U.S. cities, counties, lakes and landmarks bear his name. Statesmen have hailed him America’s “beloved son.” And in 2002, Congress posthumously named him an honorary U.S. citizen, a rare designation granted to just five others before him.

But to know the Marquis de Lafayette, France’s one-time wealthiest orphan who committed himself as a teenager to securing the liberty of a land and a people not his own, is to know a friendship that fueled this patriot’s zeal: the father-like kinship of General George Washington, a man 25 years his senior.

Embedded here are important lessons on leadership and the value of investing in the lives of those without a father of their own.

‘Tempestuous’ waters

When Lafayette sailed into Boston harbor on April 27, 1780, the newly formed United States found itself in the throes of war with Britain. Five years of bloodshed had passed since “the shot heard round the world,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson later poeticized, marking the beginning of the American Revolution at Lexington and Concord.

“I am now Imbarkd on a tempestuous Ocean from whence, perhaps, no friendly harbour is to be found,” Washington wrote shortly after his unanimous election as commander in chief of the Continental Army in 1775.

America, in 1780, marched at musket’s edge of liberty or bondage.

But Lafayette’s springtime arrival aboard the French frigate L’Hermione signaled a turning of the tide. The 22-year-old marquis, who first sailed to America three years earlier to serve as a major general in the Continental Army, bore official secret word that France’s King Louis XVI had commissioned six French ships and 6,000 infantry to aid the United States in its long-drawn effort to throw off the yoke of Britain’s bondage.

“I have affairs of the utmost importance that I should at first Communicate to You alone,” the seasick-prone Lafayette penned in a letter on that April day in the harbor. The recipient? His “dear General,” Washington, from “the hand of Your Young Soldier.”

By then, the two had forged an unlikely friendship, one that would only continue to flourish until Washington’s death in 1799. The “father of his country” had become, in essence, the adoptive father of America’s adopted son.

Lessons from an ‘adoptive’ father

We ought not fashion idols of flawed mortals—Washington, while measured by history as a man of notable character, had his faults, as did Lafayette. But neither should we discount their positive examples. The exemplary lessons found in Washington toward his adopted son are many.

Here, in snapshot, are six.

1. A father to the fatherless

Washington, to his own disappointment, never had biological children. He stepped in, though, as a surrogate father and grandfather to the offspring of his wife, Martha, a widowed mother when the two wed. And he stepped out, into the life of Lafayette, who was young enough to be his son.

The American commander in chief and the French marquis shared a common familial identity: both lost their fathers at a young age. Washington’s father died when he was 11 years old; Lafayette’s father was killed in battle before he turned two years old, and his mother died when he was 12.

Perhaps that’s one of the many reasons Washington took an immediate liking to Lafayette—he could identify. He, too, had tasted the bitter fruit of fatherlessness. In the absence of his own father, Washington had looked to his older half-brother, Lawrence, as a father figure. He proved something of the same to Lafayette.

2. A ‘compass’ in the storm

First landing ashore in America at age 19, the glory-seeking Lafayette, like everyone, needed direction. But he was eager to know the way. And he’d look to and find his course in Washington.

“I am here to learn, not to teach,” he told the commander in chief, one month after their first meeting in August 1777.

Such sentiment continued across the years and across the seas, captured in Lafayette’s many letters to Washington.

“I Hope you will approuve my conduct and in every thing I do I first consider what your opinion would Be Had I an opportunity to consult it,” Lafayette wrote Washington from France during peace negotiations in June 1782. Two years later, still navigating France’s political waters, Lafayette again looked to Washington: “You Will Be My Compass, my dear General,” he wrote, announcing plans for a third voyage to America.

Whether side-by-side in camp or separated by ocean and continent, Lafayette looked to the man he called “friend and father” to chart his way. He’d follow his adoptive father’s footprints on American soil and seek his shadow across the sea.

3. A help to the hurting

On September 11, 1777, Lafayette suffered a musket’s blow to the left leg while serving with Washington at the Battle of Brandywine. Lafayette’s 9/11 was met with the greatest possible first-response: Washington ordered his own personal physician to aid him. “Take care of him as if he were my son,” Lafayette later recalled the general saying, “for I love him the same.”

Whether those were in fact Washington’s words, biographer David Clary observes in Adopted Son, we cannot know for sure. But Lafayette’s recollection of that hour of need says something powerful, at the least. The then-20-year-old wounded warrior saw the 45-year-old commander as the man who’d bring him the best of help to heal his hurts. A balm to the broken.

4. A leader inclined to grow

Many of the founding fathers carried uneasy consciences about slavery. And Washington was no exception. Yet Lafayette, who developed strong convictions toward emancipation and nudged Washington toward the same, may have played some part in stirring his beloved father’s uneasy conscience into unhesitant action.

Washington’s surviving will, for example, ordered the release of all of his slaves upon Martha’s death. His elderly and sick slaves, directed the general, should be cared for by the estate. Orphaned slaves should be taught to read and write. “Every part” of that directive, he willed, should “be religiously fulfilled” and “without evasion, neglect or delay.”

A strong leader, Washington demonstrated in death, grows and is teachable.

5. A life and conviction to replicate

Lafayette labored for liberty alongside Washington in the quarters of Valley Forge and on the battlefields from Brandywine to Yorktown, where he helped signal the end of the American Revolution. That ultimate victory might not have arrived without the marquis’ successful petition of the French king for France’s additional aid.

But he also carried the torch of freedom back to his native country. Among his efforts: In 1789, he drafted France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, a formative work inspired by the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. He also worked toward emancipation, including serving as a founding member of the abolitionist Society of the Friends of the Blacks in Paris. In that vein, he was, commendably, ahead of the times in America.

Closer to home, Lafayette named his son George Washington, in honor of his father figure, and named a daughter Virginie, in honor of Washington’s native state.

He believed in a man and his mission. He believed others should too. And he wanted his father’s name to follow him, stamped on his own children.

6. A relationship to remember

Lafayette’s warm memory of Washington would long follow his beloved general’s death. In 1824, at the invitation of Congress, Lafayette returned to the United States for a 13-month farewell tour, visiting all 24 states. That fourth and final trip across the ocean included a visit to Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, where he is entombed. The 68-year-old marquis spent an hour alone at the tomb, notes historian James Gaines in For Liberty and Glory. The last surviving general of the Revolutionary War emerged, appropriately, teary-eyed.

The mark of a father would forever remain on the one-time orphan’s heart. He found in that relationship far greater riches than the fortune he had inherited in France. He could not forget.

Washingtons and Lafayettes in our own time

Two centuries later, Americans cannot help but be reminded of Lafayette. Last year, France even christened a replica frigate of L’Hermione to remember and retrace the marquis’ 1780 trans-Atlantic voyage.

But we’d be remiss to forget the father-son kinship that shaped the marquis. The Washington-Lafayette relationship is, in many ways, a reflection of the fatherly relationship the Apostle Paul extended to Timothy, the son of an unbelieving Greek who may have died before the decades-older apostle met the young man he addressed as “my true child in the faith” (1 Tim. 1:2).

Paul charged his spiritual son to “wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience,” even as some have rejected such teaching and “made shipwreck of their faith” (1 Tim. 1:18–19). He urged him to make every effort to replicate his faith in others, to “entrust” what he had learned “to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).

Herein lies a charge to us.

Somewhere a fatherless son like Lafayette or Timothy needs a Washington or a Paul in his life—a compass pointing toward freedom, a safe harbor from sin-sickness in the storm. That young man or boy needs to know “the Father of the fatherless” (Psalm 68:5). He needs to find in Christ, through the mentorship of another, “the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Rom. 8:15).

And, conversely, each Washington needs a Lafayette, each Paul a Timothy, for therein one can likewise find a sort of freedom and calm amid the “tempestuous” waters, the kind that Washington sought and found in Lafayette.

Learning from Washington and heeding the call of Paul, may we help other young men to bear our Father’s name and claim our eternal citizenship. Let’s point them to the hope we have “as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Heb. 6:19), to the One who shows “his wondrous works in the deep” (Psa. 107:24). Let’s lead them to him who can still the storm and hush the sea and bring them safely “to their desired haven” (Psa. 107:29–30).

We don’t even need to cross the Atlantic to do so.

Doug Carlson

Doug Carlson came to the ERLC in 2004 and serves as the Leland House’s Office Manager, overseeing the administrative and organizational needs of the Washington office. A Fort Wayne, Ind., native, Doug attended Word of Life Bible Institute and received his B.S. from Liberty University and his Master of Public … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24