On Nov. 30, 2022, French President Emmanuel Macron attended a remembrance ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery less than three weeks after Armistice Day and 104 years after the cease fire marking 40 million military and civilian deaths during World War I. The tomb behind the old Custis-Lee Mansion overlooking the cemetery holds the remains of four soldiers interred separately after highly choreographed selections over the last 10 decades, representing 19 candidates from both World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam, 17 of which were exhumed from French soil or passed through France on their way to final resting place in Virginia.

Macron’s visit was more than remembrance and more than theater. It reflected a civic, military, and financial alliance between the U.S. and France dating back to Benjamin Franklin’s introduction to the Court of Versailles in December 1776, Lafayette’s arrival in Philadelphia in July 1777, and France’s recognition of the United States as an independent nation in December of the same year. France became America’s first financier and its first creditor. It’s not uncommon to see a small bouquet of flowers laid at the site of Franklin’s residence in Paris in the former village of Passy; Lafayette’s own Parisian grave in Picpus Cemetery across town is covered with American soil; and America’s 4th of July declaration in 1776 inspired France’s 14 juillet revolution 13 years later on what we call Bastille Day.

A portrait of this relationship in the early American republic is incomplete without Thomas Jefferson, who served as Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of Versailles between 1784 and 1789. Those versed in Jefferson lore will recall his daily visits to the parapet overlooking the right bank of the River Seine to watch the construction of the Hôtel de Salm adjacent to today’s Musée d’Orsay on the river’s opposite side. They will recall his life-altering trip to Nȋmes to finally see the Maison Carrée, and its influence on his later pavilions for the University of Virginia’s Lawn or his prior designs for the Virginia State Capitol, completed in 1788. It’s the sort of experience that was enjoyed by subsequent generations of architects — amateur and otherwise. (In the 19th century, Americans hoping to become architects studied at L’École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts de Paris, and apprenticed themselves in the ateliers of Victor Laloux and others.)

By all accounts, Jefferson was also a dutiful diplomat during his time in France — perhaps not the most accomplished diplomat in the history of Franco-American relations, but still accomplishing a good deal of economic freedom for America by finding a market for our tobacco and ending the European ban on importing our whale oil. While in Paris, Jefferson wrote to Continental Congress Representative (and later Senator) from Maryland, Uriah Forrest, in December 1787 about the intentions and language of the United States Constitution six months before it was to be ratified in 1788. Ever interested in efficiency, Jefferson chose to enclose a prior letter he had written to James Madison on the same subject instead of rewriting his thoughts and, in the key passage about the point where federal oversight ends and the people’s responsibility begins, he notes, “We are never permitted to despair of the commonwealth.” The government’s role, in other words, is to honor what’s good for the people’s common interest and not lament it in favor of what might be considered “better” by elected officials. To that end, Virginia’s own 1776 constitution declares it a commonwealth that celebrates, at its center, what the Library of Virginia calls “the sovereignty of the people united for the common good.”

With so much political division these days, defining what’s commonly held to be worthwhile or good is as contentious as ever — in both France and the United States. Before leaving Washington for New Orleans, Presidents Macron and Biden jointly acclaimed in a statement “a shared vision to strengthen security and increase prosperity worldwide, combat climate change, build greater resilience to its effects, and advance democratic values,” in what could be seen as a new vision of a commonwealth that must not be despaired, but rather guarded — not against elected officials only, but also against nuclear proliferation, climate change, economic disenfranchisement, food scarcity, and digital disinformation. This statement, too, was more than theater — it was a sobering acknowledgment by the two presidents that a “shared commitment to democratic principles, values, and institutions,” might not be enough to ensure a commonwealth as enshrined by states like Virginia (or Kentucky, Massachusetts, or Pennsylvania), or implied by our national constitutions. The wealth of the commons — the voice of the people — might need to be defended by the very people it represents. Cannily in 1787, Jefferson wrote to Madison something to that effect when he offered the hidden caveat of an empowered citizenry: basic education. “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people, enable them to see that it is their interest to preserve peace and order, and they will preserve it, and it requires no very high degree of education to convince them of this.”

With education in mind after Arlington and that evening’s state dinner, Macron decamped for New Orleans where he announced French for All, a fund supporting French language education in U.S. schools, and signed a memorandum of understanding with Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, who will install a French energy transition expert on his statewide climate task force. Before an audience of Francophone Louisianians, Macron noted that, “It is the history of men and women of all colors that did not speak the same language, that did not have the same religion, the same faith, but who in the end got together for one single reason.”

Reasons to unite may change over time. Yet, if reason, itself, is enshrined by a commonwealth, then it is eternal — and its people it represents are eternally obliged to defend it. It is the crucible of the unknown soldier’s sacrifice, as well as the symbolism of Macron’s visit to Arlington. It is, in the end, a motivation as well as a virtue — two qualities of enduring states, as well as enduring architecture.

William Richards is a writer and a co-founder of Team Three, an editorial and creative consultancy, based in Washington, D.C.