On August 15, 1824 Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Rod Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette, Marquis de La Fayette, accompanied by his son, Georges Washington de La Fayette (whose namesake was his godfather), landed at Staten Island, New York to start what ended up being a thirteen month tour of the United States during which he traveled 6,000 miles while visiting all 24 states. He had returned to America at the invitation of Congress and President James Monroe. The reception he received throughout his trip dwarfed his expectations. His presence touched a chord with the American people reminding them of the glorious days of the struggle for independence a half century before.
It was as the 19-year old heir to a family of ancient nobility from the Auvergne region of France that Lafayette made his first visit to a very different America landing in South Carolina on June 13, 1777. Seeking vengeance against the English and glory for himself he had defied his King's explicit directive and come to join the American rebels. Making his way to Philadelphia he persuaded the Continental Congress, which was dazzled to have a French noble coming to its assistance, to make him a Major General in the Continental Army, a commission viewed as honorary by the Congress but considered to be a real command by Lafayette. Benjamin Franklin suggested that George Washington might use the young lad as an aide-de-camp and he made his way to the encampment of the Continental Army.
By 1824 Lafayette was the last surviving senior Revolutionary War commander and of the fifty six signers of the Declaration of Independence only three remained alive - Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, both of whom were to die on July 4, 1826, and Charles Carroll of Maryland who lived until 1832 (Carroll did not begin his service in the Continental Congress until July 18, 1776 so did not participate in the vote for independence on July 2 and he was the last to sign the Declaration on August 2). An era was ending.
As a side note, while researching the deaths of the signers, THC noticed what seemed to be a distinct pattern between the lifespans of the Northern and Southern signers which was confirmed by a more detailed analysis. The average lifespan of the 24 signers from the six Southern colonies was 59.8 years while that of the 32 Northern signers was 70.9 years; 10 of the Northerners reached 80 years while only four Southerner lived that long and nine of the Southern signers were dead by 50 while only one Northerner failed to live into his fifties. It seems as though the many contemporary comments about the dissipative effects of climate and disease in the south were correct.
At first Washington and his commanders did not know what to make of the enthusiastic young Frenchman with his poor English but Lafayette had an innate charm and quickly all of the America officers along with Washington regarded him with affection. The General did add him to his staff where he joined the other young aides, Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens, who became his fast friends.
During the tour, which included laying the cornerstone for the Bunker Hill Monument in Boston on the 50th anniversary of the battle with Daniel Webster giving a rousing speech, addressing a joint session of the US Congress and having his steamboat sink on the Ohio River near Louisville, Kentucky, Lafayette made many stops which must have stirred strong memories. While in New Orleans in April 1825 he must have thought of President Jefferson's inquiry regarding his interest in becoming Governor of the Louisiana Territory after its purchase in 1803, an inquiry he turned down. In Savannah, Georgia he laid the cornerstone for a monument to his great friend General Nathanael Greene (see October 1780). Most of all there were the two trips to Washington's home and burial site at Mount Vernon in October 1824 and August 1825 and his presence at the first commencement ceremony at George Washington University in the District of Columbia.
As David Clary notes in his fine study of the Washington-Lafayette relationship, Adopted Son:
What was planned as a short visit to major cities turned into a . . . . procession. The hysterical receptions were much alike. He entered a town escorted by militia, through victory arches decorated with boughs and bunting; endured speeches by local dignitaries and greetings from Revolutionary veterans and the Society of Cincinnati; received poems and flowers from children; and made the rounds of dinners, Masonic banquets, schools and anybody else who wanted to hear him. The nation went insane for the "last major general of the Revolution".
He left behind hundreds of places named Lafayette, Fayette or La Grange [his French home, thus inspiring ZZ Top's best song], He sparked a new interest in the Revolution, inspiring worshipful biographies of the struggle's leaders. He became a unifying, non-partisan influence during the fierce election struggle between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, both of whom he met.
Lafayette joined the Continental Army at a perilous time with the British Army beginning its move from New York to seize the new nation's capital at Philadelphia. Pestering Washington for a command, the Marquis saw action at the Battle of Brandywine in September 1777, a battle lost by the Americans, but in which he was wounded and distinguished himself for bravery. Given a small independent command he defeated a Hessian detachment in November and then joined the rest of the army in its winter camp at Valley Forge. The following year he again performed admirably at the Battle of Monmouth. The charm that had worked with the officers of the Continental Army also seemed to extend to the American troops he now commanded and effectively led.
Most significant though was his relationship with Washington. Before Lafayette was two years old he had lost his father, killed by an English cannonball at the Battle of Minden during the Seven Years War. In the 46-year old Washington he found someone he could relate to as a father. And the childless and notoriously reserved Washington reciprocated with an emotional openness that he rarely showed publicly. Later in the war when a French emissary was visiting Washington he relied news of Lafayette (who at that time was back in France) and described the General's reaction:
Washington blushed like a fond father whose child is being praised. Tears fell from his eyes, he clasped my hand, and could hardly utter the words: 'I do not know a nobler, finer soul, and I love him as my own son'.
In February 1779, Lafayette returned to Paris to lobby for troops to be sent to America in addition to the financial aid being supplied by France. After initially being imprisoned for several days for disobeying the King in going to America in 1777, Lafayette was released and, together with Ben Franklin, began relentlessly pressuring the Court and King to aid the Americans. He achieved success when General Rochambeau embarked with 6,000 troops in 1780, troops without whom the Yorktown campaign would have been impossible.
Lafayette returned to America in March of 1780 and during the 1781 campaign displayed his finest generalship, first with a small advance detachment of 2,0000 soldiers leading Lord Cornwallis on a fruitless chase across Virginia and then playing an important role at the Siege of Yorktown.
Returning to France in December 1781 he worked with the American envoy, Thomas Jefferson, on a trade agreement between the two nations before returning to the United States for the third time in 1784 on a trip which took him to all of the states with the exception of Georgia. While in Baltimore he met James Madison, whom he had only known slightly during the war. The two bonded and Madison decided to accompany the Marquis on his trip to New York and New England along the way negotiating a trade agreement with the Six Nations of the Iroquois.
During the 1784 trip Lafayette and Washington spent considerable time together and one topic of their discussions was slavery. When Lafayette first came to America he was driven by hatred of the English and a desire for glory but his exposure to the ideas behind the Revolution and, most importantly, his discussions with Hamilton and Laurens brought him to a broader view of liberty and freedom and the impassioned Laurens convinced him of the need to abolish slavery. [NOTE: In a prior post (Forgotten Americans: John Laurens) I wrote that Lafayette influenced Laurens in his views on slavery but upon further research am now convinced the influence was the other way around.] Even while the war was ongoing he advocated emancipation to Washington as well as joining the Abolitionist Society in France upon his return. And for Washington, who had not given much thought before the war to the institution, his observations seeing free Negroes fighting for American freedom in the army he led resulting in him questioning slavery. The year before his 1784 visit Lafayette sent a proposal for emancipation to Washington to which he responded:
The scheme, my dear Marqs. which you propose as a precedent to encourage the emancipation of the black people of this country from that state of bondage in wch. they are held, is a striking evidence of the benevolence of your heart. I shall be happy to join you in so laudable a work.
They spoke further of slavery at Mt Vernon and during his remaining years, Washington refused to sell or break up any of the slave families he owned though his farming venture was operating at a loss and upon his death emancipated his slaves and provided for them.
(Lafayette & Washington, Mt Vernon 1784)
Lafayette had last seen America as a 26-year old when the country consisted of 3 million people in 13 states and territory bounded to the west by the Mississippi River. Returning just before his 67th birthday, Lafayette visited a country with more than 10 million people in 24 states bounded to the west by the Rocky Mountains and the newly independent country of Mexico. During that time the mean center of U.S. population had shifted from the East Shore of Maryland to what was to be the future state of West Virginia.
In the years since 1784 the Marquis had experienced much turmoil. Imbued with the spirit of liberty, Lafayette was one of the leaders of the initial stages of the French Revolution which erupted in the summer of 1789. Appointed commander of the National Guard of France he became more disenchanted as the revolution became more radical and his popularity suffered. Although given command of an army when France declared war on Austria in 1792 he was quickly condemned as a traitor. Realizing he faced death at the hands of the revolutionary tribunal he attempted to flee to Britain but was captured by the Austrians in August of 1792 and imprisoned for the next five years.
(Lafayette, center, with young Georges to the right)
At the same time his wife Adrienne and his three children were imprisoned in Paris. It was only the direct appeals by the American government undertaken at the instigation of President Washington that saved her from execution (though her sister, mother and grandmother were guillotined). In January 1795, after the fall of the Jacobins, Adrienne and the children were released. Adrienne took her two daughters and went to Austria and prevailed upon the Emperor to allow her and the children to join her husband in prison.
The Marquis' son, Georges, now 15 years old, was sent by Adrienne to America. Georges arrival posed a potential diplomatic problem for the U.S. which wanted to maintain good relations with a French government which still considered Lafayette a traitor. Washington's cabinet advised that the boy should be kept in Boston where he had landed and away from the President. After initially agreeing, Washington brought the boy, first to Philadelphia and then finally to Mount Vernon to live as part of his family. Clary recounts one observers comment that their first meeting "was like a tearful reunion between the elder man and his adopted son, because Washington adored the boy at first sight". Georges was to live with Washington for the next eighteen months. Clary reports that:
Visitors to Mount Vernon were amazed by the scene at dinner. 'A few jokes passed between the president and young Lafayette whom he treats more like a child than a guest'.Washington also, again against the advice of his cabinet, wrote a personal letter to the Emperor of Austria seeking Lafayette's release which began:
It will readily occur to your Majesty that occasions may sometimes exist, on which official considerations would constrain the chief of a nation to be silent and passive in relation even to objects which affect his sensibility, and claim his interposition as a man. Finding myself precisely i this situation at present, I take the liberty of writing this private letter to your Majesty; being persuaded, that my motives will also be my apology for it.
Meanwhile, Adrienne feverishly writing letters from her prison cell drummed up sympathy across Europe for the plight of Lafayette and his family and he was finally released from prison in October 1797. (Adrienne) Returning to France in 1799 he refused to cooperate with Napoleon who returned the favor by viewing him with suspicion though he restored French citizenship to the Marquis. In 1815 during the Hundred Days Lafayette was elected to the Chamber of Representatives and called for Napoleon's abdication, responding to Lucien Bonaparte's denunciation:
By what right do you dare accuse the nation of...want of perseverance in the emperor's interest? The nation has followed him on the fields of Italy, across the sands of Egypt and the plains of Germany, across the frozen deserts of Russia.... The nation has followed him in fifty battles, in his defeats and in his victories, and in doing so we have to mourn the blood of three million Frenchmen.
When the monarchy was restored after the fall of Napoleon, Lafayette continued to be viewed with suspicion because of his support of the 1789 revolution though he remained in the Chamber of Representatives. In turn, Lafayette was discontented with the attempt to reimpose the old regime so the timing of America's invitation to visit could not have come at a better time.
(Lafayette at time of 1824-5 tour)
Lafayette's tour also provided an opportunity to reunite with other survivors of the revolutionary era. At Yorktown he was present for the 43rd anniversary of the surrender in October 1824 and joined veterans of the Battle of Brandywine in July 1825 while also returning to Valley Forge. He also visited 89 year old John Adams (briefly) in Braintree, Massachusetts and stayed for several days with 81 year old Thomas Jefferson at Monticello whom he found "feeble and much aged" but with his mind still sharp.
On November 15, 1824 Adams wrote Jefferson (after a bitter 15-year breach in their friendship they began corresponding again in 1812; for background see Abigail Writes Thomas) about their recent visitor:
You and I have been favored with a visit from our old friend General La Fayette. What a wonderful Man at his Age to undergo the fatigues of such long journeys and constant feasts. I was greatly delighted with the sight of him and the little conversation I had with him.
[For an Adams memory of an earlier meeting with the Marquis see the endnote to this post]
During his first stay in Washington DC in December 1824, Lafayette made several visits to the White House to meet with President Monroe (it was at this time that Lafayette Park opposite the White House was named in his honor). Returning to the capital in early September of 1825 he met with new President John Quincy Adams and after addressing Congress celebrated his 68th birthday at a White House banquet before leaving for France on September 7.
Lafayette's political life had not ended however. In July 1830 he served as one of the rallying points for the revolution that overthrew the Bourbons for good and created a republican monarchy under Louis-Philippe.
The Marquis died on May 20, 1834 and was buried in a Paris cemetery. His son sprinkled soil from Bunker Hill over the grave site. President Andrew Jackson ordered that Lafayette be given the same funeral honors as George Washington. Flags were flown at half-mast for 35 days, the chambers of Congress were draped in black and the country was asked to dress in black for 30 days.
Endnote: On July 13, 1813 the cantankerous John Adams wrote Thomas Jefferson a letter containing this vignette from the 1780s:
It is very true, as you justly observe, I can say nothing new on this or any other Subject of Government. But when La Fayette harangued You and me, and John Quincy Adams, through a whole evening in your Hotel in the Cul de Sac, at Paris; and developed the plans then in Operation to reform France: though I was as silent as you was, I then thought I could say something new to him. In plain Truth I was astonished at the Grossness of his Ignorance of Government and History, as I had been for Years before at that of Turgot, Rochefaucault, Condorcet and [Ben] Franklin.
Adams had developed an antipathy to Franklin during their joint mission to France during the Revolution. Adam's directness and bluntness clashed with Franklin's wily indirect strategies, though Franklin's approach proved the more effective with the French court.
As for Adams' view of Lafayette it is true that the Marquis was more noted for his passion, courage and unflinching devotion to liberty and freedom than for his attention to the philosophical nuances of political theory. A revolution requires both.