We can never know what really happened in the past. Marquis de Lafayette is the forgotten father of the American Revolution. History has an imperfect memory.
Many towns in America are named after this obscure hero- Fayetteville, NC and Lafayette, LA to name a few. There are more than 50 cities in America named after him.
France and the United States have a love-hate relationship. They define themselves by other.
Americans say the French are snobs, but admire their sense of style. The French think the Americans are violent and uncivilized, but love to imitate them. We share common values that bind us together.
It made us allies when it really mattered. This first time was in the American Revolutionary War. Looking at the Marquis de Lafayette can tell us something important about ourselves. To do this we must go back to the beginning.
Who was the Marquis de Lafayette? How and why did he come to America? This piece tells the story of the life and legend of an intriguing, neglected and controversial figure. He left France at the age of 19 and fought courageously for the independence of the United States.
Lafayette the Man
Marquis de Lafayette was born on September 6, 1757, in Chavaniac, France.
His family had a noble military lineage that had seven centuries of service to France. His father was killed in the Seven Years War when he was two years old. Lafayette grew up seeing himself as a hero.
At 11 he goes live to the Palais de Luxembourg. It is one of the grandest homes in Paris. His mother dies when he is 14 leaving him a very rich bachelor. He joined the Royal Army in 1771 at fifteen.
In 1773 he married a 14-year-old named Marie Adrienne Françoise de Noailles, a member of another prominent French family. He and his wife are the host of Paris. The teenage couple are the Bradgelina of their day.
In the French Army, he joins his father-in-law’s regiment. On August 8, 1775 dinner with the Duke of Glouster he hears about the American Revolution for the first time.
He meets with the American Envoy to France Benjamin Franklin. Lafayette goes to America and joins the colonist cause.
He serves the cause of Freedom because he sees the American cause as a beacon of light. At a time when America struggle was the symbol of freedom to the world.
He says, “The happiness of mankind is intimately tied to the happiness of America.” He sees the potential of the young and struggling nation. He arrives in Philadelphia and knocks on the door of Independence Hall but is turned away.
He pushes forward and says he wants to serve but at his own expense. He teaches himself English. He is a made a Major General in his first six weeks in the Continental Army.
Marquis de Lafayette
Battle of Brandywine Creek
His first major combat duty came during the September 1777 Battle of Brandywine. He is shot in the leg while helping to organize a chaotic retreat. General George Washington requested doctors to take special care of Lafayette. This ignited a strong bond between the two that lasted until Washington’s death.
Lafayette is seen as a hero. His service captures the imaginations of the American and French people. His examples helps to secure French support for the Colonist cause.
Battle of Brandywine Creek
A rough winter at Valley Forge follows. The American soldiers suffer but Lafayette lives with and endures with the men. They have little provisions, the winter weather is bitter cold and they have very little warm clothing.
The Continental Congress gives little to no support to the fledging army. Men die from exposure. While visiting Philadelphia, Lafayette finds out about a cabal to replace Washington. Lafayette warns the general.
Some of this group make a toast. Lafayette make a public toast saying, “To His Excellency, General Washington!” A public declaration for his friend. He feels that scheming behind Washington’s back is the worst betrayal of the ideals of the new republic.
Washington is impressed with his loyalty and helps to further his military career. Washington treats Lafayette as a surrogate son. They are close despite a 30 year age difference.
Lafayette the General
The British are embarrassed by a Frenchman giving so much exposure to the American cause. They want to capture him. Lafayette is given command of a detachment and tasked to do a reconnaissance of Philadelphia. He is only 20 years old.
He is surrounded by the British. He attacks from the treeline and stone walls. He distinguishes himself by thinking on his feet.
Lafayette as an Ambassador
Lafayette is sent back to France as an advocate for the US. The French are excited by the American cause. Lafayette is welcomed at court. He repeatedly tells the story of his time in America. He is seen as a rock star.
Lafayette returns to America. Washington has a different plan. He sends the Frenchman to the south to fight with the Virginia Militia against the British General Cornwallis.
Lafayette fights using skirmish lines. He occupies more than 5,000 British soldiers with his handful of militia soldiers.
Lafayette sends out spies. He uses a spy, a slave, named James Armistead to give false information. Lafayette defeats Cornwallis at the coast of Yorktown. Armistead is freed due to his contribution. He changes his name to Armistead Lafayette.
Lafayette matures throughout his experiences. He commands a regiment of American forces and leads a charge with fixed bayonets while taking the fort at Yorktown. He ordered the playing of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” at the surrender of Yorktown.
Return to France
Lafayette is seen as a hero on his return to France. He becomes a star. He is a charismatic man.
He writes to Washington to abolish slavery. He argues that the ideals of the American Revolution are violated by not applying to the slaves. Washington writes back about the need for slavery.
Lafayette urges the French King to do away with slavery. He frees the slaves of French Guyana.
The French Revolution
He helped to the get the French revolution started a few years after returning from America. Inspired by the ideals of the American struggle. He wants to import those ideas of freedom to France. He sees himself as a French Washington.
In 1789, he drafts “The Declaration of the Rights of Man” with Thomas Jefferson, the American Ambassador to French. It may be his most important contribution to the cause of democracy. It provides a vision of human rights at the core values of a society.
Within few days of its release the people of Paris, encouraged by more radical voices, storm the Bastille Prison. It is a symbol of the tyranny of the king. They parade the streets with heads impaled on their spears.
Lafayette takes charge of a “National Guard” of French soldiers that is responsible for defending Paris. He finds himself in the untenable position of being caught in the middle of the French Revolution.
He is a tragic figure. He was caught between the monarchists on the right and the populists on the left. His family is old money, but he deeply beliefs in the ideals of freedom of the French cause.
He is a champion of freedom in his writings and beliefs. He is a figure of authority as a French General charged with the safety of the royal family.
A crowd of angry peasant women come to capture the queen. Lafayette leads the queen out on a balcony and kisses her hand. It achieves a momentary truce.
On July 15, 1790, a year after the storming of the Bastille, a crowd of a quarter of a million people gathers around Lafayette. He has been a progressive leader and has found a middle ground. His plan to give them a constitution to give them liberty and a king to protect order.
A year later everything goes wrong. A rioting crowd shoots at him and his soldiers. His soldiers fire back. The revolution spins out of control. The French had so much more to revolt against than the Americans.
In the next year and half more 3,000 people, including the French king and queen, will die on the guillotine.
Lafayette is viewed as a traitor on both sides. He tries to escape back to America. He is captured by the Austrians. He ends up in a series of prisons. He is hated for his spreading of ideas that caused chaos across Europe.
His wife is thrown in jail for three long years. His old friend, Washington, now the President of the US, tries to help with no luck. Finally, with American influence he is released.
Napoleon allows Lafayette to return to France. His beloved wife only three years later.
Return to America
On the eve of the 50th Anniversary of the American Revolution President James Monroe invited General Lafayette back to America. He was a unifying hero who everyone in America can thank for his contribution to independence.
Americans had fallen in-love with the story of Lafayette who devoted his life to the struggle of democracy. On August 16, 1824 an elderly Lafayette returned to the land he had such an influence over.
80,000 people were by the harbor of New York City to greet him. The population of NYC was a little over 120,000. It was like the Beatles coming to America. He was the beloved hero of the revolution.
He would take a 13 month victory lap around America. He visited all, then 24, states of the US. His return allows America to refocus on what brought it together in the first place.
At a Congressional banquet he states, “Someday America will save the world.” We did too- in two world wars. Throughout the tour Lafayette can see the results of the freedom he worked so bravely to achieve.
He returns to his beloved Virginia. At the biggest rally at the tour he is given a parade. Halfway through the parade, he stops the procession as he recognizes a face in the crowd.
It is his old friend, the freed slave Armistead Lafayette. The two comrades embrace and cry as a city of slaveholders looks on.
Just before he sails home he stops at the tomb of his old friend George Washington. He stops and kneels at the gravesite with son, George Washington Lafayette, by his side. He collects dirt from the grave.
Lafayette at Washington’s Tomb
He is buried with a portion of the American soil, he gave so much to defend.
After his death President John Quincy Adams wrote, “Pronounce him one of the first men of age and you have done him justice.”
Marquis de Lafayette had two ideas. They were the ideas of the century. The idea of freedom for his fellow man and equality for those who fought for it.
In Lafayette, a Frenchman, he gave the American Revolution its voice by showing his sacrifice through his humanity.