Lafayette: September 6, 1757‚ÄďMay 20, 1834


‚ú™ Editor’s Note: I decided to do this International Edition of Profiles after receiving many excellent suggestions of historic personalities who were not exclusively American. I would very much like to hear feedback from the community. If you enjoyed this and would like to see more, please let me know. My original thought is that we would highlight one international figure no more than once each month or no less than once every two months because I would like Profiles to continue to focus predominantly on great Americans. Please also let me know if you don’t like this new direction because I won’t continue if enough people don’t care for it, thanks.

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arie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette, aka Marquis de La Fayette, known in the United States as Lafayette, was a French aristocrat, nobleman, freemason and military officer who volunteered to join the Continental Army to serve under General George Washington during the American Revolutionary War.

Lafayette was ultimately permitted to command Continental Army troops at the decisive¬†siege of Yorktown¬†in 1781, the Revolutionary War’s final land major battle which secured American independence. After returning to¬†France, Lafayette also became a key figure in the¬†French Revolution¬†of 1789 and the¬†July Revolution¬†of 1830. Lafayette continues to be celebrated as a hero in both France and the United States today. He is sometimes referred to as “The Hero of the Two Worlds” for his historical accomplishments in the service of both France and the United States.

Lafayette was born on 6 September 1757 to¬†Michel Louis Christophe Roch Gilbert Paulette du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette, a colonel of¬†Grenadiers and Marie Louise Jolie de La Rivi√®re, at the¬†Ch√Ęteau de Chavaniac in¬†Chavaniac-Lafayette

Lafayette’s noble lineage was likely one of the oldest and most distinguished in Auvergne; and perhaps, in all of France. Males of the¬†Lafayette family¬†enjoyed a reputation for courage and chivalry and were noted for their contempt for danger. One of Lafayette’s early ancestors,¬†Gilbert de Lafayette III, a¬†Marshal of France, had been a companion-at-arms of¬†Joan of Arc’s army during the¬†Siege of Orl√©ans¬†in 1429. According to legend, another of Lafatette’s ancestor acquired the¬†crown of thorns¬†during the¬†Sixth Crusade.

Lafayette’s father likewise died on the battlefield. On 1 August 1759, Michel de Lafayette was struck by a cannonball while fighting a British-led coalition at the¬†Battle of Minden¬†in¬†Westphalia.

When Lafayette was 11 in 1768, he was summoned to Paris to live with his mother and great-grandfather at the comte’s apartments in¬†Luxembourg Palace. The boy was sent to school at the¬†Coll√®ge du Plessis, part of the¬†University of Paris, There, it was decided that he would carry on the family martial tradition.¬†The comte, the boy’s great-grandfather, enrolled Lafayette in a program to train future Musketeers.

In May 1771 at less than age 14, Lafayette was commissioned as an officer in the Musketeers, with the rank of sous-lieutenant. His duties which included marching in military parades and presenting himself to King Louis, were mostly ceremonial as he continued his studies.

At this time,¬†Jean-Paul-Fran√ßois de Noailles, Duc d’Ayen¬†was looking to marry off one of his five daughters and the young Lafayette at only 14 years old seemed like a good match for his 12-year-old daughter,¬†Marie Adrienne Fran√ßoise. The duke spoke to the Lafayette’s uncle to negotiate a deal of an arranged marriage.¬†However, the arranged marriage was opposed by¬†Lafayette’s aunt, who felt the couple, especially her daughter, were too young for each other. The matter was settled among all the involved parties by an agreement not to mention any marriage plans for two years; during which time the two spouses-to-be would meet from time to time in casual settings in order to get to know each other better.¬†The scheme worked. The two fell in love, and were happy together from the time of their marriage in 1774 until her death in 1807.

In 1775, Lafayette took part in his unit’s annual training in¬†Metz, where he met¬†Charles Fran√ßois de Broglie, Marquis of Ruffec, the commander of the Army of the East.’ At a dinner, both men discussed the ongoing¬†revolt against British rule¬†by Britain’s North American colonies.

By that time, the marquis had become a¬†Freemason and talk of the rebellion “fired his chivalric‚ÄĒand now Masonic‚ÄĒimagination with descriptions of Americans as ‘people fighting for liberty.”

In September 1775 after Lafayette turned 18, he returned to Paris and received the captaincy in the Dragoons he had been promised as a wedding present. In December of that same year, his first child, Henriette, was born. During these months, Lafayette became convinced that the American Revolution reflected his own beliefs,¬†saying “My heart was dedicated.”

The King of France and his ministers hoped that by supplying the Americans with arms and officers, they might restore French influence in North America, and exact revenge against Britain for the loss in the¬†Seven Years’ War. When Lafayette heard that French officers were being sent to America, he demanded to go and be among them. On 7 December 1776, Lafayette was enlisted as a major general.

When Lafayette learned that the Continental Congress lacked the funds for his voyage, he bought the sailing ship Victoire with his own money for 112,000 pounds.

The Victoire set sail out of Pauillac on the shores of the Gironde on 25 March 1777. However, in order to avoid being identified by English spies and the King of France, Lafayette was not on board. The vessel moored in Pasaia on the Basque coast, where it was loaded with with 5,000 rifles and ammunition. There, he joined the Victoire, departing to America on 26 April 1777. The two-month journey to the New World was marked by seasickness and boredom. He landed on North Island near Georgetown, South Carolina on 13 June 1777.

The¬†Second Continental Congress¬†had been overwhelmed by recruited French officers, many of whom could not speak English or lacked military experience. Lafayette had learned some English en route (he became fluent within a year of his arrival), and his Masonic membership opened many doors for him in Philadelphia. After Lafayette offered to serve without pay, Congress commissioned him a major general on 31 July 1777.¬†Lafayette’s advocates included the recently arrived American envoy to France,¬†Benjamin Franklin, who by letter urged Congress to accommodate the young Frenchman.

Lafayette met George Washington for the first time at a dinner on 5 August 1777; and according to history, “the two men bonded almost immediately.” Washington was impressed by the young man’s enthusiasm and was inclined to think well of a fellow Mason; Lafayette was simply in awe of the commanding general. Washington told Lafayette that a division would not be possible as he was of foreign birth, but that he would be happy to hold him in confidence as “friend and father.”

Lafayette’s first battle was at Brandywine on 11 September 1777. Lafayette stayed at Washington’s encampment at¬†Valley Forge¬†in the winter of 1777‚Äď78, and shared in the hardship of his troops. ¬†At Valley Forge, he criticized the Board Of War’s decision to attempt an invasion of Quebec in the winter. Meanwhile, treaties signed by America and France were made public in March 1778 and France formally recognized American independence.

Lafayette returned to Paris in February 1779, was given a hero’s welcome and was soon invited to hunt with the king. Lafayette pushed for an¬†invasion of Britain, with himself to have a major command in the French forces.¬†Spain¬†was now France’s ally against Britain and sent ships to the English Channel in support.¬†

Lafayette worked with Benjamin Franklin to secure the promise of 6,000 soldiers to be sent to America, commanded by General Jean-Baptiste de Rochambeau. Lafayette would resume his position as a major general of American forces. In March 1780, he departed from Rochefort for America aboard the frigate Hermione and arrived in Boston on 27 April 1780.

On his return, Lafayette found the American cause at a low ebb, rocked by several military defeats, especially in the south.¬†Lafayette was greeted in Boston with enthusiasm, seen as “a knight in shining armor from the chivalric past, come to save the nation.”¬†He journeyed southwest and on 10 May 1780 had a joyous reunion with Washington at¬†Morristown, New Jersey. The general and his officers were delighted to hear that the large French force promised to Lafayette would be coming to their aid. This bore fruit in the coming months, as Lafayette awaited the arrival of the French fleet.

Lafayette evaded Cornwallis’ attempts to capture him in¬†Richmond. On 4 July, the British left¬†Williamsburg¬†and prepared to cross the¬†James River. Cornwallis sent only an advance guard to the south side of the river, hiding many of his other troops in the forest on the north side, hoping to ambush Lafayette.

By August, Cornwallis had established the British at Yorktown. On 14 September 1781, Washington’s forces joined Lafayette’s. On 28 September, with the French fleet blockading the British, the combined forces laid¬†siege to Yorktown. After a failed British counter-attack, Cornwallis surrendered on 19 October 1781.

Yorktown was the last major land battle of the American Revolution, but the British still held several major port cities. Lafayette wanted to lead expeditions to capture them, but Washington felt that he would be more useful seeking additional naval support for the United States from France.

Lafayette left Boston for France on 18 December 1781 where he was welcomed as a hero, and he was received at the Palace of Versailles on 22 January 1782.  The Treaty of Paris was signed between Great Britain and the United States in 1783. Lafayette took part in those negotiations.

Lafayette worked with Jefferson to establish trade agreements between the United States and France which aimed to reduce America’s debt to France. Lafayette visited America again in 1784‚Äď1785 where he enjoyed an enthusiastic welcome, visiting all the states. The trip included a visit to Washington’s farm at¬†Mount Vernon¬†on 17 August. He addressed the¬†Virginia House of Delegates¬†where he called for “liberty of all mankind” and advocated for the emancipation of slaves

Maryland’s legislature honored him by making him and his male heirs “natural born Citizens” of the state, which made him a natural-born citizen of the United States after the 1789 ratification of the¬†Constitution.¬†Lafayette later boasted that he had become an American citizen before the concept of French citizenship ever existed. Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Virginia also granted him citizenship

Lafayette returned to his home province of Auvergne in October 1791. The 25 July Brunswick Manifesto, which warned that Paris would be destroyed by the Austrians and Prussians if the king was harmed, led to the political downfall of Lafayette and of the royal family in France.

On 14 August, the French minister of justice, Danton, put out a warrant for Lafayette’s arrest. Hoping to travel to the United States, Lafayette crossed the border and entered the Austrian Netherlands.

Lafayette was taken prisoner by the Austrians near¬†Rochefort and held at¬†Nivelles before being transferred to¬†Luxembourg¬†where a coalition¬†military tribunal¬†declared him and three others to be prisoners of state for their roles in the Revolution. The tribunal ordered them held until a restored French king could render final judgment on them. On 12 September 1792, pursuant to the tribunal’s order, the prisoners were transferred into Prussian custody.¬†

Lafayette, when captured, had tried to use the American citizenship he had been granted to secure his release, and contacted William Short, United States minister in The Hague. Although Short and other U.S. envoys very much wanted to succor Lafayette for his services to their country, they knew that his status as a French officer took precedence over any claim to American citizenship. Washington, who was by then president, had instructed the envoys to avoid actions that entangled the country in European affairs

Through diplomacy, the press, and personal appeals, Lafayette’s sympathizers on both sides of the Atlantic made their influence felt, most importantly on the post-Reign of Terror¬†French government. A young, victorious general,¬†Napoleon¬†Bonaparte, finally negotiated the release of the state prisoners.

The Lafayette family and their comrades in captivity left Olm√ľtz under Austrian escort early on the morning of 19 September 1797, crossed the¬†Bohemian-Saxon¬†border north of¬†Prague, and were officially turned over to the American consul in Hamburg on 4 October. Due to¬†conflict between the United States and France, Lafayette could not go to America as he had hoped, making him a man without a country.

Bonaparte later restored Lafayette’s citizenship on 1 March 1800 and he was able to recover some of his properties. ¬†In 1802, he was part of the tiny minority that voted no in the¬†referendum¬†that made Bonaparte consul for life.

After the Louisiana Purchase, President Jefferson asked him if he would be interested in the governorship, but Lafayette declined, citing personal problems and his desire to work for liberty in France.

On 22 June 1815, four days after Waterloo, Napoleon abdicated. Lafayette arranged for the former emperor’s passage to America, but the British prevented this, and Napoleon ended his days on the island of¬†Saint Helena.

President James Monroe and Congress invited Lafayette to visit the United States in 1824, in part to celebrate the nation’s upcoming 50th anniversary. Lafayette arrived at New York¬†on 15 August 1824, accompanied by his son Georges Washington and his secretary¬†Auguste Levasseur. He was greeted by a group of Revolutionary War veterans who had fought alongside him many years before.

New York erupted for four continuous days and nights of celebration. He then departed for what he thought would be a restful trip to Boston but instead found the route lined by cheering citizens, with welcomes organized in every town along the way. According to Unger, “It was a mystical experience they would relate to their heirs through generations to come. Lafayette had materialized from a distant age, the last leader and hero at the nation’s defining moment. They knew they and the world would never see his kind again.”

Until that point, it had not been usual in the United States to build monuments, but Lafayette’s visit set off a new wave of monument construction‚ÄĒusually with him laying the cornerstone himself, in his capacity as mason.

When Lafayette arrived in France, Louis XVIII had already been dead for about a year and Charles X was on the throne. As king, Charles intended to restore the absolute rule of the monarch, and his decrees had already prompted protest by the time Lafayette arrived. Lafayette was the most prominent of those who opposed the new king.

Lafayette spoke publicly for the last time in the Chamber of Deputies on 3 January 1834. The next month, he collapsed at a funeral from pneumonia. He recovered, but the following May was wet, and he became bedridden after being caught in a thunderstorm.

He died at age 76 on 20 May 1834 at 6 rue d’Anjou-Saint-Honor√© in Paris. He was buried next to his wife at the¬†Picpus Cemetery¬†under soil brought to France from Bunker Hill.

In the United States, President Jackson ordered that Lafayette receive the same memorial honors that had been bestowed on Washington at his death in December 1799. Both Houses of Congress were draped in black bunting for 30 days, and members wore mourning badges. Congress urged Americans to follow similar mourning practices. Later that year, former president John Quincy Adams gave a eulogy of Lafayette that lasted three hours, calling him “high on the list of the pure and disinterested benefactors of mankind.”

Lafayette was a firm believer in constitutional monarchy. His close relationships to American Founding Fathers such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson gave him an opportunity to witness the implementation of a democratic system. His views on potential government structures for France were directly influenced by the American form of government, which was in turn influenced by the British form of government. For example, Lafayette believed in a bicameral legislature, as the United States had.

Throughout his life, Lafayette was also an exponent of the ideals of the¬†Age of Enlightenment, especially on human rights and¬†civic nationalism, and his views were taken very seriously by intellectuals and others on both sides of the Atlantic. His favorable image in the United States was derived from his “disinterestedness” in fighting without pay for the freedom of a country that was not his own

Lafayette became an historical American icon in part because he was not associated with any particular region of the country; he was of foreign birth, did not live in America, and fought in New England, the mid-Atlantic states, and the South, making him a unifying figure. His role in the French Revolution enhanced this popularity, as Americans saw him steering a middle course.

Marc Leepson concluded his study of Lafayette’s life:

The Marquis de Lafayette was far from perfect. He was sometimes vain, naive, immature, and egocentric. But he consistently stuck to his ideals, even when doing so endangered his life and fortune. Those ideals proved to be the founding principles of two of the world’s most enduring nations, the United States and France. That is a legacy that few military leaders, politicians, or statesmen can match. ‚ú™