Lafayette’s America

How One French Aristocrat Helped Create a Republic

For several weeks, an 18th century replica ship has traveled across the Atlantic Ocean from France to the U.S. L’Hermione is an exact copy of the vessel sailed by the Marquis de Lafayette in 1780 to notify his friend, General George Washington, that the French king had agreed to provide troops and resources to the flailing Continental Army. This week, the boat is docked in the Washington, D.C. area, fittingly near Mount Vernon, and various French and American entities are feting the occasion.

They have good reason. America’s first and longest ally is France, despite occasional variances in political dispositions. While it is undeniable that King Louis XVI relished the opportunity to avenge their defeat at the hands of the British in the French and Indian War a few decades prior, it was Lafayette who convinced le roi to take up the American cause in 1780.

Historian Laura Auricchio, who has spent nearly a decade studying the marquis, argues that without Lafayette, there would be no America at all. In an October 2014 discussion of her definitive work on the man, “The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered,” Auricchio says that Lafayette’s advocacy for the American people was directly responsible for the French troops, supplies and navy that ultimately propelled the U.S. to victory.

“I believe that we won the Revolutionary War thanks to French support – both naval and ground support from France,” Aurrichio explains. “In a way, I think Lafayette really forced the French government out into the open with their support of America, and that in turn, led to the winning of the war.”

So, who was this tenacious French aristocrat and why did he care about America, anyway?

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At the age of 19, Lafayette left France to aid the Americans in their fight for indepence | Painting: Francesco Giuseppe Casanova

As a teenager, Lafayette was known as the wealthiest orphan in all of France. He enjoyed a world-class education in Paris that primed him for every aristocratic comfort. At a young age, he married into one of France’s wealthiest families.

But, Lafayette felt trapped in the ballrooms of the French elite. He often humiliated his well-to-do in-laws by failing to pay proper respect to those of higher social rank and to the customs of their day. Despite his enviable status and his ever-amassing lot in life, Lafayette longed for the adventures of his childhood at a château in rural France, where he played with local children and hunted a mythical beast that was rumored to be terrorizing a nearby village.

His thrill-seeking nature was complemented by a philosophical stirring within him. Word was spreading across Europe that the colonists in America were rebelling against their British government, and many within the enlightened salons of Paris felt sympathy for these revolutionaries.

“He was very much influenced by the same ideals that influenced Jefferson, Washington, Madison and Monroe. He was someone who read all the documents they had read, and then he read their documents,” Aurrichio said.

Lafayette was determined to join the fight for American independence. There, far away from the constraints of the court of King Louis XVI, he could finally satiate his thirst for adventure in pursuit of a noble cause.

The royal court – and Lafayette’s anxious in-laws – forbade him from going. But this did not deter the 19-year-old marquis. In 1777, after a string of mishaps, Lafayette finally managed to sneak out of France on a ship he purchased, La Victoire, with a few friends, leaving behind his teenage wife, Adrienne, who was several months pregnant.

The young adventurers struggled through several weeks of a tumultuous journey. Despite persistent bouts of debilitating seasickness, Lafayette maintained a romantic view of the land for which he was preparing to fight and about the ideals for which it stood. En route to the Colonies, Lafayette wrote to Adrienne, “From the moment I heard the name ‘America,’ I loved her. I burned with a desire to spill my blood for her.”

Lafayette and his companions, outfitted at the expense of the marquis, landed in South Carolina in the summer of 1777, hundreds of miles from the acting revolutionary government in Philadelphia. So, the group traveled by horses and by foot until they finally arrived in the temporary capital, but they were immediately turned away by the confused Americans who were surprised to see several unannounced Frenchmen on their doorstep. A day later, a letter from Benjamin Franklin arrived from Paris, authenticating Lafayette’s lineage and urging the Continental Army to let him join– despite the fact that he had never seen a day of battle. The marquis immediately promised to serve without pay.

“From the moment I heard the name ‘America,’ I loved her. I burned with a desire to spill my blood for her.”

So, Washington cautiously took the young Frenchman under his wing, and over time, he grew fond of his eager protégé. He even directed his soldiers to allow Lafayette to be wounded in battle, believing it would foster within the new soldier an even greater commitment to his troops and to America. While recovering from a shot to the leg sustained at his inaugural battle at Brandywine, Lafayette’s romanticism about America flourished, just as Washington had suspected it would.

It was also during this time that the marquis discovered that politicians and other military men were conspiring to overthrow Washington as the Continental Army’s commanding general. Lafayette, who was unshakeable in his loyalty to the Virginian, immediately reported what he heard. Washington was both infuriated by what he learned (the plot was promptly thwarted) and touched by the decency of Lafayette. This would spark a lifelong relationship, and the marquis began referring to Washington as his “adoptive father.” Lafayette so admired the general for his character and his courage that he named his firstborn son Georges Washington and his daughter Virginie after his home state.

Throughout the American Revolution, tales of Lafayette’s military triumphs spread throughout the U.S. and France. He was heralded for his strategic mind and bravery on the battlefield, as well as his willingness to forego his rank and status to serve alongside the colonists. Emboldened by his popularity in the U.S., Lafayette decided to return to France to appeal to King Louis XVI for aid for the Americans.

After enduring a largely ceremonial eight-day house arrest for sneaking out of France, Lafayette was finally granted the support of the French government. For a few years, the French had been secretly sending supplies to the Americans, but Lafayette’s impassioned plea moved the monarch who sent thousands of troops, additional supplies and a naval fleet that proved crucial to winning the war.

The young marquis joyfully returned to the U.S. in 1780 aboard L’Hermione to notify Washington of his wonderful news. The Americans were relieved to learn that help from one of the most sophisticated militaries in the world was on its way.

Lafayette would also go on to earn a reputation as a brilliant military mind. He played an invaluable role in several high profile battles, often evading British troops and outmaneuvering them at nearly every turn. The most consequential of these was the final battle of the American Revolution at Yorktown in 1781. Here, Lafayette drew the brutal British commander Charles Cornwallis and his troops into a trap, forcing the Red Coats to surrender to the Continental Army and ending the war.

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The first meeting of Lafayette and Washington in 1777.

When the Americans won their independence in 1783, Lafayette was lauded not only for his superb skills on the battlefields from Brandywine to Yorktown, but also for his unparalleled role in providing the resources and manpower necessary to win the Revolution. While he might have begun his military career as an uninvited soldier in the Continental Army, his successes and leadership skills earned him the rank of major general.

Word of Lafayette’s achievements – ones that would so greatly affect the course of human history – were all the talk in both America and France. He was nicknamed “The Hero of the Two Worlds,” a fitting title for a man who probably felt like a Frenchman in America and an American in France. While the French Revolution ultimately undermined his celebrity status at home, the American people revered him endlessly.

In his later years, Lafayette and his son traveled to the U.S. He was welcomed to America by a crowd of more than 17,000 people in New York (the population of the city was approximately 25,000, so this is nothing short of incredible). He spent months traveling across the expanding United States, and everywhere he went, he was met with adoring crowds, parades and balls. Newspapers published emotional proclamations of the country’s admiration for him, and commemorative coins were even minted to mark the occasion.

Today, more than 40 cities and counties across the U.S. pay homage to the great marquis with their names – from Fayette County, Penn., to Lafayette, Oregon. There is a university named after him. There is even a historical society dedicated to his memory, the American Friends of Lafayette. And perhaps the greatest homage to him is the continuation of a relationship he forged years ago – that of the U.S. and France.

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Lafayette (left) visited George Washington at his home at Mt. Vernon, VA during his return trip to America in 1784. | Painting: Rossiter & Mignot

But, life wouldn’t always be so splendid for the marquis. When he first arrived in the U.S., he was struck by the condition of slaves, and he later begged Washington to liberate those he owned at Mount Vernon. In hopes of eradicating slavery worldwide, Lafayette became an active participant in the abolitionist movement, and he and his wife purchased a plantation in French Guyana with the intention of freeing the slaves there. Unfortunately, during the French Revolution, the government seized all of his property, including the plantation and the slaves who worked on it, thereby keeping them enslaved. This was heartbreaking for the Lafayettes and a source of great regret for the marquis.

For all the good deeds and intentions of the Marquis de Lafayette, he was still subject to the weaknesses of his own humanity. Early in his marriage, he maintained numerous affairs with well-known ladies of French society, a practice he soon abandoned after his arranged union to Adrienne blossomed into a loving marriage. Lafayette also received widespread criticism, including from President John Adams, for his impulsiveness and overenthusiasm, which sometimes attracted trouble for him and for others.

Lafayette constantly wrestled with an unquenchable desire to be admired. Like so many of his time, he was tortured by the unceasing obligation to conduct himself in a manner that would invite and sustain public adoration. Glory, especially in retrospection by posterity, was of greater importance to him than the livres of his massive fortune. Sadly, as Lafayette would later learn during the French Revolution, such affection is often fleeting.

Although he was celebrated upon his return from America, Lafayette’s insistence on moderation in his home country threatened his legacy in France. He sought to reconcile the American values written upon his heart with the unavoidable reality of France’s longstanding (but deteriorating) social condition by achieving some semblance of balance within changing governmental structures.

“Humanity has won its battle. Liberty now has a country.”

The marquis drafted his own “declaration of independence” for the French people, and he requested that his old friend Thomas Jefferson review it. The American statesman was surprised to learn that Lafayette’s French document would uphold his nation’s monarchal heritage while enumerating the rights of the people. When Jefferson explained to the marquis that his proposed governing document was a dramatic departure from its American inspiration, Lafayette contended that France’s millennial tradition of a king was simply too ingrained to abandon entirely (he was later proven right: the rule of Napoleon was arguably as tyrannical, and in the end, the French restored their monarchy).

While his repeated attempts to maintain order in the months leading up to the French Revolution staved off the pending death and destruction for a year or two (which indubitably saved countless lives), it earned him a reputation among both sides as a “double dealer,” Aurrichio says. The nobility found him untrustworthy – after all, he was sympathetic to the plight of the common man and believed he should be guaranteed more rights – while the civilians thought him too cozy with the royal court. The press, which in the years following the American Revolution had heaped generous praise upon him, ridiculed Lafayette mercilessly, publishing numerous racy cartoons that portrayed the marquis as the lover of Marie Antoinette (which was odd, because the two weren’t terribly close, and she had another paramour, anyway).

Two centuries later, Marquis de Lafayette and his wife, Adrienne, are buried in a tucked away courtyard within the nondescript Cimetière de Picpus in the 12tharrondissement of Paris. They lay to rest amidst the graves of thousands of women, children and clergy slaughtered during the French Revolution. Nearby, there is a simple plaque naming the 1,300 guillotined individuals buried within two pits below. Nuns and custodians quietly tend to these modest monuments to once-great families who became casualties in that bloody war.

A few years before his death in 1834, Lafayette asked an aide to retrieve several barrels of dirt from Bunker Hill in Boston. Upon his burial at Picpus, his final wish would be granted to him – one that signified the life of consequence he lived and the cause for which he had been ready to die. The French aristocrat who risked his life and his treasure, all for an idea, was laid to rest in American soil.

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The statue to Lafayette stands in Lafayette square in front of the White House in Washington, DC.

Lafayette’s humble tomb would go unnoticed if it weren’t for the Order of the Cincinnati insignia flanked by American flags and plaques from patriotic organizations. While the French see him as a complicated figure from a complicated time, as Aurrichio puts it, the Americans see him only as a hero. Lafayette might be disappointed that his own countrymen fail to remember him in the glory he so desperately desired, but his new countrymen – the Americans – make up for it.

Despite the apparent affection Americans have for the marquis, Lafayette is not often considered among the list of the nation’s Founding Fathers. But, perhaps he has the greatest claim to such a distinction. Of the many who gave so much for the sake of this fledgling nation, he stood to gain the least.

In one of the many emotional addresses to Congress following the death of the marquis, President John Quincy Adams eulogized the departed Lafayette, saying, “Till the hour when the trump of the Archangel shall sound to announce that Time shall be no more, the name of Lafayette shall stand enrolled upon the annals of our race, high on the list of the pure and disinterested benefactors of mankind.”

Indeed, Lafayette had no political or financial interests in American independence, and in fact, practically bankrupted all of France for it. Then, for what would this young man sacrifice everything in a foreign land?

This Père Fondateu, President Adams explained, “devoted himself, his life, his fortune, his hereditary honors, his towering ambition, his splendid hopes, all to the cause of liberty.”

Throughout his extraordinary life, Lafayette’s greatest passion remained the pursuit of freedom for all people. He understood that mankind’s most basic yearning was to be free. And he was certain that the outcome of this great American Experiment would yield benefits the whole world would enjoy. He was right.

“Humanity has won its battle,” he wrote to Adrienne from the newly-liberated America. “Liberty now has a country.”

Ellen Carmichael is president of The Lafayette Company, a Washington, D.C.-based political consulting firm. She has served as a senior communications adviser for a Republican presidential campaign, Members of Congress and statewide elected officials. Follow her on Twitter at @ellencarmichael.