Who Was Lafayette?

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General Lafayette Park TheaterThe eventual “hero of two worlds,” Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette, was born of nobility in France in 1757.

Lafayette’s father was killed by the British in the battle of Minden in 1759, and the young Lafayette inherited a castle, a fortune, and the title of Marquis. As he reached his adolescence, Lafayette was one of the richest men in France and its most eligible bachelor. In 1774, through an arrangement, Lafayette married Adrienne de Noailles, daughter of a most powerful and well-connected French family. She was twelve and he fourteen when the marriage was arranged.

More than anything else, Lafayette wished to be a soldier and avenge his father’s death. Unfortunately, when he came of age, France wasn’t at war with England. So, in 1777, Lafayette—disobeying the King’s orders—bought his own boat and sailed for America to fight against England and finally fulfill his dream.

Upon his arrival, the twenty-year old summarily informed George Washington that he was ready to command troops. Since, however, the young man had no combat or leadership experience, Washington rejected the plea. Washington, however, liked the earnest young man and agreed to take him under his wing. Also, it probably didn’t hurt that Lafayette was enormously wealthy and influential in France—and could therefore be in a position to help the colonial cause.

In September, 1777, Lafayette’s lucky star shone down on him. The British had disembarked a large body of troops in New Jersey with an intent to capture Philadelphia. The colonial army attempted to stop them with a full frontal attack. Washington, however, noticed a flanking movement by the British and dispatched a small company to deflect it. Lafayette joined this company and, after doing so, rushed to the head of the troops, urging them to charge. In the middle of the action, Lafayette was hit in the lower calf by a bullet. The wound was not so severe to endanger Lafayette’s life or even his limb, but it was enough to make a hero of the bold (some say foolhardy) Frenchman who, under fire, had shed blood for the American cause.

Lafayette was perfectly poised to do what he did best—to serve as the essential Franco-American go-between, and he was most effective in his role. Throughout the remainder of the revolutionary war, Lafayette time and again badgered France into providing supplies, money, and troops to the revolutionary army.

His valor also won him the respect of American generals who gave him increasing responsibility and eventually allowed him to formally lead American troops. One evening in May, 1778, Lafayette’s company was surprised by the British shortly after nightfall. Trapped, Lafayette coolly dispatched decoys to fool the English troops while evacuating the bulk of his men to safety. This cunning move further burnished Lafayette’s reputation both stateside and in France.

As his reputation grew, so did his relationship with George Washington. In fact, Washington became the spiritual father that Lafayette never had, and Lafayette became the son that the impotent Washington never sired.

As a commander, Lafayette came to realize how poorly supplied the American troops were, and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own fortune to fortify the colonials. His military success and generosity put Lafayette in a unique position to appeal to recalcitrant state governments. The states had varying levels of enthusiasm for the revolutionary war, and there was little central coordination. As a “disinterested observer” without a native state or regional affinity, Lafayette could cajole the states in a way that no one else could. If Lafayette hadn’t served this “middleman” role, there is little doubt that the colonies would have failed in their revolutionary effort.

By 1780, the Major General Lafayette was commanding nearly 2,200 American troops and was viewed as the official representative of France to the U.S. He eventually negotiated for France to deliver substantial numbers of troops, and in 1781 eighteen hundred French sailors arrived. Lafayette marched his troops to Yorktown, where the British had decamped a large portion of its army. On October 6, the allies attacked and by noon on October 19th, the British surrendered in what was to be their largest defeat. It was a resounding victory, led by Washington, but impossible without Lafayette.

Returning to France, Lafayette’s love for liberty led him to join the noblemen who favored a revolution of their own. After the revolutionaries stormed the Bastille in 1789, Lafayette was made commander in chief of the new national guard, organized to safeguard the Revolution’s secure place in France.

In the following months, however, Lafayette became dismayed at the growing and violent excesses of the revolutionaries and came to believe that France was not ready for a pure democratic revolution. He thus championed a limited monarchy with a democratically elected senate. Such a monarchy, however, was overthrown in 1792 and Lafayette’s now-compromised position left him branded as a traitor. To escape arrest and Robespierre’s guillotine, Lafayette fled to Belgium where he was imprisoned by the Austrians.

For five years, from 1792 to 1797, Lafayette remained captive in a damp, moldy Prussian prison cell without heat, light, or decent food. The harsh treatment scandalized a substantial portion of the civilized world, including his wife Adrienne. So troubled was she that Adrienne successfully pleaded with the King of Prussia to allow her—and the two Lafayette daughters—to be jailed alongside the Marquis. The reunited Lafayettes were treated like animals and it was a wonder that the two girls remained relatively healthy.

Finally, in 1797, after a letter writing campaign that included contributions from James Monroe and now-President George Washington, Napoleon released Lafayette. Despite the favor of Clemency, Lafayette disapproved of Napoleon’s rule and therefore assumed a low political profile. After Napoleon was overthrown and the monarchy restored, Lafayette remained generally inactive until the people were again seriously oppressed. He then rose to lead the opposition and, in 1830, he took part in his third national revolution. Now seventy three years of age, Lafayette commanded the Army of the National Guard that drove Charles X from France and placed on the throne Louis Philippe, the so-called “citizen king”.

In 1824—nearly 50 years after his first victory in America, Lafayette toured the United States on a farewell tour. During this visit, the U.S. Congress voted to give him $200,000 (worth the equivalent of $3 million 1983 dollars) and twenty-five thousand acres of Federal lands. This was a welcome gift, for his own property had been taken during the French Revolution. During his tour, Lafayette visited Fayetteville, North Carolina and noted that many other towns and cities in the fast-growing United States had chosen to name themselves after the famous French hero who had played an essential role in defeating the British (Note: it wasn’t until 1857, however, that Benjamin Shreve, postmaster of a small, oak-studded farming town in Northern California learned that his first choice for a town name, Centerville, was already taken and settled on Lafayette, instead).

Finally, on May 20, 1834, at the age of seventy-six, Lafayette pressed a medallion bearing a portrait of his beloved Adrienne to his lips and succumbed to a months-long bout with pneumonia.