Hero of Two Worlds: Marquis de Lafayette

Marquis de Lafayette Courtesy Library of Congress

Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier was born on September 6, 1757 at Chateau de Chavaniac in Auvergne, France. He was born to Michel Louis Christophe Roch Gilbert Paulette du Motier and Marie Louise Jolie de La Rivière. However, the elder Lafayette was killed in 1759 at the Battle of Minden, never seeing his son. With this unfortunate incident, the title Marquis de Lafayette passed on to his child , known as Gilbert. Lafayette was raised by his doting female relatives, as his mother was frequently gone.

In 1768, much to his distress, Lafayette went to live with his mother, grandfather and great-grandfather in Paris. Two years later he lost his mother and great-grandfather within days of each other. With their deaths Lafayette came into an enormous inheritance. This wealth was even more expanded with his arranged marriage to Marie Adrienne Francoise de Noailles in 1774. Lafayette soon found himself a part of King Louis XVI’s court and hated it. He didn’t try to hide his feeling either.

In 1775 Lafayette learned of a rebellion in the North American colonies against the British government. From the time he heard of it his thoughts of liberty were ignited. Combining that with his desire for a career in the military and the fact that recent reorganizing in the French Army had demoted him, it seemed Lafayette’s chance for glory was on the American battlefield. He would need the approval of his in-laws, the Noailles, as he was underage. But the Noailles didn’t want the young marquis to go. So Lafayette got in contact with Johann de Kalb and Silas Deane. Lafayette made it clear to Deane that he wished to be made a major general (without pay), otherwise there was no hope the Noailles would give their approval. Despite America’s grim looking future and continual defeats, Lafayette wasn’t ready to give up, nor could he be persuaded by family or government to remain in France (the French government wasn’t quite ready to let Great Britain know they were supporting the American cause).

In 1777 Lafayette bought a ship he named La Victoire, which his in-laws didn’t know about. Without a word to the Noailles, Lafayette boarded the ship and prepared to sail to America. Louis XVI ordered Lafayette, who was in San Sebastian, back. The marquis was by this time unsure if he should proceed and traveled back to France where an influential friend intercepted him. He told Lafayette some fibs to change his mind. Lafayette returned to San Sebastian disguised as a courier to evade any authorities who would pick him up.

Washington and Lafayette in 1784 Courtesy Wikipedia

The La Victoire arrived in South Carolina in June 1777, making it past a British blockade. Lafayette traveled overland to get to Charleston, where he was at first greeted coolly. The townspeople eventually took a liking to him though. From Charleston, Lafayette moved on to Philadelphia to speak with Congress. At first Congress didn’t readily accept Lafayette, but the Frenchman was unperturbed. He wrote the officials of his desire to “serve at my own expense…[and] to serve at first as a volunteer”. With that the nineteen-year old Lafayette found himself a major general in the Continental Army. Even George Washington took a liking to Lafayette.

Lafayette proved himself very capable on the battlefield. At the Battle of Brandywine when troops began to run, Lafayette pulled them together. But despite this the American troops were unable to hold up and had to retreat. During the battle Lafayette was wounded in the leg and his aides had to help him mount his horse. Washington had his personal surgeon tend to Lafayette saying “Treat him as if he were my son”. Lafayette continued to prove himself and with the support of Washington was given his own division.

In 1778 Lafayette battled the winter elements along the way to Canada. Taking Canada had been General Horatio Gates’s idea, which neither Washington or Lafayette were thrilled about. By late February Lafayette realized the task was impossible and was ready to call it quits.

Having received his leave Lafayette  arrived in France in February 1779, where he was promptly arrested and placed under house arrest for 8 days. This was his punishment for having ignored Louis XVI’s order to return to France. But much of the French sympathy was with Lafayette and he was lauded as the Hero of Two Worlds. While in France Lafayette sought to gain support for the idea of attacking Britain. This materialized when a French and Spanish fleet set sail to invade the Isle of Wright and Portsmouth. However the voyage was wracked with bad luck and the invasion never took place.

Washington and Lafayette at Yorktown Courtesy Library of Congress

By April 1780 Lafayette was back in America and with him French reinforcements (France had become America’s ally in 1778). In October 1781, Cornwallis was trapped in Yorktown, Virginia. Lafayette’s soldiers took place in the siege, capturing British redoubts. On October 19, Cornwallis surrendered. Following the surrender enemy action became limited. Lafayette retuned to France in 1782 where he was awarded the Cross of the Order of St. Louis and promoted to field marshal in the French army.

Lafayette’s post-American Revolution life was tumultuous, as his popularity soared and plummeted. Lafayette wanted reforms brought to France, but the king would have nothing of it. Different circumstances combined brought about the French Revolution. But it was a disappointment to Lafayette. When they had been alive and although at times discourteous to Lafayette for his beliefs, the royal family had been in Lafayette’s charge. Mobs had reigned in Paris and violence wasn’t unheard of as radicals fueled the mobs. Lafayette was for some time in charge of the National Guard, but had resigned in 1791 and left for his home. He later rejoined the army, but his troops were undisciplined. The rebellion in the ranks had caused several French officers to resign in disgust (one officer had been murdered by his troops). Lafayette didn’t resign.

Lafayette in later years Courtesy Library of Congress

After the execution of the king and queen, the radicals went after Lafayette. Lafayette fled, but was captured and imprisoned in Austria. His plan had been for his family to move to America. His wife, Adrienne and two daughters left France to live with Lafayette in prison. Adrienne had been threatened with the guillotine, but Gouverneur Morris had managed to get her out of that one. Once released from prison Adrienne was in bad health. Unable to return to France, the Lafayettes went to live with Adrienne’s sister in Denmark. The family returned to France in 1799, with Lafayette promising Napoleon Bonaparte that he would not take part in politics. Adrienne died in 1807.

After Napoleon was exiled, Lafayette returned to politics and again fell out of favor with the new king. In 1824 Lafayette visited the US. When he returned to France Lafayette had with him a trunk of American dirt. Having lived an eventful life, Lafayette died of pneumonia on May 20, 1834 in Paris. He we given a military funeral and mourned in America and France.

Source : Leepson, Marc. Lafayette : Lessons in Leadership From the Idealist General.

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51 thoughts on “Hero of Two Worlds: Marquis de Lafayette

  1. I’d heard of him briefly. Strange character. Not very pro-British was he? 😀 More seriously sounds like all people who move around and live abroad, you are neither at home in your native country nor the one you adopt (said to us by a Dutchman years ago living in Australia).

    Liked by 1 person

    • No he wasn’t, at least not in his early years. His grandmother made sure Lafayette got it through his head that his father had been killed by the British during the Seven Years War/French and Indian War. That no doubt influenced his thinking.

      Sounds like the Dutchman knew what he talking about. Lafayette just couln’t win. His fellow Frenchmen thought he was going against their Revolution and the Austrians thought he was for the Revolution. Must’ve been frustrating.

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    • Yes it was. He certainly must have had alot of faith in the cause to have come here anyway when we were losing battles left and right. And to defy the French monarchy too.

      Thanks for your comment.

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  2. The vids are a nice touch and something for me to keep in mind when my grandson gets a little older. I’ve always admired Lafayette but knew little of his before or after the Revolution life. Thanks for filling in the gaps.

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    • You’re welcome. I highly recommend the Liberty’s Kids series, which those videos are apart of.

      I think one of the reason Lafayette was better accepted by Americans when he came to fight in the Revolution, was because he was humble.

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  3. For some reason, even though I’ve been following you for a while, your posts have not appeared in my reader. Now I’ll have to spend some quality time perusing your blog!

    The Marquis is one of my favorite people from the Revolution. Him and Baron von Steuben. Thank you so much for this!

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    • Yeah, I run into some glitches with WordPress now and then. Glad to have you aboard.

      I have been planning for a post on Baron von Steuben for awhile now. Since you are interested in him, I’ll be sure to do a post on him. Thanks for stopping by.

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  4. J.G., here’s a post I wrote back in 2008 that briefly mentions a personal connection between Lafayette’s later return visit to America and my hometown in Central Virginia:

    http://uncleham.wordpress.com/2008/01/24/hometown-history/

    Thanks for this post on Lafayette, I had read very little about his European history before your post. I also very much look forward to your post on Von Steuben. Both men contributed enormously to the American cause during the Revolution.

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  5. Lafayette’s return tour to the U.S. in 1824 is completely fascinating, and worth looking into. Americans were quite excited to show off the country he’d helped them found, and he went everywhere.

    That being said, my favorite Lafayette story happened long after his death. When the American army arrived in France in 1917, General Pershing and his staff made it a point to visit Lafayette’s tomb. Upon his arrival, the great Frenchman was saluted, and Colonel Stanton, of Pershing’s staff stated:

    “America has joined forces with the Allied Powers, and what we have of blood and treasure are yours. Therefore it is that with loving pride we drape the colors in tribute of respect to this citizen of your great republic. And here and now, in the presence of the illustrious dead, we pledge our hearts and our honor in carrying this war to a successful issue. Lafayette, we are here.”

    Repayment of a debt as it were. Anyway, the words were attributed to Pershing, but the story is still a great one.

    Keep up the great posts.

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    • That’s what I had read about the 1824 visit. I believe one of the cities he visited was Fayetteville, North Carolina, which had been named after him and that his son named after Washington traveled with him, as well.

      Interesting quote, the only bit I’ve ever heard is “Lafayette, we are here”.

      Thanks for your comment.

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    • Thanks for sharing Lafayette’s story. In college, I had an American history professor tell us this too. The U.S. flag has remained over his grave since the end of WWI. A great part of our history!

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    • Thank you, I’m happy you liked the post! I’ve known some about Lafayette since I was about 9 or around that and since then have read many of his biographies. He was a fascinating person. Thanks for your comment!

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  6. Interesting article on Lafayette. Thanks for reading my blog and my Legacy story. If you aren’t following it, I hope you will consider doing so. I will follow your blog and see what else you have in store! beebeesworld

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    • Thanks for subscribing and I will most certainly be following your blog through the Google Reader. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed. Thanks for stopping by and for your comment!

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  7. Another great history lesson. This Marquis de Lafayette is a case study in perseverance. Although, I must say it’s a wee bit ironic that America owes its freedom at least partially to the French.

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  8. I live near Brandywine Battlefield and just recently took a private tour with my son for a school project. We learned a lot about our French hero Marquis de Lafayette! Very interesting because I don’t remember learning a lot about him in school. Now I know why there are so many streets named “Lafayette”. 🙂 Enjoyed your post.

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