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.
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 which neither Washington or Lafayette were thrilled about. By late February Lafayette realized the task was impossible and was ready to call it quits. ’s idea,
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.
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.
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.