Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier Lafayette (1757-1834) was born into an illustrious, aristocratic family, but lost his father at the age of two and his mother at the age of thirteen. Upon his inheritance of large estates and an annual income, Lafayette found himself to be one of the wealthiest men in France. By the age of sixteen, he was a second lieutenant of a regiment commanded by his uncle the Marquis de Noailles. Thus, Lafayette began a military career that would lead him to international fame as the "hero of two worlds."[1] In 1774, relatives arranged his marriage to Adrienne de Noailles who was just fourteen and a half years old. The following year Lafayette joined the Freemasons, an association that prompted his determination to help the American colonists. Once the announcement of the Declaration of Independence was made, the Marquis signed on to serve the colonies without compensation, with the right to return to France if called to do so by his family or the King, and he purchased a ship to transport him to the United States.

Lafayette's modest proposal to a committee of Congress to begin as a volunteer led to his position of major general, but the American congressmen gave him no active command. General Washington took him under his wing, and Lafayette received his baptism by fire when he was wounded at the Battle of Brandywine in 1777. Congress then voted to give him command of a division of Virginia troops. He soon earned the title of "soldier's friend" for sharing the deprivations of army life with his men. He returned to France in 1779 to negotiate for naval support.

Lafayette Returns

Join us on November 17, 2024 for a special celebration commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Marquis de Lafayette visiting Thomas Jefferson at Monticello in November of 1824.

At the same time that he was proposing an invasion of Great Britain and a conquest of Canada, he organized a French army for expeditionary service in America. Lafayette greeted the Comte de Rochambeau and fifty-five hundred French infantrymen in Rhode Island in 1780. The following year George Washington implemented an attack to capture Benedict Arnold, who was at Hampton Roads. For this mission he entrusted twelve hundred New England troops to Lafayette, who marched to Head of Elk, on Chesapeake Bay. Governor of Virginia Thomas Jefferson assured Lafayette of his cooperation, saying that Virginia would be "indebted for it to a Nobleman who has already so much endeared himself to the Citizens of these States by his past Exertions and the very effectual aids he has been the means of procuring them."[2] At the same time that Jefferson welcomed the appointment, he worried that he could not offer the campaign much support. He warned Lafayette to expect oxen, not horses, and scows, not seaworthy vessels. Lafayette graciously accepted whatever help he could get from the legislature.

Although the French fleet did not arrive and lost the opportunity to capture Arnold, Lafayette marched his troops to Richmond just in time to prevent its occupation by the British army under Major General William Phillips. Jefferson finally met Lafayette shortly after his arrival there on April 29, 1781.[3] After Thomas Nelson succeeded Jefferson as governor, Jefferson felt compelled to vindicate his behavior during Colonel Banastre Tarleton's raid on Charlottesville. At this time, Lafayette wrote to Washington about Jefferson's official troubles: "the Governor does what He can the Wheels of His Government are so very rusty that no Governor whatever will be able to set them fiercely agoing, time will prove that Jefferson has been too severely charged."[4] When Lord Cornwallis marched northward and was joined by the troops formerly under Phillips, Lafayette skillfully retreated to avoid a battle he could not win. Then, with the arrival of Rochambeau's army and Washington's Continental Army, Cornwallis was besieged at Yorktown, where he surrendered on October 19, 1781. During the entire Virginia campaign, descriptions of Lafayette portray him as a model of virtue, courage, and wisdom. Basking in fame upon his return to France, Lafayette attained the rank of major general in the French army. As an American citizen (the only foreigner so honored until Congress conferred citizenship on Sir Winston Churchill in 1963) and a member of the Society of the Cincinnati, Lafayette established himself in Paris, where he hosted a salon and promoted republican principles. In 1784, when Jefferson received his post as minister plenipotentiary, Lafayette happened to be on his way to America to visit old colleagues. He regretted that he could not greet Jefferson, but he offered his hospitality: "My House, Dear Sir, my family, and Any thing that is mine are entirely at Your disposal and I Beg You will Come and See Mde. de Lafayette as You would act By Your Brother's wife. Her Knowledge of the Country May Be of Some Use to Miss Jefferson whom she will Be Happy to attend in Every thing that May Be Agreable to Her. Indeed, my dear Sir, I would Be very angry with You, if either You or she, did not Consider my House as a second Home ...."[5] Upon Lafayette's return to France, he introduced Jefferson to many people, including his cousin Madame de Tessé (whom he called aunt).

In an effort to establish a charter of liberties in France, Lafayette engaged in various philanthropic and humanitarian causes, including the restoration of civil rights to the French Protestants. Lafayette's services to America were invaluable. He attacked the tobacco monopoly of the farmers in an effort to eliminate the middle profits of British merchants and he opened up the French market for the New England fisheries. In 1786, when Jefferson considered a blockade of the Barbary pirates, Lafayette offered his services as chief of operations. He convinced the French government to postpone the first payments of the American debt. During this time Jefferson arranged for the shipment of Houdon's bust of Lafayette (commissioned by the Virginia Assembly), which arrived in Richmond in 1787. Just two years later, Jefferson purchased his own Lafayette bust by Houdon, which was placed in the "gallery of worthies" in the Tea Room at Monticello.

Elected to the Estates-General in 1789, Lafayette soon acquired prominence as the commander of the Paris National Guard when the Bastille fell on July 14, 1789. After ordering the destruction of the Bastille, Lafayette wrote to Washington: "Give me leave, My dear General, to present you With a picture of the Bastille just as it looked a few days after I Had ordered its demolition, with the Main Kea of that fortress of despotism—it is a tribute Which I owe as A Son to My Adoptive father, as an aid de Camp to My General, as a Missionary of liberty to its patriarch."[6] Lafayette had become responsible for the security of Louis XVI (whom most had never expected to see again) at the same time that he became the leader of the revolution. Martha Jefferson Randolph treasured a memento from the event, a tricolor cockade, the unifying symbol of the National Guard. She watched from a window as Lafayette led the sovereign through the streets of Paris as the crowds shouted his name, and she remembered that he bowed to her.[7]

Lafayette proceeded to persuade the French National Assembly to adopt the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen," a document he drafted in cooperation with Jefferson. Although Lafayette helped to secure a statement of fundamental rights, he lost all influence as the French Revolution entered its most radical phase (August 1792). Jefferson had warned Lafayette of zealous republicanism, and he suggested the British constitution rather than the American as a model for the French. Jefferson never wavered in his support for Lafayette, however. Jefferson commented that Lafayette's chief fault was his "canine appetite for popularity," but he also appreciated his "good sense," "sound genius," and "efficacious" manner; Jefferson added that Lafayette would rise above his desire for fame.[8] Upon Jefferson's return to America and his acceptance of his new post as Secretary of State, he wrote to Lafayette, "Wherever I am, or ever shall be, I shall be sincere in my friendship to you and to your nation. ... So far it seemed that your revolution had got along with a steady pace: meeting indeed occasional difficulties and dangers, but we are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty, in a feather-bed."[9]

Yet no matter how useful he had been as a mediator for American interests in France, Lafayette was forced to flee for his life during the reign of Robespierre. When France declared war on Austria, the Marquis was quite vocal in his support of the King. So when Louis XVI was deposed, the National Assembly impeached Lafayette. He was captured by the Austrians in Holland. Lafayette went from being the most popular figure in France to being incarcerated from 1792-1797 in Austria, where he was joined by his family. Neither Congress, nor Gouverneur Morris, nor George Washington could obtain his release. Napoleon eventually negotiated his release, but Lafayette remained in exile in Holland and Germany until 1799. At that time he was able to return to La Grange, an estate his wife managed to gain control of, even though many of her family had been guillotined and the family fortunes destroyed. Lafayette spent the years of Napoleon's reign with his family, a son named George Washington, two daughters, Anastasie and Virginie, and his wife (who died in 1807), living the life of a gentleman farmer.

Lafayette returned to public life during the era of the Restoration of the monarchy. Elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1818, his symbolic status as a representative of France's revolutionary past enabled others to look to him for inspiration for France's liberal future. He even cooperated with a secret Carbonari plot to overthrow the French regime by force, but most of his political activity took the form of speeches, letters, and meetings. Jefferson and Lafayette shared a rich correspondence during this time, discussing, among other topics, the new University of Virginia, the means of maintaining political independence for the republics in South America, and slavery. Lafayette challenged Jefferson: "While I feel an inexpressible delight in the progress of Every thing that is Noble minded, Honourable, and Useful throughout the United States, I find, in the Negros Slavery, a great draw-Back Upon My Enjoyments. ... this Wide Blot On American Philantropy and Civilisation is Ever thrown in my face When I indulge my Patriotism in Encomiums, otherwise Undisputable. ... I Would Like, Before I die, to be assured that progressive and Earnest Measures Have Been adopted to Attain, in due time, So desirable So necessary an object."[10]

In 1824 Lafayette accepted an official invitation from President James Monroe and Congress to visit the U.S. Not only did the invitation give the U.S. the opportunity to express its gratitude to the only surviving major general of the American Revolution, it also enabled Lafayette to restore his political clout and fortune. Defeated in the February 1824 election to the Chamber of Deputies, discredited for his role in the Carbonari conspiracies, and finding himself in financial straits, Lafayette hoped to serve the liberal cause in France. He publicized the trip's political significance by sending reports to the French press through his secretary, Auguste Levasseur. If the trip was advantageous to Lafayette, it was also a boon to fledgling American industries. Printers, glassblowers, and other craftsmen vied with each other to produce souvenirs – from snuff boxes, ribbons, flasks, bottles, and bandanas to engravings, songs, and plays. Levasseur left the only eyewitness report of the entire tour. Although at times he could not keep dates straight, his two-volume work, published in France in 1828 and in two American translations in 1829, remains the most accurate account of a visit that unified the disparate twenty-four states of America.

Lafayette arrived at Staten Island on August 15. For over a year, his tour provoked demonstrations of an enthusiasm without precedent in American history. After his reception in New York, he traveled across New England to Boston, and then southward through Philadelphia and Baltimore, making leisurely stays everywhere. After a long stay in Washington, D.C., he joined the October anniversary celebrations at Yorktown. He visited Monticello from November 4-15 and then returned to Washington for official events and receptions during most of the winter. At the end of February, he went southward through the coastal states and to New Orleans. He made his way to St. Louis before traveling back to the east on a route that passed through Nashville, Louisville, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and dozens of small towns. He visited Braddock's Field, Lake Erie, Niagara Falls, and other American battlefields. He returned to Boston for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill. He visited New York City four times on this trip, and before he left, he enjoyed a final visit with Jefferson from August 18-21. Lafayette attended more receptions in Washington before his departure for France on September 8, 1825, on the new frigate "Brandywine," named in honor of his first battle.

Although the tour was orchestrated as a public event and generated optimism about the consequences of legal and political equality in a democratic society, Lafayette also took time to make private visits with old friends like John AdamsAlbert Gallatin, and Thomas Jefferson. Lafayette informed Jefferson of his plans to travel south and Jefferson replied that "our little village of Charlottesville insists also on recieving you."[11] Lafayette had to postpone his arrival at Monticello for several weeks, and when he finally arrived at the county line, Jefferson sent him a letter of welcome through his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph. On November 4, Lafayette entered Albemarle County. After a brief ceremony and a lunch at Mrs. Boyd's tavern, he set out for Monticello at noon in a landau drawn by four gray horses. A long procession accompanied him. Amidst a number of spectators, a bugle announced his approach, and two lines, one of ordinary citizens and one of cavalrymen, formed on two sides of the ellipse on the east front of the house.

Lafayette's memoirs include a description of the visit: "Mr. Jefferson received me with a strong emotion. I found him much aged, without doubt, after a separation of thirty-five years, but bearing marvelously well under his eighty one years of age, in full possession of all the vigor of his mind and heart which he has consecrated to the building of a good and fine university.... To-day [November 8] we visited this beautiful institution which occupies the honored old age of our illustrious friend. His daughter Mrs. Randolph lives with him; he is surrounded by a large family and his house is admirably located. We attended a public banquet in Charlottesville, MM. Jefferson and Madison were with us; the answer which Mr. Jefferson had read to the toast in his honor brought tears to everybody's eyes."[12] It was in this toast that Jefferson summarized Lafayette's contributions to the American Revolution: "[W]hen I was stationed in his country for the purpose of cementing it's friendship with ours and of advancing our mutual interests, this friend of both was my most zealous and powerful auxiliary and advocate. he made our cause his own as it was in truth that of his native country also. his influence and connections there were great. all doors of all departments were open to him at all times, to me only formally & at appointed times. in truth I only held the nail, he drove it."[13]

Podcast: A Visit to Remember - Lafayette at Monticello

In 1824, an aging Marquis de Lafayette made a triumphant return to the young nation he fought for as a teenager, touring the growing United States from New England to New Orleans. Lafayette's travels included an emotional reunion at Monticello with fellow revolutionary Thomas Jefferson. His twelve-day visit, which was marked by dinners and celebrations, struck many as memorable at the time, including two men enslaved at Monticello for whom, even decades later, Lafayette's visit held special meaning.

After the visit, the two friends continued their correspondence. Jefferson convinced Lafayette to deposit his money with the Bank of the United States. Lafayette sent Jefferson the recently published book of Flourens on the nervous system of vertebrates. Lafayette continued to encourage Jefferson in his ideas "to facilitate the Emigration of Coloured people."[14] Although Jefferson's health was greatly impaired, Lafayette returned to Monticello for one last visit. Lafayette found Jefferson in acute pain and offered to help by obtaining medicine for Jefferson in Paris. He wrote: "We have just made a tour of Virginia to pay our leaving calls to friends of fifty years standing, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe. The first one is much weakened; he was not able to attend the public banquet given by his dear University. These partings and many others are very painful."[15] Before he left, Jefferson reminded Monroe of Lafayette's financial troubles, and Congress rewarded him with $200,000 and a grant of land in Florida.[16] The tour enabled Lafayette to regain some political prestige in France, but although he participated in the French Revolution of 1830 and the Polish Revolution against Russia in 1830-1831, he never fulfilled his dream of establishing a republic in France. The reaction to his death, both in America and in France, was enormous. John Quincy Adams read a three-hour eulogy before both houses of Congress, and President Andrew Jackson set a time of national mourning. In fear of demonstrations, the French government forbade a public funeral, and Lafayette was buried under guard in Picpus Cemetery in Paris, his grave covered with American soil.

- RLB, 10/96

Further Sources


  1. ^ See Lloyd S. Kramer, Lafayette in Two Worlds: Public Cultures and Personal Identities in an Age of Revolutions (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996). Most of the biographical information in this essay derives from Dictionary of American Biography (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1964).
  2. ^ Jefferson to Lafayette, March 2, 1781, in PTJ, 5:43. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  3. ^ Malone, Jefferson, 1:349.
  4. ^ Lafayette to Washington, September 8, 1781, Lafayette College. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  5. ^ Lafayette to Jefferson, October 11, 1784, in PTJ, 7:439. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  6. ^ Lafayette to Washington, March 17, 1790, in The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, ed. Dorothy Twohig, Mark A. Mastromarino, and Jack D. Warren (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996), 5:242. Transcription available at Founders Online. See also Stanley J. Idzerda, "Lafayette, Apostle of Liberty," in Lafayette, Hero of Two Worlds: The Art and Pageantry of His Farewell Tour of America, 1824-1825 (Flushing, NY: Queens Museum, 1989), 29.
  7. ^ Mrs. O.J. Wister and Miss Agnes Irwin, eds., Worthy Women of Our First Century (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1877), 22.
  8. ^ Jefferson to James Madison, January 30, 1787, in PTJ, 11:95. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  9. ^ Jefferson to Lafayette, April 2, 1790, in PTJ, 16:293. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  10. ^ Lafayette to Jefferson, June 1, 1822, in Gilbert Chinard, The Letters of Lafayette and Jefferson (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1929), 357. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  11. ^ Jefferson to Lafayette, September 3, 1824, in Chinard, Letters, 421. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  12. ^ Chinard, Letters358-59.
  13. ^ Thomas Jefferson: Address at University of Virginia, November 5, 1824, in S.K. Padover, ed., The Complete Jefferson (New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, Inc., 1943), 447-48. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  14. ^ Lafayette to Jefferson, December 9, 1824, in Chinard, Letters, 426-30. Transcription available at Founders Online. Israel Jefferson said that he overheard a conversation between Lafayette and Jefferson in which Lafayette told Jefferson that slaves should be free. See Lafayette's Visit to Monticello (1824).
  15. ^ Chinard, Letters361. On November 24, 1825, Lafayette wrote to Jefferson that he would receive the medicine soon (unpublished manuscript, University of Virginia). For another reference to Lafayette's solicitude of sending a "supply which would have been sufficient for twenty patients," see George Tucker, The Life of Thomas Jefferson (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1837), 2:479.
  16. ^ Idzerda, Lafayette, 55.