Gilbert Lafayette

Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert-DuMotier Lafayette
(September 6, 1757 – May 20, 1834)
Gilbert Lafayette was a French military officer and former aristocrat who participated in both the American and French revolutions. He permanently renounced the nobility and the title "Marquis" before the French National Assembly on June 19, 1790. Even though he was already adopted by George Washington, he was twice granted Honorary Citizenship of the United States, first in 1824 (along with his descendants in perpetuity), and again, posthumously in 2002; one of only six specific persons so honored.

Lafayette served in the American Revolutionary War both as a general and as a diplomat, serving entirely without pay in both roles. Later, he was to prove a key figure in the early phases of the French Revolution, serving in the Estates General and the subsequent National Constituent Assembly. He was a leading figure among the Feuillants, who tried to turn France into a constitutional limited-monarchy, and commander of the French National Guard. Accused by Jean-Paul Marat of responsibility for the "Massacre of the Champ de Mars" (before which, Lafayette was nearly assassinated), he subsequently was forced out of a leading role in the Revolution by Jacobin-Terror anarchists. On August 19, 1792, the Jacobin party seized control of Paris and the National Assembly, ordering Lafayette's arrest. He fled France and was arrested by the Austrian army in Rochefort, Belgium. Thereafter, he spent five years in various British Empire-Allied- (Prussian and then Austrian) Empire prisons. After a strenuous effort by his brave wife, that was aided by the French Directory that forced Napoleon's Army toward Austria, he was released in 1797; however, Napoleon did not want Lafayette to return to France and hoped he would leave forever to the United States. After 3 years in exile he quietly returned (aided--again, by his wife) and continued to be active in French and European politics until his death in 1834.

Early life

Lafayette was born at the Château de Chavaniac, near Le Puy-en-Velay, Haute-Loire, in the remote, volcanic-mountainous, Province of Auvergne, also known as the "Appalachia of France." His father was killed at the Battle of Minden in 1759 by a British cannon ball, and his mother and grandfather died in 1770. He was educated by his aunt and two priests (the second was the Abbe Fayon, Cure de Saint-Roch de Chavaniac), and at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand. At the age of 16, Lafayette chose to follow the career of his father and grandfather, entering the French army on April 9, 1771. At the age of 16 he married Marie-Adrienne de Noailles, daughter of Jean-Paul-François, 5th duc de Noailles. Known as "Adrienne" or "Noailles Lafayette," she was famous for her simplicity, extraordinary charity, and bravery.

Departure from France

At 19, he was a captain of dragoons when the British colonies in America proclaimed their independence. He later wrote in his memoirs, "my heart was enrolled in it." Charles-François, comte de Broglie, whom he consulted, tried to discourage him from getting involved in the conflict. Broglie eventually presented him to Johann Kalb, who was also seeking service in America. On December 7, 1776, Lafayette made an arrangement through Silas Deane, an American agent in Paris, to enter the American service as a major general. At this moment, news arrived of grave disasters to the American cause. Lafayette's friends "officially" advised him to give up. Even the king had to "officially" forbid his leaving after British spies discovered his plan (and other clandestine aid to Americans). At the insistence of the British ambassador, orders were issued to seize the ship Lafayette was fitting out at Bordeaux and to have Lafayette arrested. He eluded capture disguised as a courier and sailed for America with 11 companions. Although pursued by two British ships, he landed safely on North Island near Georgetown, South Carolina, on June 13, 1777 after a voyage of nearly two months.

American Revolution

Washington and Lafayette at Valley Forge
Washington and Lafayette at Valley Forge
Lafayette and Washington at Mt. Vernon, 1784
Lafayette and Washington at Mt. Vernon, 1784

Lafayette's introduction to America came at a dinner on August 8, 1775, when he met the Duke of Gloucester (brother of George III) who told him about the conflict in the colonies. With thoughts of the glory and excitement, Lafayette made plans to travel to America. He traveled with Baron Johan de Kalb, as both men wanted to go to America. He also met General Washington and a friendship developed between the two men that lasted as long as Washington lived. In addition to his military service, he contributed $200,000 of his own money to support the Revolution. He also helped persuade France to send more soldiers and supplies to the Americans.

Lafayette offered his services to the Americans as an unpaid volunteer. He presented himself to the Continental Congress with Deane's authority to request a commission of the highest rank after the commander-in-chief.

Congress then passed a resolution, on July 31, 1777, "that his services be accepted, and that, in consideration of his zeal, illustrious family, and connections, he have the rank and commission of major-general of the United States." The next day, Lafayette met George Washington, who became his lifelong friend. As a member of Washington's inner circle, Lafayette also became very close friends with young Alexander Hamilton, Washington's chief aide-de-camp.

Lafayette's first battle was Brandywine on September 11, 1777, where he was wounded in the leg. Shortly afterwards, he secured the command of a division — the immediate result of a communication from Washington to Congress of November 1, 1777, in which he said: "The Marquis de Lafayette is extremely solicitous of having a command equal to his rank. I do not know in what light Congress will view the matter, but it appears to me, from a consideration of his illustrious and, important connections, the attachment which he has manifested for our cause, and the consequences which his return in disgust might produce, that it will be advisable to gratify his wishes, and the more so as several gentlemen from France who came over under some assurances have gone back disappointed in their expectations. His conduct with respect to them stands in a favourable point of view—having interested himself to remove their uneasiness and urged the impropriety of their making any unfavourable representations upon their arrival at home. Besides, he is sensible, discreet in his manners, has made great proficiency in our language, and from the disposition he discovered at the battle of Brandywine possesses a large share of bravery and military ardour."

Monument to Lafayette erected in Paris by the schoolchildren of the USA
Monument to Lafayette erected in Paris by the schoolchildren of the USA

In the first months of 1778, Lafayette commanded troops detailed for the projected expedition against Canada. After that plan was aborted, Lafayette participated in the campaign in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where he was commended for his retreat from Barren Hill (May 28, 1778), and fought at the Battle of Monmouth (June 28). He received from Congress a formal recognition of his services in the Rhode Island expedition (August 1778).

Meanwhile, the signing of a formal Treaty of Alliance between the United States and France on February 6, 1778, prompted Great Britain to declare war against France. Lafayette asked leave to return to France to consult Louis XVI to further aid the Americans.

Lafayette left for France on January 11, 1779, where he was promoted from captain to "mestre de camp" in the French cavalry (approximately equal to colonel). After about six months of plotting, diverting (with John Paul Jones) and distracting the British from France, he returned to America, again serving as major-general at ~21 years old. From April until October 1781, he was charged with the defense of Virginia, where he showed his zeal by borrowing money on his own account to provide his soldiers with necessaries. Washington commended him for doing all that was possible with the forces at his disposal. In the siege of Yorktown, Lafayette bore an honorable if not a distinguished part.

At the end of 1781, Lafayette returned to France, where he was welcomed as a hero and promoted to the rank of maréchal de camp (brigadier general) in the French army. Lafayette then helped prepare for a combined French and Spanish expedition against the British West India Islands, of which he was appointed chief-of-staff. The armistice signed on January 20, 1783, between the countries put a stop to the expedition.

Views on slavery

Though Lafayette formerly owned slaves, he freed them and was actively interested in the abolitionist cause. After the end of the American war, he worked to free slaves in the Caribbean where the slave trade was booming. He urged Washington to free his slaves as an example to others. Lafayette purchased an estate in French Guiana and, assisted by his wife, arranged for freedom and education of these former slaves there, and he offered a place for Washington's slaves, writing "I would never have drawn my sword in the cause of America if I could have conceived thereby that I was founding a land of slavery." Washington did not free his own slaves in his lifetime, and although his last will deemed all his slaves free upon his death, no slaves were freed until the death of his wife, Martha. Lafayette's attempt in that anti-slavery cause in French Guiana was interrupted by the Jacobin Terror in which both Lafayette and his wife were imprisoned and nearly executed.

French Revolution

Lafayette did not appear again prominently in public life until 1787, when he took his seat in the Assembly of Notables. He was the one who demanded that the Estates-General be called at the Assembly of Notables, thus becoming a leader in the French Revolution. In 1788, he was deprived of his active command. In 1789, Lafayette was elected to the Estates-General as representative from Auvergne, and he took with him a document remarkably similar to that of the American Bill of Rights, which would be adopted that same year. When the Estates General convened on May 5, 1789 Lafayette was a member of the Second Estate, the Estate of the nobles. When King Louis XVI was confronted with difficulties of the Estates General, he closed the meeting room of the Third Estate and forced them to meet in the Tennis Court outside. Lafayette was among the first group of nobles who joined the Third Estate. This new group would call themselves the National Assembly and claim that they were the governing body in France. Lafayette rose to power quickly within the National Assembly, for on July 11, 1789 he presented the document he had brought with him, his Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens. On July 13, 1789 Lafayette was nominated and elected vice-president of the Assembly after it became apparent that the current President did not have stamina to continue with all the late night meetings. After his first night-long session as vice-president, Lafayette received word on July 14, 1789 that a mob in Paris had attacked the Bastille.

After hearing the news about the Bastille, Lafayette raced into Paris hoping to calm the mob. He was able to pacify them with a speech and after the conclusion he was elected to be the head of the Paris militia, a body of citizen-soldiers that took the name of the National Guard. On July 17, 1789 while Lafayette was escorting Louis XVI, an angry townsman handed the King the red and blue cockade of the city of Paris and demanded he wear it. The King in turn put it on next to the white of the Bourbons and Lafayette proclaimed that red, blue, and white were the new colors of the Revolution. For the next three years, until the end of the constitutional limited-monarchy in 1792, he played a significant role in the course of the Revolution. In October 1789, he rescued Marie Antoinette from the hands of the populace, as well as many others who had been condemned to death. He briefly resigned his commission, but was soon induced to resume it.

After being fired upon twice by a mob then pelted by a hail of rocks, under Mayor Bailly's desist and martial law orders, Lafayette orders his soldiers to fire on members of the Cordeliers, July 17, 1791

In the Constituent Assembly he pleaded for religious tolerance, popular representation, the establishment of trial by jury, the gradual emancipation of slaves, freedom of the press, the abolition of arbitrary imprisonment and of titles of nobility, and the suppression of privileged orders. He drafted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen which was adopted by the Assembly. In February 1790, he refused the supreme command of the National Guard of the kingdom.

Lafayette and other constitutional limited-monarchists who supported the Revolution in its early years founded the "Society of 1789", which afterwards became the Feuillants Club, taking a position between Royalist supporters of absolute monarchy and liberalist groups such as the Jacobins and Cordeliers, Lafayette took a prominent part in the celebration of July 14, 1790, the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. After suppressing a riot in April 1791 he again resigned his commission, and was again compelled to retain it. Louis XVI's deceptive flight to Varennes undermined the position of the constitutional limited-monarchists, especially Lafayette himself who, as Commander of the National Guard, had had the responsibility to keep the King secure. Shortly after, on July 17, 1791, a large crowd gathered at the Champ de Mars to sign a petition calling for the overthrow of the monarchy. Earlier the crowd beheaded two vagrants found sleeping under the Nation's Altar that the mob mistook for spies; the crowd then fired twice on the National Guard and pelted them with a hail of rocks. After martial law was ordered by Jean-Sylvain Bailly, the Mayor of Paris, the crowd was ordered to disperse, and when they did not, Lafayette ordered the National Guard to open fire and arrest the assassins in the crowd. About 50 people were killed in what became known as the "Massacre of the Champ de Mars", which decisively marked the end of the alliance between constitutional limited-monarchists and Jacobins which were now controlled by radicals like Jean-Paul Marat and Georges Danton. On the occasion of the proclamation of the constitution (September 18, 1791), Lafayette tried to retire into private life. This did not prevent his friends from proposing him for the mayoralty of Paris in opposition to Jérôme Pétion de Villeneuve.

In December 1791, Lafayette was placed in command of three armies formed on the eastern frontier to attack Austria. He was nevertheless opposed to the further advance of the Jacobin party, intending eventually to use his army for the restoration of a Constitutional, limited monarchy out of respect for the authentic Christian nature of Louis XVI. During this time printed attacks against Lafayette, especially from Jean-Paul Marat were at a crescendo. On August 19, 1792, the Assembly declared him a traitor and Georges Danton took control of the National Guard. Lafayette took refuge in the neutral territory of Liège, where he was taken and held as a prisoner of state for five years, first in Prussia and afterwards in Austrian prisons (1794–1797 in Olmutz, now Olomouc, in spite of intercession by the United States. During this time the Anglophile Holy Roman Emperor Francis II ruled. Francis II was opposite in political outlook from former Emperor Joseph II who was pro-American and pro-Lafayette but died too early in 1790 and is known as "The Poor Man's Emperor", and an anti-feudal, reformist like his brother-in-law Louis XVI. Very large subsidies were paid by the British Empire to Austria during this time. Several letters from Lafayette's wife state that the reason for Lafayette's prolonged imprisonment was the machinations of Pitt the Younger. Napoleon, however, was forced by the Directory (which was pro-Lafayette at that time), and stipulated in the preconditions of the Treaty of Campo Formio (1797) that Lafayette be released. He was not allowed to return to France by Napoleon who increasingly seized more power. Lafayette, after his wife's pleading to Napoleon, returned in 1799; in 1802 he voted against the life consulate of Napoleon, and in 1804, against the imperial title.

Later years

Portrait of General Lafayette (1757-1834), about 1825, probably by Matthew Harris Jouett (1788-1827) after Ary Sheffer, oil on canvas. Courtesy of the U.S. National Portrait Gallery, gift of the John Hay Whitney Collection.
Portrait of General Lafayette (1757-1834), about 1825, probably by Matthew Harris Jouett (1788-1827) after Ary Sheffer, oil on canvas. Courtesy of the U.S. National Portrait Gallery, gift of the John Hay Whitney Collection.

He lived in retirement during the First Empire, but returned to public affairs under the First Restoration and took some part in the political events of the Hundred Days. From 1818 to 1824, he was deputy for Sarthe, speaking and voting always on the Liberal side, even sympathizing with the Carbonari.

His last, invitational and triumphal visit to all 24 of the then United States of America (plus two territories-future states) was between July 1824 and September 1825. He arrived from France at Staten Island, N.Y.C. on August 15, 1824. Later in the trip, he received his honorary United States citizenship while attending the inaugural banquet of the University of Virginia, at Jefferson's invitation. He was voted, by the U.S. Congress, the sum of $200,000 and a township of land. On the recommendation of some friends, Lafayette chose a parcel of land that today makes up the northeast part of Tallahassee, Florida. Among other cities, he visited Fayetteville, North Carolina, the first city to have been named in his honor and St. Louis, Missouri where Lafayette Square Park was subsequently named in his honor. The 2nd Battalion, 11th New York Artillery, was one of many militia commands who turned out in welcome. This unit decided to adopt the title "National Guard", in honor of Lafayette's celebrated Garde Nationale de Paris. The Battalion, later the 7th Regiment, was prominent in the line of march on the occasion of Lafayette's final passage through New York en route before returning home to France on the frigate USS Brandywine that had 24 officers on board, as tributes, each representing his own home state, to which, all 24 of the United States were represented. Wherever he went he was honored by special ceremonies organized by American Masonic Lodges. Tradition has it that, with General Washington's sponsorship. Lafayette had been raised as a Master Mason in 1777 or 1778 shortly after his arrival in America. However, as Washington's letters show, by the end of the war, since some of the worst traitors like Benedict Arnold were masons, fraternal focus turned to the proven loyal in his Society of the Cincinnati, of which, one of the biggest Chapters was in France.

In 1824, he was the guest of honor at the first commencement ceremony of the George Washington University. Also in that year, he visited the town of Lexington, Massachusetts, where the first battle of the American Revolution had occurred.

From 1825 to his death, he sat in the Chamber of Deputies for Meaux. During the Revolution of 1830, he again took command of the National Guard and pursued the same line of conduct as in the first revolution. In 1834, he made his last speech, on behalf of Polish political refugees, many of whom he hid in the attic of his modest country home, Château La Grange (48 km (30 m) miles east of Paris, near Rozy-en-Brie, which had belonged to his wife's family. He was known to his country neighbors there for his extraordinary charity during times of famine and disease. He died in Paris on May 20, 1834 and was buried in the Cimetière de Picpus. He never remarried, and remained very devoted to his wife, who died in December 1807 apparently from complications due to lead and laudanum, medical-treatment-poisoning after she suffered chronic skin, TB, and other diseases that she contracted during three imprisonments, first in Auvergne, then Paris (during the height of the Terror when she was nearly guillotined), and later in a British subsidized, Austrian Empire dungeon for the later 2 years with her husband. Adrienne found her way deep into Austrian territory, in disguise (using a false passport) and by this self-sacrifice, drawing world-wide attention (especially from the then, shortly, pro-Lafayette French Directory that forced Napoleon, reluctantly) and thereby saved her husband's life when all the other American and British-Whig-minority-opposition rescue attempts failed.


A U.S. Postage Stamp commemorating Lafayette.
A U.S. Postage Stamp commemorating Lafayette.

Although he spent a total of less than five years in America (in 1776-79, 1780-81, 1784, and 1824-25), he was more admired there than perhaps any other foreign visitor in American history. In 1876, a monument was erected to him in New York City, and in 1883 another was erected at Le Puy. Lafayette Square in Buffalo, New York was named after him.

The typically Anglophile opinion in the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica (1911) said of Lafayette, "Few men have owed more of their success and usefulness to their family rank than La Fayette, and still fewer have abused it less. He never achieved distinction in the field, and his political career proved him to be incapable of ruling a great national movement; but he had strong convictions which always impelled him to study the interests of humanity, and a pertinacity in maintaining them, which, in all the strange vicissitudes of his eventful life, secured him a very unusual measure of public respect. No citizen of a foreign country has ever had so many and such warm admirers in America, nor does any statesman in France appear to have ever possessed uninterruptedly for so many years such a large measure of popular influence and respect. He had what Jefferson called a 'canine appetite' for popularity and fame, but in him the appetite only seemed to make him more anxious to merit the fame which he enjoyed. He was brave to rashness; and he never shrank from danger or responsibility if he saw the way open to spare life or suffering, to protect the dead, to sustain the law and preserve order."

Many U.S. counties, cities, towns and townships are named in his honor (Lafayette, Fayette, Fayetteville). Lafayette College was chartered in Easton, Pennsylvania in 1826. Three U.S. naval vessels have been named after him, the most recent being the nuclear Fleet Ballistic Missile submarine USS Lafayette (SSBN-616) which served until 1991. Even though he was already adopted by George Washington, Congress granted him honorary citizenship twice, first in 1824 for himself and his descendants and then again on August 6, 2002.

During World War II, the American flag was draped on his grave, even though it was in Nazi-occupied territory. Portraits of Washington and Lafayette hang to this day in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives. In France, a reconstruction of the frigate Hermione, in which Lafayette returned to America in 1779, has been located in Rochefort, Charente-Maritime, since 1997.

In 1958, former U.S. Representative Hamilton Fish III, a World War I veteran, founded the Order of Lafayette. Membership in the Order is based on service in France or French territories in either World War I or World War II, or descent from a veteran of those wars.