JULY / AUG 2014: BY FAITH WHITE
While most Americans have heard the name Lafayette, many of us don’t know who this influential man was. Yet from Fayetteville, Arkansas to Lafayette Street in New York, Lafayette’s influence on our culture is undeniable.
It all started 239 years ago in 1775 France. An 18 year old French nobleman, Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette listened with rapt attention as the Duke of Gloucester, King George III’s brother, spoke at a dinner party about his sympathetic views of the American Revolution. A fire burst in Lafayette’s heart that couldn’t be put out. He saw the Americans as fighting the tyrant British (of whom France had many issues with) for liberty and glory, and he desperately wanted a taste of it.
Lafayette sought out American help, particularly Silas Deane, an American diplomat to France, and asked for a position in the American army. But giant obstacles loomed in Lafayette’s path. As a high ranking, affluent nobleman married into a very wealthy family, he couldn’t do as he pleased. When King Louis XVI got wind of his plans, he forbade Lafayette from involvement, fearing the British would see his trip as political validation from the French court; but Lafayette wouldn’t be stopped—and with his own money he bought a ship and escaped France, leaving behind his pregnant wife, Adrienne, without telling her.
Perhaps on board La Victoire homesickness finally sank in, as he wrote an apologetic letter to Adrienne, begging her to forgive him. Once on American soil, Lafayette and his companions traveled miles by foot to Philadelphia. Worn out and on strange land, he was turned away by Congress, who wasn’t interested in giving any more glory-seeking foreigners commission. Undeterred, Lafayette offered to pay his own way. Congress readily agreed. After all, who would turn down free soldiers?
A few weeks later, he was assigned to work with General George Washington and within a month, he tasted battle for the first time at the Battle of Brandywine. He bravely helped rally their troops and was shot in the leg. Washington had his personal physician sent for and recommended Lafayette for a higher position in the army.
Lafayette continued to lead troops and even stayed with the Continental Army through the awful winter in Valley Forge. Throughout this, Lafayette and Washington developed a strong rapport, sharing confidences and writing to one another often. The general came to refer to Lafayette as a son, while the young French soldier practically worshipped him as a friend and father-figure in his life.
In 1778, a French-American alliance was finally realized, championed by Benjamin Franklin who was staying in France. When French ships sailed to Boston, Lafayette decided to return briefly to his homeland. King Louis XVI put him under house arrest for a week upon his return—but it was merely a formality. Lafayette was renowned as The Hero of Two Worlds now. Using his even greater influence, he persuaded the king to send more French soldiers to the Americans’ aid. Adrienne gave birth to their third child, whom they named Georges Washington Lafayette.
In May 1780 Lafayette returned to America and rejoined the ranks, taking charge of a command. He evaded British troops and doggedly chased Cornwallis throughout Virginia. Joining other troops, they hemmed Cornwallis in. The British commander surrendered October 19, 1781.
Lafayette returned to France as a celebrated hero. He kept busy with projects that suited his passion, including drafting a French human rights bill with the help of Thomas Jefferson and advocating freedom for slaves.
Despite his revered fame among France, the shadow of the French Revolution fell on his household. His reputation sunk in the mire of his noble background, unwillingness to join the Radical parties and controversial attempts to control violent French mobs. Eventually fearing for his life, Lafayette planned to escape with his family to America, but he was captured by Austrian forces which France was at war with. Meanwhile his wife Adrienne was shuffled through French prisons and house arrests, fearing for her life as her mother, sister and grandmother were guillotined.
Only their American associations saved Adrienne’s life and eventually garnered her family a passport to come to America. Instead she sent her son to live with George Washington for safety, and she and her two daughters traveled to Austria, where they were given permission to reside in the prison with Lafayette.
Lafayette was finally released after five years of imprisonment. His family eventually returned to France and resided in the countryside. In 1825 Lafayette returned to America for the 50th year anniversary of the nation’s birth. He travelled from state to state, drawing crowds who lauded him as a national hero. Cities, towns and streets were named after him in his honor. Old comrades embraced him and traded stories and memories, including James Armistead Lafayette, a former African-American slave who served as an invaluable spy under Lafayette. James had taken Lafayette’s surname after he was freed, having used the former general’s recommendation letter to gain his freedom in court.
Finally in 1834, the Revolutionary hero Lafayette died at 76 years old. He was buried in France and, according to his wishes his son cast dirt from Bunker Hill over his gravesite. ♥
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Faith White lives in Texas and works full time in retail. She has been writing stories since her early teens, mostly to entertain her sisters. She loves period dramas, superhero movies, and Korean dramas and thrives on history and world culture. She also blogs!