A French nobleman with an ancient and distinguished lineage, Lafayette was born Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier on September 6, 1757, at his family’s ancestral home in the town of Chavaniac, in the region of Auvergne, France. He inherited his title—marquis— at the age of two, when his father was killed fighting against the British in the Seven Years’ War. His mother’s death when Lafayette was just thirteen left him an orphan but also one of the richest men in France. He was eighteen years old in August 1775 when he became aware of the rebellion unfolding in Englands North American colonies challenging the authority of British rule. The young Lafayette quickly became eager to assist the American rebels. His public support of the revolutionary cause prompted British representatives in France to complain to the French government about him and other young French officers who seemed enamored of the colonial rebellion. Unwilling to jeopardize the fragile peace between the two countries, French officials issued an order banning French officers from going to America, specifically naming Lafayette, who was the most well-known of these young champions of liberty. Lafayette was therefore forced to conduct his preparations to join the American cause in secret. Working with Silas Deane, the American agent to France, Lafayette fitted out a frigate, La Victoire, for French volunteers to the Continental Army. He and his compatriots arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 13, 1777.
Traveling to Philadelphia to meet with the Continental Congress in late July, Lafayette arrived just after news of the Americans’ retreat from Fort Ticonderoga reached the city. At first the young Frenchman’s offer of assistance was rebuffed by the congress. Several French officers had already offered their services to the Americans, convinced they could provide guidance to the unsophisticated colonials in European military methods. In truth, most of them were too inexperienced to provide any significant aid, and the language barrier proved unsurmountable for many. Lafayette himself later noted, “The Americans were disgusted by the conduct of several Frenchmen, and revolted by their pretensions.” Nevertheless, he won over a skeptical congress by offering financial support along with his military service—Lafayette volunteered to serve without remuneration and to pay his staff from his own funds. The congress accepted and bestowed upon him the title of major general in the Continental Army. Lafayette met George Washington shortly thereafter at a dinner in Philadelphia. Washington and Lafayette immediately took to one another. Lafayette’s modesty, courage, and devotion to republican ideals attracted Washington’s admiration. The forty-five-year-old Washington became a father figure for the nearly twenty-year-old Frenchman, and the young man, in turn, likely substituted for the son Washington never had. Just six weeks later, Lafayette was wounded in the leg at the Battle of Brandywine, near Philadelphia, while serving under the command of New Hampshire General John Sullivan. Lafayette was shot while attempting to rally retreating troops in what was the first military action of his life. After recovering from his wounds among the Moravian community of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, he wintered in Washington’s camp at Valley Forge. During that dreadful season Lafayette paid for supplies for his troops from his own funds, marking another occasion on which he used his personal fortune to assist the Americans’ cause. In fact, during his service with the Continental Army he paid for clothing for troops, uniforms for officers, food and presents for Indian allies, and cash for spies. All told, it is estimated he spent more than $200,000 of his own money, an astronomical amount for that time, supporting the American independence effort.
Lafayette worked with Sullivan again commanding ground troops during the Rhode Island campaign in August 1778. Shortly after the aborted Newport campaign Lafayette returned to France, with, according to the congress, “the confidence of these United States... and the affection of their citizens.” He hoped to play a role in coordinating French military support for the Americans following the alliance negotiated between the two countries earlier in the year. Although the French navy was already heavily involved in American affairs, a French expedition of ground troops was slow in forming. Lafayette kept pressure on the French foreign minister, Charles Gravier, the Comte de Vergennes, until the French government eventually organized an expeditionary force of 5,000 men under the command of General Jean-Baptiste-Donatien de Vimeur, the Comte de Rochambeau. Lafayette was offered the position of second-in-command but refused the French commission. Instead, he continued as a Continental Army officer and returned to Boston aboard l’Hermione in April 1780, a month before Rochambeau’s force arrived in America. In the fall of 1781 Lafayette served with both Rochambeau and Washington at Yorktown, Virginia, where the combined French-American force delivered a decisive defeat to the British that effectively ended the war. When hostilities were over, Lafayette went back to France, but he returned to America in 1784, a year after peace had been formalized by the Treaty of Paris. He visited Washington at his Mount Vernon estate and toured ten states to great acclaim, including a stop in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, between October 30 and November 1. During his American trip, the state of Maryland awarded both Lafayette and his male heirs citizenship in that state. Therefore, when the new national government went into effect in 1789, Lafayette automatically became a citizen of the United States as well.
Lafayette was not accorded the same level of respect back in France. He played a prominent role in the early days of the French Revolution as a demonstrated champion of liberty but a moderate revolutionary. Elected to the Estates General in the spring of 1789, he was instrumental, together with Thomas Jefferson and others, in drafting the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which became a foundational document for revolutionary France. In many ways, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen echoed the Americans’ Declaration of Independence with statements regarding the equality of men and the rights to “liberty, property, safety, and resistance against oppression.” Lafayette’s preference for a constitutional monarchy over a more radical and democratic form of government, however, proved out of step with his peers and tarnished his reputation as a champion of the people.
As political revolution in France began to give way to violence and mob rule, Lafayette was appointed to the unenviable position of commander of Paris’s National Guard, whose mission was to enforce the rule of law notwithstanding the highly unstable political environment. The post seemed to again separate Lafayette from the people. After the National Guard charged a mob, causing casualties among the crowd, the mayor of Paris declared martial law, and Lafayette was removed from his post. Within weeks, the republicans were ousted from political control, and the radicals came to power. Now firmly in the political minority and bereft of influence, Lafayette returned home to Chavaniac.
By early 1792, Lafayette’s position became untenable as the political situation continued to deteriorate. He fled the country, but after crossing the northern border of France, he was captured and imprisoned by the Austrians. For the next several years, he was passed back and forth between the Austrians and the Prussians. Both countries were at war with France and viewed Lafayette as a state prisoner. Meanwhile, the radical government in France imposed the death sentence upon him in absentia, confiscated his property, arrested his wife, Adrienne, and threw her in prison, while friends managed to smuggle the couple’s young son to safety in America. The American minister in Paris, James Monroe, assisted in obtaining Adrienne’s release in January 1795. Adrienne and the couple’s two daughters voluntarily joined Lafayette in his foreign prisons until Napoleon negotiated their release in 1797. Once freed, Lafayette remained aloof from politics until Napoleon’s defeat and the restoration of the French monarchy. Then he once more assumed a prominent role in the French Chamber of Deputies as the government sought to define the boundaries of France’s new constitutional monarchy. As always, Lafayette remained a staunch champion of republican values and became a powerful ally and public symbol for those who opposed the more autocratic rule of King Louis XVIII.
In 1824 Lafayette, a widower and devoid of fortune, was invited by Monroe, then president, and Congress to tour the United States as the “Nation’s Guest,” a title that reflected the American public’s undiminished affection for him even decades after the struggle for independence. During that time, he traveled more than 5,000 miles across the 24-state union and was the first foreign dignitary to address a joint session of Congress. Lafayette’s Farewell Tour was the pinnacle of the “Era of Good Feelings” and allowed the country to successfully transition away from the founding era to the Jacksonian years. It came shortly before the country’s fiftieth anniversary and sparked an outpouring of patriotic fervor, especially as it seemed to mark the end of an era. Few Revolutionary War veterans were left, and many of the country’s founders were gone as well. In fact, Lafayette was the last surviving major general of the Continental Army. Lafayette was a unifying figure in a unique position to hold the country together amidst the political divisions surrounding the U.S. 1824 presidential election. The collective awareness resulting from the national excitement surrounding Lafayette’s visit solidified the perception of the Revolutionary War as the starting point of a national timeline; and brought about a wave of cultural awareness revolving around the need to preserve landmarks from that era for generations to come. The chartering of the state historical societies of Pennsylvania and Connecticut in 1824-1825 was a direct consequence of this renewed sense of national awareness triggered by Lafayette’s Tour, as was the rehabilitation of the Pennsylvania state house into the hallowed and widely appreciated Independence Hall.
Throughout his 1824-25 travels, Lafayette consistently eschewed conspicuous public statements but exploited fully the provisions granted by his stature to make subtle – yet consequential – gestures, particularly toward African-American and Native-American communities. In Yorktown, Savannah, and Charleston, he conspicuously greeted African Americans even though public orders often forbade Blacks from personally witnessing parade routes and being in direct contact with him. This attention given by Lafayette to Blacks was consistent with his actions as early as 1785 when he sought to implement a new labor model for the plantation that he purchased with the help of his wife Adrienne in what is now French Guiana to demonstrate the economic viability of a plantation powered with free labor. Lafayette, America’s ultimate friend and advocate, understood the uniqueness of his situation as the last surviving Major General of the Continental Army and leveraged it with tact in order to advance a political agenda which, he believed, was in the national interest of the United States.
The significant legacy that resulted is today a source of inspiration for the nation and a path toward healing the political and social divisions in the United States. At a time when the founding generation's relationship with slavery is under scrutiny, it provides a unique story to reconcile Americans with the founding generation and remind all Americans that abolitionist views are not a later outgrowth but are as old as the nation itself.