Marquis de Lafayette

Lafayette
Painting of Marquis de Lafayette during the American Revolution by Charles Willson Peale that once hung at Arlington House.

Washington and Lee University

He gazes down from his perch high up on the wall in the main hall, directly in the center, so you can’t miss him. Who is this wry individual with a slightly amused grin that garners such a pride of place? It is none other than Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, more commonly known as the Marquis de Lafayette. And in 1824, he paid a visit to Arlington House.

Born in the French province of Auvergne in 1757, Lafayette hailed from a distinguished family steeped in military glory that stretched back centuries. He continued the family military tradition, and by the age of 18 was a captain in the Dragoons, a cavalry regiment.

When the Revolutionary War broke out in British North America in 1775, colonial diplomat Silas Deane arrived in France to appeal to King Louis XVI for arms and soldiers. Fired up by republican ideals, Lafayette volunteered to fight.

Lafayette was not the only one to volunteer, numerous others did too. To avoid the British from turning their guns on France, the French king made it an arrestable offense to decamp across the ocean. To get around that issue, the wealthy Lafayette bought his own ship and sailed out under the cover of darkness. He arrived in South Carolina on June 13, 1777, and made his way to Philadelphia and the Continental Congress where he announced his military services, free of charge. The financially strapped Continental Army welcomed him.

For the next four years, Major General Lafayette made himself indispensable. He was wounded at Brandywine, convinced France to send troops and supplies, suffered with Gen. Washington and troops at Valley Forge, attempted to chase down traitor Benedict Arnold, and stood with Light-Horse Harry Lee at Yorktown in 1781 as Cornwallis surrendered.

When Lafayette returned to France, the country hailed him as a hero, making him a Knight of the Order of Saint Louis, a predecessor of the Legion of Honour. He took part in the 1783 Treaty of Paris negotiations that formally ended the Revolutionary War. With Thomas Jefferson’s guidance, he wrote his country’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, modeled after the Declaration of Independence. Lafayette also became an abolitionist.

In 1824, to garner excitement for the country’s upcoming semi-centennial, President James Monroe invited Lafayette to be the nation’s guest on a goodwill tour. Lafayette readily agreed as he was anxious “to see for himself the fruit borne on the tree of liberty."[1] The tour was originally only supposed to last four months, but he ended up staying over a year. He visited each of the 24 states and everywhere he went massive crowds gathered to catch a glimpse of the French hero of the Revolutionary War, one of the last links to a bygone era.

On October 16, 1824, Lafayette arrived in Alexandria, Virginia, George Washington’s hometown. Thousands of spectators lined the streets and the ladies leaned out of windows waving their handkerchiefs in celebration. Over 2,000 militiamen marched down King Street, accompanied by artillery salutes, marching bands, and a carriage carrying Washington’s war tents. One of the marchers in this pageant was 17-year old Robert E. Lee, then a recently accepted West Point cadet.

In January 1825, Lafayette visited the Custis family at Arlington House, the nation’s first memorial to George Washington. George Washington Parke Custis peppered Lafayette with questions about the Revolutionary War, the battles, the planning, and his memories of by-now historic figures such as Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and, of course, George Washington. Custis wrote these memories out in a series of articles titled “Conversations with Lafayette” which were published in the Alexandria Gazette.

At one point during his visit, Lafayette stood on the portico of Arlington House and declared the view of the rolling grounds, Potomac River, and capital city to be the finest in the world. He told Mary Custis to “[c]herish these forest trees around your mansion. Recollect, my dear, how much easier it is to cut a tree down than to make one grow."[2]

When Lafayette died in France on May 20, 1834 at the age of 76, he was buried under soil taken from Bunker Hill in Boston. In a three-hour eulogy, former president John Quincy Adams placed Lafayette “high on the list of the pure and disinterested benefactors of mankind."[3]

Notes:

  1. Elizabeth Brown Pryor, Reading the Man (New York: Penguin, 2007), 4.

  2. Murray Nelligan, Arlington House (Burke: Chatelaine Press, 2005), 143.

  3. Marc Leepson, Lafayette: Lessons in Leadership from the Idealist General (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 172.

Sources:

Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. New York: Penguin Press, 2004.
Leepson, Marc. Lafayette: Lessons in Leadership from the Idealist General. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
Nelligan, Murray. Arlington House. Burke: Chatelaine Press, 2005.
Pryor, Elizabeth Brown. Reading the Man. New York: Penguin Books, 2007.
Unger, Harlow Giles. Lafayette. Hoboken: John Wiley Sons, 2002.
Vowell, Sarah. Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. New York: Riverhead Books, 2015.

Last updated: October 30, 2020

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