You’ve likely driven down a road bearing his name. Perhaps you’ve spent some time in the park across the street from the White House. (Hint: It’s named after him) Statues of him are littered across the world. But chances are, your childhood social studies classes passed him right by. Meet Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette, known simply as Lafayette. And you can thank him for your freedom.
You think that today’s conservative Republicans are America’s biggest fanboy? Wrong. Lafayette loved America so much, he sent himself Stateside to fight alongside George Washington.
Nicknamed Le Héros des Deux Mondes, or The Hero of Two Worlds, is no small feat. Born September 6, 1757 into French aristocracy, Lafayette was orphaned by the age of 13 and inherited 145,000 livres, approximately 22 million dollars today.
In 1775, Lafayette first heard of the rumblings of war across the Atlantic. He was so moved by the American plight and passionate about the freedom the American’s sought, Lafayette acquired his own ship and sailed to America disguised as a woman to keep British spies at bay.
In America, Benjamin Franklin heard all about the Parisian wunderkind and wrote to George Washington advising him to choose Lafayette as his aide-de-camp. Washington accepted and at age 19, Lafayette was the top aide to the future POTUS. (What were you doing at age 19? Complaining about that 5 page book review you had to write for your college elective class? That’s what I thought.) Lafayette saw Washington as the father he never had, and Washington saw Lafayette as the son he’d always wanted.
Lafayette was a badass in battle. In the Battle of Brandywine, he was shot in the leg and rallied the troops to a safe retreat before accepting treatment. Keep in mind, this was the first time he was experiencing American warfare. Battle after battle, Lafayette was noted for his valor and skill.
In February 1779, Lafayette returned to France. When he arrived, he was given two weeks house arrest for disobeying the King by going to America. Regardless, he was showered by gifts from the adoring public. While he was in France, his wife, Adrienne, gave birth to Lafayette’s first son, Georges Washington Lafayette. Lafayette continued to push for more French support to aid the Americans. Before returning to America in March 1780, he had secured 5,500 men and 5 warships to help the Continental Army.
In the fall of 1781, Lafayette and his men took Yorktown redoubt 9 from the British, while Alexander Hamilton and his men charged redoubt 10 in hand-to-hand combat. Cornwallis surrendered on October 19. The Americans had won. Lafayette returned to France and was greeted as a hero.
While in France, Lafayette was granted commander-in-chief of the French National Guard. The French Revolution was brewing and Lafayette sought to maintain order. When an angry mob came to Versailles, Lafayette saved the Royal Family from danger. In 1792, France declared war with Austria and took command of the army. As the Jacobin influence gained power, Lafayette was replaced and fled to Belgium. The Austrians captured him and he was jailed until 1797. He returned to France in 1800 and found that his fortune was gone. Feeling betrayed by the country he called home, he declined many social and political offers for nearly a quarter of a century.
In 1824, President James Madison invited Lafayette to tour America. Lafayette accepted and was greeted like a rockstar during his two month trip. During that time, he visited every state, visited Mount Vernon and the tomb of Washington, met with his old friend, Thomas Jefferson, and attended public banquets in his honor. The frenzy that met him at each stop rivaled the celebrity frenzy of today. While visiting Jefferson in Monticello, one of Jefferson’s slaves noted 50 years later that, “Lafayette remarked that he thought that the slaves ought to be free; that no man could rightly hold ownership of his brother man; that he gave his best services to and spent his money on behalf of the Americans freely because he felt that they were fighting for a great and noble principle – the freedom of mankind; that instead of all being free a portion were held in bondage (which seemed to grieve his noble heart); that it would be mutually beneficial to masters and slaves if the latter were educated, and so on. …This conversation was very gratifying to me, and I treasured it up in my heart.”
Up until his death, Lafayette kept fighting for the rights of people, slaves, poor, and religion. Lafayette died on May 20, 1834 of pneumonia. He was buried at Picpus Cemetery with dirt from Bunker Hill, joined forever by the two countries he loved.
“Humanity has won its battle. Liberty now has a country.”
Further Reading on Lafayette:
- Adopted Son: Washington, Lafayette, and the Friendship that Saved America by David A. Clary
- Lafayette by Harlow Giles Unger
- Lafayette and the American Revolution by Russell Freedman
- General and Madame de Lafayette: Partners in Liberty’s Cause in the American and French Revolutions by Jason Lane