Marquis De Lafayette: The Idealist General
Marquis De Lafayette: The Idealist General
Marquis De Lafayette: The Idealist General
Palgrave Macmillan
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“Leepson’s concise biography concentrates on Lafayette's military and diplomatic accomplishments during the American and French Revolutions.… Drawing from a number of historical sources, including Lafayette’s own memoirs, Leepson gives this most restless man an affectionate and engrossing portrait.”

— Publishers Weekly, January 24, 2011

Marquis de LafayetteAn icon of American—and French—history, the Marquis de Lafayette’s was born into an upper-class French family of warriors in 1757, orphaned at age twelve, commissioned a lieutenant in the French Royal Guard at fourteen, attended school with two future French kings (Louis XVIII and Charles X), married into a powerful, aristocratic, royal family at sixteen, and lived the exalted life amid the splendors of Versailles in the company of the young King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and many other French royal luminaries.

This enormously wealthy young nobleman, enamored of the ideals of the American Revolution, traveled to the colonies in the summer of 1777 where he volunteered to join the cause. Soon thereafter, at age 20, he received his commission as a major general in George Washington’s Continental Lafayette developed close friendships with a panoply of American Revolutionary War era icons, including five future presidents: Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe and John Quincy Adams.

Washington embraced the young French aristocrat as an adored, all-but-adopted son. And Lafayette came to look at George Washington as his surrogate father.

Lafayette served on Washington’s staff for six weeks, then was given command of his own division and fought boldly and with distinction in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He returned to France in 1778 where, working with Benjamin Franklin, the young Marquis accomplished what was arguably an even more important mission: helping secure full French support for the American cause. Lafayette came back to U.S. shores in 1780 and immediately and enthusiastically returned to fighting the British. He commanded American forces in Virginia during the campaign against Major General Lord Charles Cornwallis, where he played a key role entrapping the English general at Yorktown.

Lafayette left the United States in December 1781, two months after Cornwallis’s surrender and soon became active in French national politics. He went on to draft the French Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789 as a member of the French National Assembly. He was given command of the National Guard in Paris the day after the storming of the Bastille as France stood on the edge of civil war and anarchy. The 32-year-old Lafayette bravely and effectively protected the monarchy while pushing for republican reforms during the violent, tumultuous French Revolution that began in the summer of 1789. Forced to flee his homeland by the radical republicans in 1792, he returned to his adopted home country in the summer of 1824.

Once there, he undertook an astoundingly triumphant year-long tour of the United States, during which crowds by the thousands greeted him, cities across the land lauded him, and the newspapers gave him coverage befitting a 21st century rock star. The visit included emotional stops at Washington’s grave and at Monticello, where the ailing 81-year-old Jefferson lauded and feted his old comrade.

Lafayette became the foreign dignitary to address a joint session of Congress, which he did on December 10, 1824. As a direct result of that tour, cities or counties in twenty-six American states were named after him, as well as hundreds of lakes, rivers, mountains, high schools, colleges, and other landmarks, including Lafayette Park, which sits across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House in the nation’s capital.

ILafayette wounded at the Battle of Brandywinen 2002, Congress granted Lafayette posthumous honorary citizenship, making him only the fifth foreigner at that time given that honor. Lafayette, the Congressional Resolution noted, “voluntarily put forth his own money and risked his life for the freedom of Americans;” was wounded at the Battle of Brandywine; “demonstrating bravery that forever endeared him to the American soldiers;” secured “the help of France to aid the United States’ colonists against Great Britain;” was made an honorary citizen of Virginia and Maryland; and “gave aid to the United States in her time of need and is forever a symbol of freedom.”

In 1934, the hundredth anniversary of Lafayette’s death—a day when both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate draped their chambers in black in his honor—President Franklin D. Roosevelt sang his praises in a speech delivered to a joint session of Congress. “We the people of this nation have enshrined him in our hearts,” Roosevelt said, “and today we cherish his memory above that of any citizen of a foreign country. It is as one of our nation’s peerless heroes that we hail him.”

Many “generations later,” Roosevelt said, “more than two million American boys… went to France [to fight in World War I]. Those soldiers and sailors were repaying the debt of gratitude we owe to Lafayette and at the same time they were seeking to preserve those fundamentals of liberty and democracy to which in a previous age he had dedicated his life.”

One of those American soldiers, U.S. Army Colonel Charles E. Stanton, summed up the feelings Roosevelt alluded to on July 4, 1917, three months after American troops joined the Great War. The words came at Lafayette’s grave at the Picpus Cemetery in Paris. At the close of a brief ceremony during which he placed an American flag over Lafayette’s grave, Colonel Stanton, an aide to U.S. General John J. “Blackjack” Pershing, declared: “Lafayette, we are here.”

The Marquis de Lafayette played key roles in three of the greatest military and political events of his lifetime: the American War of Independence and the French Revolution of 1789 and July Revolution of 1830. In the American Revolution, the young, idealistic French aristocrat stood out among a large, colorful group of European soldiers of fortune and idealists—among them Friedrich von Steuben of Prussia and Tadeusz Kosciuszko and Casimir Pulaski of Poland—who joined the Continental Army to fight for American independence from Great Britain.

Lafayette served the cause without pay—and, in fact, paid the equivalent of more than $200,000 of his own money for the salaries and uniforms and other expenses for his staff and aides and junior officers. The more Washington saw of the young Frenchman, the more impressed he was and the closer the two became.

Washington’s “trust in me is deeper than I dare say,” Lafayette wrote to his wife on January 6, 1778, from Valley Forge. “In the place he occupies, he is surrounded by flatterers and secret enemies. He finds in me a trustworthy friend in whom he can confide and who will always tell him the truth. Not a day goes by without his talking to me at length or writing long letters to me. And he is willing to consult me on most interesting points.”

The French aristocrat saw action at the Battles of Brandywine, Barren Hill, and Monmouth Courthouse, then returned to France to try to smooth out recently strained relations between the two nations. Lafayette arrived in his homeland in February of 1779 and worked with American minister Benjamin Franklin to convince King Louis XVI to send significantly more troops and supplies to the Americans. Lafayette re-joined the war in May of 1781 with 6,000 additional French troops under Rochambeau.

“DLafayette and Washington at Yorktownuring the time he has been in France he has uniformly manifested the same zeal in our affairs which animated his conduct while he was among us,” Washington wrote of Lafayette to Congress on May 13, 1780, “and has been, upon all occasions, an essential friend to America.”

Sent to Virginia by Washington, he brilliantly conducted hit-and-run guerrilla operations against the traitorous Benedict Arnold, then shadowed the army of Cornwallis. The young French general played a crucial role in the Siege of Yorktown, and was present at the British surrender that effectively ended the war and brought independence to the rebellious colonies.

Inarguably the best known—and most admired—Frenchman in the early American Republic—Lafayette returned to a hero’s welcome in his native land. He soon took an active part in French national affairs. Among many other things, Lafayette, as a member of the Assembly of Notables, was a voice of moderation during the French Revolution. He wrote the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen” in 1789, a document that had many similarities to the American Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.

He was a republican at heart, but Lafayette still was an aristocrat with long and strong ties to many members of the ruling royal family. “It is an extraordinary phenomenon,” the French literary theorist Madame de Staël (1766-1817) wrote, “that a character like M. de Lafayette should have developed among the highest ranks of the French nobility.”

John Quincy Adams agreed. “Lafayette, by his position and condition in life,” Adams said, “was one of those who, governed by the ordinary impulses which influence and control the conduct of men, would have sided in sentiment with the British or Royal cause.”

But Lafayette was not governed by such “ordinary impulses,” at a time when the French monarchy was about to implode. “Your principles are decidedly with [republicans],” Thomas Jefferson wrote to Lafayette on May 6, 1789, “and your instruction against them. A complaisance to the latter on some occasions, and an adherence to the former on others, may give an appearance of trimming between the two parties, which may lose you both.”

JefMarquis de Lafayetteferson predicted that Lafayette’s strong republican sympathies would win out. “You will,” he told Lafayette, “in the end, go over wholly to the [republican cause] because it will be impossible for you to live in a constant sacrifice of your own sentiments to the prejudices of the Noblesse.”

Despite the prescience in those words, Lafayette in 1789 supported the government of King Louis XVI. He was appointed to lead the newly formed National Guard (making him, in essence, the military governor of Paris) in the summer of 1789 as violence mounted against the monarchical state. In 1792, Lafayette took command of a French army charged with stopping an expected Austrian-Prussian invasion. He also worked to try to keep the radical French revolutionaries under Robespierre from taking over the government.

Lafayette was forced to flee his native land when Robespierre seized power. The Austrians promptly took him prisoner, and held him for five brutal years. After being released in 1797, Lafayette retired from public life, partially to protest the dictatorial regime of Napoleon Bonaparte. Lafayette returned to the public arena in 1815 when he accepted a seat in the Chamber of Deputies.

During the turmoil of the short-lived July Revolution of 1830 when the anti-republican King Charles X was forced to abdicate, Lafayette had the opportunity to mount a military coup and seize control of the government. He declined, and instead led the moderate faction of the July Revolution that ousted Charles X and installed the Duke of Orléans, Louis-Philippe, as the “citizen king” of France.

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