- Lafayette joins the French army in 1771; he is 14 years old.
- Military reforms 5 years later force his retirement from active service; he is 18 years old.
- In 1775 Lafayette is admitted into the Masonic Military Lodge, where he becomes acquainted with the American colonists’ pursuit of liberty.
- He recognizes an opportunity to place both his idealism and training at the service of an infant country — one that is also rebelling against England, France’s historic enemy.
- Arriving in Philadelphia, Lafayette is given the rank of major general by Continental Congress (Jul-1777).
- First, Lafayette serves as an assistant to General Washington. But at the Battle of Brandywine (11-Sep-1777) he fights and is wounded.
- During his two-month recovery he and Washington begin to develop the almost familial bond that lasts for the remainder of their lives.
- Lafayette fights for the Americans for the remainder of the war. In August 1781, he contains British General Lord Cornwallis in Yorktown — preventing his troops from escaping by land — while awaiting reinforcements from the combined forces of Washington and French General comte de Rochambeau.
- In 1789 Lafayette drafts — with input from his friend Thomas Jefferson — The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which becomes a foundational document of the French Revolution.
- Future poet Walt Whitman is six when Lafayette — on a year-long tour of the United States (1824 - 25) — kisses him on the cheek at Brooklyn Heights in New York.
- In 2002, President George W. Bush signs a bill making Lafayette an honorary American citizen.
Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, was born in 1757 at the chateau of Chavaniac in Auvergne, France. His father was killed at Minden in 1759 and his mother and grandfather died in 1770. Thus at the age of 13 he was left an orphan with a princely fortune. At 16, he married Marie Adrienne Françoise de Noailles (1759 - 1807), daughter of the duc d'Ayen and granddaughter of the duc de Noailles, then one of the most influential families in the kingdom.
Lafayette chose to follow the career of his father and entered the Guards. He was 19 and a captain of dragoons when the British colonies in America proclaimed their independence. As he later wrote in his memoirs:
At the first news of this quarrel my heart was enrolled in it.
Finding a Way to America
The count de Broglie, whom he consulted, tried to discourage his zeal for the cause of liberty. When he found he was unable to dissuade him, however, he presented the young enthusiast to Johann Kalb, who was also seeking service in America. On 7 December 1776 an arrangement was concluded through Silas Deane, American agent in Paris, by which Lafayette was to enter the American service as a major general.
When news arrived of grave losses by the Americans at Long Island and New York, Lafayette’s friends again advised him to abandon his plans. Even the American envoys, Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee (who had superseded Deane), withheld further encouragement. King Louis XVI himself forbade his leaving; at the insistence of the British ambassador at Versailles, the King issued an order — lettre de cache — to arrest Lafayette and seize the ship that he was fitting out at Bordeaux.
When the ship was sent from Bordeaux to a neighboring port in Spain, Lafayette, in disguise, escaped from custody. And before a second lettre de cachet could reach him he was afloat with 11 chosen companions. After a voyage of nearly two months, and with two British cruisers in pursuit, he landed safely near Georgetown, South Carolina. He then hastened to Philadelphia where Continental Congress was in session.
Fighting with the Americans against the British
When this young Frenchman of 19 — whose command of English was only what he had picked up on the voyage — presented himself to Congress with Deane’s authority to demand a commission of the highest rank after commander-in-chief, his reception was chilly. Deane’s contracts were so numerous, especially for officers of high rank, that it was impossible for Congress to ratify them without injustice to American military who had become entitled to promotion.
Lafayette appreciated the situation as soon as it was explained to him, and immediately expressed his desire to serve in the American army upon two conditions — that he should receive no pay and that he should act as a volunteer. These terms were so different from those made by other foreigners, they had been attended with such substantial sacrifices and they promised such important indirect advantages, that Congress passed a resolution (31-Jul-1777)
that his services be accepted, and that, in consideration of his zeal, illustrious family and important connexions, he have the rank and commission of major-general of the United States.
Next day Washington met with Lafayette. Shortly they were to develop a remarkable bond, not only becoming lifelong friends — Lafayette named his only son George Washington Lafayette — but for the childless Washington, Lafayette would become almost like a son.
Congress had intended the Frenchman’s appointment to be purely honorary. Whether he received a command was left entirely to the discretion of Washington. But during his first battle, at Brandywine (11-Sep-1777), he actively fought, showed courage, and was wounded. Later Washington sent a letter to Congress (1-Nov-1777), which said in part:
Lafayette had secured what he most desired — the command of a division.
Of Lafayette’s military career in the United States there is not much to be said. Though commander of a division, he never had many troops in his charge, and whatever military talents he possessed were not of the kind that appeared to conspicuous advantage where wealth and family influence were more important than soldierly gifts.
In the first months of 1778 he commanded troops detailed for an expedition against Canada (which was aborted). When the British encircled him and his troops at Barren Hill (28-May-1778) near Philadelphia, his retreat was commended as masterly. He fought at the Battle of Monmouth (28-Jun-1778); and he received from Congress a formal recognition of his services at the Battle of Rhode Island (Aug-1778).
When the United States and France signed their Treaty of Alliance and became allies in February 1778, England followed by declaring war on France. Lafayette asked leave to visit France to consult his king as to the continued direction of his services. This leave was readily granted; it was not difficult for Washington to replace the major general, but it was impossible to find another equally competent, influential and devoted champion of the American cause near the court of Louis XVI.
In fact he went on a mission rather than a visit. Arriving in Paris in February 1779, he was received with enthusiasm and was made a colonel in the French cavalry. He won the confidence of the comte de Vergennes. On 4 March Franklin wrote to the president of Continental Congress that the Marquis de Lafayette
has been extremely zealous in supporting our cause on all occasions ... He is infinitely esteemed and beloved here, and I am persuaded he will do everything in his power to merit a continuance of the same affection from America.
Lafayette was absent from America for six months and on his return he was given a complimentary resolution by Congress. From April until October 1781 he was charged with the defense of Virginia. Washington gave him the credit of doing all that was possible with the forces at his disposal; and he showed his zeal by borrowing money on his own account to provide his soldiers with necessaries.
Following the victory at Yorktown by the Continental Army and the French, Lafayette’s military career in the United States came to an end. He immediately obtained leave to return to France, where it was supposed he might be useful in negotiations for a general peace. He was also occupied in the preparations for a combined French and Spanish expedition against some of the British West India Islands, of which he had been appointed chief of staff. A formidable fleet assembled at Cadiz, but the expedition was halted when the Treaty of Paris was signed on 10 January 1783.
Lafayette had been promoted in 1781 to the rank of maréchal de camp (major general) in the French army and he received every token of regard from his sovereign and his countrymen. Thereafter he was not prominent in public life until 1787, though he did good service to the French Protestants and became actively interested in plans to abolish slavery.
Leading in the French Revolution
In 1787 he took his seat in the Assembly of Notables. He demanded, and he alone signed the demand, that the king convoke the Estates-General, thus becoming a leader in the French Revolution. He showed Liberal tendencies, both in that assembly and after its dispersal, and in consequence he was deprived of his active command in 1788.
In 1789 Lafayette was elected to the Estates-General, and took a prominent part in its proceedings. He was chosen vice president of the National Assembly, and on 11 July 1789 presented a declaration of rights, modeled on Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. On 15 July, the second day of the new regime, Lafayette was chosen colonel general of the new National Guard of Paris by acclamation. It was he who proposed combining the colors of Paris — red and blue — and the royal white, to create the famous tricolor cockade of modern France.
For the next three years, until the end of the constitutional monarchy in 1792, Lafayette’s history is largely the history of France. His life was beset with very great responsibility and perils, for he was ever the minister of humanity and order among a frenzied people who had come to have a disregard for humanity and order. He rescued the queen from the hands of the populace in October 1789, saved many humbler victims who had been condemned to death, and he risked his life in many unsuccessful attempts to rescue others.
Before this, disgusted with enormities which he was powerless to prevent, he had resigned his commission; but so impossible was it to replace him that he was induced to resume it. In the Constituent Assembly he pleaded for the abolition of arbitrary imprisonment, for religious tolerance, for popular representation, for the establishment of trial by jury, for the gradual emancipation of slaves, for the freedom of the press, for the abolition of titles of nobility, and the suppression of privileged orders.
In February 1790 he refused the supreme command of the National Guard of the kingdom. In May he founded the
Society of 1789, which afterwards became the Feuillants Club. He took a prominent part in the celebration of 14 July 1790, the first anniversary of the destruction of the Bastille. After suppressing an uprising in April 1791 he again resigned his commission, and was again compelled to retain it. He was the friend of liberty as well as of order, and when Louis XVI fled to Varennes he issued orders to stop him. Shortly afterwards he was made lieutenant general in the army. He commanded the troops in the suppression of another uprising following the proclamation of the constitution (18-Sep-1791), then, feeling that his task was done, he retired to private life.
When, in December 1791, three armies were formed on the western frontier to attack Austria, Lafayette was placed in command of one of them. Events, however, moved faster than Lafayette’s moderate and humane republicanism.
Seeing that the lives of the king and queen were each day more and more in danger, he definitely opposed himself to the further advance of the Jacobin party, intending eventually to use his army for the restoration of a limited monarchy. On 19 August 1792 the Assembly declared Lafayette a traitor. He was compelled to take refuge in the neutral territory of Liege, where, as one of the prime movers in the Revolution, he was taken and held as a prisoner of state for five years — first in Prussia, then in Austria — despite the intercession of the United States and the pleadings of his wife. Finally, Napoleon — though he had a low opinion of Lafayette’s abilities — stipulated for his release in the treaty of Campo Formio (1797). The Directory, however, did not allow his return to France. He returned in 1799 when Napoleon overthrew the Directory and replaced it with the Consulate.
In 1802 he voted against the life consulate of Napoleon; and in 1804 he voted against the imperial title.
Later Years and Legacy
He lived in retirement during the First Empire, but returned to public affairs under the First Restoration and took some part in the political events of the Hundred Days. From 1818 to 1824 he was deputy for the Sarthe, speaking and voting always on the Liberal side, and even becoming a member of the Carbonari (a secret political society with liberal republican aims). He then revisited America (Jul-1824 to Sep-1825) where he was overwhelmed with popular applause and voted the sum of $200,000 and a township of land.
From 1825 to his death he sat in the Chamber of Deputies for Meaux. During the revolution of 1830 he again took command of the National Guard and pursued the same line of conduct, with the same lack of success, as in the first revolution. In 1834 he made his last speech — on behalf of Polish political refugees. He died at Paris on in May 1834.
Few men have owed more of their success and usefulness to their family rank than Lafayette. Still fewer have abused it less. Lafayette never achieved distinction in the field and his political career proved him to be incapable of ruling a great national movement. But he had strong convictions, a pertinacity in maintaining them, and was ever impelled him to study the interests of humanity. He had what Jefferson called a
canine appetite for popularity and fame, but in him the appetite only seemed to make him more anxious to merit the fame which he enjoyed. He was brave to rashness and he never shrank from danger or responsibility if he saw the way open to spare life or suffering, to protect the defenseless, to sustain the law, to preserve order.
No citizen of a foreign country has ever had so many and such warm admirers in America, nor does any statesman in France appear to have ever possessed, uninterruptedly and for so many years, so large a measure of popular influence and respect.
Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911 ed.