Levasseur’s journal

April 12, 2011

Lafayette’s secretary Auguste Levasseur recorded Lafayette’s 1824-1825 visit to the U.S. in a detailed journal that was published in France a few years following their return home (this is the journal Alan Hoffman recently translated). Levasseur depicted the remarkable outpouring of affection for Lafayette. But equally intriguing for some of his readers were the American habits and way of life that his stories revealed.

One experience involved the president of the United States in 1825, John Quincy Adams. Having returned to Washington D.C. at the end of his year-long tour of the U.S., Lafayette mentioned to President Adams that he would like to visit James Monroe, Adams’s predecessor, before departing for France. Adams offered to take Lafayette to see Monroe at his home near the capital and arranged for their small group to travel by carriage (Lafayette’s son, George Washington Lafayette, and Auguste Levasseur accompanied Lafayette throughout his trip). Crossing over the Potomac the two carriages stopped at a tollbooth and Adams paid for the group. As they started off, however, the toll collector ran after them, shouting, “Mr. President! Mr. President!” Apparently the president had given him too little. Adams counted the horses and passengers once more, agreed with the toll collector’s tally, and paid the missing 11 cents.

During their discussion the toll collector recognized Lafayette. He now insisted that, although the president was obligated to pay the usual fee, the “Nation’s Guest” (that is, Lafayette) could not be charged for crossing a bridge. After some more discussion, Adams convinced the collector that on this particular outing Lafayette was traveling as a friend of the president and therefore should pay the toll, the same as everyone else.

For Levasseur and his readers, the entire scene must have been at once astonishing and amusing. Who could have imagined chasing after the French king in this way?

Lafayette in America

March 3, 2011

Against the wishes, and orders, of Louis XVI, Lafayette quietly prepared for over a year to join the Continental Army, and, in the spring of 1777, he set sail for the colonies. Things went his way. He met the commander-in-chief, George Washington, and the two men took to each other immediately. In fact, a number of American generals liked Lafayette, a “most sweet tempered young gentleman,” as General Nathanael Greene described him.

So he was given a chance to prove himself, which he did consistently. And, in 1781, he set the stage for the victory that finally pointed the war to its end. With a small American force in Virginia–and with patience and good judgment, and some good luck, too–Lafayette caused General Charles Cornwallis, second in command of the British army in North America, to pull back his troops to the coast near Yorktown. The British soon found that they were in a bad location at the wrong time, trapped by a gathering of American and French forces. Alerted by Lafayette, Washington and Rochambeau quickly marched their troops from the north, and Admiral de Grasse moved in with his large French fleet. On October 19, 1781, Cornwallis surrendered his troops to Washington, marking the American victory at Yorktown. Lafayette was 24 years old.

Which brings me back to Lafayette’s spectacular visit to the U.S. in 1824-1825. On account of his youth during the Revolutionary War, he was the last surviving general in 1824, when the U.S. Congress and President Monroe invited him to visit the U.S. as a “guest of the nation.” Lafayette arrived in New York that August and soon realized that indeed the entire nation, that is, every one of the 24 states (remember, there had only been 13 states at the time of the Revolution), eagerly awaited a visit from General Lafayette. Although he was now 67 and was urged by his friends to be mindful of his health, he embarked on the whirlwind tour that this entailed. Traveling by carriage or boat, he made it to every state, while also arriving at particular places in time for special celebrations, such as anniversary day at Yorktown, on October 19, and Bunker Hill, on June 17.

Enthusiastic crowds greeted him everywhere he went. His reputation for military skill and leadership was important, of course. But it seems that people really loved Lafayette for his character, for his dignity and his kindness. The many places named in his honor, as Lafayette, or Fayette, or La Grange (the name of his home outside of Paris), reflect how strongly people felt. Even the space called President’s Park, behind the White House, became Lafayette Square in 1824.