I just returned from the annual meeting of the American Friends of Lafayette, which took me to Washington, D.C. This year’s program was especially exciting for me because we visited a couple of places that I mention in Enlightening the World: The Creation of the Statue of Liberty. We started our tour with a visit to Mount Vernon, where Washington displayed the key to the Bastille that Lafayette sent him after the fall of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. Looking up at the porch at Mount Vernon

Key to the Bastille in ParisWashington’s home was already open to the public in 1871 and Auguste Bartholdi (the statue’s sculptor) came here Lafayette's Room at Mount Vernon

during his exploratory visit to the U.S. and saw both the key and “Lafayette’s Room.”

In the afternoon we were treated to a special visit to the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives to see the portrait of Lafayette by Ary Scheffer. Scheffer gave the portrait to Congress in 1824-25 during Lafayette’s spectacular 13-month-long “guest of the nation” tour of the United States. The House of Representatives commissioned a portrait of George Washington for the other side of the speaker’s rostrum—and the portraits of these two Revolutionary War heroes have hung together in the House Chamber since the 1830s (they were moved into the new Chamber when the House moved in 1858).  Portrait of Lafayette by Ary Scheffer

Lafayette Day

May 20, 2011

Today is “Massachusetts Lafayette Day.” This day of tribute was established in 1935 on the anniversary of Lafayette’s death, May 20, 1834.

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 portrait

April 2, 2011

In my last post about Lafayette’s visit to the U.S. in 1824-1825 (note that this was a full 40 years after the Revolutionary War and his permanent return to France) I mentioned the naming of cities, streets, etc. in his honor. Another lasting tribute to the Marquis de Lafayette and his role in securing our independence, dating from that same visit, is the portrait that hangs in the House Chamber in Washington D.C. It was in December 1824, once word of the spirited welcome Lafayette received in the U.S. reached France, that the artist Ary Scheffer offered a portrait of Lafayette to the U.S. House of Representatives. The House not only accepted Scheffer’s painting but, rather than hang it in a hallway or a meeting room, displayed it on the front wall of the House Chamber, to the side of the Speaker’s rostrum (when the House moved, the painting was relocated to the current Chamber and the same prominent position). Ten years after receiving the painting of Lafayette, the House commissioned a portrait of George Washington for the other side of the speaker’s rostrum.

U.S. House of Representatives Lafayette portrait

The Office of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives web site shows the two paintings and gives a little information about them.

I can imagine the impression this made on Édouard Laboulaye, and other “friends of America” in France.

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.


March 1, 2011

I had known a bit about Lafayette and heard that he was like an adopted son to George Washington. But that description wasn’t enough to bring him to life. However when I started to read about the French involvement in the American War for Independence, I became intrigued.

Part of what makes Lafayette’s role in the war astonishing is his age. His military career had started early in France. At age 15 he became an officer in a bodyguard of the French king, Louis XVI. And at 16, he married into a family of nobility. Maybe it was because of his youth that he reacted as he did when he learned about the American colonists’ struggle for political freedom. He was struck, and inspired, by the idea of liberty, and he dedicated his life to this purpose. “Never,” he later wrote with emotion about the colonists’ cause, “had so noble a purpose offered itself to the judgment of men!”

Discovering Lafayette

February 28, 2011

I became fascinated with the Marquis de Lafayette when I began my research for Enlightening the World. To try to understand why the Statue of Liberty was conceived by a Frenchman and built by the French people (the statue portion of the monument, not the pedestal), I had to get a sense of the kinship they felt with Americans. In the 1860s, when Édouard Laboulaye mentioned the idea of a statue to guests at a dinner party at his home, it was common to refer to the tradition of friendship between the people of France and the United States. This special friendship had been established during the American War for Independence, and was symbolized by Lafayette.

Tomorrow at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston Alan Hoffman will talk about “Lafayette & the Farewell Tour: Odyssey of an American Idol.” Alan Hoffman translated the journal of Lafayette’s visit to the U.S. in 1824-1825, written by Lafayette’s secretary and companion on his 13-month-long tour, as Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825. Lafayette was celebrated in the U.S. as a hero of the American War for Independence and during his visit crowds–thrown into a “delirium . . . by a visit from General La Fayette,” in the words of Thomas Jefferson–met him everywhere he went.