Born Sept. 6, 1757, his father died before he was 2 years old and his mother died when he was twelve, leaving him to inherit their fortune. At 14 years old, he joined the French Military and, at age 16, became a captain. He married Marie Adrienne Francoise de Noailles, whose family was related to King Louis XVI. His name was Marquis de Lafayette.
At age 19, against the King’s wishes, Lafayette purchased a ship and persuaded several French officers to accompany him to fight in the American Revolution, arriving June 13, 1777. Trained in the French Military, he was a descendant of one of the oldest French families, with ancestors who fought alongside of Joan of Arc, and previously fought in the Crusades against Muslim occupiers of what had been the Christian Middle East.
Commander-in-Chief George Washington appointed Lafayette a Major General in the Continental Army, though Lafayette paid all his own expenses.
Lafayette was one of several European military leaders who helped with the American Revolution, others being:
- Baron Von Steuben
- Comte de Rochambeau
- Tadeusz Koœciuszko
- Casimir Pulaski
- Johann de Kalb
- Louis Lebègue Duportail
- Chevalier de Laumoy
- Marquis de la Rouerie
Marquis de Lafayette endured the freezing winter at Valley Forge, 1777-1778. He was wounded at Brandywine, Sept. 11, 1777. Lafayette fought with distinction at the Battles of Gloucester, Barren Hill, Monmouth, Rhode Island and Green Spring.
Returning to France, Lafayette worked with Ben Franklin to persuade King Louis XVI to send General Rochambeau with ships and 6,000 French soldiers to America’s aid. Lafayette led troops against the traitor Benedict Arnold, and commanded at Yorktown, helping to pressure Cornwallis to surrender.
George Washington considered Lafayette like a son, and belatedly wrote back to him from Mount Vernon, June 25, 1785: “My Dear Marquis … I stand before you as a culprit: but to repent and be forgiven are the precepts of Heaven: I do the former, do you practice the latter, and it will be participation of a divine attribute. Yet I am not barren of excuses for this seeming inattention; frequent absences from home, a round of company when at it, and the pressure of many matters, might be urged as apologies for my long silence. … I now congratulate you, and my heart does it more effectually than my pen, on your safe arrival in Paris, from your voyage to this Country.”
Lafayette joined the French abolitionist Society of the Friends of the Blacks, which advocated the end of the slave trade and equal rights for blacks. Lafayette’s plan to emancipate all slaves was thought impossible by some. Lafayette replied: “If it be a wild scheme, I had rather be mad in this way, than to be thought wise in the other task.”
Washington encouraged Lafayette, April 5, 1783: “The scheme … which you propose as a precedent, to encourage the emancipation of the black people of this Country from that state of Bondage in which. they are held, is a striking evidence of the benevolence of your Heart. I shall be happy to join you in so laudable a work; but will defer going into a detail of the business, ’till I have the pleasure of seeing you.”
In the last six years of Washington’s life, he attempted to take four of the farms on his plantation and make them into rental properties, thus transitioning away from slavery. On May 10, 1786, George Washington wrote from Mount Vernon to Marquis de Lafayette: “Your late purchase of an estate in the colony of Cayenne, with a view of emancipating the slaves on it, is a generous and noble proof of your humanity. Would to God a like spirit would diffuse itself generally into the minds of the people of this country.”
On Aug. 15, 1787, in a letter from Philadelphia to the Marquis de Lafayette, George Washington wrote: “I am not less ardent in my wish that you may succeed in your plan of toleration in religious matters. Being no bigot myself to any mode of worship, I am disposed to indulge the professors of Christianity in the church with that road to Heaven which to them shall seem the most direct, plainest and easiest, and the least liable to exception.”
On May 28, 1788, George Washington wrote to Marquis de Lafayette regarding the U.S. Constitution: “A few short weeks will determine the political fate of America. … I will confess to you sincerely, my dear Marquis; it will be so much beyond any thing we had a right to imagine or expect eighteen months ago, that it will demonstrate as visibly the Finger of Providence, as any possible event in the course of human affairs can ever designate it.”
When the French Revolution began, President Washington wrote to Marquis de Lafayette, July 28, 1791: “I assure you I have often contemplated, with great anxiety, the danger to which you are personally exposed. … To a philanthropic mind the happiness of 24 millions of people cannot be indifferent; and by an American, whose country in the hour of distress received such liberal aid from the French, the disorders and incertitude of that Nation are to be particularly lamented. We must, however, place a confidence in that Providence who rules great events, trusting that out of confusion He will produce order, and, notwithstanding the dark clouds which may threaten at present, that right will ultimately be established. … On the 6 of this month I returned from a tour through the southern states, which had employed me for more than three months. In the course of this journey I have been highly gratified in observing the flourishing state of the Country, and the good dispositions of the people. Industry and economy have become very fashionable in these parts, which were formerly noted for the opposite qualities, and the labors of man are assisted by the Blessings of Providence.”
King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette were beheaded. Lafayette tried to maintain order in France as the French Revolution began, but fell out of favor. Lafayette was arrested and imprisoned for five years, with his wife and two daughters choosing to be imprisoned with him. Napoleon negotiated his release.
On June 10, 1792, from Philadelphia, President Washington wrote to Marquis de Lafayette: “And to the Care of that Providence, whose interposition and protection we have so often experienced, do I cheerfully commit you and your nation, trusting that He will bring order out of confusion, and finally place things upon the ground on which they ought to stand.”
Jefferson asked him to be the governor of the Louisiana Territory, but he declined.
Fifty years after the Revolution began, Marquis de Lafayette visited America. He traveled over 6,000 miles to 24 states. On June 17, 1825, Lafayette helped lay the cornerstone for the Bunker Hill Monument.
Daniel Webster spoke to a crowd of 20,000, which included General Marquis de Lafayette: “God has granted you this sight of your country’s happiness ere you slumber in the grave forever. He has allowed you to behold and to partake the reward of your patriotic toils; and He has allowed to us, your sons and countrymen, to meet you here, and in the name of the present generation, in the name of your country, in the name of liberty to thank you!”
Many ships, streets, parks and cities were named after him, including Fayetteville, North Carolina.
When word came to America that Marquis de Lafayette had died, President Andrew Jackson wrote to Congress, June 21, 1834: “The afflicting intelligence of the death of the illustrious Lafayette has been received by me this morning. I have issued the general order inclosed to cause appropriate honors to be paid by the Army and Navy to the memory of one so highly venerated and beloved by my countrymen, and whom Providence has been pleased to remove so unexpectedly from the agitating scenes of life.”
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