Paul Yves Roch Gilbert Du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette (or Lafayette) (September 6, 1757 – May 20, 1834) was a French aristocrat and military officer who participated in both the American and French revolutions. In 2002, he was posthumously made an Honorary Citizen of the United States; there are only six Honorary Citizens.
La Fayette served in the American War of Independence both as a general and as a diplomat, serving entirely without pay in both roles. He was a key figure in the early phases of the French Revolution, serving in the Estates General and the subsequent National Constituent Assembly. He was a leading figure among the Feuillants, who tried and failed to turn France into a constitutional monarchy, and commander of the French National Guard. Widely considered responsible for the “Massacre of the Champ de Mars,” he subsequently lost his leading role in the Revolution. On August 19, 1792, after the Jacobin party seized control of Paris and the National Assembly and ordered Lafayette’s arrest, he fled France and was arrested by the Austrian army in Belgium. Thereafter, he spent five years in various Austrian and Prussian prisons, eventually being released in 1797, at the behest of Napoleon Bonaparte. He continued to be active in French and European politics until his death in 1834. His legacy is often invoked as a symbol of friendship between the American and French peoples and of the common ideals of freedom and equality championed by their respective Revolutions, in which La Fayette had taken part.
His full name is seldom used in the United States, where he is usually known simply as “the Marquis de Lafayette.” Note that La Fayette may be written as one word or as two; one word is more typical in English usage, while the two-word form is preferred in contemporary French. Many places in the United States are named Lafayette, Fayette, or Fayetteville in his honor.
He was the father of Georges Washington Motier de La Fayette (1779–1849) and grandfather of Oscar Thomas Gilbert Motier de Lafayette (1815–1881).
La Fayette was born at the Château de Chavaniac, near Le Puy-en-Velay, Haute-Loire, in the Auvergne region of France. He belonged to the cadet branch of the La Fayette family, which had received its title (“La Fayette”) from an estate in Aix that belonged to the Motier family in the thirteenth century. His father was killed at the Battle of Minden in 1759, and his mother and grandfather died in 1770. He married at 16 to Marie-Adrienne-Françoise de Noailles, daughter of Jean-Paul-François, 5th duc de Noailles. La Fayette chose to follow the career of his father and grandfather and entered the Guards. La Fayette was educated at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand.
La Fayette entered the French army on April 9, 1771, at the age of 14. At 19, he was a captain of dragoons when the British colonies in America proclaimed their independence. He later wrote in his memoirs, “my heart was enrolled in it.” Charles François, Comte de Broglie, whom he consulted, tried to discourage him from getting involved in the conflict. François eventually presented him to Johann Kalb, who was also seeking service in America. On December 7, 1776, La Feyette made an arrangement through Silas Deane, an American agent in Paris, to enter the American service as a major general. At this moment, the news arrived of grave disasters to the American cause. La Fayette’s friends again advised him to give up. Even the American envoys, Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee, who had joined Deane in France, withheld further encouragement and the king himself forbade his leaving. At the insistence of the British ambassador at Versailles, orders were issued to seize the ship La Fayette was fitting out at Bordeaux and La Fayette himself was arrested. He escaped from custody disguised as a courier, and before a second lettre de cachet could reach him, he was afloat with 11 chosen companions. Although two British ships were sent in pursuit, he landed safely near Charleston, South Carolina, on June 13, 1777, after a voyage of nearly two months, and went to Philadelphia, then the seat of government of the colonies.
At age 19, he presented himself to the Continental Congress with Deane’s authority to demand a commission of the highest rank after the commander-in-chief.
La Fayette offered his services as an unpaid volunteer. Thus, Congress passed a resolution, on July 31, 1777, “that his services be accepted, and that, in consideration of his zeal, illustrious family, and connections, he have the rank and commission of major-general of the United States.” The next day, La Fayette met George Washington, who became his lifelong friend. They became so close, in fact, that the Marquis named his son Georges Washington-Lafayette, and asked Washington to be his son’s godfather, an honor that was accepted. As a member of Washington’s inner circle, La Fayette also became very close friends with young Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s chief aide-de-camp.
La Fayette’s first battle was Brandywine on September 11, 1777, where he was wounded in the leg. Shortly afterwards, he secured the command of a division—the immediate result of a communication from Washington to Congress of November 1, 1777, in which he said:
The Marquis de La Fayette is extremely solicitous of having a command equal to his rank. I do not know in what light Congress will view the matter, but it appears to me, from a consideration of his illustrious and, important connections, the attachment which he has manifested for our cause, and the consequences which his return in disgust might produce, that it will be advisable to gratify his wishes, and the more so as several gentlemen from France who came over under some assurances have gone back disappointed in their expectations. His conduct with respect to them stands in a favourable point of view—having interested himself to remove their uneasiness and urged the impropriety of their making any unfavourable representations upon their arrival at home. Besides, he is sensible, discreet in his manners, has made great proficiency in our language, and from the disposition he discovered at the battle of Brandywine possesses a large share of bravery and military ardour.
In the first months of 1778, La Fayette commanded troops detailed for the projected expedition against Canada. He was commended for his retreat from Barren Hill (May 28, 1778), and he fought at the Battle of Monmouth (June 28) and received from Congress a formal recognition of his services in the Rhode Island expedition (August 1778).
The Treaty of Alliance signed by the United States and France on February 6, 1778, was promptly followed by a declaration of war by Great Britain against the latter, and La Fayette asked leave to revisit France and to consult Louis XVI as to the further direction of his services.
La Fayette left for France on January 11, 1779. There, he was made a colonel in the cavalry. On March 4, 1779, Franklin, who was serving as an American diplomat in France, wrote to the president of Congress: “The marquis de La Fayette 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.”
After about six months, La Fayette, returned to America via the frigate Hermione, a reconstruction of which has been located in Rochefort, Charente-Maritime since 1997. His return was the occasion of a complimentary resolution of Congress. From April until October 1781, he was charged with the defense of Virginia, in which 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. The siege of Yorktown, in which La Fayette bore an honorable if not a distinguished part, was the last of the war, and terminated his military career in the United States.
La Fayette returned to France and was welcomed as a hero. In 1781, he was promoted to the rank of maréchal de camp (brigadier general) in the French army. In Europe, La Fayette helped prepare for a combined French and Spanish expedition against the British West India Islands, of which he had been appointed chief of staff. The armistice signed on January 20, 1783, between the countries put a stop to the expedition. La Fayette visited the United States several times throughout the next year.
Views on slavery
While Lafayette himself owned slaves, he was actively interested in the abolitionist cause. He urged Washington to free his as an example to others. Lafayette purchased an estate in French Guiana and settled his own slaves there, and he offered a place for Washington’s slaves, writing “I would never have drawn my sword in the cause of America if I could have conceived thereby that I was founding a land of slavery.” Nevertheless, Washington did not free his own slaves in his lifetime. Documentation and letters in his Mount Vernon residence do show that he wished for all his slaves to be freed after his death, and Washington’s last will and testament provided accordingly. Martha Washington, however, freed her slaves late in her own lifetime.
La Fayette did not appear again prominently in public life until 1787, when 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. In 1788, he was deprived of his active command. In 1789, La Fayette 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 July 11, 1789 proposed a declaration of rights, modelled on Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence in 1776.
On July 15, the second day of the new regime, La Fayette was chosen by acclamation colonel-general of the new National Guard of Paris. He also proposed the combination of the colours of Paris, red and blue, and the royal white, into the famous tricolour cockade of modern France (July 17). For the succeeding three years, until the end of the constitutional monarchy in 1792, he played a significant role in the course of the Revolution. He rescued Marie Antoinette from the hands of the populace in October 1789, as well as many others who had been condemned to death. He briefly resigned his commission, but was soon induced to resume it.
In the Constituent Assembly he pleaded for religious tolerance, popular representation, the establishment of trial by jury, the gradual emancipation of slaves, freedom of the press, the abolition of arbitrary imprisonment and of titles of nobility, and the suppression of privileged orders. He drafted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen which was adopted by the Assembly. In February 1790, he refused the supreme command of the National Guard of the kingdom.
Lafayette and other constitutional monarchists who supported the Revolution in its early years founded the “Society of 1789,” which afterwards became the Feuillants Club, taking a position between Royalist supporters of absolute monarchy and liberalist groups such as the Jacobins and Cordeliers. Lafayette took a prominent part in the celebration of July 14, 1790, the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. After suppressing a riot in April 1791, he again resigned his commission, and was again compelled to retain it. Louis XVI’s flight to Varennes undermined the position of the constitutional monarchists, especially Lafayette himself who, as Commander of the National Guard, had the responsibility to keep the King secure. Shortly after, on July 17, 1791, a large crowd gathered at the Champ de Mars to sign a petition calling for the abolition of the monarchy. Jean-Sylvain Bailly, the Mayor of Paris, ordered the crowd to disperse, and when they did not and began to get rowdy (two people had their throats cut), Lafayette ordered the National Guard to open fire. About 50 people were killed in what became known as the “Massacre of the Champ de Mars,” which decisively marked the end of the alliance between constitutional monarchists and Jacobins. On the occasion of the proclamation of the constitution (September 18, 1791), he tried to retire into private life. This did not prevent his friends from proposing him for the mayoralty of Paris in opposition to Jérôme Pétion de Villeneuve.
In December 1791, La Fayette was placed in command of three armies formed on the eastern frontier to attack Austria. He was nevertheless opposed to the further advance of the Jacobin party, intending eventually to use his army for the restoration of a limited monarchy. On August 19, 1792, the Assembly declared him a traitor. He took refuge in the neutral territory of Liège, where he was taken and held as a prisoner of state for five years, first in Prussian and afterwards in Austrian prisons (1794–1797 in Olomouc), in spite of the intercession of the United States. Napoleon, however, stipulated in the Treaty of Campo Formio (1797) that La Fayette be released. He was not allowed to return to France by the Directory. He returned in 1799; in 1802, he voted against the life consulate of Napoleon, and in 1804, against the imperial title.
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 carbonaro.
He then revisited America between July 1824 and September 1825, attending the inaugural banquet of the University of Virginia, at Jefferson’s invitation, and visiting St. Louis, Missouri, where Lafayette Square Park was subsequently named in his honor. He was voted the sum of $200,000 and a township of land. The 2nd Battalion, 11th New York Artillery, was one of many militia commands who turned out in welcome. This unit decided to adopt the title “National Guard,” in honor of Lafayette’s celebrated Garde Nationale de Paris. The Battalion, later the 7th Regiment, was prominent in the line of march on the occasion of Lafayette’s final passage through New York en route home to France.
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 as in the first revolution. In 1834, he made his last speech, on behalf of Polish political refugees. He died in Paris on May 20, 1834 and was buried in the Cimetière de Picpus. In 1876, a monument was erected to him in New York City, and in 1883, another was erected at Le Puy.
The Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica (1911) said of Lafayette, “Few men have owed more of their success and usefulness to their family rank than La Fayette, and still fewer have abused it less. He 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 which always impelled him to study the interests of humanity, and a pertinacity in maintaining them, which, in all the strange vicissitudes of his eventful life, secured him a very unusual measure of public respect. The ideals of Liberté, égalité, fraternité, the slogan of the French Revolution, were central to his outlook on life. 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 for so many years so large a measure of popular influence and respect. 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 dead, to sustain the law and preserve order.”
Many U.S. towns and cities are named in his honor (Lafayette, Fayette, Fayetteville). Lafayette College was chartered in Easton, Pennsylvania in 1826. Three U.S. naval vessels have been named after him, the most recent being the nuclear Fleet Ballistic Missile submarine USS Lafayette (SSBN-616) which served until 1991. Congress granted him honorary citizenship on August 6, 2002. During World War II, the American flag was draped on his grave, even though it was in Nazi-occupied territory. Portraits of Washington and Lafayette hang to this day in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives.
In 1958, former U.S. Representative Hamilton Fish III, a World War I veteran, founded the Order of Lafayette. Membership in the Order is based on service in either World War I or World War II, or descent from a veteran of those wars.