The visit of Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette, to the United States in 1824 and 1825 marked a high point of early American nationalism. Lafayette's triumphal tour of the United States signaled that memories of the Revolutionary War would continue to play a significant role in American culture. It also served as a high-water mark in the on-again, off-again love affair between the United States and France.
The Marquis de Lafayette was just a nineteen-year old wealthy nobleman when he came to the United States in 1777 to lend his support to the cause of American independence, but he soon was commissioned a major-general in the Continental Army and became an important member of George Washington's staff. Lafayette helped persuade the French government to recognize the United States and to send military aid, although he was not close to the commander of French forces in the United States, the Comte de Rochambeau. Lafayette's greatest military contribution came at the end of the war in Virginia, where he was instrumental in securing the American victory at Yorktown. During the Revolutionary War, Lafayette became close friends with George Washington, whom he referred to as his "adopted father," and he garnered great affection from the troops he commanded, whose pay he sometimes supplemented with his own fortune.
Lafayette returned to France in 1781, and he was soon caught up in the politics of the French Revolution. Lafayette supported the idea of a constitutional monarchy, and although he initially supported the revolution, when the Jacobins turned increasingly violent in 1792, Lafayette disapproved. Lafayette was imprisoned by his enemies in Austria for five years. Napoleon Bonaparte freed Lafayette, but the general mainly stayed out of politics until after Napoleon was deposed in 1815. Lafayette spent the following decade mostly in retirement at his estate, La Grange, where he experienced increasing financial problems, since most of his wealth had been confiscated during the French Revolution.
What Americans saw as Lafayette's support for moderate democracy during the French Revolution had only increased his popularity in the United States, and news of his every move during the French Revolution had filled U.S. newspapers. Early in 1824, President James Monroe invited the general to return to the United States for a visit to accept money and land-grants from Congress and praise from the American people. Lafayette saw the trip as not
only financially a good move, but also a way to promote French ties with the American republic, and he gladly accepted the invitation. Lafayette took with him on the tour his son, George Washington Lafayette, a secretary named Auguste Levasseur, who wrote a French account of their journey, and, at various stages of the journey, a collection of other European friends including the Scottish writer and reformer Frances Wright. Congress instructed the American people that Lafayette, as the "nation's guest," should not be allowed to expend one cent of his own money during his trip, and people all over the United States prepared to greet one of their favorite Revolutionary heroes.
lafayette and national identity
Lafayette's visit to the United States in 1824 came at an important time for the nation to reconfirm its allegiance to the ideas of the American Revolution and the memory of the Revolutionary War. The Revolutionary generation was dying off, and the country was moving in a more modern direction in the nineteenth century. Amidst all the changes, however, most Americans felt it was necessary and positive to remind themselves of the country's glorious military past and to express a continued belief in republican and democratic ideals. When Lafayette arrived in New York City August 15, 1824, he provided the greatest possible living reminder of America's Revolutionary past. Lafayette seemed to be the perfect inspiration for Americans to celebrate their past, their "pure" politics of liberty, and their ideals of progress.
During his visit to the United States, Lafayette visited all twenty-four states, and at every stop along the way, he faced an outpouring of thankfulness from the American people that took the form of ceremonies, balls, parades, fireworks, and any other form of celebration they could think of. The general attended a huge two-day commemoration of the Battle of Yorktown, during which he received visitors directly on the battlefield. He was present in Washington D.C. as the contested presidential election of 1824 was decided by Congress, and some observers credited his presence for helping to divert public attention from the crisis and for calming the situation. Lafayette visited former presidents James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, and he made a gut-wrenching pilgrimage to George Washington's grave. In June 1825, Lafayette laid the cornerstone of the Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown, Massachusetts, the most important of the countless libraries, memorials, and other public buildings he dedicated on his journey. At every turn, Lafayette stopped to speak with visitors (including slaves, which embarrassed his Southern hosts), and the public took particular notice of his affection for Revolutionary veterans everywhere.
Lafayette's visit built up a sense of American nationalism, not only by reminding the people who turned out to greet him around the country of the Revolutionary past, but also because the American press followed his every move. Newspapers reported every day on Lafayette's movements, his speeches, his clothing, and how many grateful viewers turned out to laud him. The publicity helped to link disparate parts of the nation together in the mutual admiration for Lafayette. In addition, a huge number of souvenirs (sheet music, cleaning brushes, china, and glass bottles), many bearing images of Lafayette, allowed Americans to express their patriotism through commercial activity. When Lafayette departed for France in September 1825, the American people would long remember not only him, but also the excitement of his visit.
Americans have not lost their affection for Lafayette over the years, witnessed by the number of "Lafayette" place names, the several societies dedicated to his memory, and the hot collector's market for souvenirs of his visit. When U.S. general John Pershing landed the American Expeditionary Force in France during World War I, his first words were "Lafayette, we are here!" Lafayette's memory signals that the relationship between the United States and France, although it may wax and wane, will probably always have a solid basis in a past of Revolutionary friendship.
Klamkin, Marian. The Return of Lafayette: 1824–1825. New York: Scribners, 1974.
Kramer, Lloyd. Lafayette in Two Worlds. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
Loveland, Anne C. Emblem of Liberty: The Image of Lafayette in the American Mind. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971.
Purcell, Sarah J. Sealed with Blood: War, Sacrifice, and Memory in Revolutionary America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.
Sarah J. Purcell