Lafayette, Marie-Joseph, Marquis de (1757–1834)

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The Marquis de Lafayette (born Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier) became the most influential non-American commander in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and an important foreign contributor to the emergence of American nationalism. He was born into a prominent noble family in the rugged, remote south-central French province of Auvergne. His father was killed in battle (in 1759) during the Seven Years' War, and his mother died (in 1770) while he was still at the Collège du Plesis in Paris, where Lafayette received most of his formal education. Like most other noble boys in eighteenth-century France, he studied ancient history, prepared for a military career, and collected income from his family's landed estates. His wealth and noble status attracted the attention of the powerful Noailles family, and they arranged for Lafayette to marry the youthful Adrienne de Noailles (1759–1807) in 1774. This marriage gave Lafayette a position in the prestigious Noailles Dragoons and set him on course for a successful military career.

Soon, however, he developed a political interest in the American colonists' declaration of independence from Britain. In December 1776 Lafayette received the promise of a military commission from the American representative in Paris, Silas Deane. Lacking official permission to leave his French regiment, Lafayette secretly bought a ship and sailed to the New World with several other military officers in April 1777. This flight from the privileges of European nobility later became a popular American story, in part because it displayed Lafayette's commitment to America's Revolutionary cause and in part because it exemplified a familiar American desire to break with the constraints of the Old World.

lafayette's role in the american revolution

Although some Americans opposed the appointment of French officers in the Continental Army, George Washington accepted Lafayette as an unpaid major general whose family connections at the French court might be useful for the development of a military alliance. Lafayette quickly gained Washington's

personal respect and trust when he demonstrated both courage and military skill in battles at Brandywine and Barren Hill, both in Pennsylvania. The friendship between Washington and Lafayette grew into a kind of father-son attachment in which Lafayette deferred to the older man's judgment and Washington expressed his appreciation of a young European noble "who acts upon very different principles than those which govern the rest." These principles included Lafayette's willingness to listen to Americans (rather than just to give them instructions) and his support of the political objectives of the Revolutionary War.

Lafayette's military role in the American Revolution developed in several different spheres. He provided valuable military leadership as he helped to train, organize, and supply the American brigades that he commanded. Equally important, he constantly urged the French government to send more supplies and military support after France entered into a formal alliance with the American Continental Congress, and he became an energetic cross-cultural mediator when French naval forces and a French army arrived in Rhode Island. Finally, Lafayette commanded American forces with exceptional skill in Virginia during the decisive campaign there in the spring and summer of 1781. This campaign required careful political negotiations as he gathered supplies for his small, ragtag army and imaginative military strategies as he closed the trap around the British army at Yorktown. Although Lafayette could not gain a decisive victory until the Comte de Rochambeau and Washington arrived with the main French and American forces, his strategic maneuvers prepared the way for the final French-American siege.

lafayette's affirmation of american national identity

His leadership of the complex Virginia campaign and his close friendship with Washington were important enough to give Lafayette an enduring reputation in American history, yet his political affirmations of the emerging national identity may well have contributed even more to the American cause than his notable military achievements. Lafayette was the first famous foreigner to affirm the new national narrative of America's exceptional achievements, political ideals, and historical destiny. He described Americans as they liked to describe themselves. Lafayette always assured his American friends that their struggle for national independence had the broadest possible historical significance. When he was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1781, for example, he noted in his acceptance letter that America promoted the rights of mankind on a more liberal basis than any other country in the world. Such public praise for the Revolution reinforced what American leaders already believed about the moral superiority of their national cause, but the statements of a disinterested European nobleman added welcome international credibility to the American claims.

Lafayette's useful and symbolic role as America's best European friend later paved the way for an equally significant role as a leading symbol of American national ideas in France. When the French launched their own revolutionary movement in 1789 to promote the "rights of man" and establish a new constitutional government, most Americans interpreted Lafayette's leadership of the new French National Guard as evidence that France wanted to adopt enlightened American principles of freedom and legal equality. When the French rejected Lafayette in 1792 (he fled for his life and spent five years in Austrian and Prussian prisons), Americans had new reasons to believe that they had a unique national mission: only the United States truly understood and defended the commitment to freedom and order that Lafayette had carried home from the New World.

Lafayette eventually returned to France after Napoleon seized power in 1799, but he rejected Napoleon's authoritarian policies and viewed Jeffersonian America as the main refuge of liberty in the modern world. He continued to praise the American political system as the Napoleonic Empire gave way to a restored French monarchy and to the political conservatism that spread across Europe after 1815. Challenging the ascendancy of conservative regimes wherever he could, Lafayette supported liberal national movements in Spain, Greece, and Poland—all of which he compared to the earlier American struggle for national independence and political freedom. Yet, the powerful conservative tide blocked the progress of liberal nationalisms and his own political career, so he welcomed an invitation from Congress and President James Monroe to return to the United States for a triumphal national tour.

This thirteen-month tour of every American state in 1824–1825 became Lafayette's final important contribution to early American nationalism. He was welcomed everywhere as a living connection to George Washington and the heroic Continental Army. Traveling through a nation engaged in a bitter conflict between the supporters of Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams, Lafayette became a unifying messenger from the generation of the founders. He assured uncertain Americans that they were carrying forward the vision of their Revolutionary ancestors, and he reaffirmed, as always, the nationalist belief in America's world-historical significance. He also praised the unique success of the American Revolution, celebrated the superior achievements of America's constitutional government, and interpreted America's rapid economic development as a remarkable consequence of the nation's freedom and republican institutions.

In response, Americans hailed Lafayette as the greatest and wisest man in Europe. Newspapers reprinted his speeches, musicians composed songs to describe his accomplishments, and artists portrayed his image on souvenir dishes, handkerchiefs, and in published illustrations. The celebration of Lafayette became also a celebration of America's national history, political accomplishments, and economic progress. Towns, streets, and schools were named in his honor, and even his occasional references to the dangers of sectionalism or the injustices of slavery could not diminish the nationalist rituals that his tour evoked.

Lafayette later returned to political prominence in the French Revolution of 1830, and he continued to support national independence movements in Poland, Italy, and Greece until his death. Yet these later campaigns for French political reforms and liberal nationalisms never led to the kind of decisive victories he had witnessed at the conclusion of the American Revolution. In the end, therefore, it was the Americans who offered the highest praise for the European who first embraced their cause in 1776 and reaffirmed the central beliefs of American nationalism throughout his long life. At a joint session of Congress in 1834 John Quincy Adams gave a eulogy for Lafayette in which he asserted that no one "among the race of merely mortal men" could rival Lafayette "as the benefactor" of mankind. Though modern historians have questioned such nineteenth-century claims for Lafayette's achievements, the rhetoric points to his exalted status in a new nation that yearned for foreign affirmation of its emerging national identity and historical significance.

See alsoNationalism; Revolution: Military History .


Gottschalk, Louis. Lafayette and the Close of the American Revolution. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965.

Idzerda, Stanley J., et al., eds. Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution: Selected Letters and Papers, 1776–1790. 5 vols. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977–1983.

Idzerda, Stanley J., Anne C. Loveland, and Marc H. Miller. Lafayette, Hero of Two Worlds: The Art and Pageantry of His Farewell Tour of America, 1824–1825. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1989.

Kramer, Lloyd. Lafayette in Two Worlds: Public Cultures and Personal Identities in an Age of Revolutions. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Unger, Harlow Giles. Lafayette. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley and Sons, 2002.

Lloyd Kramer

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