Lafayette, Marquis de

views updated May 18 2018

Marquis de Lafayette

Born September 6, 1757
Chavaniac, France
Died May 20, 1834
Paris, France

French military leader, politician

Among the heroes of the Revolutionary War (1775–83), only the name of George Washington see entry ranks higher than that of the Marquis de Lafayette, the renowned Frenchman who put his life and fortune at the disposal of the American rebels in their fight with England. Although his political skills were sometimes not equal to his lofty purposes, he had an important influence on the creation of new governments in both America and his French homeland. Lafayette supported social equality, representation of the common people in government, religious tolerance, and freedom of the press, which was unusual for a person of his time and class in society.

For centuries, members of the wealthy Motier (pronounced mo-TYAY) family of French nobles lived at the family mansion in the province of Auvergne (pronounced oh-VAIRN), France. There Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier (pronounced Muh-REE jo-SEFF pole eve rowsh jheelbair duh mo-TYAY) was born on September 6, 1757. The Motiers were known by their noble title of La Fayette; the American spelling of the family's title is Lafayette, and the American pronunciation is lah-fee-YET. Marie Joseph Motier is usually called simply Lafayette.

When Lafayette was two years old, his father was killed in a military battle. His mother died of an illness some years later. From his mother and her family, the young man inherited the title of marquis (pronounced mar-KEE) and a sizable fortune.

The wealthy orphan boy was shy and awkward. He was educated at the highly respected College du Plessis in Paris, and in 1771, he joined the French army. At that time in history, when the average life span was much shorter than it is today, important life events such as beginning a career and marriage typically took place at much younger ages than they do now.

In 1773, at age sixteen, Lafayette married fourteen-year-old Adrienne de Noailles (pronounced ay-dree-EN duh no-ELL), who was the daughter of a wealthy noble family and a relative of French royalty. Lafayette retired from the army after only five years, with the rank of captain. He then became part of the court life at Versailles (pronounced ver-SIGH), France, the extravagant castle where the royal family lived.

The tremendously wealthy teenager was not content to simply settle into the life of luxury at the court. When the Revolutionary War (1775–83) broke out in America, Lafayette decided to put his talents and military experience in the service of America against England, France's historic enemy.

Young noble goes to America

As a member of nobility, Lafayette had to request the king's permission to go to America and fight. Lafayette's father-in-law opposed the idea, and King Louis XVI see entry refused the request. Lafayette sailed off anyway, using his own money to buy and equip a ship. When the seventeen-year-old Frenchman presented himself to America's Continental Congress, the revolutionary government, Congress was cool to him. But when he offered to serve in the army at his own expense, Congress relented and made him a major general, with the understanding he would not command any soldiers. He was sent to serve as the chief aide to General George Washington see entry, head of the Continental army.

By this time, the red-haired Frenchman had reached his full height of six feet tall. He was graceful and had angular features, smiled easily, and was said to excel at conversation because he devoted his entire attention to the person with whom he was speaking.

Lafayette soon grew to love and respect Washington, who became a father figure to him. He was always ready and willing to do whatever his commander requested to help the American cause. In return, the general took an immediate liking to the young man, but at first he did not know what to do with him. At that point, Lafayette spoke little English and had never engaged in active warfare, but he was most anxious to command American troops in battle. Lafayette spent the difficult winter of 1777–78 with Washington and his troops at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. He used the time to improve his English and his knowledge of military tactics.

Takes command of division, returns to France

Lafayette turned out to be a good fighter and a wise adviser to Washington. He performed well at battles in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but in September 1777 he was shot in the thigh. The wound established his bravery in the eyes of American soldiers, and on his recovery, Lafayette was placed in charge of a division of American troops. In helping him to get that appointment Washington had written to Congress, "it appears to me, from a consideration of his … important connexions, [and] the attachement which he has [shown] for our cause … that it will be advisable to gratify his wishes [to gain a command]…. Besides, he is sensible, [has fine manners], hasmade great [strides in mastering] our language,… and possesses a large share of bravery and military ardor."

In 1778 George Washington sent Lafayette back to France to try to drum up support for the American cause. When he arrived in his homeland in 1779, Lafayette immediately went to the Palace of Versailles, where his wife and family were living. Lafayette was placed under arrest because he had disobeyed the king and gone to America. But because he was able to give the king a first-hand report about what was happening in America (instead of just rumors), all was forgiven.

Lafayette insisted that more financial aid should be granted to the Americans. The king honored this request. Lafayette had also suggested that France invade England, Ireland,

or Canada to divert England from the war in America; that soldiers be hired from the Swedish navy to serve in America; and that a large loan be gotten from Holland to help finance the war. The King refused these schemes. Lafayette returned to America in April 1780.

Plays important role in final days of war

In 1781 General Washington placed Lafayette in charge of the defense of Virginia. When the major fighting of the war moved from the North to Virginia, Lafayette played a crucial role in trapping the English commander, General Charles Cornwallis, at Yorktown, Virginia. On October 19, 1781, Cornwallis surrendered, an event that brought America's war of independence to a military conclusion.

Yorktown was the high point of Lafayette's career as a soldier. He returned to France in 1782, where he was honored as a hero and made a general in the French army.

In 1784, George Washington invited Lafayette back to the United States for a visit. Over the next several years, the friendship Lafayette had established between America and France proved valuable to the new nation. For example, Lafayette was able to assist Thomas Jefferson see entry, then U.S. Minister to France, with several political and economic matters.

Arrives home in time for French Revolution

Lafayette had a love of liberty and equality that was not common among noble Europeans of his time. He was wildly enthusiastic about America, where his ideals of freedom were becoming a reality. His time in America had only served to strengthen Lafayette's commitment to democratic principles.

Lafayette returned to France at a time when the system of rule by kings and queens was being challenged in Europe. He became a political leader in the movement against absolutism (pronounced ab-so-LUTE-ism) in France. Absolutism is a system in which one person—usually a king or queen—rules without any kind of restrictions on his or her actions. In such a system, common people are easily abused by wicked or thoughtless leaders. This was the case in France, where the citizens suffered from unfair taxation and a terrible shortage of food. Lawlessness had reached such a point that French citizens were often the victims of armed bands of criminals roaming the countryside.

In 1787 and 1788 Lafayette joined a group of French nobles who were in favor of a new way of governing in France. In 1789 he was present at a meeting of nobles, clergymen, and representatives of the common people. The meeting was called to decide what should be done about the terrible financial difficulties France was facing at that time. At the end of the meeting, the common people declared themselves the true rulers of France, and the French Revolution (1789–99) began.

When the king seemed resistant to the idea of the common people ruling France, French workers stormed the Bastille (pronounced bah-STEEL), a prison in Paris where for centuries inmates had been held and tortured. That same day, June 14, 1789, Lafayette, then the most popular man in France, was appointed head of the National Guard, an organization of citizen-soldiers formed to carry forward the French Revolution.

Lafayette's opinions were widely listened to and respected during the first months of the French Revolution. On his recommendation, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, a document patterned on the American Declaration of Independence, was adopted. But as French mobs grew more unruly and Lafayette seemed to go against them, popular opinion towards him changed.

Supports parliamentary monarchy, loses National Guard post

Lafayette's popularity began to wane after he rescued Queen Marie-Antoinette (pronounced an-twah-NET) from a mob attack on the Palace of Versailles on October 5, 1789. Lafayette may have been a foe of absolutism, but he also opposed violence toward the royal family. His popularity declined further when he voiced his support for a new type of government like the one used in England, a parliamentary monarchy.

In a parliamentary monarchy, a king or queen performs ceremonial functions but is not the head of the government. The government is ruled by parliament, a group of representatives who have the power to make and carry out laws on behalf of all the people. The type of parliamentary monarchy favored by Lafayette would be based on a formal written constitution, like the one adopted in the United States in 1789.

In discussions about what form a new government would take, Lafayette had to deal with people who held very extreme views. They wanted to see a new form of government put in place, but they also wanted to see violence done to the king and queen. Lafayette's was a voice of reason in arguing for a parliamentary monarchy and against doing violence to the king and queen, but his views did not endear him to the radicals.

In the spring of 1791, King Louis XVI and his wife tried to escape from France. In a show of support for the revolutionaries, Lafayette issued orders to stop them. The pair were arrested and imprisoned. A period of even greater chaos followed the end of the monarchy, a period that tested Lafayette's political skills to the utmost. He was very disturbed by the growing violence of the revolution.

On October 8, 1791, Lafayette ordered his National Guard troops to put down a mob in Paris. His troops refused to follow his orders, and Lafayette was forced to retire from command of the National Guard.

Falls further out of favor with radical French leaders

In 1792 a war pitted France against Austria and Prussia (a former German state). For a short time, Lafayette was popular again, until he led 52,000 troops in an unsuccessful invasion of Belgium. He returned with his troops to Paris to protest to the government about a July 20 mob attack on the French royal family. His protest was not well received by either the government or his troops.

By that time, France was being ruled by a radical group called the Jacobins (pronounced JACK-uh-bins). They accused Lafayette of planning to turn his troops against them, and on August 10, 1792, they proclaimed Lafayette a traitor. To escape arrest and possible execution, Lafayette fled to Belgium with a number of fellow officers.

In Belgium, Lafayette was treated as a prisoner-of-war and held captive by the Austrians and Prussians for five years. For two of the five years, his beloved wife Adrienne stayed with him in prison. The hardships she suffered there forced her to leave and led to her death in 1807 at the age of forty-eight. She left behind four children. Henriette (pronounced hen-ree-ET) was born in 1775; Anastasie (pronounced on-uh-STAH-zee) was born in 1777; George Washington was born in 1779; and Virginie (pronounced ver-jhuh-NEE) was born in 1782.

Lafayette was released from prison in 1797 at the request of Napoleon Bonaparte, a French general and political leader. Napoleon had risen through the ranks of the French army and crowned himself Emperor of France in 1804. Though he released him, Napoleon would not allow Lafayette to return to France; he may have looked upon the former hero as a threat to his hold on France.

Returns to France and lives quietly there

Lafayette returned to France without permission in 1799. With the rise of Napoleon, Lafayette no longer held any political power and his personal fortune had been lost. The French military provided him with a military pension (a yearly payment for his service) as a retired general and he went to live quietly at his country estate at Lagrange, forty-three miles from Paris. Bonaparte softened his position toward Lafayette and offered him opportunities to become a senator, receive the French national award called the Legion of Honor, or become minister to the United States. But Lafayette turned them all down because he did not approve of Napoleon. To show his disapproval, in 1802 he was one of only a small number who voted against granting Napoleon's wish to be made First Consul, head of the government of France for life.

In 1805 Lafayette rejected an offer by President Thomas Jefferson that he become Governor of Louisiana in the United States. He preferred to stay in his beloved France and did not want it to appear that Napoleon could drive him out. Lafayette did not resume public life in France until 1814, when he was elected to the Legislative Chamber, France's lawmaking body. He was the first to demand Napoleon's final and permanent departure as head of the government. Napoleon was overthrown in 1815 after a disastrous defeat by the British army at Waterloo, Belgium. Napoleon was then permanently exiled (forced to live away from France).

Serves in French government, revisits America

In 1815 the Bourbon family returned to the French throne with the crowning of King Louis XVIII. He was the brother of Louis XVI, who with his wife Marie-Antoinette had been beheaded during the French Revolution. Their son, Louis XVII, had died in a prison cell. Upon the death of Louis XVIII, his older brother ascended to the throne, ruling as Charles X until his death in 1830. During the two kings' reigns, from 1818 to 1824, Lafayette served in the branch of the French government called the Chamber of Deputies. He was a member of the party that opposed royalty.

In 1824 Lafayette stepped down from public life when the government of the United States invited him to visit America. During his fifteen-month tour, he met with wide acclaim and appreciation. The U.S. Congress presented Lafayette with a gift of $200,000 and a large piece of land, which, in time, brought him a sizable profit. Lafayette returned to France in 1825 hailed as a hero on both sides of the Atlantic.

Lafayette returned to public life in 1830, at the out-break of a second revolution in France, after the people decided they no longer wanted their country ruled by a monarchy. At that time, Lafayette became the symbol of moderate republicanism (a system in which the power is held by voters, whose policies are carried out by representatives elected by them). Lafayette was asked to head the National Guard that had driven Charles X from France. He refused a demand by the French public that he become president of the new republic. Instead, he decided to support a man named Louis Phillipe, who was called the "citizen king." Louis Phillipe was supposed to rule according to a constitution, but over time he became an authoritarian leader who started demanding unquestioning obedience to his wishes. His reign was marked by corruption, and he was finally forced to leave office.

Death of the hero

Lafayette died in Paris on May 20, 1834, at the age of seventy-six. By that time, he no longer had many followers. The royalists, supporters of rule by kings and queens, considered him a traitor to the privileged class, and the radical revolutionaries considered him half-hearted in his support of changes in the social structure.

Lafayette's greatest legacy was in serving as a symbol of friendship between France and America. In 1825, when Lafayette was preparing to leave America for the last time, then-President John Quincy Adams made a farewell speech to him. He said: "We shall look upon you always as belonging to us, during the whole of our life, and as belonging to our children after us. You are ours by that more than patriotic self-devotion with which you flew to the aid of our fathers at the crisis of our fate; ours by that unshaken gratitude for your services which is a precious portion of our inheritance; ours by that tie of love, stronger than death, which has linked your name for the endless ages of time with the name [George] Washington."

For More Information

Boatner, Mark M., III. "Lafayette, Marquis de" and "Lafayette Myth." Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994. pp. 591-94.

Bourgoin, Suzanne M. and Paula K. Byers. "Lafayette, Marquis de." Encyclopedia of World Biography. Detroit: Gale, 1998, vol. 9, pp. 151-52.

Gerson, Noel B. Statue in Search of a Pedestal, The Biography of Marquis de Lafayette. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1976.

Guide to the Study of the U.S.A.: Representative Books Reflecting the Development of American Life and Thought. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Library of Congress, 1960.

Whitlock, Brand. La Fayette. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1929.

Web Sites

"The Marquis de Lafayette." The LIBERTY! website. PBS Online and Twin Cities Public Television. [Online] Available (accessed on 9/6/99).

"Marquis de Lafayette, French Soldier & Statesman." [Online] Available http:/// (accessed on 9/6/99).

"Who Served Here? The Marquis de Lafayette." Historic Valley Forge. [Online] Available (accessed on 9/7/99).

The Myth of Lafayette

The Marquis de Lafayette has long been celebrated in America as a French noble who came to fight out of love for the ideals of liberty. But according to research done by Louis R. Gottschalk, one of Lafayette's biographers, this is an exaggeration. Gottschalk claimed that Lafayette came to America because he was frustrated and dissatisfied with affairs in France at the time. Gottschalk also pointed out that Lafayette desired glory and the opportunity to get revenge on France's long-time enemy, England.

Gottschalk claims that the image of Lafayette as the idealistic hero was the product of Americans who wanted to use him for purposes of propaganda (as a tool to influence people to have positive ideas about the American Revolution) and to obtain military aid from France. But other historians go further. In its Guide to the Study of the U.S.A.: Representative Books Reflecting the Development of American Life and Thought, the Library of Congress stated: "Once Lafayette became the symbol, he lived the role to such an extent that the symbol became the reality, and in later years, Lafayette deserved the [honor] of being the outstanding liberal of his day." A liberal is a person who supports forms of government in which rule is by the common people and their representatives, rather than by kings and queens or absolute rulers.

Lafayette, Marquis de

views updated Jun 11 2018

Lafayette, Marquis de

LAFAYETTE, MARQUIS DE. (1757–1834). (Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette.) Continental general. Before his second birthday he lost his father, a colonel of grenadiers killed at Minden. His mother died before he was thirteen years old, and Lafayette was a wealthy orphan when his grandfather died a few weeks later. When he was age sixteen he married his cousin, Marie Adrienne Françoise de Noailles, and thus strengthened his alliance with one of the most powerful families of France. He had entered the Royal Army as a musketeer on 9 April 1771, was promoted to second lieutenant in the Noailles Regiment on 7 April 1773, and promoted to captain on 19 May 1774. While serving at Metz, he attended a dinner on 8 August 1775 at which the duke of Gloucester expressed some candid and sympathetic views on the course being pursued by the American insurgents. Motivated by his interest in the American cause, he made plans to join the Americans. Knowing that his family and the king would disapprove of his action, he confided in the Comte de Broglie, who introduced him to Johann De Kalb. The latter, already seeking service in America, became a sort of guardian, and after many delays they sailed for America with written agreements from Silas Deane that they would be commissioned major generals. With a party of other soldiers, they landed near Georgetown, South Carolina, on 13 June 1777, and were in Philadelphia six weeks later. Their reception by Congress was chilly, but after Lafayette offered to serve at his own expense and start as a volunteer, Congress on 31 July commissioned him a major general without command. The next day he met Washington, and the American cause acquired a valuable, if enigmatic, asset.


Washington was at first irritated by Lafayette's expressions of availability for a field command. At the Battle of Brandywine, on 11 September 1777, the ardent volunteer helped check the enemy's advance and was wounded in the left thigh and evacuated to the Moravians' care in Bethlehem. After two months of recuperation, he rejoined the army at White Marsh (after the Battle of Germantown). On 25 November he led a reconnaissance force of Greene's division against the position of Cornwallis at Gloucester, New Jersey, and with three hundred men got the better of a skirmish with a superior force of Hessians. Lafayette's effectiveness in battle complicated Washington's quandry. On 1 November, Washington wrote to Henry Laurens:

I feel myself in a delicate situation…. He is extremely solicitous of having a command equal to his rank…. 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…. 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 ardor. (Washington, Papers, 12, p. 81).

These comments explain more than first meets the eye about Washington's initial hesitations, his change of mind, and later his concerns about Congress's reaction to conferring a command on a foreigner as well as Lafayette's true role in the Revolution.


On 1 December 1777, Congress voted him command of a division of Virginia light troops. After sharing the hardships of Valley Forge and proving himself one of Washington's most stalwart supporters in the so-called Conway Cabal, he went to Albany to lead the proposed Canada invasion of 1778. Returning to Valley Forge in April 1778 after that frustrating experience, he was involved in the action at Barren Hill, Pennsylvania, on 20 May. He then figured prominently in the Monmouth campaign in June. Washington gave him command of the two veteran brigades engaged at Newport in July and August 1778, where he had a prominent part in salvaging the wreck of the first Franco-American venture. When the Peace Commission of Carlisle issued a manifesto questioning France's motives in the alliance, Lafayette challenged Carlisle to a duel, which Carlisle sought to avoid. Washington and Estaing succeeded in urging Lafayette to withdraw from pressing the matter.


With France's entry into the war in the spring of 1778, Lafayette sought permission from Congress for a leave to return to France, resolve his relations with the king, and "be any way useful" to America. Congress concurred on 21 October and added a letter of recommendation to Louis XVI on Lafayette's behalf. He sailed on 11 January 1779 (his departure having been delayed by a fever), reached Paris a month later, and after a week of "political quarantine" to purge himself of disobedience in defying the royal will in leaving France, he was given a hero's welcome. He was received with favor at court; appointed colonel of dragoons; and, in presenting an accurate picture of affairs in America, won the confidence of Vergennes. Although Lafayette failed to get approval for many of the schemes he advocated—an invasion of England, Ireland, or Canada; hiring part of the Swedish navy for service in America; floating a large loan in Holland—he was successful in endorsing the proposal to send a French expeditionary force to serve under Washington.

On 28 April 1780 he landed at Boston. Rochambeau reached Newport in July, and with Washington's wholehearted support, Lafayette sought to serve as intermediary in working out plans for allied cooperation. When Benedict Arnold's raid in Virginia forced Washington to send regulars there, he selected Lafayette as commander of this detachment. In his Virginia military operations, Lafayette proved himself an effective strategist in eluding the efforts of Cornwallis's larger force to "trap the boy," and at Green Spring on 6 July 1781, he showed ability as a tactician. When Rochambeau and Washington moved south for the Yorktown campaign, Lafayette was given command of the light division for the final action against Cornwallis.


He sailed for home in December 1781 and reached France with lavish commendations from Congress to Louis XVI and instructions to the U.S. ministers in France to confer with him and avail themselves of his assistance. Congress made the Alliance available for his crossing. Upon his return to France, Lafayette was promoted to the rank of maréchal de camp, effective 19 October 1781. In Europe, along with Estaing, he was assembling an army of twenty-four thousand French and Spanish troops at Cádiz for operations against the British when the word of the treaty arrived. He received the Cross of the Order of Saint Louis in 1783.


In the last half of 1784 he revisited America at Washington's invitation and promoted the cause of a stronger American union. After 1783 he was of great assistance to various American causes in Europe, working tirelessly for improved Franco-American relations by, among other things, seeking expanded commercial relations between France and America, encouraging Greene and Knox to have their sons educated in France, supporting the Society of Cincinnati, and—especially—aiding Jefferson's mission as minister to France. In 1786 Lafayette's bust (a gift from the state of Virginia) was placed in the Paris City Hall, a signal distinction for a living Frenchman.


In 1787 he was a member of the Assembly of Notables; in 1789 he represented the nobility of Auvergne in the Estates General. On 11 July he submitted a draft for the Declaration of the Rights of Mankind and the Citizen. On 17 July 1789 he was named commander of the newly established Paris National Guard, a post he kept until autumn 1791, when France completed its written constitution. Having been promoted to lieutenant general on 30 June 1791, he returned to active duty as commander of the Army of the Center on 14 December 1791, when France feared the outbreak of war. The collapse of the monarchy in August 1792 led to his arrest by the Jacobins and his decision to flee to America on 19 August, but he was taken and imprisoned by the Austrians and Prussians in a series of locations until his release in 1797. In March 1800 he returned to France to find his fortune destroyed. He acknowledged Napoleon but declined his offers of a senatorship, the Legion of Honor, and the post of minister to the United States. He also declined President Jefferson's offer in 1805 to become governor of Louisiana.


During this period and until 1818 he kept out of politics, cultivating his lands at La Grange, forty-three miles from Paris. He then sat in the Chamber of Deputies until 1824, and in that year accepted the invitation of President Monroe to visit the United States. During the visit, Lafayette was warmly welcomed in every state of the Union, and everywhere Revolutionary War veterans hurried to his side. Of those with whom he had served, he often remembered their names and those of their families. He sailed back for France on 8 September 1825 with a renewed commitment to international causes that he conceived as based on the principles of the American Revolution. Louis-Philippe's assurances of a monarchy "with republican institutions" in the July Revolution of 1830 convinced him to accept the title of commander of the French National Guard until December 1830. Thereafter he continued as a major figure in the opposition until his death. His residences in Paris and in the countryside (La Grange) were the destination for many American visitors during the remainder of his life.

Lafayette spent an estimated $200,000 of his personal fortune in support of the American Revolution. In 1794 Congress voted him some $24,500 to cover the salary he had declined during the Revolution, and in 1803 and 1825 that body granted him lands in Louisiana and Florida.

SEE ALSO Arnold's Raid in Virginia; Barren Hill, Pennsylvania; Brandywine, Pennsylvania; Canada Invasion (Planned); De Kalb, Johann; Deane, Silas; Green Spring (Jamestown Ford, Virginia); Laurens, Henry; Monmouth, New Jersey; Newport, Rhode Island (29 July-31 August 1778); Peace Commission of Carlisle; Rochambeau, Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de; Valley Forge Winter Quarters, Pennsylvania; Virginia, Military Operations in; Yorktown Campaign.


Ford, Worthington C., ed. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1904–1937.

Gottschalk, Louis R. Lafayette in America, 1777–1783. 3 vols. Arveyres, France: L'Esprit de Lafayette Society, 1975.

Lafayette, Gilbert du Motier de. Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution: Selected Letters and Papers. Edited by Stanley J. Idzerda. 5 vols. to date. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977–.

―――――――. Mémoires, Correspondance, et Manuscrits du Général Lafayette Publiés par sa Famille. 6 vols. Paris: H. Fournier, 1837–1838.

Morris, Robert. Papers of Robert Morris, 1781–1784. Edited by E. James Ferguson, et al. 9 vols. to date. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1973–.

Tower, Charlemagne. The Marquis de Lafayette in the American Revolution. 2d ed. 2 vols. 1901. Reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1970.

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

Washington, George. The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series. Edited by Philander D. Chase, et al. 14 vols. to date. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1985–.

                            revised by Robert Rhodes Crout

Lafayette, Marquis de

views updated May 29 2018


the american revolution
the early years of the french revolution
years of imprisonment, exile, and retirement
return to political life in later years

LAFAYETTE, MARQUIS DE (1757–1834), French statesman and officer.

Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, the marquis de Lafayette, was an influential leader and symbol of early French liberalism. He became the best-known European supporter of the American Revolution, a staunch advocate of the revolutionary "rights of man," and a prominent defender of national independence movements throughout Europe and the Americas. His long political career symbolized many of the ideas as well as the optimism of a revolutionary era that extended from the American War for Independence in 1776 to the French Revolution of 1830. He had an exceptional ability to mediate among political leaders and political movements on both sides of the Atlantic, though he never reached his political goals in Europe with the same clarity or success that he achieved in the final military victory of the American Revolution.

Lafayette was born into a noble family in the central French province of Auvergne. His parents both died while he was still a child, but his wealth and noble status led to an advantageous marriage with Adrienne de Noailles (1759–1807), who belonged to one of the most powerful families in eighteenth-century France. Lafayette thus gained a position in the prestigious Noailles Dragoons and began the typical career of a noble officer in the French army.

the american revolution

In contrast to most of his peers, however, he developed an early political interest in America's struggle for independence from Britain. He therefore decided for both personal and political reasons (but without royal permission) to set off in April 1777 for America. The Continental Congress, recognizing the possible value of his connections in France, commissioned Lafayette to the rank of unpaid major general in the Continental army. He soon demonstrated his courage in battle, gained the trust of George Washington, and later served as a cross-cultural mediator in the French-American alliance.

Lafayette's military leadership contributed significantly to the American cause, especially in the Virginia campaign that led to the decisive American victory at Yorktown in 1781. But Lafayette's political education and support for the new nation's political identity ultimately became the most important aspects of his experience in the American Revolution. He learned that military victories depended on political will as well as a strategic military plan and that modern campaigns for national independence required a political narrative about collective and individual rights.

Lafayette's prominent role in the American Revolution provided a foundation for his later leadership in the emerging political movement for new rights and reforms in late-eighteenth-century France. He strongly supported efforts to abolish slavery in the French colonies and also joined a campaign that succeeded in gaining new civil rights for French Protestants. Lafayette was thus already an influential liberal leader before the French Revolution began in 1789, but the upheaval of that year carried him to the center of political events.

the early years of the french revolution

Elected to the Estates-General as a representative of the nobility, he quickly entered the National Assembly after it proclaimed itself the sovereign legislative body of the French nation. Lafayette's political objectives in the Revolution always focused on two themes—liberty and order—both of which he sought to promote through the institutions of the rapidly evolving new regime.

Lafayette introduced his conception of liberty into the proceedings of the National Assembly on 11 July 1789, when he put forward his proposal for a French declaration of the "rights of man." This declaration, modeled on earlier statements of "rights" in various American state constitutions and in the new American Bill of Rights, launched a debate that led finally (27 August 1789) to the assembly's adoption of the much-revised Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which would become the most famous and influential document of the French Revolution.

Lafayette's desire to establish the broadest political principles of human rights and liberty was always linked to a deep concern about the dangers of social disorder and violence. He therefore strongly endorsed the creation of a new National Guard immediately after the Parisian crowd's violent assault on the Bastille prison (14 July 1789). The National Assembly voted to make Lafayette the guard's first commander, thereby giving him a major military and political role in the following two years of revolutionary change. He sought to protect the deliberations of the National Assembly and the security of the royal family as well as public order on the streets of Paris, but both the royalists and the emerging republicans gradually turned against him.

Favoring a moderate constitutional monarchy, Lafayette was condemned by royalists for tolerating unruly crowds and by revolutionaries for protecting nobles, arresting radicals, and supporting King Louis XVI. He resigned from his command of the National Guard in the fall of 1791 and withdrew to his ancestral home in Auvergne. This brief retirement lasted only until he was appointed to command an army that was reorganized during the months before France declared war on Prussia and Austria in April 1792; and he also commanded another French army after the war began.

years of imprisonment, exile, and retirement

As the Jacobins and other radical republicans rose to power in the summer of 1792, however, Lafayette lost all political support and fled the country. He tried to reach Holland in order to find passage to America, but he was captured by the Austrian army and imprisoned for five years. Although his release was eventually negotiated in a treaty with the Austrian government, Lafayette could not return to France until Napoleon Bonaparte seized political power at the end of 1799.

Lafayette gradually settled into the quiet life of a gentleman farmer at a family château called La Grange, in the countryside southeast of Paris, and he played no part in public affairs over the next fifteen years. Lafayette refused to cooperate with Napoleon's authoritarian regime and referred constantly to Jeffersonian America as the main refuge of liberty in the modern world. His political activities during this period took the form of private correspondence with liberal critics of the Napoleonic empire. He sought to sustain a liberal political alternative to the imperial system by praising the American Revolution, the new American republic, and the ideals of the early French Revolution.

return to political life in later years

The Bourbon Restoration in 1815 and the creation of the new Chamber of Deputies gave Lafayette the opportunity to regain a place in French political culture. Elected to the Chamber in 1818, he worked closely with other liberals such as Benjamin Constant to defend freedom of the press, an independent judiciary, electoral reforms, and the political rights of liberal movements throughout Europe.

The French police kept Lafayette under permanent surveillance, in part because he often hosted foreign radicals at La Grange and corresponded with secret, antigovernment groups within France itself. He also developed close friendships with a diverse group of women writers and political activists, firmly supporting the controversial books and political actions of liberal women such as Germaine de Staël, the Scottish-born American abolitionist Fanny Wright, the Irish novelist Lady Sydney Morgan, and the Italian nationalist Cristina Belgioioso. His international political correspondence during the 1820s provided ideological support for liberal national movements in Latin America, Spain, and Greece. He compared such political struggles to the earlier American war for national independence, and he remained optimistic about the eventual triumph of liberal nationalisms and constitutional reforms in most of Europe.

Meanwhile, he lost an election in 1824 and found his desire for political change stymied by the conservative ascendancy in France. He therefore accepted an official invitation for a national tour of the United States, where he was universally praised as the esteemed defender of liberty, order, and the achievements of the new American nation.

Lafayette later regained his seat in the Chamber of Deputies and moved again to the center of French political culture in the Revolution of 1830. When Parisian crowds took up arms and forced King Charles X to abandon his throne, the aging general returned to his old position as commander of the French National Guard. Although he embraced the new French king, Louis-Philippe, he also called repeatedly for a "throne surrounded by republican institutions," by which he meant that France should have a constitutional monarchy and that the government should protect all of the fundamental "rights of man." Reiterating his perennial defense of liberty and order, Lafayette lost favor again with both the conservative monarchists and the radical republicans.

He was thus forced to resign his command of the National Guard, whereupon he went back to the Chamber of Deputies and spoke often about the dangers of internal government repression and reactionary policies abroad. He also continued to support national independence movements in Poland, Italy, and Greece, all of which he saw as necessary preludes for the free and orderly political systems that he envisioned as the European political culture of the future.


By the time of Lafayette's death in 1834, the more radical European political movements were turning toward socialism, and the reigning powers were still resisting most of the liberal national movements he had promoted. The European campaign to create liberal institutions would nevertheless ultimately manage to establish the kind of widespread constitutional government and human rights that Lafayette had advocated. But his life and famous actions always elicited the highest praise from Americans, whose national revolution he had joined in 1777 and whose liberal conceptions of national sovereignty and human rights he had defended and adapted during a long, controversial political career in Europe.

See alsoCharles X; France; French Revolution; Louis XVIII; Revolutions of 1820; Revolutions of 1830.


Gottschalk, Louis, and Margaret Maddox. Lafayette in the French Revolution: From the October Days through the Federation. Chicago, 1973.

——. Lafayette in the French Revolution: Through the October Days. Chicago, 1969.

Kramer, Lloyd. Lafayette in Two Worlds: Public Cultures and Personal Identities in an Age of Revolutions. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1996.

Neely, Sylvia. Lafayette and the Liberal Ideal, 1814–1824: Politics and Conspiracy in an Age of Reaction. Carbondale, Ill., 1991.

Unger, Harlow Giles. Lafayette. New York, 2002.

Lloyd Kramer

Marquis de Lafayette

views updated May 29 2018

Marquis de Lafayette

Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834), French general, statesman, and hero of the American Revolution, served France by endeavoring to smooth the transition from the Old Regime to the new order created by the French Revolution.

The Marquis de Lafayette was born on Sept. 6, 1757, to the Motier family—better known by their noble title of La Fayette (the spelling "Lafayette" is an Americanism which only pedants would now attempt to correct)—at their château of Chavagniac in the province of Auvergne. After 3 years of study in the Collège du Plessis, a distinguished secondary school in Paris, he joined the French army in 1771. Stringent military reforms 5 years later forced his retirement from active service when he was only 18 years old.

In 1773 Lafayette married Adrienne de Noailles (1759-1807), daughter of the Duc d'Ayen, and entered the court life at Versailles. He had not yet shown any serious interest in the turbulent political events and debates of the early reign of Louis XVI, but he was not willing to settle down to the life of pampered luxury permitted by his great wealth. After the outbreak of the American Revolution, he decided to put his arms and his training at the service of the infant country in rebellion against France's historic enemy, England. It was as yet more a soldier's splendid gesture, however, than an act of political commitment.

American Revolution

Refused the King's permission to go to America, Lafayette sailed anyway, after buying and equipping a ship with his own money. On June 13, 1777, he landed in North Carolina. The Continental Congress had given the distinguished volunteer an honorary commission as a major general, but his actual duties were as aide-de-camp to Gen. Washington, to whom he brought personal and political devotion, eagerness and ability in the performance of military duties, and the assurance that the American rebels were not alone in their cause. After performing well in battles against the British in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, he was given command of a division of American troops. The next year he tried to persuade Washington to carry the war into Canada, but his plan was not adopted. Instead he was sent back to France with the mission of obtaining greater French support for the Americans.

Upon landing in his homeland early in 1779, Lafayette was arrested for having disobeyed the royal command in going to America. But political necessities soon overrode considerations of military discipline, and he was called to Versailles by the King, who wanted a firsthand report on how things stood in the new United States of America. Although not all his proposals for aid to the Americans were accepted, Lafayette did return to America in April 1780 in command of French auxiliary forces. In 1781 he was given command of the defense of Virginia with the rank of major general. His maneuverings eventually drew Charles Cornwallis, the English commander, into the trap at Yorktown, where he was blockaded by the American forces and by French troops brought by a French fleet under Adm. de Grasse. Cornwallis's surrender on October 19 brought the American war of independence to its military conclusion and was the culmination of Lafayette's career as a soldier.

Return to France

When Lafayette returned to France in 1782, it was as a hero, "Washington's friend," and he was made a brigadier general in the French army.

In America Lafayette had developed a commitment to the principles of the Enlightenment. During the years of the final crisis of the Old Regime, the soldier became a political leader of the movement against absolutism. In 1787-1788 he served as a member of the Assembly of Notables and then, in 1789, took a seat in the Estates General as deputy of the nobility of the district of Riom. Lafayette was influential in the first months of the Revolution, which followed the meeting of the Estates General. The world-famous Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was adopted at his initiative, and his military fame and political reputation combined to win for him, on the day after the Bastille fell (July 14), the command of the Parisian national guard, the force of citizen-soldiers created to defend the new regime.

Lafayette's political acumen was now tested to the utmost, for, like so many of the Enlightenment thinkers, he favored a parliamentary monarchy like England's but one based on a formal written constitution like that just adopted in America. However, he had to cope with radical mob violence that was directed even at the King's person. His efforts to hold the Revolution to a moderate course proved more and more unavailing; his popularity was dissipated; and his command to his troops to fire on a mob in July 1791 led to his retirement in September from command of the national guard.

However, the onset of war against Austria and Prussia in 1792 brought Lafayette's return to military life as the commander of the Army of the Ardennes. He invaded the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium) and then withdrew for lack of support. By August, fearful of the revenge of the Jacobins because he had come to Paris to complain to the Legislative Assembly of the attack upon the royal family in the Tuileries (July 20), and finding no support among his troops, he crossed over into Austria with a few fellow officers. He was treated as a prisoner of war until 1797, when the victorious Napoleon obtained his release from jail but did not permit him to return to France. He had become so politically innocuous, however, that when he did go back to France in 1799 without permission, he was given a military pension as a retired general and allowed to live quietly on his country estate at Lagrange.

Last Years

Although he withheld his support from the imperial regime, Lafayette abstained from overt political activity until after the first abdication of Napoleon, in 1814; he was elected to the Legislative Chamber and was the first to demand the Emperor's final and permanent abdication. The definitive restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1815 after the Hundred Days brought his return to a position as a leader in the liberal opposition to Louis XVIII and Charles X. From 1818 to 1824 he sat in the Chamber of Deputies as a member of opposition.

In 1824 Lafayette was invited by the government of the United States to visit America as its guest, and his triumphal tour of the country lasted 15 months. Congress gave him a gift of $200,000 and a sizable tract of land, and Lafayette returned to France in 1825 to great acclaim as the "hero of two worlds."

Lafayette did not regain political prominence until the outbreak of revolution in 1830, when he became the symbol of moderate republicanism. Named to command the reestablished national guard, he was half persuaded and half tricked into endorsing Louis Philippe as a constitutional king. It was his last important political act, for he was dismissed in 1831, and he then returned to opposition.

When Lafayette died in Paris on May 20, 1834, he had few followers left. Although Lafayette had played a part in the creation of new regimes in two countries, his generosity of purpose was not matched by political astuteness, and he was more carried along by events than he was their maker. He was perhaps most influential as a living symbol—of friendship between France and America, and of the men of goodwill who wanted a new and better world but could not accept terror and dictatorship as the ways to bring it into being.

Further Reading

Sound modern studies of Lafayette are Brand Whitlock, La Fayette (2 vols., 1929); W. E. Woodward, Lafayette (1938); and David G. Loth, The People's General: The Personal Story of Lafayette (1951). The definitive studies are by the most distinguished modern historian of Lafayette, Louis R. Gottschalk: Lafayette Comes to America (1935); Lafayette Joins the American Army (1937); Lafayette and the Close of the American Revolution (1942); Lafayette between the American and French Revolutions (1950); and, with Margaret Maddox, Lafayette in the French Revolution through the October Days (1969). □

Lafayette, Marquis de

views updated May 23 2018

Marquis de Lafayette

Born: September 6, 1757
Auvergne, France
Died: May 20, 1834
Paris, France

French general

The Marquis de Lafayette was a French general who played important roles in two revolutions in France and volunteered his time and money to help the American cause during the Revo lutionary War (177583).

Early life

Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette was born on September 6, 1757, in the province of Auvergne, France. His father was killed while fighting against the British in the Seven Years' War (175663). His mother and grandfather died when he was thirteen, leaving him a wealthy orphan. After studying in the Collège du Plessis in Paris, France, Lafayette joined the French army in 1771. In 1773 he married Adrienne de Noailles. However, he was not ready to settle down to the life of a wealthy man. After the outbreak of the American Revolution, he volunteered to help the new country in its fight against France's historic enemy, England.

American Revolution

King Louis XVI (17541793) refused to allow Lafayette to go to America, but Lafayette sailed anyway, after buying a ship with his own money. In June 1777 he landed in North Carolina. The Continental Congress had given him a commission as a major general, but his actual duties were as assistant to General George Washington (17321799). He assisted in battles against the British in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and eventually was sent back to France in an attempt to obtain greater French support for the Americans.

Upon returning to his homeland in 1779, Lafayette was arrested for having disobeyed the king, but all was soon forgiven. Although not all his proposals for aid to the Americans were approved, Lafayette returned to America in 1780 in command of French forces that were sent to help. In 1781 he was given command of the defense of Virginia with the rank of major general. He drew English commander Charles Cornwallis (17381805) into a trap at Yorktown, Virginia; Cornwallis was blockaded by the American forces and by French troops under Admiral de Grasse. Cornwallis's surrender was the high point of Lafayette's military career.

Return to France

When Lafayette returned to the French army in 1782, he was considered a hero. He became a leader in the movement against the French monarchy (absolute rule by a single person). In 1789 he took a seat in the Estates General, the French legislature. The adoption of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (loosely based on the Declaration of Independence) was his idea, and he was given the command of the Parisian National Guard, a force of citizen-soldiers created to defend the new constitutional monarchy. Lafayette favored a moderate course (a gradual rate of change) for the Revolution but found that many others were not so willing to wait. His popularity declined, and his command to his troops to fire on a mob in 1791 led to his dismissal as command of the guard.

However, the beginning of war against Austria and Prussia in 1792 returned Lafayette to military life as commander of the army of the Ardennes. In August he crossed over into Austria with a few fellow officers. He was captured and held as a prisoner of war until 1797, when Napoleon Bonaparte(17691821) obtained his release from jail but did not permit him to return to France. Lafayette had become so politically powerless that when he did return in 1799 without permission, he was given a military pension and allowed to live quietly in Lagrange, France.

Last years

When Napoleon stepped down as emperor in 1814, Lafayette was elected to the Legislative Chamber and demanded that Napoleon be kept out permanently. The return to power of the monarchy in 1815 after the Hundred Days (Napoleon's brief second reign) returned Lafayette to a position as a leader of the opposition to Kings Louis XVIII and Charles X. In 1824 Lafayette vis ited America as a guest of the government on a tour that lasted fifteen months. Congress rewarded him for his efforts during the American Revolution with money and land. When he returned to France in 1825, he was known as the "hero of two worlds."

Lafayette did not regain political prominence until revolution broke out again in 1830. Named to command the reestablished National Guard, he supported the naming of Louis Philippe as a constitutional monarch. He was dismissed from the guard the following year and became a critic of the new king. When Lafayette died in Paris on May 20, 1834, he had few followers left. His biggest influence was as a living symbolof friendship between France and America, and of the men who wanted a better world but could not accept terror and cruelty as the ways to bring it into being.

For More Information

Gottschalk, Louis R. Lafayette Comes to America. Chicago.: University of Chicago Press, 1935.

Grote, JoAnn A. Lafayette: French Freedom Fighter. Philadelphia, PA: Chelsea House Publishers, 2001.

Kramer, Lloyd S. Lafayette in Two Worlds. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Maddox, Margaret. Lafayette in the French Revolution through the October Days. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.

Woodward, W. E. Lafayette. New York; Toronto: Farrar and Rinehart, Inc., 1938.

Lafayette, Marquis de

views updated May 23 2018

Lafayette, Marquis de (1757–1834), French statesman and Revolutionary War general.The marquis de Lafayette was the most influential Frenchman in the early American republic. The prospect of military advancement and an affinity for republican principles drew the young cavalry captain to join the Continental army during the Revolutionary War. Americans appreciated his powerful court connections, unwavering enthusiasm for their cause, and offer to serve without pay. Despite Congress's growing irritation with troublesome foreign adventurers, the nineteen‐year‐old nobleman acquired, on 31 July 1777, a major general's commission in the army, albeit without pay or a command.

Lafayette's notable services, first at the Battle of Brandywine in September 1777, eventually won him his own troops. In 1778, Congress designated him to head the proposed invasion of Canada, a plan eventually canceled; then George Washington gave him a division to strike the British near Monmounth, an assignment that Charles Lee ultimately claimed on the basis of higher rank. Lafayette finally led six light infantry battalions in 1780 and a Light Corps in 1781, moving to the Southern Department, where his troops help confine Charles Cornwallis's army to the Virginia coast and set up the decisive siege of Yorktown.

Lafayette remained a supporter of the United States during the French Revolution, despite considerable risk to himself and his family. In 1824–25, he returned to the United States for a triumphal tour that symbolized the passing of the revolutionary generation.
[See also Revolutionary War: Military and Diplomatic Course; Yorktown, Battle of.]


Louis Gottschalk , Lafayette Joins the American Army, 1937.
Louis Gottschalk , Lafayette and the Close of the American Revolution, 1942.
Stanley J. Idzerda, ed., Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution: Selected Letters and Papers, 1776–1790, 1977–.

J. Mark Thompson

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