Lafayette’s Tour: It Was Twenty Decades Ago…

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Two hundred years ago, in January 1824, a struggling Congress asked President James Monroe to dispatch an invitation across the ocean to the only surviving general of the American Revolutionary War. The fifth President of the United States and the last Founding Father to fill that role, Monroe wanted to send a message—on both sides of the Pond.

It was a time of transition. It was a time of hope. It was a time to remember.

Domestically, America had just won its second war of independence from Great Britain. This one-time adversary had now fast become a firm ally. Concurrently, the old monarchies of Europe reappeared, threatening to undo the republican movement in the western hemisphere.

On the verge of his sixty-seventh birthday, Monroe accomplished much by the end of his second term despite a series of controversies and setbacks that marred his first four years as President. Initially elected to the nation’s highest office in 1816, Monroe set his focus on wrapping up a treaty with Great Britain following the conclusion of the War of 1812.

Two treaties—the Rush-Bagot Treaty (signed in April 1817) and the Treaty of 1818—helped define the geography of the North American continent. It also established what would become the world’s longest peaceful border between the United States and Canada.

Peace with Britain led to repercussions, both positive and negative. This new Anglo-American alliance led to increased trade. Britain upped its purchase of American cotton. This encouraged our new allies to avoid involvement in the Seminole Wars. Later, it would influence the decision of the southern states to form a confederacy that led to the Civil War.

Expanded trade didn’t shield America from the Panic of 1819. Likewise, the budding division over slavery began in earnest with the Missouri Compromise in 1820. But that year would be noteworthy for an event that occurred for the second and last time.

Like George Washington, Monroe worried political parties would ruin our country. Elected under the banner of the Democratic-Republican Party in 1816, Monroe was determined to rid the nation of political parties upon taking the office. He toured the country seeking to unify Americans by giving them a sense of national purpose.

Monroe’s visit to Boston impressed journalist Benjamin Russell. On July 12, 1817, he expressed his views in the Boston Federalist newspaper Columbian Centinel. In his article, Russell referred to that time in America as “The Era of Good Feelings.”

The physical tour proved a success (and may have inspired the idea for another tour). By 1820, the Federalist Party was all but dead. For the first time since Washington’s election, Monroe ran for reelection with no opposition.

While Americans view the War of 1812 as an extension of and the final act of the Revolutionary War, Europeans see it as a minor set piece in the broader Napoleonic Wars that extended from 1803 through 1815. In fact, conflict with its long-time European rivals likely eased Great Britain’s peace with the United States.

At the same time, those rivals found themselves weakened. Spain could no longer bear the cost of an expansive empire. Monroe seized this opportunity and purchased Florida from the beleaguered European power through the Adams-Onis Treaty signed on February 22, 1819.

As Spain’s influence in the New World waned, its former colonies broke free. Like the United States, each achieved its own independence from its former European overseer. Initially, Monroe maintained an official stance of neutrality. Still, his provocative “Aquirre Mission” sent a delegation to Buenos Aires to learn more about what was happening in South America.

By 1823, Spain had made motions to reclaim its old colonies. Seeing the potential for the return of Old World ways of thinking, Monroe, devoted a small portion (only three paragraphs) in his annual address to Congress on December 2, 1823, which framed what would become our nation’s definitive Latin American foreign policy. You may remember learning about this in history class. It’s called “The Monroe Doctrine.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, France found itself in chaos. This wasn’t new. Since the French Revolution, this long-time ally of the American cause convulsed from one form of government to another. The ongoing spasm either killed or imprisoned political rivals. Among these included Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette, also known as the Marquis de La Fayette.

We call him Lafayette. He was a hero in our war of independence. And he was its last surviving general.

Monroe’s old friend, this was the man the President invited to become “Our Nation’s Guest.”

The 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence neared. Monroe thought asking Lafayette to conduct a “farewell tour” might instill a renewed sense of unifying patriotic spirit. It would act to pass the baton from America’s Greatest Generation—that of the Founding Fathers and Revolutionary War Heroes—to their children and grandchildren so they would not soon forget the memory of our nation’s independence.

And Monroe knew first-hand how a tour could make this possible.

Next Week: What Took Congress So Long?

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  1. […] one thing that could bring everyone together. What was it? Read this week’s Carosa Commentary “Lafayette’s Tour: It Was Twenty Decades Ago…,” to see what, at least for a year or two, made a country set aside its differences and celebrate […]

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