Lafayette’s Tour: What Took Congress So Long?

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Senator Robert Y. Hayne, South Carolina, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

James Monroe entered the final year of his second term feeling good. It was, after all, the “Era of Good Feelings.” In eight years, the nation’s fifth President had accomplished much. His country had many things to feel good about.

And there was more coming.

Monroe’s decision to not seek reelection confirmed the tradition of the self-imposed limit of two terms as president. Before this, however, people had a legitimate thought that Monroe would run for an unprecedented third term. He had other thoughts. In a way, they were bigger thoughts.

But he had to wait for a slow-moving Congress to give the thumbs-up.

It seems several citizens took it upon themselves to invite Lafayette to return to the nation where he first made his mark in history. While they weren’t necessarily serving in any official capacity, they reflected a growing sense of patriotism. The nation within a couple of years of its 50th birthday, what better way to celebrate than hosting the Revolutionary War’s “last surviving” general?

Joseph Wheaton was a member of Captain Olney’s Rhode Island Light Infantry Company during the Revolutionary War. He wrote a nostalgic remembrance to his former commander General Lafayette in 1823.

In Lafayette’s response, dated December 20, 1823, he says, “I wish, my dear sir, it was in my power to express to you personally my affectionate, faithful remembrance of my companions in arms, my particular sentiments for you, and to enjoy the sight of American liberty, prosperity, and virtue… duties to the cause of Freedom make it, if not a matter of hope, at least a point of honor, to keep my present post; but, so soon as I can do it with a safe conscience, I shall indulge my ardent wish to visit the happy shores of the U. States.”1

Similarly, Dr. James Thatcher joined the revolutionary cause at the age of 21, serving as a surgeon’s mate before making his way as a full surgeon for the Massachusetts 16th Regiment. Nearly five decades later, he authored the “highly interesting” Journal of a Surgeon in the Revolutionary War. On June 12, 1823 and sent a copy to General Lafayette.2

The General delivered his reply in a letter dated January 12, 1824. His communication concluded: “You invite me, dear Doctor, to the happy shores where so many unutterable emotions await me. Far I am from giving up the delightful hope. At this moment a sense of duty keeps me on the European side of the Atlantic.”3

Note the dates of these two letters from Lafayette. Both predated congressional debate on formerly inviting the Revolutionary War hero for a return visit.

In fact, and not without irony given the date of Lafayette’s letter to Dr. Thatcher, it wasn’t until Monday, January 12, 1824, that Col. George E. Mitchell, a representative from the State of Maryland moved in the House of Representatives to invite Lafayette to America and send a national ship to pick him up. Lafayette, for all the mutual respect he received from the United States, might have been surprised to learn the motion failed by a of vote of 84 against and 74 in favor.4

Lewis Williams of North Carolina apparently spoke for the majority when he expressed concern that Lafayette might not accept such an invitation. Louisiana’s William Leigh Brent, in answer to his North Carolina counterpart, said he possessed the proof Williams sought. “He had seen a letter addressed to Mr. Davezac, of New Orleans, wherein Marquis Lafayette stated that it was his intention to visit the United States once more before he died. One of his colleagues, also, (Mr. Livingston,) had received a letter to the same effect.”5

To satisfy Williams, Charles Rich of Vermont amended the language of the motion. In addition, Lewis Condict of New Jersey felt the resolution would best be referred to a Select Committee. This motion passed without opposition.6

Mitchell reported the results of the committee work on Tuesday, January 20, 1824 and the next day, the House passed the following resolution:

“That the Marquis De Lafayette having expressed his intention to visit this country, the President be requested to communicate to him the assurances of grateful and affectionate attachment still cherished towards him by the government and people of the United States.

“And be it further resolved, That, as a mark of national respect, the President cause to be held in readiness a ship of the line, and invite the Marquis to take passage therein, whenever his disposition to visit this country be signified.”7

The House then sent the resolution to the Senate, which promptly sent it to its own select committee. On Monday, January 26, Senator Robert Young Hayne of South Carolina returned from the committee the following amended resolution:

“The Marquis De La Fayette having expressed his intention to revisit this country –

Resolved, by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, That the President be requested to communicate to him the assurances of grateful and affectionate attachment still cherished for him by the Government and People of the United States.

And be it further resolved, That, whenever the President shall be informed of the time when the Marquis may be ready to embark, that a National Ship (with suitable accommodation) be employed to bring him to the United States.”8

The House passed this amended resolution on Thursday, January 29, 18249 and President Monroe signed it into law on Wednesday, February 4, 1824.10

Monroe drafted the letter to Lafayette as instructed and dispatched it with his Minister to France, the honorable James Brown. Mr. Brown set sail from France aboard the USS Cuane from Alexandria. Should Lafayette promptly accept the invitation, the New York Gazette reported he would be picked up by none other than Old Ironsides herself, the USS Constitution.11

Lafayette’s response was not prompt. It turns out his “sense of duty” was more serious than the Americans imagined.

Next Week: Lafayette’s Tour: The Duty That Held Him Back

 

1 Richmond Enquirer, Thursday, March 4, 1824, p.4
2 Richmond Enquirer, Friday, April 2, 1824, p.3
3 Ibid
4 Richmond Enquirer, Saturday, January 17, 1824, p.2
5 Ibid
6 Ibid
7 The Evening Post, Saturday, January 24, 1824, p.2
8 The Charleston Mercury, Friday, February 6, 1824, p.2
9 The Evening Post, Monday, February 2, 1824, p.2
10 Knoxville Register, Friday, March 5, 1824, p.2
11 Alexandria Gazette, Thursday, February 12, 1824, p.3

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

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