Lafayette’s Tour: A Message From An Old Friend

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By February of 1824, the foreign press had finally revealed the extent of Lafayette’s legal troubles. He had already brought forth the wrath from the newly restored Bourbon monarchy.

In 1814, Napoleon was exiled to Elba. King Louis XVIII was restored to the crown his brother Louis XVI lost his head over during the French Revolution. Napoleon returned briefly in 1815, but quickly (after his defeat at Waterloo 100 days later) returned to exile, this time for good.

With that, the Bourbon Restoration commenced in full bloom. Lafayette, who had remained dormant following his wife’s death, was convinced to return to politics. In 1818 he was elected to the Chamber of Deputies. Liberal advocates saw him as a leader of their cause.

However, when he sought to strengthen that cause in 1820, he and his allies came under the suspicion of the local police chief. When Lafayette visited Le Mans in September of 1820, local authorities banned pamphlets and prohibited gatherings of more than three people. Lafayette ignored these restrictions and held two banquets with over one hundred people each.1

As a result of this campaign, the government arrested a prominent journalist who backed Lafayette. Lafayette found himself embroiled in the trial through the early part of 1821.2

Two years later, Lafayette—and this time his son—became involved in another legal entanglement. Some French officers, under prosecution for conspiracy, were apprehended in Spain and returned to France. They escaped, but the wife of one of the conspirators remained in custody. Lafayette and several other “distinguished oppositionists” were subpoenaed as trial witnesses. They failed to show and were fined 100 francs (plus expenses). The trial was delayed until February 1824 with the stipulation that “if not forthcoming of their own accord,” they would “be brought back by force before the tribunal.”3

Between this legal issue and his duty as an elected official, Lafayette had reason to decline America’s invitation.

That didn’t dissuade his old friend James Monroe. The two had met in 1778 and had been friends ever since. They regularly wrote each other. This was not about to stop. On February 24, 1824, the President of the United States penned this letter to General Lafayette:

“My dear General,
“I wrote you a letter about fifteen days since, by Mr. Brown, in which I expressed the wish to send to any port in France you should point out, a frigate to convey you hither, in case you should be able to visit the United States. Since then, Congress has passed a resolution on this subject, in which the sincere attachment of the whole nation to you is expressed, whose ardent desire is once more to see you amongst them. The period at which you may yield to this invitation is left entirely at your option, but believe me, whatever may be your decision, it will be sufficient that you should have the goodness to inform me of it, and immediate orders will be given for a government vessel to proceed to any port you will indicate, and convey you thence to the adopted country of your early youth, which has always preserved the most grateful recollection of your important services. I send you herewith the resolution of Congress, and add thereto the assurance of my high consideration and of my sentiments of affection.
“JAMES MONROE”4

Still, Lafayette felt duty-bound to remain in France. While a later published account stated “It was impossible for Lafayette to refuse so honorable and so pressing an invitation,”5 clearly his position as an elected official prevented him from travelling.

At a celebration of George Washington’s birthday in Paris, Lafayette said, “I request you, gentlemen, to accept my affectionate thanks for these new testimonies of your friendship. While every generous mind on this side of the Atlantic, has applauded the late noble and timely declaration of the United States, it could not but excite the pride of a hear glowing with all the feelings of an old American patriot and soldier—engaged, as I have been here from the beginning, & as I now am, in a great contest between the rights of mankind and the pretensions of European despotism and aristocracy. There are motives of duty and honor that must direct the time when it shall be my happy lot to revisit the shores of freedom, but that moment will be the most delightful I can ever enjoy.”6

That all changed in April of 1824. With the establishment pulling out all the stops, Lafayette lost his reelection bid “by a considerable majority.”7 He was now free to accept America’s invitation and make plans for an extensive tour. He decided to decline the offer for a free ride and sought his own transportation. He also turned down requests from his fellow countrymen to travel with him. Instead, he limited his traveling party to his son, George Washington Lafayette, and André-Nicolas Levasseur, who would serve as his secretary.8

Early May brought confirmation of what many had only mistakenly believed. While rumors of his death had circulated among “Eastern papers,” a letter from Marietta confirmed the death of General Rufus Putnam. With his passing at the age of 87, Lafayette was truly “now the only surviving general officer of the regular army of the United States which fought the battles of the revolution.”9

James Monroe spent eight years in office priming his country for such an event. What made the American citizens ready for this veritable rock star visit?

Next Week: America In 1824

1 Kramer, Lloyd S., Lafayette in Two Worlds: Public Cultures and Personal Identities in an Age of Revolutions, The University of North Carolina Press, 1999, p. 71
2 Ibid., p. 73
3 “From The Foreign Journals,” Aberdeen Journal, and General Advertiser for the North of Scotland, Wednesday, February 4, 1824, p 4
4 Levasseur, André-Nicolas, Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825, John D. Godman translation, Philadelphia, Carey and Lea, 1829, p. 10
5 Ibid, p 10
6 Gettysburg Compiler, Wednesday, May 5, 1824, p 3
7 The National Gazette, Monday, April 26, 1824, p 2
8 Levasseur, p. 10
9 The Portland Gazette, Tuesday, June 1, 1824, p 3

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  1. […] James Monroe sent a personal letter. What was in it? Read this week’s Carosa Commentary “Lafayette’s Tour: A Message From An Old Friend,” to discover how the two met and what convinced Lafayette to return to […]

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