Lafayette’s Tour: The Duty That Held Him Back

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Take a look at his name: Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette, Marquis de La Fayette. It exudes aristocracy. With Lafayette, that was a mixed blessing.

On one hand, it meant he benefited from an elite schooling in proper behavior. On the other hand, it meant proper behavior shackled him. It would make him a hero to some. It would also earn him real shackles.

Born in south central France on September 6, 1757, he followed in the military tradition footsteps of both sides of his family. On his father’s side, one of his ancestors served as a Marshal of France and accompanied Joan of Arc’s army during the Siege of Orléans in 1429. His maternal great-grandfather commanded the Second Company of Musketeers (a.k.a., the “Black Musketeers”) until his retirement in 1770.1

For the curious, the “Black Musketeers” had black horses while the First Company “Grey Musketeers” mounted gray horses. The Musketeers were a special forces unit that reported directly to the king. They received not only top military training but also learned how to behave as perfect gentlemen. If you’re thinking James Bond or Kingsman: The Secret Service, you wouldn’t be far off. The Musketeers represented the epitome of aristocracy.

To give you a sense of aristocracy, just follow the “Marquis” title. When Lafayette’s uncle died in battle, the title passed to Lafayette’s father. Likewise, when an English cannon ball cut his father in two during the Seven Years’ War,2 Lafayette became Marquis. Of course, he was only two years old, so his mother inherited the estate.

In 1768, Lafayette left his father’s estate and moved to Paris with his mother and great-grandfather. The latter enrolled him in the elite academy that trained the Black Musketeers. Unfortunately, in 1770, both his mother and great-grandfather died. That same year, his uncle also died. Lafayette inherited an annual income of 125,000 French Livre.

This was equivalent to 9,000 British Pounds in 17703 or over two million pounds today.4 That equals more than two-and-a-half million dollars.5 Every Year.

Lafayette was rich before he was a teenager.

That’s not all he was. Six months before his fourteenth birthday, Lafayette received his commission as sous-lieutenant in the Black Musketeers. It was the lowest level officer position; it allowed him to march in military reviews and parades and appear at the Court of Versailles before King Louis XV.6

Being young, he developed an idealism for liberty that would remain with him his entire life. It would pit him against family, against country, and against the traditional European way of life.

Before that though, Lafayette became a wunderkind within the French royal circles. Despite his marriage being arranged, he genuinely fell in love with his wife, the daughter of a prominent nobleman who requested Lafayette be commissioned a lieutenant in the Noailles Dragoons.7 He was later promoted to major general in anticipation of going to help the American cause during the Revolutionary War.

The French aborted their official effort to send officers to America when the British discovered the intent. Lafayette, inspired by that youthful idealism, rejected this decision. Defying his father-in-law (and possibly his own military), he bought a sailing ship with his own money and made his way to America.

Though initially skeptical of young Lafayette’s experience to command men,8 George Washington eventually permitted Lafayette to enter the Battle of Brandywine. With Cornwallis on the attack, the American troops were in disarray. Arriving on horseback, Lafayette’s training kicked in. Shouting from his horse, he rallied the troops. Then, he dismounted and physically pushed men towards the enemy. Seeing Cornwallis had the edge, Lafayette led the men in an organized retreat.9

It wasn’t until the retreat that Lafayette noticed his boot filling with blood. He had been hit. His left calf had a musket ball sized hole in it. So severe was the wound that Lafayette needed help to get off his horse.10

A surgeon treated the Marquis in Chester, Pennsylvania. Lafayette had only been in America for a little over three months. He was a quick learner but would not become fluent in English until a year after his arrival.

During recovery, a young American lieutenant who spoke French stayed with him. The previous winter, the man also had received a wound and nearly lost his life during Washington’s surprise attack on Trenton. This Virginian boosted Lafayette’s spirits. The two would develop a lifelong friendship.11

That man’s name was James Monroe, the future President of the United States.

Lafayette would recover to play an important role in America’s ultimate victory over the British. He was at Valley Forge, where he helped clothe soldiers out of his own funds. He helped prevent the British from capturing Washington during the retreat from New York City. He quelled a potential American revolt against their French allies during a misunderstanding in Rhode Island. He returned to France (to a hero’s welcome nonetheless) to solidify French support for the American patriots. Finally, his command was critical in the capture of Cornwallis at Yorktown, which signaled the beginning of the end of the Revolutionary War.

After the War, Lafayette returned to France, continuing to promote liberty. As an aristocrat advocating for the commoners during the French Revolution, he straddled the uncomfortable middle. Drawing suspicions from both the masses and European (as well as French) royals, Lafayette eventually had to flee France. His identity discovered in Austria, he was captured and held, ultimately imprisoned in Olmütz. He spent three years there, the last two with his wife and daughters.

Now President, George Washington tip-toed the precarious minefield of European diplomacy. Congress agreed to fund Lafayette with “back pay” for his service in the Revolutionary War. That helped Lafayette gain privilege while imprisoned. With the support of America, newly victorious Napoleon Bonaparte finally negotiated for Lafayette’s release. After more than five years in prison, Lafayette was again a free man.

Lafayette declined Napoleon’s invitation to join his government. The hero of the American Revolution retreated to his estate upon the death of his wife in 1807. He returned to politics in 1815, continuing to fight for liberty. By 1823, when he began to receive the first informal invitations to visit America, he was serving in the Chamber of Deputies.

That didn’t mean he wasn’t ruffling feathers. The restored monarchy viewed him with suspicion. Lafayette still offered a beacon of hope to all those seeking liberty. They hoped he would not take up Monroe’s invitation to visit America. They wanted him to stay in France and use his high-profile position in the Chamber of Deputies to continue to promote their cause.12

Meanwhile, Lafayette had legal troubles, too.

Next Week: A Message From An Old Friend

1 Gottschalk, Louis, Lafayette Comes to America, University of Chicago, 1975, p. 26
2 Ibid., p. 2
3 Source: Paritius (1709) link Comparison of Coinslink © Matthias Böhne / Olaf Simons, 2004. Retrieved January 20, 2024
4 Source: https://www.in2013dollars.com/uk/inflation/1770. Retrieved January 20, 2024
5 Source: https://www.xe.com/currencyconverter/convert/. Retrieved January 20, 2024
6 Leepson, Marc, Lafayette: Lessons in Leadership from the Idealist General, St. Martin’s Press, 2011, p.10
7 Lane, Jason, General and Madame de Lafayette: Partners in Liberty’s Cause in the American and French Revolutions, Taylor Trade Publishing, 2003, p. 10
8 “From Geo. Washington to Benj. Harrison, August 19, 1777.” National Archives. Retrieved January 20, 2024
9 Leepson, p. 36-37
10 Leepson, p. 37
11 Ibid
12 Burlington Sentinel, Friday, April 2, 1824, p. 3

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