Lafayette’s Tour: America Welcomes The Nation’s Guest

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Landing of Gen. Lafayette at Castle Garden, New York, 16th August 1824, artist unknown, 1886. Public domain from The New York Public Library

The Cadmus, having departed from Havre on July 13, 1824, had been at sea for thirty-two days before seeing land on the horizon. On Saturday, August 14th, the passengers and crew spotted their destination.1 New York Harbor would present the ideal place to make their inaugural landing. The Cadmus would reach that port early the next morning.

The Committee appointed by the Common Council of the City of New York was busy putting the finishing touches on the celebration to welcome Lafayette. It had arranged for a “suite of splendid apartments in the City Hotel” to be set aside for The Nation’s Guest and his party. Besides the military display (anticipated to include 20,000 men), the City planned to host “a great civic feast, in the Banqueting Room in the City Hall, which will be illuminated at night, together with the whole City.” To make a memorable first impression upon entering the Harbor, “a grand salute of 100 guns will be fired from Fort Lafayette, together with salutes from the Batteries and ships of war in the harbor, and the decoration of all the shipping.”2

So, America’s largest city was more than prepared to host The Nation’s Guest. Only, not on a Sunday. And August 15, 1824, fell on the Sabbath Day.

Even before Vice President Daniel Tompkins’ son arrived to greet them, the Cadmus found itself quickly surrounded by a fleet of “long, light, and narrow boats.”3 The men managing these boats eyed the incoming foreign vessel with tense anticipation.

One boat came aside the Cadmus. A sailor shouted, “Is Lafayette among you?” When the Cadmus confirmed he was, the faces of sailors on that boat beamed with delight. They enthusiastically shook hands and otherwise congratulated themselves. Quickly, that same feeling of excitement spread from boat to boat. It was as if “they had been the children of one family, rejoicing at the return of a much-loved and long-expected parent.”4

Just as the young Tompkins’ steamboat approached the Cadmus, the Harbor echoed with the roar of cannon. This report came from Fort Lafayette, officially signaling the arrival of its namesake.

The Fort was built during the War of 1812 on Hendricks Reef in New York Harbor. A casemated brick coastal fort, the 280-foot square sandstone structure contained 70 cannons mounted in three tiers within and atop its 8-foot thick 30-feet high walls. Originally named “Fort Diamond” (for its shape), the fortification was rechristened “Fort Lafayette” on March 26, 1823 to honor the Revolutionary War hero. Both Fort Lafayette and Hendricks Reef were razed in 1960 for the building of the North Tower of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.5

In case you’re wondering, there was another Fort Lafayette. It was located just south of West Point and only lasted from 1779 until 1783, when it was abandoned.6

The cannons of the second Fort Lafayette—the one in New York Harbor—would boom again the next day at one o’clock in the afternoon. This time the thunderous sound announced the arrival of the Chancellor Livingston. The steamboat carried its honored passenger Lafayette from Staten Island along with “more than two hundred of the principal citizens of New York, among whom the general recognized many of his old fellow soldiers, who threw themselves into his arms, felicitating themselves on seeing him once more after so many years and dangers past.”7

Led by the famed steamship Robert Fulton, a flotilla of boats accompanied the Chancellor Livingston, on that “clear, cool, and pleasant” day.8 The Cadmus followed, as though it was being escorted in triumph. In the air flowed the French tune Où peut-on être mieux qu’au sein de sa famille (“Where can you be better than within your family?”). Lafayette’s travel companion and private secretary Auguste Levasseur notes that André Grétry, the composer of this nostalgic melody, describes this piece as reminiscent of “families reconciled who had been before at deadly variance.”9

Ironically, Où peut-on être mieux qu’au sein de sa famille was also the unofficial national anthem of the Kingdom of France during the First Restoration and the Second Restoration from 1815 to 1830. This was the regime that essentially monitored Lafayette in the years he served on the Council of Directors.

Among those aboard the Chancellor Livingston was Colonel Marinus Willet, an 85-year-old veteran of the Revolutionary War. After heartfelt hugs, Willet turned to Lafayette, who had just sat down next to him, and asked, “Do you remember me at the Battle of Monmouth? I was volunteer aid to Gen. Scott. I saw you in the heat of battle. You were but a boy, but you were a serious and sedate lad. Aye, aye; I remember well. And on the Mohawk, I sent you fifty Indians, and you wrote me, that they set up such a yell that they frightened the British horse, who ran one way and the Indians the other!”10 Indeed, Lafayette remembered this and many other veterans he would meet.

General Lafayette disembarked at two o’clock to the cheers of a large crowd. A special group called the Lafayette Guards, sporting a portrait of the general on the chest of their uniforms, led him into the celebration. There, he was received with military honors, with several corps parading in front of his reviewing stand. Each soldier wore a ribband that bore the words “Welcome Lafayette.”11

A soldier seated with Lafayette’s party leaned into the group and proclaimed, ‘Ah! Could this thundering welcome but resound to Europe, that it might inspire the powers which govern you with your love of virtue, and the people with the love of liberty!”12

After the reception, the hero of the American Revolution climbed into a waiting carriage led by four white horses. The general was then chauffeured through the dense crowd towards City Hall. All around him, he noticed the streets adorned with patriot displays—flags, bunting, flowers, wreaths, etc.13

Contemporary reports described the scene as “truly a jubilee—a more greater holiday than the Fourth of July. Business was suspended, stores were closed and streets thronged with well dressed people.”14

Inside City Hall, Lafayette went to the common council chamber. There, he met with the Mayor, who offered cordial greetings on behalf of the citizens of New York. The General replied in kind with words to express his heartfelt feelings. He then met with each member of the board individually before being conducted to the City Hotel where the Board had approved a suite of rooms for his use.15

Before leaving City Hall, though, the General then had an opportunity to meet with the public for the first time. For two hours, “mothers surrounded him, presenting their children and asking his blessing, which having obtained, they embraced their offspring wither renewed tenderness; feeble old men appeared to become reanimated in talking to him of the numerous battles in which they had been engaged with him for the sake of liberty.”16

At five o’clock, the travelers left for the City Hotel. Not only did that facility contain their accommodations, but it was also the location of the official welcoming dinner. During the next four days, Lafayette would find himself greeted by dignitaries and organizations. The New York Historical Society presented The Nation’s Guest and his son with honorary memberships. Clad in their continental army uniforms, Revolutionary War veterans from the New York State Society of Cincinnati visited him and invited him to dinner. Next came members of the New York Bar, whose president delivered a message of greeting. Finally, French residents of New York City came to offer their respects.17

And so it would be throughout Lafayette’s visit. These scenes would repeat themselves throughout the nation wherever Lafayette would visit, including during his travels through the Greater Western New York Region. Americans would welcome him not merely as the celebrity he was, but like a returning prodigal son.

What was it about this Frenchman that caused our nation to endear him so?

Next Week: Why Lafayette?

1 Levasseur, A., Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825. Vol. 1, John D. Godman translation, (Philadelphia: Carey and Lea, 1829), p. 13
2 Georgia Journal and Messenger, Wednesday, August 4, 1824, p.3
3 Ibid
4 Ibid
5 [Retrieved February 10, 2024]
6 [Retrieved February 10, 2024]
7 Levasseur, p. 14
8 Poughkeepsie Journal, Wednesday, August 25, 1824, p.2
9 Levasseur, p. 14
10 Poughkeepsie Journal, Wednesday, August 25, 1824, p.2
11 Ibid, p. 15
12 Ibid
13 Ibid
14 Poughkeepsie Journal, Wednesday, August 25, 1824, p.2
15 Ibid
16 Levasseur, p. 16
17 Poughkeepsie Journal, Wednesday, August 25, 1824, p.3

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