Our Marquis

Why did America fall in love with Lafayette?

By Pat Tomaino and Max Larkin, for Radio Open Source


JULY 12, Boston, Mass. — This Saturday morning, L’Hermione — a blue-and-yellow frigate, bright as a macaw — sailed into Boston Harbor, where a crowd of hot re-enactors and Franco-American early risers awaited it in a long and orderly line down the wharf.

It is a replica of the ship that carried Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, the marquis de Lafayette from Rochefort, France, to Boston. L’Hermione landed on April 27, 1780, when the American revolution was set back, bringing news that the French would send the ships and soldiers needed to blockade the British navy and reinforce the army down South.

So when Lafayette arrived with his good news and impeccable timing, he was received as a conquering hero:

“I disembarked after noon in the midst of an immense crowd. They welcomed me with the roar of guns, the ringing of all the city’s bells, the music of a band that marched ahead of us, and the huzzas of all the people that surrounded us. In this way I was led to the house that the council and the assembly of representatives of Boston had prepared for me. There was a deputation from these bodies to welcome me…In the evening the people gathered in front of the my door and built a great bonfire with much cheering, which lasted until after midnight.”

Across town General Washington celebrated with the city. The French ships came, and went on to blockade the British. In 1781, Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown. The rest is American history.

The 2015 Hermione is a sort of billet-doux from France, sent our way by MoëtHennessey, the champagne-and-cognac giant, and Air France, among others. And the crowds around the boat remind us that all this had happened before, that Lafayette was — if not our savior — then America’s first great crush.

Including that 1780 trip, the marquis visited these shores four times between 1777 and 1826, and only his first landfall went over poorly. His delegation, never greeted, found their way to a South Carolina hut. A dog barked at them, and its owners were dubious. The Frenchmen were saved by a few sentences of timely English and welcomed inside. Lafayette, then 19 years old, spent the night penning a letter home to his wife Adrienne, bitten by alien insects. Even “the best countries have their disadvantages,” he wrote.

Almost from that point on, Lafayette was greeted with Beatlemaniacal excitement in America.

An example. In 1825 — the last full year of life for both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson — Lafayette returned to America to mark the fiftieth anniversary of independence, and toured the country for the next two years. The New England Galaxy described his arrival in Worcester: “the scene was one which we have no ability to describe — it makes breath poor and speech unable.” And in Boston, John Foster noted that women watching him pass from the windows couldn’t bring themselves to wave their handkerchiefs for excitement.

Throughout his trip and the years before it, Lafayette’s face was embroidered onto ribbons and stamped on badges. Painters competed for the commission to his portrait, and in New England, pins featuring his patrician profile became popular.

In the craze Americans brought home Lafayette-branded ceramics, pottery, glass, and boxes. Hotels were renamed for him — then towns, cities, counties, a college. We remember him with Fayetteville, North Carolina, Fayetteville, Tennessee, and Fayetteville, Arkansas.

In New Hampshire’s Franconia Range, above Mount Lincoln and Mount Liberty looms Mount Lafayette, the tallest in-state excepting the higher peaks of the Presidentials: among them Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe.

Mount Lafayette in New Hampshire (P. Tomaino).

It’s a bit of a puzzle: the aristocrat for democracy, the bewigged alien adventurer who found his way, deeply, into the hearts of our founders and into national memory. Why did we love him so? and do we still?

David Dearinger, a curator at the Boston Athenaeum, undertook to put on a summer exhibition on the marquis in his many guises. The result is Lafayette: An American Icon,” a packed show of prints, paintings, and sculpture tracking a rising star and a growing myth.

As Dearinger reminded us, the marquis had the “great, good luck” of being wounded in his very first battle in America.

Since first arriving in June 1777, Lafayette had sought what so many other foreign officers were denied: his own division. He had become fast friends with George Washington, and lobbied the general for a command. Lafayette was only 19 years old, but the idea did not seem to him ridiculous: he was well-trained and the scion of a famous martial family.

The marquis had, after all, come to these shores to channel his vigor and recent training. How better than by commanding troops in a far-flung theater against France’s eternal rival? Still, General Washington counseled patience through Lafayette’s first American summer.

The Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777, was an embarrassing defeat for the Continentals. But Lafayette, who organized an orderly retreat after taking a musket ball in the leg, won his comrades’ respect.

Lafayette Wounded. C. H. Jeens.

Lafayette became famous among the ranks as he lay recuperating at the Moravian Settlement in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Brandywine had changed everything, and the marquis seemed to know it. His tone in an October letter to Washington is still immature; the marquis seems bashful about the “love of glory” that produced his sacrifice. But he shows a new confidence, grounded in the events of “11 september”:


I want to do some thing by myself, and justify that love of glory which I left be known to the world in making those sacrifices which have appeard so surprising, some say so foolish[.] do not you think that this want is right? in the begining I refused a division because I was diffident of my being able to conduct it without Knowing the character of the men who would be under me. now that I am better acquainted no difficulty comes from me — therefore I am ready to do all what your excellency will think proper…

Within weeks, Washington recommended his young friend for a command, and Lafayette received the division he would lead through skirmishes in New Jersey. In America, reputation and glory had brought honors that pedigree could not.

But, there was always this air of exceptionalism around the marquis. American leaders did not love the French, but they loved this Frenchman. In Washington wrote Gouvernor Morris, declaring:

“I do most devoutly wish that we had not a single Foreigner among us, except the Marquis de la Fayette, who acts upon very different principles than those which govern the rest.”

And the more the young marquis — known to have been “reared in the lap of unlimited luxury”, now serving as a major-general without pay— slummed it and suffered with our homegrown farmer-guerrillas, the more popular love of him grew.

Listen to David Dearinger explain that rise, and why it didn’t take shape in the same way in France.

Lafayette was Washington’s great confidant and defender during the long and arduous winter encampment at Valley Forge. (Add to that the fact that the marquis, for all his trans-Atlantic missions, hated the ocean. He wrote Adrienne, “I have been in the most boring country. The sea looks so morose that I believe we make each other sad… Always the sky, always the water, and the following day it is the same.”)

Lafayette’s lack of self-regard became an essential part of what Stephanie Kermes called his “cult” in her book, Creating an American Identity. A printer put out a book for children entitled, Lafayette, or: Disinterested Benevolence.

Shortly after L’Hermione landed in 1780, General Washington asked the marquis to draw on his substantial goodwill and lobby state legislatures for more cannons and money. And when the war was over, both Washington and Thomas Jefferson commissioned images of Lafayette — Washington a portrait, and Jefferson a bust — for their private homes. Both are on show at the Athenaeum.

The Mount Vernon portrait, realized by Charles Wilson Peale, was meant to hang in a pendant pair with a portrait of Washington (below) that Peale painted fourteen years earlier.

Washington in 1772.

The two paintings hung opposite each other — as in a locket — for more than a hundred years. The likeness of Washington, which still hangs at Mount Vernon, captures the elder friend in his own youth, wearing the imperial red that came before his Continental blues. On view together, the mens’ mirrored gestures (each with hand on heart) symbolize their loyalty and mutual regard.


At the Athenaeum, Dearinger told us that many of the likenesses on display date from around 1824, when Lafayette came to America on that final, celebratory visit.

The aging general, at that point, was limping away from years of unsuccessful participation in his own country’s revolution. Inspired by his American experience, Lafayette tried to steer a middle path between monarchists and radicals in France. He wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen with help from Thomas Jefferson, but he was eventually arrested and exiled, falling in and out of French official favor over the next several years. He tried to escape the Terror, was arrested in flight. Napoleon Bonaparte eventually sprung him from prison, and he spent the remainder of his life as a liberal voice in the Bourbon Restoration, a democrat living once more under a king.

But of course, America still received “our marquis” — our last surviving revolutionary hero — with rapture. New York feted him for four consecutive days, and adorers lined the road to Boston. He was always complimentary when he arrived somewhere new, and Americans took joy in noting that he seemed to prefer it here — America, not France, was the Lafayettian ideal where prosperity and personal freedom went hand-in-hand.

In that way, the post-independence generation used Lafayette to confirm feelings of what America was, though people disagreed.

Natural democrats applauded how he regarded all his fellow veterans as “companions”, down to the lowliest footmen. Others noted how he, a true-born aristocrat, showed how superiorities of character could coexist with ideas of political equality. Abolitionists sympathized with his anti-slavery sentiment, and Africans dedicated a poem to him in the Columbia Centinel.

You can’t be contend to us enslav’d,
By freemen who laud you for the valor that saved?…
If millions to you have surrendered the heart,
Direct them, O General; to act the good part,
To take off our fetters with wisdom and grace,
To treat us as brothers — tho’ sable our race.

But though Lafayette visited Southern slave’s quarters, to the discomfort of his hosts, he held his tongue on the morality of slavery.


The emotional climax of the trip was when Lafayette went to visit and kiss Washington’s tomb in Virginia. This scene was fancifully reimagined in paintings and prints, on dinner plates:

The secretary for the marquis — by then known as General Lafayette — described what really happened:

Lafayette descended alone in the vault, and a few minutes thereafter reappeared, with his eyes overflowing with tears. He took his son and me by the hand, and led us into the tomb… We knelt reverentially near his coffin, which we respectfully saluted with our lips; rising, we mingled our tears with his.

Washington’s adoptive son sent a forking twig of cypress from the gravesite to Lafayette. He wrote back thanks, and said he would “pray a silent homage to the tomb of the greatest and best of men, my paternal friend.”

The cypress cutting, on display at the Athenaeum.

Finally, on June 23, 1834, the readers of the Connecticut Courant discovered that Lafayette, then 77 years old, had died in his bed in Paris.

May 22, 1834. LAFAYETTE IS NO MORE. — The brave, the nobel, the generous, the patriotic hero — died on the morning of the 20th, at a quarter before 5 o’clock.

The nation grieved. In Congress, John Quincy Adams proposed, to unanimous consent, commemorations, including his own three-hour eulogy, which he delivered that December.

Adams and his father had both known and cherished Lafayette, who had come to visit Quincy, Mass., in the last year of the elder president’s life. And in Washington, the marquis famously regifted — there is no other word — a live alligator he had received to Quincy Adams, then president. The White House website indicates that they kept the reptile in an East room bathtub “for a time.”

White House alligator (Artist’s rendering.)

In his eulogy, Adams explained that Lafayette was the happy product of the waning age of kings. The marquis had lost his own father before he turned two, to an English cannonball fired at the Battle of Minden.

The folly of such senseless, inter-dynastic killing, Adams argued, turned Lafayette into a democrat forever. He found a new father in Washington, and dreamt of an age based on the rights of men:

when government shall no longer be considered as property transmissible from sire to son, but as a trust committed for a limited time, and then to return to the people whence it came.

(Fresh, maybe, coming from the presidential son of a president, but there you have it.)

Meanwhile, that same year in France, Alexis de Tocqueville began to publish his reports on Democracy in America.


At the Athenaeum, and at the Louvre. (The statue was moved to make room for I. M. Pei’s glass pyramid.)

A bronze depicting Lafayette on horseback, saber drawn, is the dramatic centerpiece of Dearinger’s exhibit. The original sculpture was commissioned by wealthy folks, just in time to send a plaster to the 1900 Paris World’s Fair.

By the time the final casting was unveiled in front of the Louvre seven years later, the project had the backing of countless American schoolchildren.

The marquis looks like a fierce warrior on horseback, his sword originally pointed straight up into the air. But his face looks almost like Tintin’s — in other words, the open-mouthed, excited expression of a 19-year-old “rover” adventuring abroad.

This is the marquis that persists. Unlike Washington, Jefferson, and the rest — perched, marble-like and well over fifty in the American imagination — Lafayette is the founding father who looks most like a son. And to the extent that we remember him at all, we hold the marquis as America’s young companion, a disinterested teenager who recognized all that we could be and gave of himself that it might happen.

A Continental flag flying on L’Hermione.

L’Hermione has already set sail for Maine. (By Saturday, she’ll be in Nova Scotia.) But you can visit “Lafayette: An American Icon,” at the Boston Athenaeum through September.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.