America’s Favorite Fighting Frenchman, Lafayette

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If your house is anything like mine, the Hamilton Musical soundtrack is on repeat (please preview before the kids hear it). I tend to block a lot of the stuff my kids constantly play; however when it comes to Hamilton, I catch myself singing at the top of my lungs 9 times out of 10. It’s crazy. I took American History in high school and again in college. I even taught it to my two oldest in high school, but I’ve never been more driven to fully understand every detail of the American Revolution, as I am now. One of the major players in our country’s history is Marquis de Lafayette.

In honor of what would have been his 259th birthday we’ll take a look at his life, his legacy, and his undying loyalty to the United States, as we take part in the iHomeschool Network September birthday celebration.

 

America's favorite Fighting Frenchman, La Fayette

Who is the Marquis de Lafayette?

He was baptized Marie, Joseph, Paul, Yves, Roch, Gilbert du Motier, Marquis du Lafayette, Baron de Vissac, Seigneur de St. Romain. In America, we know him simply as Lafayette.

Lafayette was born on September 6, 1757, at the Château de Chavaniac, located in Auvergne about 300 miles south of Paris. By age two, his father (a colonel) had been killed at Minden during the Seven Years’ War. When he was 12 years old, his mother and grandmother passed away in the same week. His grandfather died just a few weeks later.

With the passing of all of his immediate family, he was left a very wealthy orphan.

In 1771, at age 14 he entered the Royal Army, and just two years later at age 16, he married Marie Adrienne Francoise de Noailles. Marie came from one of the most powerful families in France; she was related to the king. However Lafayette was not impressed with status or wealth, instead he longed for military glory.

Lafayette’s Determination

In 1775, the Marquis attended a dinner party at which he heard of the opening battles of the American Revolution. As he learned about the Americans and their struggle for independence he was inspired to join their cause as a volunteer from that hour. He later wrote:

“I could think of nothing but this enterprise, and I resolved to go to Paris at once to make further inquiries.”

An undercover alliance had formed between the French and the Americans, with the purpose of joining forces against the British. The French King wanting to keep this alliance quiet, discouraged French officers from joining the American cause. Despite the King’s orders at age 19, and without any combat experience, the Marquis purchased his own ship. Having convinced other French Officers to join him, he sailed to America in 1777, while teaching himself English on the way.

A Lifelong Friendship

Upon his arrival, the Continental Congress was skeptical of his motives and rejected him. Shortly after, a letter written by Benjamin Franklin arrived advising the Continental Congress that Lafayette was well connected and wealthy. Franklin encouraged the Continental Congress to allow Lafayette to join the cause because of his connection to the king, and because all he wanted was military glory. Franklin also advised Congress to keep him out of harms way. Finally convinced of Lafayette’s genuine and commitment, the Continental Congress welcomed Lafayette as he came to serve as a volunteer and without pay.

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In Summer of 1777, Lafayette met General Washington, and the two developed a lasting friendship. During the battle of Brandywine later that year, the Marquis was shot in the calf. Not wanting to waste time during his recovery he dedicated himself to writing.

He purposed himself to make a difference with his pen. He wrote to his wife in France, as well as members of French nobility assuring them of the upcoming American victory. He also wrote letters to the Americans, reassuring them the French would come in full support and not to lose faith in their cause.

“During his convalescence he turned himself into the foremost ambassador between France and the United States” – Laura Auricchio

Washington was thoroughly impressed by the Marquis and immediately placed him in command even tough he had never seen battle field action. Lafayette saw Washington as a hero, and Washington saw him as a son.

“Washington had several surrogate sons during the Revolution, most notably the Marquis de Lafayette, and he often referred to Hamilton as “my boy.”

― Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton

Just 6 months after arriving in Philadelphia, Lafayette was a commander, and was favored by Washington.

The friendship between the two grew so much that Lafayette named his son Georges Washington de Lafayette, and later named his youngest daughter Marie Antoinette Virginie in honor of the Queen of France, and the State of Virginia.

The Hero of Two Worlds

America’s Favorite Fighting Frenchman

In 1824, at the invitation of President James Monroe, he and his son returned to the United States for a 13 month stay, touring all 24 states in the American Union. Everywhere he went he received a hero’s welcome, honors were presented and monuments were erected to commemorate America’s Favorite Fighting Frenchman.

Lafayette died on May 20th 1834, and was buried at Picpus Cementery in Paris, under soil taken from Bunker Hill.

In 2002, Lafayette was given honorary American citizenship by Congress.

Some Fun Facts

  • At the age of 13, he joined the ‘King’s Black Musketeers’. This is the same regiment was later immortalized in the novel The Three Musketeers.
  • There are 44 cities and counties in the United States, named in his honor.
  • His return to America in 1824 inspired a series of collectibles to be produced. You can find a variety of items like dinner menus, commemorative plates, handwritten letters, and such. You can see some of these on this Pinterest board.

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Further Exploration

The more I learned about Lafayette, the more I wanted to keep digging. Some of the following books and articles lead me to some pretty fascinating trails that I plan to pursue. If you have the time, or if you’ve become as fascinated with the Marquis as I have, I encourage you to continue exploring!

Books

Why not Lafayette? (Unforgettable Americans) – Jean Fritz

Lafayette and the American Revolution – Russell Freedman

The Marquis Lafayette Reconsidered – Laura Auricchio

Alexander Hamilton – Ron Chernow

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States – Sarah Vowell

Lafayette: Lessons in Leadership from the Idealist General – Marc Leepson

Articles

10 Things You May Not Know About The Marquis de Lafayette

The Marquis de Lafayette

The Seven Years War Begins

Audio & Video

The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered – Podcast

Liberty’s Kids #09 Bunker Hill – YouTube

Liberty’s Kids #22 Lafayette Arrives – YouTube

“As a Frenchman who represented neither North nor South, East nor West, left nor right, Yankees nor Red Sox, Lafayette has always belonged to all of us.”

― Sarah Vowell, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States

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