Marquis de Lafayette

An Idealistic Aristocrat from France determined to help Americans win their independence
Marquis de Lafayette

Portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette in the uniform of an American major general, by Charles Willson Peale, circa 1780.

Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, was born on September 6, 1757 at the chateau de Chavaniac in Auvergne, France. His father, Gilbert, Marquis de Lafayette, and his mother, Marie Louise Julie de Riviere, were both descendants of ancient French nobility. Lafayette’s father was also a colonel in the French Grenadiers, and was killed during the Seven Years’ War at the Battle of Minden on August 1, 1759. Lafayette’s mother died on April 3, 1770, and his grandfather died as well several weeks later. When Lafayette inherited his grandfather’s estate, it swelled his already considerable fortune to an income of 120,000 livres per year. He greatly desired a military career, and at the age of thirteen he entered the King’s Musketeers on April 9, 1771. He was transferred to Colonel Noailles’s regiment in 1773, where he was made a second lieutenant. A year later, on April 11, 1774, Lafayette married the colonel’s daughter, Adrienne Frangoise de Noailles. The marriage, which had previously been arranged by their parents, sealed Lafayette’s political connections to one the most powerful families of the regime.

Lafayette first learned of the American Revolution at a dinner on August 8, 1775 given by the Comte de Broglie for the Duke of Gloucester. The Duke spoke openly and favorably of the American revolutionaries, and Lafayette became intensely interested. He saw in the American struggle the opportunity for avenging France’s defeat in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) in which his father had lost his life. Lafayette had also read the works of the French philosophes, and the idea of the American Revolution fired his sensibilities. As a young man, he found the opportunity for glory intoxicating and resolved to help in the cause of independence.

At first, Lafayette concealed from his family his intent to aid the Americans. On June 11, 1776, he resigned from the French army and began actively conspiring with Silas Deane and Arthur Lee, two of the Continental Congress’s agents to France. In agreements drawn up in December 1776 and February 1777, Lafayette received a commission in the Continental Army, but reserved the right to return to France if called by his king or family. He disembarked for America on April 20, 1777; he arrived in Georgetown, South Carolina on June 13 of the same year. After a long journey to Philadelphia, he secured from Congress a commission as a major general on July 31, 1777, but was given no active command. Soon after, at a dinner given by several members of Congress, George Washington met the nineteen year-old general. This began a lifelong friendship between the two men. In Washington, Lafayette found his hero, his mentor, and his model of republican virtue. Lafayette eventually named his son George Washington du Motier, and named his youngest daughter Virginie, after Washington’s home state. The American commander-in-chief greatly admired the patriotic enthusiasm of the young French aristocrat, and placed Lafayette on his private staff.

Lafayette received a trial by combat at the Battle of Brandywine in September 1777. Wounded in the leg, the young French aristocrat immediately became a patriot in the eyes of the American revolutionaries. He recuperated quickly at a Moravian hospital in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and rejoined Washington in October 1777. Congress finally gave Lafayette his own active command on December 1, appointing him major general of a division of Virginia infantry. Lafayette spent the winter of 1777 with Washington’s army at Valley Forge, which further endeared the young general to the Americans. The enlisted men began referring to Lafayette as “the soldier’s friend.” The campaigns of 1778, however, proved frustrating to the French adventurer. In January 1778, the Board of War placed Lafayette in charge of a ridiculous scheme to invade Canada. Lafayette accepted the position with great enthusiasm, but upon reaching Albany, he discovered that no preparations had been made and no attack was possible. Enraged, Lafayette returned in April to Valley Forge. He served well but without distinction at the Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey in June 1778, and acted as liaison officer to French Admiral d’Estaing in the disastrous joint French-American attack on Newport, Rhode Island in August. Disappointed, Lafayette asked for and received a furlough from Congress. He returned to France on January 11, 1779.

King Louis XVI of France

King Louis XVI of France, 1786, Antoine-Francois Callet, Image by © Archivo Iconografico, S.A./CORBIS

While in France Lafayette’s fortunes turned around. He became the toast of Paris, and was received by King Louis XVI, and the Queen, Marie Antoinette, as a returning hero. Using his new-found prestige, Lafayette consulted with Louis XVI’s ministers, and floated plans for various kinds of expeditions against Great Britain. He proposed hiring the Swedish navy to fight against the British, securing a loan from Holland for the United States, as well as plans for an invasion of Ireland, an invasion of Canada, an invasion of England, and sending a French army to America. The French government adopted the last two proposals. The invasion of England, a joint operation with Spain planned for August 1779, had to be abandoned, but the second idea met with more success. Lafayette was disappointed not to be given command of the army sent to America, which was instead led by the Comte de Rochambeau. In March 1780, Lafayette sailed for America to prepare for the arrival of the French expeditionary force.

Upon reaching the United States, Lafayette travelled to Morristown, New Jersey to meet with Washington about coordinating an attack with the French army and fleet. In July 1780, he met with the Comte de Rochambeau, who had arrived with a French army at Newport, Rhode Island. Lafayette proposed an offensive campaign, but Rochambeau rejected the plan. In September 1780, when Washington met Rochambeau for the first time, Lafayette served as an intermediary. Soon after, Lafayette returned with Washington to West Point, New York, where they learned of Benedict Arnold’s treason. At the court martial of Major Andre, the British spy who conspired with Arnold, Lafayette voted for the death penalty. Major Andre was subsequently hanged.

In early 1781, Benedict Arnold, now a British general, invaded Virginia with a British army. Washington gave Lafayette command of 1,200 New Englanders, and charged him with the responsibility of defending Virginia and capturing Arnold. Although Arnold eluded him, Lafayette later successfully defended Richmond, the new capital of Virginia, against an attack by British General Phillips. British General Lord Cornwallis’s army posed the next major threat to Virginia. After a costly victory over American General Nathanel Greene at Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina, Cornwallis hoped to rally Loyalist support in the Old Dominion. Cornwallis entered Virginia in May 1781. Lafayette had been reinforced with General “Mad Anthony” Wayne’s Pennsylvania troops, and the combined force shadowed General Lord Cornwallis’s army as it eventually moved back east towards Portsmouth, Virginia. Lord Cornwallis subsequently removed his army to Yorktown. Generals Washington and Rochambeau had already begun marching their armies south to trap Lord Cornwallis, and Lafayette joined the main French-American force for the siege of Yorktown. The allied victory at Yorktown proved the decisive battle of the Revolution, a fact which Lafayette grasped immediately. In a letter to the Comte de Haurepas following the battle, Lafayette proclaimed that “the play is over, the fifth act is just ended.”

Lafayette left for France in December 1781. He was once again received by crowd and court alike as a conquering hero. After his return, Lafayette espoused a new vision for France. He wished to have a charter of liberties established, called for the abolition of slavery and civil rights for Protestants, and attacked the tobacco monopoly of the French Farmers-General. During the early years of the French Revolution, Lafayette was one of the most popular figures in France. He became an outcast, however, when extremists gained control of the French government and started the “Reign of Terror.” Fleeing France, he was captured by the Austrians and languished in prison in 1792-1797 despite the efforts of the U.S. Congress and President Washington to gain his release. Lafayette finally obtained his freedom partly through the intervention of the recently victorious general Napoleon Bonaparte.

Adrienne Noailles Lafayette

Adrienne Noailles Lafayette

Lafayette at first saluted the rise of Napoleon, but later broke with the French Emperor. Throughout his later life, he upheld the United States as a model for the rest of the world. In 1824, President James Monroe invited him to visit America. Lafayette, now in his mid-sixties, arrived at Staten Island on August 15. He toured throughout the United States and was greeted with unprecedented celebration. In France’s July Revolution of 1830, Lafayette hoped to finally establish the French Republic. Unfortunately, his actions ultimately helped Louis-Phillips assume the French throne, and his last public speech attacked the reactionary politics of the new king. Lafayette, the hero of two revolutions, died on May 20, 1834, at the age of seventy-eight. His grave at Picpus Cemetery in Paris is covered in earth taken from the site of the Battle of Bunker Hill. His son, George Washington du Motier, succeeded him as the Marquis de Lafayette.

Primary Source Documents: Marquis de Lafayette

The following passages are taken from Stanley Idzerda, ed., Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution: Selected Letters And Papers. 1776-1790, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), volumes 1-4.

Letter of the Marquis de Lafayette to his wife, Adrienne de Noailles de Lafayette, May 30, 1777, aboard La Victoire, en route for America from France.

I am writing to you from very far away, dear heart, and to this cruel separation is added the still more dreadful uncertainty of the time when I shall hear from you. I hope, however, that it will be soon . . . So many fears and so many worries are added to the intense grief of leaving everything that is most dear to me . . . Your grief, that of my friends, your pregnancy, Henrietta [his eldest daughter]–all came to my mind with a terrifying vividness. It was then that I could find no more excuses for myself. If you knew everything that I have suffered, dear heart, during the sad days I passed in flight from everything that I love in the world!

Letter of the Marquis de Lafayette to his wife, Adrienne de Noailles de Lafayette, June 19, 1777, upon Lafayette’s arrival in Charleston, South Carolina.

. . . When I arrived here, everyone told me that my vessel had surely been taken, because two English frigates blockaded the port. I even sent orders, by land and sea, for the captain to put the men ashore and burn the ship, if there was still time. Well, by inconceivable good fortune, a squall had momentarily driven off the frigates, and my vessel arrived in broad daylight without encountering either friend or foe . . . And now, my dear, I shall tell you about the country and its inhabitants. They are as likable as my enthusiasm has led me to picture them. A simplicity of manners, a desire to please, a love of country and liberty, and an easy equality prevail everywhere here. The richest man and the poorest are on the same level, and although there are some immense fortunes in this country, I challenge anyone to discover the slightest difference in their manners toward each other . . . Everything here rather resembles the English fashion, but there is more simplicity, equality, cordiality, and courtesy here than in England. Charleston is one of the most beautiful and well built of cities, and its inhabitants are among the most agreeable people I have ever seen. American women are very pretty, totally unaffected . . .

Letter of the Marquis de Lafayette to his wife, Adrienne de Noailles de Lafayette, September 12, 1777, after being wounded at the Battle of Brandywine.

I send you a few lines, dear heart, by some French officers, my friends, who came here with me but have not obtained positions and are returning to France. I shall begin by telling you that I am well, because I must end by telling you that we fought in earnest yesterday, and we were not the victors. Our Americans, after holding firm for a considerable time, were finally routed. While I was trying to rally them, the English honored me with a musket shot, which wounded me slightly in the leg. But the wound is nothing, dear heart; the ball hit neither bone nor nerve, and all I have to do for it to heal is to lie on my back for a while–which puts me in a very bad humor. I hope, dear heart, that you will not worry; on the contrary, you should be even less worried than before, because I shall be out of action for some time . . .

Letter of the Marquis de Lafayette to his wife, Adrienne de Noailles de Lafayette, November 6, 1777, from Whitemarsh Pa. during the British occupation of Philadelphia.

You may receive this letter, my dear heart, in five or six years, for I as writing you by an indirect route, which I don’t know much about. Just look at the journey my letter is going to make: an army officer will carry it to Port Pitt, 300 miles through the hinterlands of the continent; it will then be shipped down the great Ohio River, through countryside inhabited only by savages; once it arrives at New Orleans, a small ship will transport it to the Spanish islands; then a vessel of that nation will take it (God knows when) when it returns to Europe. But it will still be very far from you, and it is only after having been fouled by the dirty hands of all the Spanish postmasters that it will be permitted to cross the Pyrenees; it may be opened and resealed five or six times before reaching your hands . . .

Letter of the Marquis de Lafayette to George Washington. February 19, 1778. from Albany about the abortive invasion of Canada.

Why am I so far from you, and what business had that board of war to hurry me through the ice and snow without knowing what I should do, neither what they were doing themselves? . . . I defy your excellency to conceive of any idea of what I have seen since I left the place where I was quite near my friend, to run myself through all the blunders of madness or treachery . . . G[eneral] Shuiller [Schuyler], G[eneral] Lincoln, G[eneral] Arnold had writ[t]en before my arrival to G[eneral] Connway [Conway] in the most expressive terms that in our present circumstances there was no possibility to begin an enterprize into Canada . . . I have been (shamefully) deceived by the board of war. They have by the strongest expressions promised to me, three thousand, and (what is more to be depended upon) they have assured to me by wraiting [writing] two thousand and five hundred combattans [combattants] at a low estimate. Now, sir, I do not believe I can find in all twelve hundred fit for duty . . .
I am affraid [afraid] it will reflect on my reputation and I schall [shall] be laughed at. My fears on that subject are so strong that I would choose to come again only a volonteer unless Congress offers me means of mending this ogly [ugly] business by some glorious operation . . . For you, dear General, I know very well that you will do every thing to procure me the only thing I am ambitious of. Glory.

Letter of the Marquis de Lafayette to the Comte do Vergennes, July 30, 1779, on sending a French army to the United States.

. . . I am convinced that there is no time to be lost for the measures I propose, and the love of my country makes me perhaps so impatient as to be importunate. But you will excuse a fault whose cause is dear to every virtuous citizen . . . While waiting until we can begin combined operations with a squadron next year, why not drop off in Boston 3,000 men (or even 2,000 with 300 dragoons) who would be joined in the spring by warships and a ground reinforcement? This detachment would be convoyed by two fifty-gun vessels, a West India Company vessel as a transport . . .

Letter of the Marquis de Lafayette to George Washington, May 4, 1781, after Lafayette’s defense of Richmond.
. . . It is not without trouble I Have Made this Rapid March. [British] General Phillips Has Expressed to an officer on Flag the astonishment He felt at our Celerity, and when on the 30[th] when He was going to give the Signal to atta[c]k He Recconnoitred our position Mr. Osburn who was with Him Says that He flew into a Violent passion and Swore Vengeance Against me and the Corps I Had Brought with me . . . [Phillips] Had Every advantage over me–that a defeat would Have scattered the Militia, lost the few arms we Have and knocked down this Handfull of Continental troops . . . Under these Circumstances I thought it Better to fight on none But My own grounds . . . Had I gone on the other side, the ennemy would Have given me the Slip and taken Richmond, leaving Nothing to me But the Reputation of a Rash Unexperienced young man . . .

Letter of the Marquis de Lafayette to George Washington. May 24, 1781, while shadowing Lord Cornwallis’s army in Virginia.
My official letter a copy of which I sent to Congress, will let you know the situation of affairs in this quarter. I ardently wish my conduct may meet with your approbation. Had I followed the first impulsion of my temper, I would have risked some thing more. But I have been guarding against my own warmth [eagerness], and this consideration, that a general defeat, which with such a proportion of militia must be expected, would involve this State and our affairs into ruin, has rendered me extremely cautious in my movements. Indeed, I am more emba[r]rassed to move, more crippled in my projects than we have been in the Northern States.’ . . . I don’t believe it prudent to expose the troops for the sake of a few houses most of which are empty. But I am wavering betwe[e]n two inconveniences. Was I to fight a battle, I’ll be cut to pieces, the militia dispersed, and the arms lost. Was I to decline fighting, the country would think herself given up. I am therefore determined to scarmish [skirmish], but not too engage too far . . . Was I any ways equal to the ennemy, I would be extremely happy in my present command. But I am not strong enough even to be beaten.

Letter of the Marquis de Lafayette to the Comte de Maurepas, October 20, 1781, after Lord Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown.
The play is over, Monsieur le Comte; the fifth act has just ended. I was a bit uneasy during the first acts, but my heart keenly enjoyed the last one, and I have no less pleasure in congratulating you on the successful conclusion of our campaign. I shall not give you the details of it, Monsieur le Comte, but rely on Lauzun to do so. I wish he may cross the ocean as speedily as he ran over the body of Tarleton’s Legion.

For Further Reading:

Laura Auricchio, The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered (2015).
Marc Leepson, Lafayette: Lessons in Leadership from the Idealist General (2011).