Thanks to the popularity of the musical Hamilton, more Americans are aware of one of the greatest heroes of American history, the French noble Marquis de Lafayette. His legacy on both sides of the Atlantic earned him the moniker of “The Hero of Two Worlds“.
When he was only 18, Lafayette professed that his “heart was dedicated” to the American cause. Just two years later, he paid his own way to cross the Atlantic and offer his services to the Patriots—for free. In fact, the Continental Congress was overwhelmed with French volunteers; while many were motivated by the chance to fight against their hated British rivals, there was genuine support for the American Revolution and its ideals. Lafayette stood out in many ways: he learned English within a year of his arrival (unlike most French volunteers), had won over Benjamin Franklin, and bonded well with George Washington, to whom he was a close advisor. He also had military experience, which the ragtag colonials desperately needed. Perhaps just as importantly, he truly believed in what the Americans were fighting for: while France had over a thousand years of resolute monarchism, it was also a hotbed for the sorts of ideas and discussions that were now being played out for the first time in the Thirteen Colonies.
During the Battle of Brandywine against a superior British force, Lafayette was wounded in action but still managed to organize an orderly retreat, for which Washington commended him and recommended he be given command of American troops. He served with distinction in several more battles in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Rhode Island—of which some sites still bear his name—before sailing back home in 1779 to lobby for more French support for the Americans.The following year, Lafayette returned to a hero’s welcome in Boston, having secured thousands of French troops as well as naval forces and supplies. He was given senior positions in the Continental Army and was so popular among Americans that Washington and Hamilton had him write letters to state officials urging them to send troops. Lafayette was a unifying figure and American icon to the fragmented U.S. states: he was foreign, did not live in the U.S., fought across all theaters of the war, and was motivated by ideology rather than money—all of which made him universally trusted by the bickering, often distrusting states.
In 1781, Lafayette played a pivotal role in the decisive Siege of Yorktown, where troops under his command held off British forces until other American and French forces could position themselves to strike. This victory at Yorktown—which involved almost as many French troops as Americans—helped end the war and secure U.S. independence. (Credit is also due to Frenchmen Comte de Rochambeau and Comte de Grasse, who also coordinated with Washington to secure victory.)
After the war, Lafayette remained committed to the cause of liberty for the rest of his life. He played a pivotal role in the French Revolution, and with Jefferson’s input helped draft the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, one of the earliest and most groundbreaking expressions of republicanism and civil rights. His commitment to human rights was also consistent: he was staunchly opposed to slavery, and joined the French Society of the Friends of the Blacks, which advocated the end of the slave trade and equal rights for blacks. He urged the emancipation of slaves and their establishment as tenant farmers in a 1783 letter to Washington, who was a slave owner (and who declined). A year after his correspondence with Washington, Lafayette helped abolish slavery in his homeland.
Lafayette opposed the later excesses of the French Revolution, and the subsequent rise of Napoleon as emperor; after seizing power, Napoleon offered to make him minister to the United States, but Lafayette firmly refused, as he would have nothing to do with an authoritarian regime. In 1802, he was one of the few to vote against making Napoleon ruler for life. When Napoleon again dangled an enticing opportunity—an appointment to the Senate as well as the Legion of Honor—Lafayette not only declined, but added that he would gladly have accepted the honors from a democratic government. When Jefferson offered him an opportunity to govern the newly purchased Louisiana Territory, he turned it down, wishing to focus on restoring French liberty.
In 1824, Lafayette was invited by James Monroe to visit all 24 states of the Union, in part to celebrate America’s upcoming 50th anniversary. He remained deeply popular, receiving widespread praise and love everywhere he went. He took gifts with him, as well as American soil to be placed on his grave. At President Monroe’s request, Congress voted to give him $200,000 in gratitude for his services to the country, along with a large tract of public lands in Florida. He returned to France aboard a ship renamed the USS Brandywine in honor of the battle where he shed his blood for the United States.As France slipped into absolute monarchy starting in 1830, Lafayette, by then in his seventies, remained consistent in speaking out against anyone who opposed liberty. He even broke with his king, following the latter’s violent suppression of a protest. When he died in 1834 aged 76, he was buried under soil from Bunker Hill, which his son Georges Washington sprinkled upon him.
In the U.S. Lafayette received the same memorial honors that had been bestowed on Washington. Both Houses of Congress were draped in black bunting for 30 days, and members wore mourning badges. Congress even urged Americans to follow similar mourning practices. Later that year, former president John Quincy Adams gave a eulogy of Lafayette that lasted three hours, calling him “high on the list of the pure and disinterested benefactors of mankind”.
Writing in 2011, historian Marc Leepson concluded about Lafayette’s life:
The Marquis de Lafayette was far from perfect. He was sometimes vain, naive, immature, and egocentric. But he consistently stuck to his ideals, even when doing so endangered his life and fortune. Those ideals proved to be the founding principles of two of the world’s most enduring nations, the United States and France. That is a legacy that few military leaders, politicians, or statesmen can match.”
We should consider ourselves lucky to have had a French nobleman embody our cause and values better than even many of our Founding Fathers.