At last, we come to the namesake of Lafayette Square, the Marquis de Lafayette. His contributions to the American Revolution prompted widespread praise and admiration across both sides of the Atlantic, earning him a public square in front of the White House, honorary U.S. citizenship (shared by only seven others), and the moniker, “Hero of the Two Worlds”.
Born into a wealthy French family, Lafayette came from a long line of distinguished soldiers and military leaders; he followed in their footsteps and became an officer at age 13. Despite his noble birth, he truly believed in the Enlightenment ideals of liberty, human rights, and civic virtue, and was inspired by the American Revolution—enough to purchase a ship and sail across the Atlantic to volunteer for the cause.
Lafayette’s energy and enthusiasm impressed those around him, as did his well-needed military experience; Benjamin Franklin vouched for him, while George Washington bonded with him almost immediately (and the feeling was mutual). The young Frenchman was made a major general at age 19 and made part of Washington’s staff; he followed the American commander everywhere, enduring the same hardships and many of the famous (and often arduous battles). Lafayette was wounded during the Battle of Brandywine—the second-longest one-day battle, at 11 hours—but managed to rally an organized retreat that saved numerous lives; Washington cited him for bravery and asked Congress to give him command of American troops. He went on to serve with distinction in several battles, even beating numerically superior forces.
Lafayette’s biggest contribution came in the middle of the war, when he sailed home to lobby for more French support; his efforts resulted in decisive aid to the revolution, from thousands of troops to most of our ammunition. He returned to America in 1780 and was given senior positions in the Continental Army. In 1781, he delayed British forces so American and French forces could position themselves for the decisive siege of Yorktown—the battle that ended the war.
Lafayette returned to France and sought to bring the same changes and freedoms he helped usher in America. After forming the National Constituent Assembly—roughly equivalent to the U.S. Continental Congress—he helped to write the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen with the help of Thomas Jefferson. Inspired by the Declaration of Independence, it is one of history’s oldest and still-current civil rights documents, establishing basic principles of democracy. Lafayette even advocated an end to slavery, something that was still beyond the pale to most fellow revolutionaries. He spent the rest of his life trying to chart a middle course between the radicals of both sides of the revolution.
In 1824, President James Monroe invited the now-elderly Lafayette to the United States as the nation’s guest; he visited all 24 states at the time and was met with large crowds and applause everywhere he went. His integrity never wavered, and during France’s July Revolution of 1830, he declined an offer to become the French dictator.