To honor the 258th birthday of the Marquis de Lafayette on September 6, we asked Mark Schneider, who portrays him in Williamsburg, for some interesting tidbits about this important early supporter of American liberty. Read on to learn some surprising things about Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette, Marquis de Lafayette.
#1 A dinner party was the tipping point
Lafayette was a product of the Enlightenment, brought up embracing the new emphasis on representation in government and the fundamental equality of mankind. He grew up reading the philosophes: thinkers like Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu.
But it was a dinner party in the spring of 1775 in the town of Metz 200 miles east of Paris that prompted the Marquis to join the Revolution. The commanding officer at his military encampment invited Lafayette to a dinner where the guest of honor was the Duke of Gloucester, a fierce critic of the policies of his elder brother, King George III.
Fighting had recently broken out at Lexington and Concord, and the duke was sympathetic to American calls for more liberty.
Lafayette was sold. He later wrote, “I gave my heart to the Americans and thought of nothing else but raising my banner and adding my colors to theirs.”
He had lots of good reasons to join: fighting for high-minded ideals against France’s historic enemy while gaining the opportunity to secure the honor, glory, and reputation cherished by the men of that age.
But there were obstacles.
#2 Congress initially said “No, thanks”
Lafayette’s decision to join the American cause required him to leave his family and his French regiment, not to mention disobeying the king and queen, who weren’t so keen on inciting a new conflict with Britain after losing so much in the Seven Years War.
Getting a commission was the easy part. Silas Deane, an American envoy to France in Paris, was giving out commissions to French officers who expressed any interest in joining the fight. Lafayette was only 19, but he had attended the Academy of Versailles, a top military academy, and with his title he presumably had some good connections at court.
The Continental Congress was less impressed. It turned him away when he presented the promissory note from signed by Deane.
But when Lafayette said he would serve as a private officer at his own expense, they reconsidered. Impressed with his dedication, Congress agreed to honor the commission.
#3 He got ahead by impressing George
Lafayette first met George Washington at City Tavern in Philadelphia. “He was an aristocrat, from one of the wealthiest and most well-known families in France. Yet he was willing to humble himself,” says Mark. “Washington was moved by his zeal and how much he was willing to sacrifice.”
The Frenchman was incredibly loyal to Washington. On September 11, 1777, at the Battle of Brandywine, Lafayette was shot in the calf. He recovered from his injuries in Bethlehem, Pa., and endured the harsh conditions that winter at Valley Forge.
He distinguished himself as one of Gen. Washington’s aides-de-camp. “A perfect aide is fearless, obedient, disciplined, and resourceful,” says Mark. “Just like Hannibal’s great quote, ‘I’ll either find a way or make one.’”
#4 He holds an unbreakable record
America’s revolutionary leadership was generally youthful. Thomas Jefferson was only 33 when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. But Lafayette seemed to do everything earlier than you might expect.
He inherited his title before his second birthday after his father died in battle. He married his wife, Adrienne, when he was 16 and she was 14. “In their case they both had great names and they both had great fortunes,” says Mark. And although it was an arranged marriage, “it turned out to be a marriage of love.”
Lafayette was only 19 when he received his commission as major general. He is still the youngest general in the history of the American army. It might be an unbreakable record. You just don’t have teenage generals. But Lafayette was, and as an officer in the Continental Army, he commanded American, not French, troops.
#5 America loved Lafayette. And he loved America.
The first city named in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette was Fayetteville NC in 1783. Scores of others followed: towns, parks, streets, ships, and schools. More than a few statues. In Williamsburg, the list includes a street, an apartment complex, and a high school.
Huge crowds greeted Lafayette when he returned to the United States in 1824-25. He traveled in all 24 states, bearing witness to the nation’s growth and visiting many old friends.
The Marquis also honored the United States. He named his only son George Washington. And his youngest daughter was named Marie Antoinette Virginie. At the suggestion of Thomas Jefferson, her name honored not only the French queen, but the state of Virginia. And that’s the name she went by.
This weekend, raise a glass to that great friend to American liberty, the Marquis de Lafayette!