Lafayette: The Man Who Helped Win Both The American And French Revolutions
You’ve probably noticed a street or park or building named Lafayette in your town, but have you ever stopped to wonder just why this rare French name seems to be plastered across American cities with the same frequency as names like Washington and Jefferson? It’s because Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, better known as simply the Marquis de Lafayette, was one of the greatest Revolutionaries in Western history. It sounds hyperbolic, but rest assured it is not. This guy not only helped George Washington win the American Revolution (at only 19 years old might I add) but later went on the lead the cause for the French Revolution, both of which caused a cultural and political seachange on a global scale.
So who is this kid? Born in 1757 to French nobility, Lafayette was soon orphaned after his father died in the Seven Years War and his mother not long after of disease. He inherited a great sum of money from both sides of his well to do family, making him one of the wealthiest citizens in France by only age 13. He could have lived a life of extreme luxury, coming of age in the height of Versaille under the rule Marie Antionette, but despite his enormous privilege Lafayette couldn’t turn a blind eye to the struggles of the impoverished Third Estate. While the Nobility, Clergy, and Military were free to enjoy great wealth, they lived off the labor of the working class who were incidentally the only ones required to pay taxes despite their low wages. Was partying with the Royal Court really worth his countrymen starving to death? Our boy Lafayette didn’t think so.
At only 19 years old, Lafayette abandoned his position in the Musketeers and bought a ship to sail to America and join the Revolutionaries against the British Monarchy. He became enamored with the ideals of Democracy and believed that if it could be proven that the people could rule themselves in America, he could bring that message back to France and liberate his own.
“When I first learned the subject of the quarrel, my heart espoused warmly the cause of liberty, and I thought of nothing but of adding also the aid of my banner” --Lafayette
Easier said than done, as it would turn out. For one thing, Lafayette sort of skipped out on obtaining permission from his family or boss (ya know, the King of France) being the idealistic teenager that he was. Needless to say, Louis XVI wasn’t all that pleased with the idea of a French Nobleman raising arms against the British Monarchy. Remember the whole -- Lafayette’s father died in the Seven Years War thing? Yeah, the French are still recovering from losing the war and aren’t exactly looking to pick another fight with their ancestral foe any time soon.
Lafayette was an outlaw and there’s no turning back from what he prayed was his destiny. And yet, despite his admiration for the famed General George Washington, the Americans had recently barred the French from taking part in their campaign. French soldiers had shown up in droves hoping for an easy rank and massive payments for their service. After all, these arrivals were trained military men and thus deserve better pay than the farmers and average Joes who predominantly made up the Continental Army (or so they believed). However, Washington wouldn’t tolerate mercenaries in his army, and in plain speech the General had a deep animosity for the French after what happened to him as a young man at Fort Necessity, just preceding the Seven Years War. But that’s another story.
Still, Lafayette managed to meet Washington through his connections in the Freemasons, and they quickly formed a deep bond. Washington never had children of his own, and as this orphaned and eager young man made a deep impression on him. Despite his wealth and status, Lafayette was humble and reverential to the General and proved his valor during his first fight at the Battle of Brandywine. Although the Americans lost, Lafayette rallied the troops and helped reinforce the sidelines, saving countless lives and creating a secured path for their eventual retreat. He hadn’t even noticed he’d been shot until after their battalion reached safety. When his wound was infected and he was clinging to life, Washington told the doctor to treat him as if he were his “own son," and from that point forward he all but was. Lafayette later went on to name his only son George Washington de Lafayette as an honor to the General.
Apart from the seven battles he fought in and commanded, Lafayette was instrumental to the fight for Independence because of his influence in France alongside Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams. Although Louis XVI was initially furious, tales of brave Lafayette enamored the French public and soon they saw the American fight for Independence as a good way to get back at the English crown after centuries of warfare. The King threw his support behind the Patriots and sent ships, weapons, and funds which would turn the tides and eventually result in the American’s victory.
After the Revolutionary War, Lafayette returned to France and worked alongside Thomas Jefferson to write The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen which demanded equality, democracy, and the end of total Monarchical rule. Lafayette willingly gave up the title of Marquis, and on July 14, 1789, led the Storming of the Bastille which was the first major strike in the long and bloody French Revolution. He gave the Key of the Bastille to Common Sense author Thomas Paine who brought it back to Washington. To this day this icon of liberation can still be found hanging in the entry hall of Mount Vernon. Lafayette then took over as the commander-in-chief of the National Guard, which made him one of the most powerful people in France after the fall of the King and Queen.
However, what was a Revolutionary spirit in America was quickly viewed as a moderate temperament in France, whereas Lafayette was against the beheading of the Nobility and instead sought to find less violent solutions. After being viewed as supportive of Louis XVI and Antionette, he was imprisoned as a political prisoner. Luckily, he was released after five years and further excused of all so-called wrongdoings by Napoleon after the Revolution ceased. A fate better than radical Revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre, who went so chop happy that he wound up getting his own head chopped off.
In the end, Lafayette was hailed more in America than he was in France, despite probably offering more of a contribution to the end of Monarchy in his homeland. He returned to America only once after the war in the summer of 1824. When he landed in New York, an estimated 80,000 Americans showed up to greet him. Which, to put that into perspective was just under 70% of the city’s population at the time. The Frenchman was loved. He toured across America, receiving gifts and honors and admiration without exception. He was, after all, one of the few Revolutionaries left due to his relatively young age. When he died ten years later, he was buried with American soil he’d taken during this trip.