Considering the politics involved in the early 1800s, it was a pretty remarkable achievement to be called a hero of both the Old World and the New World simultaneously.
But Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette - more popularly known as the Marquis de Lafayette - achieved this honor. This is his portrait, and please note the lovely tri-color cockade in his hat!
In anticipation of the United States' 50th anniversary in 1825, the Marquis de Lafayette accepted the invitation of American President James Monroe to tour every one of the 24 states then in the Union. The celebrations of his arrival that ensued were reportedly some of the largest, most amazing ever held in the United States. He was greeted his entire journey by huge, cheering crowds and lavish banquets and balls of celebration. People were excited to entertain one of the most
famous heroes of the American Revolution.
One account of a ball given in Castle Clinton in New York City observes that it was "the most brilliant and magnificent scene ever witnessed in the United States." Six thousand ladies and gentlemen attended it! The entire fort was covered by a 75-foot-high awning and lit by fourteen cut glass chandeliers. That's quite a ball!
Another account tells of of the celebrations in Boston where 3000 children (yes, you read that number right!) ages 8-12 lined up to receive him. They "wore ribbons in their breasts, stamped with a miniature likeness of Lafayette." In Salem, there was also a description of "a body of seamen, of about two hundred, in blue jackets and white trousers, with ribbons on their hats, stamped with the name of Lafayette." There are many other stories as well about people wearing these ribbons and badges in his honor. This is a surviving ribbon from that time, no doubt very like the ones they were wearing.
Louisa May Alcott, writing historical fiction in "An Old Fashioned Girl" published in 1869, wrote a delightful anecdote about Lafayette's tour, told by "Grandmother" in the book. "The time when I saw Lafayette was in 1825....Old Josiah Quincy was mayor of the city, and he sent aunt word that the Marquis Lafayette wished to pay his respects to her. Of course she was delighted, and we all flew about to make ready for him. Aunt was an old lady, but she made a grand toilet, and was as anxious to look well as any girl....She wore a steel-colored satin, trimmed with black lace, and on her cap was pinned a Lafayette badge of white satin."
Later in the story, she tells about a lady wearing gloves with the Marquis' image on them. When Lafayette was presented to the lady, he bowed and kissed her hand - realizing too late that he was kissing his own picture! This is an original Lafayette glove that probably looked much like the glove in the story.
But this is what caught my eye and led me to write this post - some lovely cockade shoe rosettes that were worn during the celebrations! Red, white and blue were the patriotic colors of both France and America by 1825. So this was a perfect fashion choice for an American patriot to wear in honor of a heroic Frenchman!
In addition to the celebrations and fashion statements for Lafayette, many monuments were erected in his honor and parks, streets, cities and counties were named for him (Fayetteville, NC for instance). There's even a Lafayette College in Pennsylvania.
All of this begs the question: Who was this man the whole nation celebrated?
Hero In The New World - Fighting for American Independence
Lafayette was in his teens when he learned of the struggle for liberty in the American colonies. When Benjamin Franklin arrived in France as the American ambassador during the War for Independence. Lafayette resolved to go himself to help the Americans gain their freedom. In his own words, "The moment I heard of America, I love her; the moment I knew she was fighting for liberty, I burnt with a desire to bleed for her." And bleed for her he did.
Despite his youth, Lafayette became a Major-General in the Continental Army.
He played pivotal roles in several major battles, and gained the love of his troops not only by his military prowess but also by his care for their clothing, comfort and health. Though wounded in the Battle of Brandywine, he stayed on the field to organize an orderly retreat. Only when the troops were safe did he allow his wound to be treated.
George Washington and Lafayette became firm friends. Washington considered him as an adopted son. One eye witness account says, "Washington love him for his goodness, and honored him for his bravery and military talents." And Lafayette himself affectionately remembered, "I was adopted as a disciple and son, by our immortal Commander and Chief."
This is a painting of Lafayette and General Washington together at Valley Forge. Note the American black cockades in their hats. Lafayette was a citizen of both France and the United States, the grateful Americans granting him citizenship in their new nation.
Lafayette's international diplomacy was also a major influence in the war. He was instrumental in negotiating French
support for the American cause and on several occasions convinced the French navy to lend their support at crucial moments. This includes the battle at Yorktown which led the final British surrender that ended the war on the battlefield.
Hero In The Old World
Lafayette's military career didn't end in the United States. Back in "Old World" France, he tried to bring about governmental reform there as well. He was instrumental in calling the meeting of the French Estates-General and with some assistance from Thomas
Jefferson, he created the draft of The
Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
Appointed Commander-In-Chief of the Garde nationale, he designed the tri-color cockade as its badge and set about maintaining order in the city of Paris. (This is an original Garde nationale cockade, by the way.)
However, as the French Revolution gained momentum, his efforts to keep order made the Revolutionaries angry. And his desire to reform the current French royalist government created tension between him and the nobility. Since he held to his moderate principles of limited, constitutional government, no one in that age of extremism was happy with him!
With his life in jeopardy from both factions, the Marquis tried to flee to the United States, but was caught by the royalists in Austria and spent five years in prison. Though national leaders in both Europe and America did their best to negotiate his freedom, his captors feared his strong, principled influence in favor of liberty and they refused to let him go.
Lafayette's wife, Adrienne, and two daughters were also imprisoned (his son escaped to America). Though freed through the combined efforts of French and American friends, his wife and daughters bravely decided to be reunited with him once more and spent the final two years of his imprisonment with him.
This is a plaque in Olomouc, Czech Republic commemorating his confinement
After Napoleon gained battlefield victories over the Austrians, he negotiated Lafayette's release in 1797. But the freedom-loving Lafayette and the power-hungry Napoleon did not have common views on government. To avoid political clashes, Lafayette retired from public service until 1815. He was offered a peerage through Napoleon's influence but he refused to align himself with what he considered to be a dictatorial, unrestrained government.
Lafayette came out of retirement to join the Chamber of Representatives calling for Napoleon's final abdication in 1815. His dream of limited, constitutional government in France looked as if it might be finally fulfilled.
Hero of Freedom
Lafayette was a proponent of freedom of
the press, suffrage for all taxpayers, and the worldwide abolition of slavery.
As a supporter of religious freedom, Lafayette was instrumental in gaining the Edict of Tolerance,
which gave more freedoms to Protestants in Catholic France.
He stuck to his principles even when threatened with sickness and death in prison. And more tellingly, he stuck to his principles when offered the temptations of rich and influential positions. Besides turning down the peerage from Napoleon which I mentioned earlier, he
also had refused an executive role in the Paris Commune 1792 .
And in the July Revolution
of 1830, he turned down an offer to become the dictator of France, instead
supporting constitutional monarchy.
As a side note of interest, he also declined an offer from
Jefferson of the governorship of the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase.
He finished his days a happy family man managing his estate in the beautiful La Grange chateau 30 miles southeast of Paris. Though his wife died soon after their release from prison due to the hardships she had suffered, his married children and grandchildren lived with him. This is a picture of La Grange as it appears now, very little different from the 1800s.
Upon his death in 1834, he was buried next to his wife and covered by his son with dirt from Bunker Hill. His contemporary, the French historian Chateaubriand described him as "affable, obliging and generous."
But my favorite summary of him was provided by Supreme Court Judge Joseph Story when Lafayette visited America in 1824:
"Your private character has not cast a shade on your public honors. In the palaces of Paris and the dungeons of Olmutz, in the splendor of power, and the gloom of banishment, you have been the friend of justice, and the asserter of the rights of man. Under every misfortune, you have never deserted your principles. What earthly prince can afford consolation like this? The favor of princes and the applause of senates, sink into absolute nothingness, in comparison with the approving conscience of a life devoted to the good of mankind."
In this day of false heroes and anti-heroes, it is good to reflect on the life of a man who had integrity and stood for his principles regardless of the consequences. If he came to America today, I would wear tricolor rosettes on my shoes to honor him too! In fact, I might just do it anyway!