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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: Hero of Two Worlds

By Tom Morrow

There’s one Frenchman whose name will live forever in historic revolutionary endeavors – the Marquis de Lafayette.

Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette was born Sept. 6, 1757. He was one of the outstanding figures of both American and French revolutions. Here in the U.S., he was known simply as “Lafayette.”
Lafayette was a French aristocrat and military officer who became a close friend of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson. He came from a wealthy family; was commissioned an officer at age 13, and was convinced the American revolutionary cause was noble. He travelled to the New World where the Continental Congress made the 19-year-old a major general, though initially he was not given troops to command.

After Lafayette offered to serve without pay, Congress commissioned him a major general. Among Lafayette’s early advocates included Benjamin Franklin, who urged Congress to accommodate the young Frenchman.

Gen. George Washington, commander in chief of the Continental Army, met Lafayette at a dinner in 1777. Washington took Lafayette to his military camp and made the young Frenchman a member of his staff.

Congress regarded Lafayette’s general officer commission as “honorary,” while he considered himself a full-fledged commander. Washington told Lafayette a command because of his foreign birth, but the young French officer distinguished himself battle after battle. Wounded during the Battle of Brandywine, Lafayette still managed to organize an orderly retreat. He served with distinction in the Battle of Rhode Island.

In the middle of the Revolutionary War, Lafayette returned to France to lobby for an increase in French support, which ultimately gave victory to the Americans over the British. He sailed bacl to America in 1780, and was given senior positions in Washington’s Continental Army.

In 1781, American troops under Lafayette’s command blocked British forces until other American and French forces could position themselves for the decisive Siege of Yorktown, Virginia, resulting in Lord Cornwallis’ surrender, which ended the war.

Lafayette returned to France and, in 1787, and was appointed to the Assembly of Notables. He helped write the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, with the assistance of Thomas Jefferson. He became a member of the Chamber of Deputies, a position he held for the remainder of his life.

After leading the citizens to storm the Bastille (prison) during the French Revolution, Lafayette was appointed commander-in-chief of the French National Guard, and tried to steer a moderate course, but radical factions ordered his arrest and spent more than five years in prison. When Bonaparte Napoleon came to power as Emperor of France, he ordered Lafayette’s release.
On June 22, 1815, four days after the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon abdicated as French Emperor. Lafayette tried to save him by arranging for Napoleon’s passage to America where the former emperor could live in exile, but the British prevented that from happening. The man who nearly conquered all of Europe would be held prisoner by the British on the small island of Saint Helena in the south Atlantic for the rest of his life.

The Marquis deLafayette died on May 20, 1834, at the age of 76. He is buried in Picpus Cemetery in Paris under soil from Boston’s Bunker Hill. For his accomplishments in the service of both France and the United States, he is sometimes known as “The Hero of the Two Worlds.”

In the United States, President Andrew Jackson ordered that Lafayette receive the same memorial honors bestowed on Washington in 1799. Both Houses of Congress were draped in black bunting for 30 days, and members wore mourning badges. Congress urged Americans to follow similar mourning practices. Later in 1834, 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.”


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