Le Marquis

December 29, 1823 – January 8, 1825

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson: “You and I have been favored with a visit from our old friend General La Fayette.”

Marquis de Lafayette, 1825, by Charles Cromwell Ingham

This is not a bio of Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette. You can search-engine that, baby. He’s best known ‘round these parts as the French war-hero of the American Revolution. He was also an honorary son to George Washington, ADORED by the American people, a major figure in France before, during, and after the French Revolution (as a wealthy aristocrat and a lover of democracy and freedom, he walked a tight-rope during that time), a committed abolitionist, a handsome devil, and a really, really fascinating person of history. Here’s a helpful timeline:

Marquis De La Fayette, 1791, by Joseph-Désiré Court

1777: Nineteen-year old filthy rich French whippersnapper joins the American Revolution (he’s got connections and can pay his way to the New World). Fights his first battle five days after his twentieth birthday. Takes a bullet in the leg. A hero is born.

Forty-seven years follow, which you can learn about when you search-engine it.

1824: Sixty-seven-year old French statesman and American Idol returns to the USofA on a year-long celebrity tour of all 24 states. If you’re from Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, or Virginia, check your local monument listings for the statue of LaFayette.

Equestrian statue of Lafayette. Hartford’s got one.

To get an idea of the popularity of this man, picture this: When Lafayette arrived on a ship at Staten Island on August 15, 1824, 80,000 people came out to greet him. That was two-thirds the population of New York City. Possibly there was nothing else to do on a Sunday afternoon.

If you’re looking for a good biography, I recommend Lafayette: Hero of Two Worlds by Olivier Bernier. Yeah, yeah, it’s the only book about LaFayette that I’ve read, but as biographies go, it’s very well done, humanizing and inspiring. For a quicker journey, Lafayette: The Lost Hero is a short, excellent PBS documentary. I re-watched parts of it today and two short stories touched me once again.

One, a small illustration of Lafayette’s firm belief in equality and stance against slavery: During a procession in his honor in front of the State Capitol in Richmond, Virginia, Lafayette recognizes a face in the crowd and stops his carriage. He steps into the crowd to greet James Armistead Lafayette, a former slave and Revolutionary spy who volunteered and served under the General during the war. It is an impressive scene, described in the film, when “the two men embrace as the whole city of slaveholders looks on.”

Two, a love story (and someone really should make a movie): Lafayette married Marie Adrienne Françoise de Noailles in 1774 (he was 16, she was 14). It was one of those arranged marriages where love blossomed. I don’t know any more details except for these final words of Adrienne on her deathbed, in her husband’s arms, in 1807 (this is me transcribing the film’s likely butchering of a primary source): “Gilbert, there was a time after you first came back from America and I felt so attracted to you. How lucky that passion should have been my duty. Will you give me your blessing? You’re not a Christian, you’re a Fayettiste. Me too. I am all yours.”

Romantics unite in tears. Of course, there were some allegations of infidelity during those happy golden years, but, come on, romantic period drama! Maybe I’ll get started on a screenplay.

I can’t seem to end these posts without a tangential comment by John Adams. It isn’t my fault, they just keep coming. But I love it. JA to TJ: “I still breathe, which will not be long, but while I do I shall breathe out wishes for the welfare of mankind, hoping that they will daily become more deserving of it.”


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