The Hero of the American Independence Le marquis de Lafayette was a well bred and rich young man who started his military career in the service of the King’s Black Musketeers. He was promoted to captain at the age of 17, and married Adrienne de Noailles, daughter of the Duke of Noailles (Peer of France), in 1774.
“ I came here to learn, not to teach”
Lafayette was impassioned by the ideas of philosophers and faithful to the ideals of freedom. That is why the announcement of the war of independence in the British colonies of America on the 4th of July 1776 reinforced his will to fight at the sides of the young nation. This will was strengthened by the news of the disastrous fate met by insurgents at the doors of New York.
He armed a ship (The Victory), and despite the opposition of the King and of his family, embarked to America in 1777 with several others officers. Having gained the confidence of members of the Congress, Lafayette has been “adopted” by G. WASHINGTON and given the rank of Major General. Although wounded during the battle of Brandwyne where he bravely fought, he was given the command of the Virginia division of volunteers, at the head of which he covered himself with glory. After the victory in Saratoga, his popularity in France contributed to the conclusion of the Franco - American Treaty in February 1778.
Acceding to G. Washington’s request, he returned to France in 1779 where, acting as a wise military and diplomat, he convinced Louis XVI to send an expeditionary corps to the United States (1780).
When he returned to America on board of “L’Hermione”, Lafayette commanded a light cavalry division and took part to the surrender of the British in Yorktown in 1781, at the sides of the armies of Rochambeau (French expeditionary corps), Washington, and the French fleet under the command of De Grasse.
Back in France, Lafayette learned of the recognition of the American independence by the British. However, it was only in 1784 that he accepted the invitation made by Washington to visit him. This was a triumphant journey, which echoed in France, strengthening Lafayette’s popularity in his home country.
The French Revolution (1789)
Glory, Detention, Exile…
Being back to France, Lafayette was considered a hero, but his political opinions moved him away from any national responsibility. In the aftermath of the fall of the Bastille , he was promoted to General from the National Guard and made the three-colored rosette adopted. After the days of October 1789, he became commander of the troops in Paris.
Partisan of a moderate revolution, concerned with the respect of order, faithful to the King but promoting a constitutional monarchy, he became the most popular character in France (the Federation Day in July 1790 matches the zenith of Lafayette’s political career).
However, his many hesitations, combined with his enemies’ conspiracy, led him to vote for martial law and to give the order to shoot at the people (1791), an act that tarnished his popularity.
In 1792, he commanded the army of the Centre, but choosing the cause of the King, he threatened to lead his troops to fight the revolutionaries in Paris. With this act, he was then declared a traitor to the nation and fled France to avoid prosecution. He was arrested by the Austrians who imprisoned him in Magdeburg, Neisse and Olmutz, considering him as a dangerous man. His wife and children joined him later. Lafayette was released in 1797 but sentenced to exile. They wouldn’t return to France again until 1799.
From 18 Brumaire an VIII to the days of July 1830
Back from exile in 1799, he retired to his property of La Grange – Bleneau, in a poor physical state. Lafayette stayed away from power and from Napoléon, to whom he reproached and condemned excesses. After the first Restauration, he was quickly disappointed by Louis XVIII and went back to his land property. However, he opposed Napoleon during what has been called “the hundred days”, and, in another return to politics, became the leader of the opposition as a member of the Parliament.
The disaster of Waterloo led him to take part in peace talks with his allies. As a member of the liberal opposition under the second Restauration, he committed the political error of joining the Charbonnerie’s conspiracy but was one of the few not arrested when the plot was uncovered. Lafayette retired once again in La Grange, maintaining links with politics as deputy of Meaux (1822).
Although he was an active politician, he had been defeated in the 1824 general elections. He then accepted the invitation of the President of the United States for a journey in America (his fourth and final journey overseas) that ended up in a blaze of glory and returned his prestige.
Once back and re-elected deputy of Meaux, he took an active part in the insurrection of July 1830, but refused the creation of a Republic of which he has been offered the presidency. He joined the orleanist party and contributed to the accession to the throne of Louis-Philippe, and in thanks was appointed General of the National Guard. However, he quickly opposed the king and broke ties with him soon after. Lafayette died on the 20th of May 1834 in Paris, where he is buried next to his spouse (who died in 1807) in the Picpus cemetery.
Being worshiped as well as controversial and even hated, he still remains the man of Freedom.
In France : he is the hero of two worlds. As a Commander of the National Guard, he took part in the writing of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, he made the three-colored rosette adopted, he played a major role during the days of July 1830, and he was an ardent defender of the abolition of slavery. Eventually, he advocated the recognition of the protestant religion (restoration of civil status).
In the United States : his name is a synonym of esteem and recognition. The “beloved child of America” is a hero who came to the rescue of american “insurgents”. He enjoys the rare privilege to be “citizen of honor of the United States of America”.
To pay tribute, more than forty US cities and counties go by his name (Lafayette, Fayetteville…), numerous monuments and other marks notwithstanding.
Eventually, this sentence : “Lafayette, here we are!” (Colonel Stanton, Picpus cemetery 1917) remains in memory as the tribute from american soldiers who, twice in twenty years during the 20th century, helped us regain our freedom.
In Haute – Loire, on the trail of Lafayette’s family
This story would not be complete without inviting you to follow the trail of Lafayette’s family in the Département of Haute – Loire, to which he was very close.
Why the family? Simply, because this family from Auvergne rank among two famous characters who are cousins and homonyms. It is Gilbert Motier de La Fayette (known under the title of Marechal de La Fayette who lived in the 15th century and fought on Jeanne d’Arc’s sides in the battles of Patay and Jargeau) and Général Marquis de La Fayette.
Chavaniac – Lafayette : the castle, birthplace of the Marquis, offers a museographic tour that enables the discovery of General Lafayette’s history.
Langeac : celebration of “la belle journée”. Summer events dedicated to the memory of General Lafayette, which take place on the fourth weekend of July.
Brioude : cradle of Lafayette’s childhood
Le Puy en Velay : many landmarks (monuments, historical flags…)
Vissac, Siauges Sainte-Marie and La Chaise Dieu : landmarks of Maréchal de Lafayette’s history