Lafayette! Another name to be interpreted in the light of history. A name whose mere mention brings to mind valiant youth, vividly questioning, imaginative, ambitious, proud, reticent, affectionate, worshipful; a crusader by instinct; a soldier from love of glory; a friend faithful and true, compelling affection because of the sparkling sincerity of his personality. Born at Chavaniac in Auvergne on the 6th day of September, 1757, Lafayette was destined to add immeasurably to the martial glory of a name already adorned by a father whom he never saw—killed in battle shortly before the birth of the son. Lafayette's mother died when he was in his thirteenth year and was followed in death some days later by her father, the Marquis de la Rivière. It was from this grandparent that he inherited the very considerable wealth which made possible so many gracious acts in connection with his services in the Army of the United States.
Lafayette in his Memoirs wrote:
You ask me at what period I first experienced my ardent love of liberty and glory? I recollect no time of my fife anterior to my enthusiasm for anecdotes of glorious deeds, and to my projects of travelling over the world to acquire fame.
Love of liberty and glory were the dominant characteristics of his youth, but the latter was always kept subjected to the former. He writes of the unfavorable opinion entertained of him owing to his habitual silence when he did not think the subject under discussion worthy of thought or comment. His days in the college at Paris, where he continued his education at the tender age of 12, were uneventful except for his ardent desire to study without restraint. He said that as a student he never deserved to be chastised,
LAFAYETTE IN 1779
and that "in spite of my usual gentleness, it would have been dangerous to have attempted to do so." He deliberately sacrificed the hope of a high mark in rhetoric by describing a perfect courser as "one who, on perceiving the whip, threw down his rider."
The marriage of Lafayette to the daughter of the Duke d'Ayen was celebrated on the 11th day of April, 1774, at which time he Was but 16 years and 7 months of age and his bride only 14 years and 5 months old. The head of the elder branch of his wife's family, the Marshal de Noailles, wished to obtain for the young man a place in the household of a prince of royal blood (afterwards Louis XVIII), but Lafayette's love of republican principles was so great that he did not hesitate displeasing his patrons to preserve his independence. Such was his frame of mind when he first learned of the rebellion in America, and when in the following year "the memorable declaration of the 4th of July" reached France.
It was during the month of August, 1775, that Lafayette, then a subaltern stationed at Metz, met the Duke of Gloucester, brother of the King of England, at a dinner given by Count de Broglie, the of the fort. The conversation was soon directed to American affairs, the resistance of the colonists, generally referred to in Europe as the "insurgents," and the strong measures adopted by the ministry to crush the rebellion. Lafayette absorbed this information with avid attention. The idea of a people fighting for liberty so inflamed his imagination that when he left the table he was determined to look further into the matter, to see if a youthful, chivalric "love of liberty and glory" would be satisfied by offering the aid of his banner to the revolutionists. As an answer to the obstacles which were to be expected from his own and his wife's family, and equally to serve as an encouragement to himself and as a reply to others, he ventured to adopt for a device on his arms the words, "Cur non?" In commenting, later in life, upon political conditions which preceded the revolution, Lafayette wrote:
The Americans, attached to the mother country, contented themselves at first with merely uttering complaints; they only accused the ministry, and the whole
nation rose up against them; they were termed insolent and rebellious, and at length declared the enemies of their country: thus did the obstinacy of the king, the violence of the ministers, and the arrogance of the English nation, oblige thirteen of their colonies to render themselves independent. Such a glorious cause had never before attracted the attention of mankind; it was the last struggle of Liberty; and had she then been vanquished, neither hope nor asylum would have remained for her.
Great care and discretion were necessary in determining who would be the recipients of Lafayette's confidence. Intimate friends were approached, only to have their enthusiasm for the adventure frowned on by more worldly-wise parents. His friend, Count de Broglie, when requested to countenance the enterprise, answered:
I have seen your uncle die in the wars of Italy; I witnessed your father's death at the battle of Minden; and I will not be accessory to the ruin of the only remaining branch of the family.
De Broglie did relent, however, to the extent of introducing the ardent adventurer to Baron de Kalb, an officer of German birth, then in the service of France. De Kalb in 1768 had made an intelligence examination of America as the agent of M. de Choiseul, and was now desirous of offering his sword to the United States. Lafayette and De Kalb secured an audience with Silas Deane, who at the time represented the new Confederation of States in Paris. When the marquis presented his boyish face (for he was only 19 years of age) he spoke more of his ardor in the cause than of his experience. Deane knew but little French, De Kalb was a poor interpreter, the British ambassador's spies were suspicious, and it became necessary to place the further conduct of the affair in the hands of an intermediary. An agreement was finally entered into on the 7th of December, 1776, signed by Silas Deane, Lafayette, and De Kalb, to the effect that—
The ranks and the pay, which the most honorable Congress shall affix to them to commence at the periods marked in the present list, have been agreed to by us the undersigned.
The name of Lafayette headed the list. His rank of major general was to date from the 7th of December, 1776. De Kalb, who
came next on the list, was given the same rank, to date from the 7th of November. The list contained 11 other names.
Following the agreement, and constituting part of it, is a further accord entered into between Deane and Lafayette, largely for the information of Congress. Deane says of Lafayette:
His high birth, his alliances, the great dignities which his family holds at this Court, his considerable estates in this realm, his personal merit, his reputation, his disinterestedness, and above all his zeal for the liberty of our provinces, are such as to induce me alone to promise him the rank of major general in the name of the United States.
Then follows a voluntary statement signed by Lafayette, that he is to serve without any pension or particular allowance, reserving to himself the liberty of returning to Europe when his family or his King shall recall him.
Preparations were made to dispatch a vessel with arms and other military supplies for the American Army, in which Lafayette was to take passage. Unfortunately for the venture, bad news was accumulating in Europe of a prolonged series of reverses suffered by the "insurgents." First it was the Battle of Long Island; then the evacuation of the city of New York; and later the island of York; followed by the retreat of Washington's army across the Jerseys and beyond the Delaware. All the credit of the Americans vanished. To Deane's earnest efforts to dissuade him from further participation in the enterprise, Lafayette, thanking him for his friendly concern, said:
Until now, Sir, you have seen only my ardour in your cause, and that may not prove at present wholly useless. I shall purchase a ship to carry out your officers; we must feel confidence in the future, and it is especially in the hour of danger that I wish to share your fortune.
The deep sincerity of this statement is evidenced by its reiteration in another form, contained in a letter written to the President of Congress after more than a year's residence in America, and after Lafayette had been severely wounded at the Battle of Brandywine:
The moment I heard of America, I loved her; the moment I knew she was fighting for freedom, I burnt with a desire of bleeding for her.
Lafayette's project was received with approbation by Deane, and an agent was dispatched to Bordeaux with instructions to purchase a vessel.
In order to fulfill an engagement of long standing and allay suspicion which might be directed toward him, the young marquis made a visit to England in the latter part of February. He paid his respects to the King and to high officials; and at the opera saw General Clinton, whom he was afterwards to meet at Monmouth. He openly avowed his sentiments of republicanism and often defended the Americans. He refused offers made him to visit the seaports, vessels fitting out against the "'rebels," and everything that might be construed as an abuse of confidence.
On the 12th day of March, 1777, Lafayette returned to Paris and lay concealed for three days at De Kalb's house in Chaillot. He saw a few of his friends and then set out for Bordeaux. Here it was learned that his intended departure for America was known at Versailles, and that a King's messenger was hastening to overtake him. Lafayette lost not a moment in setting sail and made for the harbor of Los Pasajes, the nearest port in Spain, only to be encountered there by two officers who had traveled overland from Bordeaux, with a lettre de cachet from the King, prohibiting his departure. He also received letters of extreme severity from his own family. The orders of his government were peremptory, forbidding him to proceed to the American continent under penalty of willful disobedience of his sovereign. He was enjoined to repair to Marseilles and there await further orders.
The letters from the ministers were severe—
wrote Sparks, who visited France in 1828 and had extensive conversations with Lafayette—
charging him with violating his oath of allegiance to the King, and of rashly committing an act which might involve the government with other powers.
It was not fear, however, of the ultimate action which the government might take against him that prompted Lafayette to obey
the King's command. It was thought of his friends and family and concern for his young wife, soon to become a mother a second time.
Lafayette returned to Bordeaux to enter into a justification of his conduct, and to bear upon his own shoulders all the consequences of his acts. He called attention to the fact that an officer of the King's Irish regiment had been permitted to join the British forces, and that Duportail and three other engineers belonging to the King's army had obtained special permission to enter the American service. As the court to which his justification was addressed "did not deign to relax in its determination," Lafayette wrote to M. de Maurepas that "that silence was a tacit consent," and his own departure from Bordeaux took place soon after this facetious dispatch had been sent to the minister of state.
Ostensibly setting out for Marseilles, Lafayette proceeded but a short distance on that highway, then turned in the direction of Bordeaux, where he rejoined his ship on the 17th of April. Three days later he set sail for the American continent, accompanied by Baron de Kalb and 11 other officers seeking service in America.
The departure of young Lafayette produced, in Paris, in the commercial towns, in all societies, and even at court, a sensation that was very favorable to the American cause. The enthusiasm it excited was in a great measure owing to the state of political stagnation into which the country had so long been plunged, the resentment excited by the arrogance of England, her commissioner at Dunkirk, her naval pretensions, and the love inherent in all mankind of bold and extraordinary deeds, especially when they are in defiance of the powerful, and to protect the weak in their struggle for liberty.
American history offers but few opportunities to observe youth occupying a position in public affairs of such momentous possibilities as fell to the lot of Lafayette; or to know with equal intimacy the emotions which stirred him in the sacred relations of home, and in the more public affairs of military adventure. The pathos of one so young. showering his love like warm, gentle rain upon the wife from whom he was so far separated, fills the heart with immeasurable sympathy. His letters to her were inspired by an ardent and protective love beyond description. He cherished her
above all else on earth except honor. From the ship Victoire, which was carrying him to the shores of South Carolina, he addressed her:
How many fears and anxieties enhance the keen anguish I feel at being separated from all that I love most fondly in the world. * * * The sea is so melancholy, that it and I mutually, I believe, sadden each other.
To bring cheer to her and lessen her fears for his safety he playfully writes:
The post of general officer has always been considered like a commission for immortality. * * * Ask the opinion of all general officers, and these are very numerous, because, having once attained that height, they are no longer exposed to any hazards.
Impatient to land—there is "always sky, always water, and the next day a repetition of the same thing." He is concerned for the welfare of their daughter, Henriette, and of the infant brother or sister whose coming he will welcome "with unbounded joy." His honor, his motives, the "love of liberty and glory" for which he is engaging in this adventure, are told in simple, forceful messages to her:
Whilst defending the liberty I adore, I shall enjoy perfect freedom myself: I but offer my service to that interesting republic from motives of the purest kind, unmixed with ambition or private views; her happiness and my glory are my only incentives to the task.
He adds a thought which occurs with frequency throughout his correspondence:
I hope that, for my sake, you will become a good American, for that feeling is worthy of every noble heart.
Then follows a revelation of what the future had in store for the infant Nation:
The happiness of America is intimately connected with the happiness of all mankind; she will become the safe and respected asylum of virtue, integrity, toleration, equality, and tranquil happiness.
He has forbidden the use of candles aboard the ship and closes this letter as daylight fades with the everlasting message of love:
Once more, adieu; if my fingers be at all guided by my heart, it is not necessary to see clearly to tell you that I love you, and that I shall love you all my life.
After a voyage unduly prolonged by contrary winds, and which threatened to end in disaster when two English frigates were en, countered off the Carolina coast, on the 13th day of June, at the end of a passage of eight weeks, the Victoire dropped anchor off Georgetown, S. C. Lafayette was rowed ashore on Winyaw Bay, and as midnight approached found shelter in the plantation home of Major Huger on North Island. As his foot touched the friendly soil he swore that "'he would conquer or perish" in the cause which had brought him to America.
The resiliency of youth caused the discomforts of the trip soon to be forgotten. A vessel sailing for France a short time after his arrival carried back letters, and he was ready for the great adventure that had been agitating his mind for nearly a year. The novelty of his surroundings at the plantation home, the beds covered with mosquito nets, the black servants, the beauty of the vegetation; all united in producing a magical effect and in exciting a variety of inexpressible sensations. His spirits soared on high like an eagle's flight; he had unlimited confidence in his lucky star.
That same star has protected me to the astonishment of every person.
And he wants his dear one to be of equal faith.
You may, therefore, trust a little to it in the future, my love, and let this conviction tranquillize your fears.
His temperament was such that he viewed this new country with a sympathetic eye. It was foreign to him, but his devotion to his ideals filled everything with a glorified charm, and there was no artificiality of pretense in his affectionate interest and concern. Charleston was one of the best built, handsomest, and most agreeable cities that he had ever seen.
The American women are very pretty, and have great simplicity of character.
What gave him most pleasure was—
to see how completely the citizens are all brethren of one family. Simplicity of manner, kindness of heart, love of country and of liberty, and a delightful state of equality, are met with universally.
Lafayette and his retinue were most hospitably received by the citizens of Charleston. He was enchanted with everything he saw and with all whom he met. Every one showed him "the greatest attention and politeness." He was entertained in magnificent manner. Meanwhile horses and carriages were hired, and all plans hastened to speed his departure for Philadelphia, the seat of government.
Several days before setting out from Charleston on the long journey which lay ahead of him, he wrote his loved one about his experiences and impressions during the few days he had been in America, and of how he longed to see her. The letter contains a message of whimsy. A twisted, tear-distorted smile must have accompanied the penning of it:
Embrace, most tenderly, my Henriette: may I add, embrace our children? The father of those poor children is a wanderer, but he is, nevertheless, a good, honest man; a good father, warmly attached to his family, and a good husband also, for he loves his wife most tenderly.
He sent his remembrances to his friends, particularly to that personal circle, formerly of the court, which had become the Society of the Wooden Sword. Concerning this change in the society he wrote:
We republicans like it the better for the change.
En route to Petersburg, which was reached in about 25 days, Lafayette observed closely the language and customs of the people, the methods of cultivating the fields, the vast forests and immense rivers which "combine to give to that country an appearance of youth and majesty." "Several of my comrades have suffered a great deal," he wrote his wife from that town on the 17th of July, adding, "I have scarcely myself been conscious of fatigue." To bring a smile into the eyes of her to whom his thoughts sped "every moment of the day," he wrote in a light vein:
You know that I set out in a brilliant manner in a carriage, and I must now tell you that we are all on horseback, having broken the carriage, according to my usual praiseworthy custom, and I hope soon to write you that we have arrived on foot.
And then, in conclusion, a tender plea—
not to forget an unhappy man, who pays most dearly for the error he committed in parting from you, and who never felt before how tenderly he loved you.
The highway north passed through Fredericksburg, thence to Alexandria, and after crossing the Potomac continued to Annapolis, at which place Lafayette arrived on the 23d of July. Here he had a quarter of an hour in which to write a letter and get it aboard a vessel that was on the point of sailing for France. He could tell his wife nothing of the town, "for, as I alighted from my horse," he wrote, "I armed myself with a little weapon dipt in invisible ink." He was-sure that ere this letter reached her she would have had five others from him, "unless King George should have received some of them."
In this letter occurs the first intimation of the remarkable psychological change which took place in Lafayette while in America. The evolution unconsciously began when he signed the agreement with Silas Deane in Paris on the 7th day of December of the preceding year. He had now experienced one month's interesting happenings in the land of adventure; he was subconsciously becoming a citizen of America. How this quality of mind developed naturally, graciously, and without artificiality will be seen from time to time as the importance of the rôle played by Lafayette becomes more pronounced. Before writing at Annapolis he learned that—
Ticonderoga, the strongest American post, has been forced by the enemy.
In referring to the incident in his letter, he uses the pronoun in the first person:
This is very unfortunate, and we must endeavor to repair the evil. * * * Our troops have taken * * *
In such manner did he continue to write throughout the war to officers of France who were in America, to the French Government, and to his family. In the mind and heart of Lafayette "we," "our," "my," meant "America."
When Philadelphia was reached, on the 26th of July, Lafayette put his letters of introduction and the agreement made with Silas
Deane into the hands of Mr. Lovell, chairman of the Committee of Foreign Affairs. He called at the halls of Congress the next day and learned from Mr. Lovell that so many foreigners had offered themselves for employment that Congress was embarrassed with their applications and that there was very little hope of his application meeting with success. Without appearing disconcerted by the rebuff with which he was received, Lafayette entreated the committee to return to the floor of the Congress and read to the delegates the note which he handed them:
After the sacrifices I have made, I have the right to exact two favours: one is, to serve at my own expense; the other is, to serve at first as volunteer.
The noble disinterestedness of this proposal was accorded prompt recognition by Congress. A resolve dated July 31 provided that:
Whereas, the marquis de
la Fayette, out of his great zeal to the cause of liberty, in which the
United States are engaged, has left his family and connexions, and, at his
own expence, come over to offer his service to the United States, without
pension or particular allowance, and is anxious to risque his life in our
Resolved, that his service be accepted, and that, in consideration of his zeal, illustrious family and connexions, he have the rank and commission of major general in the army of the United States.
The age of the Marquis de Lafayette at the time Congress granted him this commission was a few days less than 20 years.
On Sunday, August 3, Washington was in Philadelphia for the purpose of conferring with Congress relative to the defense of the city, which was threatened by Howe's army, and to discuss measures which might be adopted to put an end to Burgoyne's successes in the Northern Department. Here it was that Washington and Lafayette met. Washington received the young volunteer in the most friendly manner and invited him to reside in his house as a member of his military family. Lafayette accepted this gracious offer with joy, and from that moment there began a friendship which grew into a love of wonderful depth; of vital consequence in furthering the revolution; steadfast unto death.
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