On June 13, 1977, Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette landed near Charleston, South Carolina, in order to help the Continental Congress to train its army during the American Revolutionary War. A French aristocrat and army officer, he embraced the republican ideals of the late eighteenth century. At first, the Continental Congress was unimpressed with Lafayette, who spoke little English. However, when he agreed to serve without pay, the cash-poor Continental Congress appointed him a major general. Lafayette joined George Washington’s staff. Washington developed a fatherly affection for the young man, and the two developed a life-long friendship. Like Washington, Lafayette served in the Continental Army without pay. Lafayette was a key figure in the French Revolution of 1789 and the July Revolution of 1830. led the democratic faction in the National Assembly during the French Revolution, and was later exiled from France for his opposition to Napoleon’s imperial ambitions. Despite a public renunciation of the peerage in 1790, he is still popularly known in America and France as the ‘Marquis de Lafayette’.
Lafayette was born on September 6, 1757, to Michel Louis Christophe Roch Gilbert Paulette du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette, colonel of grenadiers, and Marie Louise Jolie de La Rivière, at the château de Chavaniac, in Chavaniac-Lafayette, near Le Puy-en-Velay, in the province of Auvergne (now Haute-Loire). Lafayette’s lineage was likely one of the oldest and most distinguished in Auvergne and, perhaps, in all of France. Lafayette’s father died on the battlefield. On August 1, 1759, Michel de Lafayette was struck by a cannonball while fighting a British-led coalition at the Battle of Minden in Westphalia. Lafayette became marquis and Lord of Chavaniac, but the estate went to his mother. Perhaps devastated by the loss of her husband, she went to live in Paris with her father and grandfather, leaving Lafayette to be raised in Chavaniac-Lafayette by his paternal grandmother, Mme de Chavaniac, who had brought the château into the family with her dowry.
In 1768, when Lafayette was 11, he was summoned to Paris to live with his mother and great-grandfather at the comte’s apartments in Luxembourg Palace. The boy was sent to school at the Collège du Plessis, part of the University of Paris, and it was decided that he would carry on the family martial tradition. The comte, the boy’s great-grandfather, enrolled the boy in a program to train future Musketeers. Lafayette’s mother and great-grandfather died, on April 3 and 24, 1770, respectively, leaving Lafayette an income of 25,000 livres. Upon the death of an uncle, the 12-year-old Lafayette inherited a handsome yearly income of 120,000 livres.
In May 1771, aged less than 14, Lafayette was commissioned an officer in the Musketeers, with the rank of sous-lieutenant. His duties, which included marching in military parades and presenting himself to King Louis, were mostly ceremonial and he continued his studies as usual.
At this time, Jean-Paul-François de Noailles, Duc d’Ayen was looking to marry off some of his five daughters. The young Lafayette, aged 14, seemed a good match for his 12-year-old daughter, Marie Adrienne Françoise, and the duc spoke to the boy’s guardian (Lafayette’s uncle, the new comte) to negotiate a deal. However, the arranged marriage was opposed by the duc’s wife, who felt the couple, and especially her daughter, were too young. The matter was settled by agreeing not to mention the marriage plans for two years, during which time the two spouses-to-be would meet from time to time in casual settings and get to know each other better. The scheme worked; the two fell in love, and were happy together from the time of their marriage in 1774 until her death in 1807.
After the marriage contract was signed in 1773, Lafayette lived with his young wife in his father-in-law’s house in Versailles. He continued his education, both at the riding school Versailles (his fellow students included the future Charles X) and at the prestigious Académie de Versailles. He was given a commission as a lieutenant in the Noailles Dragoons in April 1773, the transfer from the royal regiment being done at the request of Lafayette’s father-in-law.
In 1775, Lafayette took part in his unit’s annual training in Metz, where he met Charles-François de Broglie, Marquis de Ruffec, the Army of the East’s commander. At dinner, both men discussed the ongoing revolt against British rule by Britain’s North American colonies. One historiographical perspective suggests that the marquis was disposed to hate the British for killing his father, and felt that a British defeat would diminish that nation’s stature internationally. Another notes that the marquis had recently become a Freemason, and talk of the rebellion “fired his chivalric — and now Masonic — imagination with descriptions of Americans as ‘people fighting for liberty'”.
In September 1775, when Lafayette turned 18, he returned to Paris and received the captaincy in the Dragoons he had been promised as a wedding present. In December, his first child, Henriette, was born. During these months, Lafayette became convinced that the American Revolution reflected his own beliefs, saying “My heart was dedicated.”
The year 1776 saw delicate negotiations between American agents, including Silas Deane, and Louis XVI and his foreign minister, Comte Charles de Vergennes. The king and his minister hoped that by supplying the Americans with arms and officers, they might restore French influence in North America, and exact revenge against Britain for the loss in the Seven Years’ War. When Lafayette heard that French officers were being sent to America, he demanded to be among them. He met Deane, and gained inclusion despite his youth. On 7 December 1776, Deane enlisted Lafayette as a major general.
The plan to send French officers (as well as other aid) to America came to nothing when the British heard of it and threatened war. Lafayette’s father-in-law, de Noailles, scolded the young man and told him to go to London and visit the Marquis de Noailles, the ambassador to Britain and Lafayette’s uncle by marriage, which he did in February 1777. In the interim, he did not abandon his plans to go to America. Lafayette was presented to George III, and spent three weeks in London society. On his return to France, he went into hiding from his father-in-law (and superior officer), writing to him that he was planning to go to America. De Noailles was furious, and convinced Louis to issue a decree forbidding French officers from serving in America, specifically naming Lafayette. Vergennes may have persuaded the king to order Lafayette’s arrest, though this is uncertain.
Lafayette learned that the Continental Congress lacked funds for his voyage; hence, he acquired the sailing ship Victoire with his own money, for 112,000 pounds. He journeyed to Bordeaux, where Victoire was being prepared for her trip, and sent word asking for information on his family’s reaction. The response, including letters from his wife and other relatives, threw Lafayette into emotional turmoil. Soon after departure, he ordered the ship turned around and returned to Bordeaux, to the frustration of the officers traveling with him. The army commander there ordered Lafayette to report to his father-in-law’s regiment in Marseilles. De Broglie, who hoped to become a military and political leader in America, met with Lafayette in Bordeaux and convinced him that the government actually wanted him to go. This was not true, though there was considerable public support for Lafayette in Paris, where the American cause was popular. Lafayette wanted to believe it, and pretended to comply with the order to report to Marseilles, going only a few miles east before turning around and returning to his ship. Victoire set sail for the United States on April 20, 1777.
The two-month journey to the New World was marked by seasickness and boredom. The ship’s captain, Lebourcier, intended to stop in the West Indies to sell cargo, but Lafayette, fearful of arrest, bought the cargo to avoid docking at the islands. He landed on North Island near Georgetown, South Carolina, on June 13, 1777.
On arrival, Lafayette met Major Benjamin Huger, a wealthy landowner, with whom he stayed for two weeks before going to Philadelphia. The Continental Congress had been overwhelmed by French officers recruited by Deane, many of whom could not speak English or lacked military experience. Lafayette had learned some English en route (he became fluent within a year of his arrival), and his Masonic membership opened many doors in Philadelphia. After Lafayette offered to serve without pay, Congress commissioned him a major general on July 31, 1777. Lafayette’s advocates included the recently arrived American envoy to France, Benjamin Franklin, who by letter urged Congress to accommodate the young Frenchman.
General George Washington, commander in chief of the Continental Army, came to Philadelphia to brief Congress on military affairs. Lafayette met him at a dinner on August 5, 1777; according to Leepson, “the two men bonded almost immediately.” Washington was impressed by the young man’s enthusiasm and was inclined to think well of a fellow Mason; Lafayette was simply in awe of the commanding general. General Washington took the Frenchman to view his military camp; when Washington expressed embarrassment at its state and that of the troops, Lafayette responded, “I am here to learn, not to teach.” He became a member of Washington’s staff, although confusion existed regarding his status. Congress regarded his commission as honorary, while he considered himself a full-fledged commander who would be given control of a division when Washington deemed him prepared. Washington told Lafayette that a division would not be possible as he was of foreign birth, but that he would be happy to hold him in confidence as “friend and father”.
Lafayette’s first battle was at Brandywine on September 11, 1777. The British commanding general, General Sir William Howe, planned to take Philadelphia by moving troops south by ship to Chesapeake Bay (rather than the heavily defended Delaware Bay) and bringing them overland to the rebel capital. After the British outflanked the Americans, Washington sent Lafayette to join General John Sullivan. Upon his arrival, Lafayette went with the Third Pennsylvania Brigade, under Brigadier Thomas Conway, and attempted to rally the unit to face the attack. The British and Hessian forces continued to advance with their superior forces, and Lafayette was shot in the leg. During the American retreat, Lafayette rallied the troops, allowing a more orderly pullback, before being treated for his wound. After the battle, Washington cited him for “bravery and military ardour” and recommended him for the command of a division in a letter to Congress, which was hastily evacuating, as the British took Philadelphia later that month.
Lafayette returned to the field in November after two months of recuperation in the Moravian settlement of Bethlehem, and received command of the division previously led by Major General Adam Stephen. He assisted General Nathanael Greene in reconnaissance of British positions in New Jersey; with 300 soldiers, he defeated a numerically superior Hessian force in Gloucester, on November 24, 1777.
Lafayette stayed at Washington’s encampment at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777–1778, and shared the hardship of his troops. There, the Board of War, led by Horatio Gates, asked Lafayette to prepare an invasion of Quebec from Albany, New York. When Lafayette arrived in Albany, he found too few men to mount an invasion. He wrote to Washington of the situation, and made plans to return to Valley Forge. Before departing, he recruited the Oneida tribe, who referred to Lafayette as Kayewla (fearsome horseman), to the American side. In Valley Forge, he criticized the board’s decision to attempt an invasion of Quebec in winter. The Continental Congress agreed, and Gates left the board. Meanwhile, treaties signed by America and France were made public in March 1778, and France formally recognized American independence.
Faced with the prospect of French intervention, the British sought to concentrate their land and naval forces in one location, New York City. In May 1778, the British began to evacuate Philadelphia. On May 18, Washington dispatched Lafayette with a 2,200-man force to reconnoiter near Barren Hill, Pennsylvania. The next day, the British heard that Lafayette had made camp nearby and sent 5,000 men to trap and capture him. On May 20, General Howe led a further 6,000 soldiers and ordered an attack on his left flank. The flank scattered, and Lafayette organized a retreat while the British remained indecisive. To feign numerical superiority, Lafayette ordered men to appear from the woods on an outcropping (now Lafayette Hill) and to fire upon the British periodically. Lafayette’s troops simultaneously escaped via a sunken road, and he was then able to cross Matson’s Ford with the remainder of his force.
Unable to trap Lafayette, the British marched from Philadelphia toward New York; the Continental Army, including Lafayette, followed and finally attacked at Monmouth Courthouse in central New Jersey. At Monmouth, Washington appointed General Charles Lee to lead the attacking force. On June 28, Lee moved against the British flank; however, soon after fighting began, he gave conflicting orders, causing chaos in the American ranks. Lafayette sent a message to Washington to urge him to the front; upon his arrival he found Lee’s men in retreat. Washington relieved Lee, took command, and rallied the American force. After suffering significant casualties at Monmouth, the British withdrew in the night, and successfully reached New York.
The French fleet arrived at Delaware Bay on July 8, 1778, under Admiral d’Estaing, with whom General Washington planned to attack Newport, Rhode Island, the other major British base in the north. Lafayette and General Greene were sent with a 3,000-man force to participate in the attack. Lafayette wanted to control a joint Franco-American force but was rebuffed by the admiral. On August 9, the American land force attacked the British without consulting d’Estaing. When the Americans asked the admiral to place his ships in Narragansett Bay, d’Estaing refused and, at sea, sought to defeat the British fleet. The fighting was inconclusive as a storm scattered and damaged both fleets.
D’Estaing moved his ships north to Boston for repairs. When the fleet arrived, it faced an angry demonstration from Bostonians who considered the French departure from Newport a desertion. John Hancock and Lafayette were dispatched to calm the situation. Lafayette then returned to Rhode Island to prepare the retreat made necessary by d’Estaing’s departure. For these actions, Lafayette was cited by the Continental Congress for “gallantry, skill, and prudence”. Lafayette wanted to expand the war to fight the British elsewhere in North America and even, under the French flag, in Europe, but found little interest in his proposals. In October 1778, he requested permission of Washington and of Congress to go home on leave. They agreed, with Congress voting to give Lafayette a ceremonial sword, to be presented to him in France. His departure was delayed by illness, and he sailed for France in January 1779.
In February 1779, Lafayette reached Paris. For disobeying the king by going to America, he was placed under house arrest for eight days. This was merely face-saving by Louis XVI; Lafayette was given a hero’s welcome and was soon invited to hunt with the king. As the American envoy was ill, Benjamin Franklin’s grandson presented Lafayette with the gold-encrusted sword commissioned by the Continental Congress.
Lafayette pushed for an invasion of Britain, with himself to have a major command in the French forces. Spain was now France’s ally against Britain, and sent ships to the English Channel in support. The Spanish ships did not arrive until August 1779, to be met by a faster squadron of British ships that the combined French and Spanish fleet could not catch. In September, the idea of an invasion was abandoned, and Lafayette turned his hopes to a return to America.
In December 1779, Adrienne gave birth to a son they named Georges Washington Lafayette. Working with Benjamin Franklin, Lafayette secured the promise of 6,000 soldiers to be sent to America, commanded by General Jean-Baptiste de Rochambeau. Lafayette would resume his position as a major general of American forces, serving as liaison between Rochambeau and Washington, who would be in command of both nations’ forces. In March 1780, Lafayette departed for America aboard the frigate Hermione, from Rochefort. He arrived in Boston on April 27, 1780.
On his return, Lafayette found the American cause at a low ebb, rocked by several military defeats, especially in the south. Lafayette was greeted in Boston with enthusiasm, seen as “a knight in shining armor from the chivalric past, come to save the nation”. He journeyed southwest and on May 10, 1780, had a joyous reunion with Washington at Morristown, New Jersey. The general and his officers were delighted to hear that the large French force promised to Lafayette would be coming to their aid. Washington, aware of Lafayette’s popularity, had him write (with Alexander Hamilton to correct his spelling) to state officials to urge them to provide more troops and provisions to the Continental Army. This bore fruit in the coming months, as Lafayette awaited the arrival of the French fleet. However, when the fleet arrived, there were fewer men and supplies than expected, and Rochambeau decided to wait for reinforcements before seeking battle with the British. This was unsatisfactory to Lafayette, who proposed grandiose schemes for the taking of New York City and other areas, and Rochambeau briefly refused to receive Lafayette until the young man apologized. Washington counseled the marquis to be patient.
That summer Washington placed Lafayette in charge of a division of troops. The marquis spent lavishly on his command, which patrolled Northern New Jersey and adjacent New York State. Lafayette saw no significant action, and in November, Washington disbanded the division, sending the soldiers back to their state regiments. The war continued badly for the Americans, with most battles in the south going against them, and General Benedict Arnold abandoning them for the British side.
Lafayette spent the first part of the winter of 1780–1781 in Philadelphia, where the American Philosophical Society elected him its first foreign member. Congress asked him to return to France to lobby for more men and supplies, but Lafayette refused, sending letters instead.
After the Continental victory at the Battle of Cowpens in South Carolina in January 1781, Washington ordered Lafayette to re-form his force in Philadelphia and go south to Virginia to link up with troops commanded by Baron von Steuben. The combined force was to try to trap British forces commanded by Benedict Arnold, with French ships preventing his escape by sea. If Lafayette was successful, Arnold was to be summarily hanged. British command of the seas prevented the plan, though Lafayette and a small part of his force (the rest left behind in Annapolis) was able to reach von Steuben in Yorktown, Virginia. Von Steuben sent a plan to Washington, proposing to use land forces and French ships to trap the main British force under Lord Cornwallis. When he received no new orders from Washington, Lafayette began to move his troops north toward Philadelphia, only to be ordered to Virginia to assume military command there. An outraged Lafayette assumed he was being abandoned in a backwater while decisive battles took place elsewhere, and objected to his orders in vain. He also sent letters to the Chevalier de la Luzerne, French ambassador in Philadelphia, describing how ill-supplied his troops were. As Lafayette hoped, la Luzerne sent his letter on to France with a recommendation of massive French aid, which, after being approved by the king, would play a crucial part in the battles to come. Washington, fearing a letter might be captured by the British, could not tell Lafayette that he planned to trap Cornwallis in a decisive campaign.
Lafayette evaded Cornwallis’ attempts to capture him in Richmond. In June 1781, Cornwallis received orders from London to proceed to the Chesapeake Bay and to oversee construction of a port, in preparation for an overland attack on Philadelphia. As the British column traveled, Lafayette sent small squads that would appear unexpectedly, attacking the rear guard or foraging parties, and giving the impression that his forces were larger than they were.
On July 4, the British left Williamsburg and prepared to cross the James River. Cornwallis sent only an advance guard to the south side of the river, hiding many of his other troops in the forest on the north side, hoping to ambush Lafayette. On July 6, Lafayette ordered General “Mad” Anthony Wayne to strike British troops on the north side with roughly 800 soldiers. Wayne found himself vastly outnumbered, and, instead of retreating, led a bayonet charge. The charge bought time for the Americans, and the British did not pursue. The Battle of Green Spring was a victory for Cornwallis, but the American army was bolstered by the display of courage by the men.
By August, Cornwallis had established the British at Yorktown, and Lafayette took up position on Malvern Hill, stationing artillery surrounding the British, who were close to the York River, and who had orders to construct fortifications to protect the British ships in Hampton Roads. Lafayette’s containment trapped the British when the French fleet arrived and won the Battle of the Virginia Capes, depriving Cornwallis of naval protection. On September 14, 1781, Washington’s forces joined Lafayette’s. On September 28, with the French fleet blockading the British, the combined forces laid siege to Yorktown. On October 14, Lafayette’s 400 men on the American right took Redoubt 9 after Alexander Hamilton’s forces had charged Redoubt 10 in hand-to-hand combat. These two redoubts were key to breaking the British defenses. After a failed British counter-attack, Cornwallis surrendered on October 19, 1781.
Although Yorktown was to be the last major land battle of the American Revolution, the British still held several major port cities. Lafayette wanted to lead expeditions on them, but Washington felt he would be more useful seeking additional naval support from France. In Philadelphia, Congress appointed him its advisor to the three American envoys abroad — Franklin in Paris, John Jay in Madrid, and John Adams in The Hague, “to communicate and agree on everything with him”. It also sent Louis XVI an official letter of commendation on the marquis’s behalf.
Lafayette left Boston for France on December 18, 1781. On arrival he was welcomed as a hero, and on January 22, 1782, he was received at Versailles. He witnessed the birth of his daughter, whom he named Marie-Antoinette Virginie upon Thomas Jefferson’s recommendation. He was promoted to maréchal de camp, skipping numerous ranks. He was made a Knight of the Order of Saint Louis. In 1782, with no treaty yet signed ending the war, Lafayette helped prepare for a combined French and Spanish expedition against the British West Indies. The Treaty of Paris signed between Great Britain and the U.S. in 1783 made the expedition unnecessary — Lafayette took part in the negotiations.
Lafayette worked with Jefferson to establish trade agreements between the U.S. and France. These negotiations aimed to reduce the U.S. debt to France. He joined the French abolitionist group Society of the Friends of the Blacks, which advocated the end of the slave trade and equal rights for free blacks. In 1783, in correspondence with Washington, a slave owner, he urged the emancipation of slaves and their establishment as tenant farmers. Although Washington declined to free his slaves (though expressing interest in the young man’s ideas), Lafayette purchased land in French Guiana for a plantation to house the project.
In 1784, Lafayette visited America, where he enjoyed an enthusiastic welcome; he visited all the states except Georgia. The trip included a visit to Washington’s farm at Mount Vernon on August 17. Lafayette addressed the Virginia House of Delegates, where he called for “liberty of all mankind” and urged emancipation of slaves. Lafayette urged the Pennsylvania Legislature to help form a federal union (the states were then bound by the Articles of Confederation). He visited the Mohawk Valley in New York to participate in peace negotiations with the Iroquois, some of whom he had met in 1778. Lafayette received an honorary degree from Harvard, a portrait of Washington from the city of Boston, and a bust from the state of Virginia. Maryland’s legislature honored Lafayette by making him and his male heirs “natural born Citizens” of the state, which made him a natural born citizen of the United States after the 1789 ratification of the new national Constitution. Lafayette later boasted that he had become an American citizen before the concept of French citizenship existed. Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Virginia also granted him citizenship.
Through the next years, Lafayette made his house, the Hôtel de La Fayette in Paris’s rue de Bourbon, the headquarters of Americans there. Benjamin Franklin, John and Sarah Jay, and John and Abigail Adams met there every Monday, and dined in company with Lafayette’s family and the liberal nobility, including Clermont-Tonnerre and Madame de Staël. Lafayette continued to work on lowering trade barriers in France to American goods, and on assisting Franklin and his successor as envoy, Jefferson, in seeking treaties of amity and commerce with European nations. He also sought to eliminate the injustices that Protestants in France had endured since the revocation of the Edict of Nantes a century before.
In 1787, Lafayette was appointed to the Assembly of Notables, which was convened in response to the fiscal crisis. He was elected a member of the Estates-General of 1789, where representatives met from the three traditional orders of French society — the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners. After the forming of the National Constituent Assembly, he helped write the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, with Thomas Jefferson’s assistance; inspired by the United States Declaration of Independence, this document invoked natural law to establish basic principles of the democratic nation-state. In keeping with the philosophy of natural liberty, Lafayette also advocated for the end of slavery. After the storming of the Bastille, Lafayette was appointed commander-in-chief of the National Guard and tried to steer a middle course through the French Revolution. In August 1792, the radical factions ordered his arrest. Fleeing through the Austrian Netherlands, he was captured by Austrian troops and spent more than five years in prison.
Lafayette returned to France after Napoleon Bonaparte secured his release in 1797, though he refused to participate in Napoleon’s government. After the Bourbon Restoration of 1814, he became a liberal member of the Chamber of Deputies, a position he held for most of the remainder of his life. In 1824, President James Monroe invited Lafayette to the United States as the nation’s guest; during the trip, he visited all twenty-four states in the union at the time, meeting a rapturous reception. During France’s July Revolution of 1830, Lafayette declined an offer to become the French dictator. Instead, he supported Louis-Philippe as king, but turned against him when the monarch became autocratic. Lafayette died on May 20, 1834, and is buried in Picpus Cemetery in Paris, under soil from 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”.
Scott #1010 was released in Georgetown, South Carolina, on June 13, 1952, to commemorate the 175th anniversary of the arrival of Marquis de Lafayette in America. The American Friends of Lafayette, an organization of professional historians and Francophiles, began campaigning for a commemorative stamp in Lafayette’s honor as early as 1934. Victor S. McCloskey, Jr., designed the stamp, and Charles A. Brooks engraved the vignette. John S. Edmonds engraved the frame, lettering, and numerals. The stamp is denominated at 3 cents, which paid the domestic first-class letter rate, and was printed in bright blue ink on the rotary press in sheets of 200. These were divided into four panes of fifty stamps each for shipment to post offices. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing printed a total o 113,135,000 copies of the stamp, perforated 11 x 10½.
Some philatelists criticized the stamp’s design by pointing out that, although the cannon and ship depicted are correct for the period, the flags are not. The French flag in June 1777 was the white royal standard of the House of Bourbon, and the thirteen-star ‘Betsy Ross’ American flag was adopted by the Continental Congress the day after Lafayette landed. The Post Office Department responded that “no attempt was made to present the flags that were in use at the time of Lafayette’s arrival.”