The name Lafayette keeps popping up in Richmond. Whether it’s the name of a city street, restaurant or lawyer, all most people know of Lafayette is that he was a Frenchman who came here to defeat the British.
Lafayette has become a national hero in the United States; memorabilia have become treasures. In 1824 he visited Richmond as part of a tour. An invitation to a dinner and ball and a pair of fine white kid lady’s gloves mark that event. They are on view at The Valentine Museum in Richmond beside an enormous portrait of Lafayette painted by Edward F. Peticolas (1757-1834).
He was an unusual gentleman—an aristocratic young Frenchman helping the American colonists fighting the British. He joined the fight for American independence; years later he became a prominent leader in the French Revolution. The young nobleman’s full name was Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier. We know him as the Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834). His father died when he was only two years old, his grandfather died 11 years later. He was then left free to pursue his liberal ideas with his new fortune.
Lafayette attended the Military Academy at Versailles and married Adrienne de Noailles, daughter of an influential, noble French family; he was only 16 when he left his even younger bride, setting sail to America on a ship that he purchased, filled with adventuresome French soldiers. The Continental Congress was impressed with his loyalty; it immediately made him a major general without pay. He also became a member of George Washington’s staff. The two established a deep, lasting friendship. Lafayette even named his first son George Washington Lafayette in honor of his American mentor.
Lafayette joined the battles at Brandywine, Gloucester, Valley Forge and Albany and led the troops in the battles at Barren Hill and Rhode Island. He then returned to France who had declared war on England. An invasion never took place. But he was able to convince the French government to send aid to the American colonists. He then returned to his position as major general in the American Army.
In 1781 he led a small American force in Virginia. Purpose: to evade and then stop the British troops under the direction of Cornwallis from entering Yorktown. Lafayette, along with Washington and Rochambeau were successful in stopping the English. This feat established him as a “hero to two worlds.” Benjamin Franklin and later Thomas Jefferson worked with Lafayette in behalf of American interests.
The Marquis was traveling to America to oversee property given to him in both Louisiana and Florida. He had lost most of his French properties. Now absorbed in French domestic affairs he questioned free trade, tax reform, emancipation of slaves and religious freedom. He advocated the establishment of an Assemblée Nationale and he worked to make France a constitutional monarchy. He became captain of the new National Guard, but he was detested by the royals Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. His radical ideology had spread and he became unpopular with both court and crowd. He was now being rejected by former nobles, the court and his country’s people.
War against England broke out in 1793 and Lafayette was placed in charge of troops in the Netherlands. Radical Jacobism was proliferating at home and the king and queen would not stop it. Lafayette could not suppress the people and chaos reigned. He was denounced as a traitor and imprisoned in Austria for five years from 1792—1797. Napoleon’s victories enabled his release from jail. Yet he refused to join the dictator until he returned from Elba and gave France a liberal constitution. Lafayette was then elected to the Chamber of Deputies now he was working for Napoleon’s second abdication after the Battle of Waterloo.
Lafayette continued to serve in France’s Chamber of Deputies, becoming known as a source of liberal resistance to the Bourbon kings. Still upholding American interests, he made a whirlwind tour to the United States from 18 24 until 1827. Balls and dinners were held throughout the country in his honor. In 1830 Lafayette led a revolution that dethroned the Bourbons. Commanding the National Guard, he was asked but refused a popular demand that he become president of the new republic. Instead he used his influence to make Louis Philippe the constitutional monarch of France.
The Marquis de Lafayette died in 1834; his grave at Picpus Cemetery in Paris was covered with American earth from Bunker Hill. In the United States he received the same military honors that had been given to George Washington.
March 14 was declared Lafayette Day at the Virginia State Capitol. Michel Charbonnier, Consul General of France in Washington spoke at the ceremony at the Rotunda. A wreath was placed beside the Houdon bust of France’s hero. Nicolas Valcour, Honorary Consul of France in Virginia, Laurent Beausergent, Alliance Française Chapitre Rochambeau President and the author of this piece, Héloïse “Ginger” Levit, former AFCR president and La Table Française director, were also in attendance.