Soldier. Revolutionary. Statesman.
Hero of Two Worlds.
A young, wealthy French aristocrat with an impressively lengthy name, Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, defied his own king to enter the American Revolution against Great Britain. After his success as a military leader, he became an influential statesman who continued to support democratic revolutions and human rights causes throughout his long and illustrious career.
Born in 1757 into a family with illustrious ancestors on both sides, Lafayette at first appeared destined for a conventional aristocratic, military career. But he had other ideas.
He adopted the motto “Cur Non” (“Why Not?”) for his coat of arms and joined the Freemasons, who supported Enlightenment principles, in 1775. Two years later, at the age of 19, lured by the idea of a nation fighting for liberty and perhaps seeking revenge for the death of his father by a British cannon ball during the Seven Years’ War, Lafayette resigned his commission in the French military. He bought a ship and sailed to America, a difficult and lengthy voyage, to volunteer in the Continental Army under Gen. George Washington.
He explained his attraction to the American cause in a letter to his wife: “The welfare of America is intimately connected with the happiness of all mankind; she will become the respectable and safe asylum of virtue, integrity, tolerance, equality, and a peaceful liberty.”
Receiving his commission as major general in the Continental Army in 1777, Lafayette first saw action in September of that year at the Battle of Brandywine where he was shot in the leg and recovered from his wound at the Moravian settlement in Bethlehem, Pa. His heroism in the battle encouraged Washington to give the young Frenchman command of a division, and Lafayette stayed with his troops at Valley Forge. After a visit to France in 1779, he returned to America in 1780 with assurances of thousands of French troops who would join the war, and helped Franco-American forces win the surrender of a large British army at Yorktown, Va., in 1781, the last major battle of the war.
After the American Revolution, Lafayette became an international antislavery advocate and took on many other social justice causes. Working with Thomas Jefferson, he helped write the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Men and of the Citizen, the first step toward a constitution for the Republic of France, helping launch the French Revolution. Lafayette was a political prisoner in Austria and Prussia from 1792-97 after fleeing radical revolutionaries in France until Napoleon Bonaparte arranged for his release.
Throughout his career as statesman, he befriended Native Americans, defended the rights of French Protestants and Jews before and during the French Revolution, backed national revolutions in Europe and South America, spoke out against capital punishment and solitary confinement, and supported women and their ideas and causes.
At the invitation of President James Monroe in 1824, Lafayette returned to the United States for the last time. During his triumphal Farewell Tour of America in 1824-25, conducted as the nation prepared for its 50th anniversary celebration, Lafayette received affection and gratitude from Americans in all 24 states who enthusiastically embraced the last significant surviving general of the American Revolution.
His arrival in New York inspired four days and nights of continuous celebration—a response replicated during his visits to each of the other states, which hosted parades, balls, dinners, and other celebratory events in Lafayette’s honor.
During the tour, he became the first foreign dignitary to address a joint session of Congress and met with the current, past and future presidents from John Adams to Andrew Jackson. His travels in Virginia in 1825 culminated with his final visits with Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Monroe before he returned to France that September aboard the USS Brandywine, the frigate named in honor of the 1777 battle in which Lafayette was wounded.
Among the many Americans moved by Lafayette’s visit was Easton lawyer James Madison Porter, whose father and uncle served with Lafayette in the Battle of Brandywine. After meeting him at an 1824 reception in Philadelphia, Porter proposed naming Easton’s new college after Lafayette as “a testimony of respect for his talents, virtues, and signal services . . . in the great cause of freedom.” Porter would go on to serve as the College’s guiding hand for decades as president of its board of trustees.
On June 30, 1832, a month after the first students matriculated at Lafayette College, five of them—members of the Franklin Literary Society—wrote to Lafayette that they had made him an honorary member to pay “a feeble though sincere tribute of regard to a man who has proved his own and our country’s benefactor, and whose enlarged philanthropy as with a mantle of blessedness would cover the whole family of man.”
Lafayette died in Paris on May 20, 1834, and was buried in Picpus Cemetery with soil from Bunker Hill.
On Aug. 7, 2002, Congress made Lafayette an honorary citizen of the United States, an honor afforded to only eight individuals, including Winston Churchill. Lafayette and Mother Teresa were the only two made honorary citizens directly by an act of Congress.
In May 2010, Lafayette College, the only college in America to bear his name, awarded Lafayette the honorary degree of Doctor of Public Service at its 175th commencement.
Lafayette’s sword, taken from him when he was captured in Austria in 1792, is one of the most precious artifacts in the Marquis de Lafayette Collections at Lafayette College. It is brought out during commencement and other special ceremonies at the College.