The Robinson Library

The Robinson Library >> France >> Revolutionary and Napoleonic Period
Marquis de Lafayette

"a hero of two countries"

Marquis de Lafayette

Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert du Motier was born in Haute Loire, France, on September 6, 1757, the son of Michel du Motier and Marie de La Rivière. His father, a Colonel in the French Army, was killed at the Battle of Minden in August, 1759, and he was raised by his mother and grandparents. When he was 12, his mother and grandfather died within weeks of each other, leaving him a very wealhty man. Rather than enjoying the life of lesiure he had inherited he chose to study at the Military Academy in Versailles, and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Musketeers of the Guard on April 9, 1771. On April 11, 1774, he married Adrienne Françoise de Noailles, the daughter of one of the most influential families in France, whose dowry included a commission as Captain in the Noailles Dragoon Regiment.

Revolutionary War

Like many other young French officers of his day, Lafayette was intrigued by the American fight for independence from Great Britain. Bored with court life in France, he saw the American Revolution as an opportunity to gain military glory. His father-in-law did not approve of such ambitions, however, and used his influence to get Lafayette assigned to Britain instead. After a brief period in Britain, he returned to France and, with help from a few fellow American sympathizers, clandestinely purchased a ship and set sail for America with a small party of soldier-adventurers on April 20, 1777. Having been officially forbidden from leaving France by King Louis XVI, Lafayette was pursued by both French and British ships for a short time, but reached America safely and landed near Georgetown, South Carolina, on June 13th.

Lafayette's offer of service to the colonists was initially rebuffed by a Continental Congress that had by then had its fill of European officers seeking high commissions and other considerations for their services, but when he offered to serve as a volunteer at his own expense he was warmly received and, on July 31st, was commissioned Major General in the Continental Army. He subsequently met General George Washington, and the two became lifelong friends.

Although he commanded a division, Lafayette never had many troops under his charge, and what little military experience he had was ill-suited to the American battlefield. Nevertheless, Lafayette served with some distinction throughout most of the war, and earned respect from Washington. During his years of service, he was wounded at Brandywine (September 11, 1777), defeated a small party of Hessians at Gloucester, and spent the winter of 1777-78 with Washington at Valley Forge. In early 1778, he was given command of a proposed invasion of Canada, but the plan was ultimately abandoned due to a series of bad decisions made by his superiors. He subsequently led troops at the battles of Barren Hill (May 20, 1778) and Monmouth (June 1778) and during General Nathanael Greene's Rhode Island campaign.

In 1779, after France had pledged to help the American colonists and then declared war on Britain, Lafayette asked for leave from the Continental Army and returned to France hoping to join in on an invasion of England. The invasion never took place, but Lafayette was able to persuade the French government to send money and troops to America. He returned to America and resumed his position in the Army in April of 1780. He was subsequently put in command of a small American force in Virginia that successfully evaded and stopped the British long enough for Washington and the Comte de Rochambeau to force General George Cornwallis to surrender his army at Yorktown, which happened on October 19, 1781.

The Battle of Yorktown proved to be the last major battle of the Revolutionary War, so Lafayette once again asked to leave the army, a request that was granted. Returning to France in 1782, he was received as a hero of two countries and took part in the negotiations that formally ended the war and gave the United States its independence. He revisited America in 1784, and again in 1824. In 1803, he was rewarded with a huge land grant in the newly acquired Louisiana Territory, and, during his last visit, Congress voted to give him $200,000 and a township in Florida as further thanks for his services. By then he had lost most of his French properties and he subsequently sold most of his American holdings to raise much needed cash.

Back in France

Upon his return to France, Lafayette was promoted to he rank of marechal de camp (Major General) in the French army and became occupied in the preparations for a combined French and Spanish expedition against some of the British West India Islands, of which he had been appointed Chief of Staff. The armistice of January 20, 1783, put an end to the expedition, however, and Lafayette's military career came to a temporary end. He spent the next few years advocating for a number of liberal causes, including free trade, tax reform, emancipation of slaves, and religious freedom. He was also one of the first to advocate a National Assembly, and worked to make France a constitutional monarchy.

On December 26, 1786, Lafayette was appointed to the Assembly of Notables, which was convened to address the nation's worsening finances. There, he argued for spending cuts and called for the convening of the Estates General. He was subsequently elected to that body to represent the nobility from Riom, and, on July 11, 1789, presented a draft of the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen" to the National Assembly. On July 15, 1789, the second day of the new republic, he was appointed Commander of the National Guard of Paris, in which capacity he served until 1791. During this period he was often between an angry mob of Parisians and the king and queen, and managed to "earn" resentment from both sides. In the Constituent Assembly he pleaded for the abolition of arbitrary imprisonment, for religious tolerance, for popular representation, for the establishment of trial by jury, for the gradual emancipation of slaves, for the freedom of the press, for the abolition of titles of nobility, and the suppression of privileged orders. With the proclamation of a new constitution on September 18, 1791 and King Louis XVI in exile, Lafayette decided his work was done and retired to private life.

When war with Austria broke out in late-1791, Lafayette was called out of retirement and placed in command of troops in the Netherlands. As the military front collapsed, he unsuccessfully tried to suppress the growing Jacobin radicalism at home, but the king and queen refused his help and the troops he tried to turn on the Paris mob refused to follow his orders. On August 19, 1792, the National Assembly declared him a traitor and he was forced to seek refuge in Belgium, where he was subsequently taken as a prisoner of the state, first in Prussian and then in Austrian prisons. He was finally released in 1797, after Napoleon Bonaparte's victory over Austria, but was not allowed to return to France until 1799. Although Napoleon had personally seen to his release, Lafayette refused to serve his dictatorship and chose instead to return to private life.

Lafayette again returned to politics in 1815, when he was elected to the Chamber of Deputies. He spent the rest of his life in that body, except for the reactionary periods of late-1815-1817 and 1824-1827. During this tenure he worked for Napoleon's second abdication following Waterloo, upheld American interests, and fought for independence and reform in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Poland, and the South American republics. He died in Paris on May 20, 1834.


Historic Valley Forge

See Also

American Revolution
King Louis XV
George Washington
Valley Forge
Battle of Monmouth
Nathanael Greene
Comte de Rochambeau
Battle of Yorktown
Napoleon Bonaparte

Questions or comments about this page?

The Robinson Library >> France >> Revolutionary and Napoleonic Period

This page was last updated on August 04, 2018.