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The Life and Legacy of Marquis de Lafayette

Portrait of Lafayette

You may recognize the name Marquis de Lafayette from the sensational play Hamilton. However, long before he was singing on stage, Lafayette was a French aristocrat and military leader who played an integral role in the American Revolutionary War. He was born on September 6, 1757, in Chavaniac, France. Lafayette was orphaned in his teens and inherited a large fortune that allowed him to live a comfortable and privileged life.  

 

Lafayette in the Colonies

He had always aspired to be a soldier, and in July of 1777 at the age of 19, Lafayette traveled to Philadelphia to fight in the American Revolutionary War. He was appointed Major General in the Continental Army and served under George Washington. It’s said that Lafayette started out as a pushy and determined teenager but eventually gained the respect and love of Washington. In just a few months, Lafayette was living in Washington’s house, and riding next to him in battle. He even had Washington’s own physician tend to him after he was wounded. They became a surrogate father and son to each other, creating a bond that far surpassed the bond of war.  

Lafayette & George Washington at Mount Vernon

After achieving military success, Lafayette went back to France in 1779, where he acted as a diplomat to aid in the conversations between the American Colonies and France as the former asked for troops and supplies for the war. He worked closely with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams.  


Lafayette returned to the American Colonies in 1780 and was given command of his own troops in Virginia. He and his troops are remembered for pursuing British Commander Cornwallis, eventually causing his surrender. After that, Lafayette was honored with the nickname “Hero of Two Worlds”.  


After the Revolution

Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, written by Marquis de Lafayette

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, written by Marquis de Lafayette

Lafayette returned to France in 1782 as a war hero and honorary citizen of several US states. While in France, he entered the political scene and was elected as a representative to the Estates-General and wrote The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen with help from Thomas Jefferson. He also held the position of Commander of the Guard of Paris. It was in this position that he saved the lives of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette from an invasion in Versailles. He brought them safely to a secure location.    

 

The Call Back to America

After finally settling down to live the quiet life of a farmer, Lafayette was invited by President James Monroe to travel back to America in 1824. Though he had been out of the political scene for a number of years, he decided to make the trip anyway. A trip that President Monroe said would reinvigorate and reinstall the “spirit of 1776” in the next generation. During this trip, Lafayette visited each of the states (24 at the time) and the grave of George Washington with his son Georges Washington de Lafayette (named after the historic president). He was also the first foreign citizen to address the US House of Representatives.  


Lafayette died on May 20, 1834, and is buried with dirt he collected from Bunker Hill.  


Lafayette Closer to Home

On September 1, 1824, Marquis de Lafayette visited Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  The state continues to remember Lafayette with a plaque that marks the location of his visit. It also named Mount Lafayette after him, and celebrates Lafayette Day on May 20 – the anniversary of his death. His name is memorialized and celebrated all over the country with schools, towns, and roads named after him.


Plaque Memorializing Lafayette's Visit to Portsmouth, NH

On May 20 I encourage you all to think about Lafayette and notice how he continues to live on today, perhaps by watching Hamilton.  I know I will be. 












Written by Erin Blais,

University Intern


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