The ubiquitous legacy of America’s favorite Frenchman
When the Marquis de Lafayette was buried in Paris in 1834, the dirt that covered his casket came from Bun- ker Hill. Even in death the dashing nobleman and hero of the American Revolution looked to the United States. Lafayette was a hero of the French Revolution too, but it was America that fascinated him and American statesmen who shaped his ideals. When Lafayette arrived in America to volunteer to fight against the British, he was an impetuous boy of nineteen; when he left, he was a popular and successful military leader and one of the architects of Cornwallis’s defeat at Yorktown. Although the zenith of his fame here came after his triumphant return to America in 1824, his image and name have been forever stitched into the fabric of America.
There are today some thirty-six towns in the United States that bear his name, eighteen counties, one college, and countless streets, avenues, and monuments. La Grange, the name of his chateau outside Paris, has also been immortalized in thirteen states. The American Friends of Lafayette, an organization founded in 1932 to promote the memory of the great general and “hero of two countries,” has a growing membership. No Frenchman is so well known or loved here, and none has had his impact upon our history.
Many of the reasons for this can be found in the success of his return to America. Lafayette had what Jefferson called “a canine appetite for popularity and fame,” and although he was not an arrogant man, he clearly enjoyed the affection shown him by the American populace during his thirteenmonth visit. Touring all twenty-four states by steamboat and horse and carriage, the sixty-seven-year-old Frenchman was feted and acclaimed as a friend of liberty and a patron of freedom. He was made a citizen of three states and a freeman of a number of cities. He was the living symbol of the French assistance that had helped win the War of Independence, and his welcome never wore out.
As the following pages suggest, Lafayette was omnipresent at the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth century, his visage emblazoned on everything from bank notes to fine furniture to women’s fans. Engulfed in patriotic sentiment, the Marquis, as he was affectionately called, traveled from grand dinner to ball, dedication ceremony to toasts at public taverns.
A decade later his death in Paris on May 20, 1834, nearly paralyzed our nation. (Not so in France, however, where his republican ideals had fallen into disfavor.) The last surviving general officer of the Continental Army was honored in every state; John Quincy Adams, former President of the Republic, delivered a two-andone-half-hour eulogy before a hushed Congress. Sixty thousand copies of the speech were printed by Congress and distributed nationwide as America mourned the passing of its close friend.
In 1917 American troops arrived in Paris in part to help repay a debt to Lafayette. Tradition has Col. Charles Stanton standing above the Marquis’s grave at Picpus Cemetery and saluting the American flag that had long flown there. “Lafayette,” he called out, “we are here!” But that was only part of the message; in many ways Lafayette had never left his adoptive republic.