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Preparing to Celebrate Lafayette’s Tour

By Nancy Spannaus

April 23, 2022–One year before the 250th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the nation will be celebrating the 200th anniversary of the visit by one of the leading figures of the American Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette’s tour of all 24 U.S. states, as a “guest of the nation” in 1824-25, served at that time to rekindle the nation’s revolutionary spirit, and the organizers of the coming commemoration hope that this anniversary celebration will do the same.

Preparing to Celebrate Lafayette's Tour
A painting of Lafayette in 1824 by Adolphe Phalipon.

Lafayette’s life and tour, and the plans to celebrate it, were the subject of two talks by Dr. Patti Maclay which I have attended, both of which were hosted by the Maryland Sons of the American Revolution (SAR). Dr. Maclay is a member of the steering committee set up by the American Friends of Lafayette’s (AFL) Farewell Tour Bicentennial Committee and is actively involved in the preparations.

Who Was Lafayette?

Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, was a French nobleman, orphaned at a young age, who ultimately became one of the richest men in France. Yet at the age of 19, he decided to defy King Louis XVI and come to America to join the Revolutionary forces. From that time forward, he viewed himself as an American, as well as a Frenchman, and devoted his life to pursuing his vision of democracy and freedom.

Dr. Maclay reviewed Lafayette’s record in the Revolution, from his joining General Washington’s “family” in 1777, to his personal pressure on the French government (the King himself!) for official support for the American Revolutionaries, to his crucial role in the successful Yorktown siege. Upon his return to France, he played a leading role in the first phase of the French Revolution, including co-authoring the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. Lafayette’s efforts to transplant the American Revolution to France were thwarted by the Jacobin upsurge, which sent him to prison for five years in Austria.  During that period, his American “family” took in his son, and lobbied successfully for his release from prison.

As France turned increasingly reactionary, especially under Charles X’s accession in 1824, Lafayette lived in retirement, disappointed that his ideals of freedom and democracy were being buried, and relatively impoverished by both his contributions to the American Revolution and confiscation of his wealth by the French Revolutionaries. When President Monroe issued the invitation for him to visit America in 1823, he accepted it eagerly.

Lafayette’s Tour

Lafayette arrived in New York in July 1824 and proceeded to tour the entire nation, 24 states in all. He covered 6000 miles, and stopped in countless towns, where both Revolutionary War veterans and the public at large thronged to meet and greet him. He visited farms, factories, universities, military installations, and infrastructure projects. He attended balls, parades, and public celebrations, and was often forced to make his exit at night, so as to avoid the crowds that gathered around his carriage. On Dec. 10, 1824, he addressed both Houses of Congress, although separately.

Preparing to Celebrate Lafayette's Tour
Lafayette being greeted in New York City in August of 1824.

The tour concluded in Washington, D.C. in September of 1825, with a grand ball.

Maclay repeatedly emphasized Lafayette’s commitment to championing the rights of the oppressed, from French Huguenots and Jews in France, to women and enslaved African-Americans in the United States. It was one of his greatest disappointments that he could not convince his father-figure George Washington, and friend Thomas Jefferson, to act to abolish slavery.

During his tour, Lafayette sought out African-Americans he had worked with during the war, including James Armistead Lafayette (an enslaved man who had spied for Lafayette in Cornwallis’ camp and was later freed by him) and Hannah Archer Till, a former slave who, after buying her freedom, volunteered to be a paid cook for Washington during the Revolution. Lafayette met with Black veterans and visited the African Free School in New York City, an educational institution established by the New York Manumission Society, of which Alexander Hamilton was a founding member.

A Lasting Impact

Some of Lafayette’s impact can be seen in the proliferation of physical sites named after him, from Lafayette, Indiana, to Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. But his political impact was crucial.

The first few months of his tour coincided with the “hot phase” of the 1824 presidential election campaign, which was being waged between four candidates: Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, Treasury Secretary William Crawford, Congressman Henry Clay, and Senator Andrew Jackson. At stake in this contest was whether the moves toward the implementation of the American System taken by President Monroe would be pushed forward, or stopped in their tracks.

Unlike previous elections, this one took on a much more public, popular character. Eighteen states now had popular elections for president, rather than relying on their state legislatures. The press was also a major factor, featuring intense scandal-mongering among the candidates, much of which focused on attacks on the “elitist” Adams.

John Quincy Adams in 1822.

While Lafayette made no direct political endorsements in this acrimonious climate, it seems undeniable that his tour benefited John Quincy Adams. Adams accompanied Lafayette during his 1824 celebrations in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, gaining a public profile with his toasts and speeches in support of the nation’s guest. When the election was ultimately thrown into the House of Representatives, Adams overcame a substantial gap to defeat Jackson. While three of the six states which switched their support to him could be attributed to a deal with Clay, three others which had originally gone for Jackson – Illinois, Maryland, and Louisiana – provided Adams with the victory he obtained on the first ballot.

Despite the non-stop attacks which bedeviled the Adams administration from its inception, as Andrew Jackson immediately began his virulently anti-Adams 1828 election campaign, Adams’ presidency represented an inestimable benefit for the nation. Under Adams, the American System policy of supporting industry, government support for infrastructure, and national banking forged ahead with spectacularly positive results.

Lafayette’s Objective

While President Monroe and his collaborators were anxious to use Lafayette’s tour to restore the “Spirit of 76” in a fractured political situation, Lafayette had his own objectives.  He wished to observe the progress which his adopted nation had made in the 50 years since its establishment and report back to France, bringing the message that America’s democratic ways should be adopted in his home country.

During his tour there was indeed much progress to see, and it was constantly being touted in toasts at his banquets, and during his travels. Lafayette’s arrival coincided with the Congressional decision to proceed with the construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, one of George Washington’s favorite projects for uniting the country. Lafayette also was able to visit upstate New York, where the Erie Canal was in the final phase of completion.

Preparing to Celebrate Lafayette's Tour
Marquis de Lafayette as sculpted by Houdon in 1786

To aid in his endeavors, he brought along as his secretary Andre-Nicolas Lavasseur, who diligently chronicled his reception through the entire 13-month tour. Lavasseur’s account is replete with stories of Lafayette’s emotional reception by Americans, young and old, and the Marquis’s similarly emotional response. It was published as a book entitled Lafayette in America, 1824 and 1825: Journal of a voyage to the United States, which appeared in French in 1828, and in English one year later.

An Honorary American

During his return to America in 1784-85, the Marquis and his heirs were designated “natural-born citizens” of the United States, first by the Maryland State Assembly, and later by Virginia, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. He toured all the states during this trip, to great acclaim. One of his points of emphasis was to urge the emancipation of the enslaved, a proposal he made publicly in a speech to the Virginia House of Delegates, among other places.

It was during that trip, also, that he performed the invaluable service of providing Irish immigrant Mathew Carey with $400 to begin his American Museum magazine. That monthly publication, which began in January of 1787, published many of the crucial documents in the debate about the U.S. Constitution, and was the first publication to publish that document in full. Before the magazine folded in 1792, Carey published the full text of Alexander Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures.[1]

Lafayette regularly corresponded with his close American friends, especially father-figure George Washington and his beloved fellow soldier Alexander Hamilton, after he returned to France. He sent Washington the key to the Bastille, after that citadel was stormed in 1789. While Lafayette was imprisoned in Austria, his wife succeeded in getting the American ambassador James Monroe to secure a passport for Lafayette’s son Georges Washington Lafayette to seek security in the United States.

A dungeon like the one Lafayette was imprisoned in in Austria. Beethoven’s opera Fidelio is based on his story.

Given the tensions between France and the United States over the Jay Treaty at the time, however, President Washington did not believe he could welcome the lad into his household, as Madame Lafayette had requested. Instead, young Georges, who arrived in 1795, spent his first six months with the Hamilton family in New York City. In February of 1796, he was able to join the Washington family, where he stayed until his father was released from prison (thanks to intervention from the United States) in 1798.

Lafayette himself wished to relocate to America at that time, but both Washington and Alexander Hamilton advised against it, believing that, given the ongoing tensions between the countries, he would be treated badly. Thus, it was not until 1824 that the Marquis again came to America’s shores, this time as the nation’s guest.

While the Marquis de Lafayette clearly thought of himself as an American citizen, legally he was not – until 2002. At that time the Congress of the United States passed a joint resolution granting him that honor. Upon being signed by the President, this resolution made Lafayette a citizen on August 6, 2002.

Lafayette’s Address to the Nation

One of the highlights of Lafayette’s tour, in my view, was his address to the House of Representatives on December 10, 1824. His remarks came in response to a major address by House Speaker Henry Clay, who honored Lafayette’s services to the United States, and expressed the profound gratitude of the nation. Clay had given a poetic address, which included the following:

The vain wish has been sometimes indulged, that Providence would allow the patriot, after death, to return to his country, and to contemplate the intermediate changes which had taken place—to view the forests felled, the cities built, the mountains levelled, the canals cut, the highways constructed, the progress of the arts, the advancement of learning and the increase in population—General, your present visit to the United States is a realization of the consoling object of that wish You are in the midst of posterity.

Lafayette’s remarks in response appeared to observers to be extemporaneous; they were widely acclaimed and published in newspapers throughout the nation. Note that Lafayette spoke in English, having determined to master the language from the time he joined the Revolution.  Thus, he was able to speak directly, from the heart, to the American people. Indeed, he was both a patriot and a world citizen, one who understood better than many in his time and today, that the good of any nation lay in aiding and improving the benefits of all.

Preparing to Celebrate Lafayette's Tour
Washington and Lafayette at Valley Forge (wikimedia commons)

The entirety of his remarks is printed here:

“My obligations to the United States, sir, far exceed any merit I might claim; they date from the time when I have had the happiness to be adopted as a young soldier, a favored son of America; they have been continued to me during almost a half a century of constant affection and confidence; and now, sire, thanks to your most gratifying invitation, I find myself greeted by a series of welcomes, one hour of which would more than compensate for the public exertions and sufferings of a whole life.

The approbation of the American people, and their representatives, for my conduct, during the vicissitudes of the European revolution, is the highest reward I could receive. Well may I stand firm and erect, when, in their names, and by you, Mr. Speaker, I am declared to have, in every instance, been faithful to those American principles of liberty, equality, and true social order, the devotion to which, as it has been from my earliest youth, so it shall continue to be to my latest breath.

You have been pleased, Mr. Speaker, to allude to the peculiar felicity of my situation, when, after so long an absence, I am called to witness the immense improvements, the admirable communications, the prodigious creations, of which we find an example in this city, whose name itself is a venerated palladium; in a word, all the grandeur and prosperity of those happy United States, who, at the same time they nobly secure the complete assertion of American independence, reflect, on every part of the world, the light of a far superior political civilization

What better pledge can be given, of a persevering national love of liberty, when these blessings are evidently the result of a virtuous resistance to oppression, and institutions founded on the rights of man, and the republican principles of self-government.

No, Mr. Speaker, posterity has not begun for me, since, in the sons of my companions and friends, I find the same public feelings I my behalf, which I have had the happiness to experience in their fathers.

Sir, I have been allowed, forty years ago, before a committee of congress of thirteen states, to express the fond wishes of an American heart; on this day, I have the honour and enjoy the delight, to congratulate the representatives of the Union, so vastly enlarged, on the realization of those wishes, even beyond human expectation, and upon the almost infinite prospects we can with certainty anticipate; permit me, Mr. Speaker and gentlemen of the House of Representatives, to join to the expression of those sentiment, a tribute of my lively gratitude, affectionate devotion, and profound respect.”[2]

[1] For a fuller story on the American Museum, see https://www.statutesandstories.com/blog_html/the-american-museum-the-first-magazine-to-print-the-constitution/

[2] The transcripts of the speeches come from an invaluable book published in 1975 by Marian Klamkin, called The Return of Lafayette, 1824 – 1825, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York.