The Marquis de Lafayette, a 'Citizen of Two Worlds'

31 July 2015

Empire and Globalism | History

Earlier in the year I stumbled upon an article about a successful effort to build and sail a replica of the French frigate l’Hermione. Further reading revealed that one of the key reasons this ship is sailing again is the voyage it made in 1780 from Rochefort, France, to Boston, USA. On this particular trip across the Atlantic was the man known as the Marquis de Lafayette (full name Marie-Joseph Paul Roch Yves Gilbert du Motier – try saying that fast three times!) on his return to the North American continent. Lafayette is a name well known in the USA today due to the significant role he played in the American Revolutionary War. His efforts were crucial to the success of American Independence and many towns and cities would later be named after him, from Fayetteville, North Carolina, to Lafayette, Louisiana. However, while Lafayette himself sought to make an impact militarily, risking his life on a number of occasions as a true believer of the cause, he was really employed, some might say manipulated, for his great promotional value.

On this very date 238 years ago, 31 July 1777, the Continental Congress commissioned the nineteen-year-old Marquis de Lafayette as a major-general in the Continental Army without pay. He lost no time in entering the fray and tried mighty hard to make a name for himself on the battlefield against the hated British. Despite his efforts, however, Lafayette would soon return to France in February 1779 to fulfil his key role: promoting the cause of the revolutionaries in his home country. In the letters of John Adams and other notable figures in American History, 1493-1945, it is possible to follow the efforts of leading revolutionaries to use Lafayette as a cheerleader for independence and gain much needed support for the war effort.

On the first arrival of the Marquis de La Fayette in Paris, I made him a visit and finding him alone, had two hours for conversation with him … and had the pleasure to find him acquainted with our affairs.

Letter of John Adams, 11 September 1779. Image © the Gilder Lehrman Institute. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

His mission would ultimately prove successful and a French fleet under General Jean-Baptiste de Rochambeau (not Lafayette himself as he had hoped) would later be sent to aid the Continental Army. It was this success, the ongoing support of the French and recognition of the United States as an independent nation, which ultimately cemented Lafayette’s legacy in American history, not his military exploits as he perhaps thought. He had fulfilled the goal he was recruited for and Lafayette returned to the North American continent on the l’Hermione in 1780 to a hero’s welcome.

‘America’s First Ally,’ Lafayette’s triumphant return, 1780. Image © the Gilder Lehrman Institute. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Ironically, Lafayette’s legacy in his home country is not so positive. In the midst of the French Revolution, on 17 July 1791, many protestors at the Champ de Mars in Paris were killed and wounded as National Guardsmen, under the command of Lafayette, opened fire. He would go on to survive this tumultuous and violent period of French history, but it is in the United States of America where this ‘Citizen of Two Worlds’ is best remembered.

The complete American History 1493-1945 from the Gilder Lehrman Institute is available now. Full access restricted to authenticated academic institutions who have purchased a licence.

About the Author

Joe Pettican

I am a Development Editor at Adam Matthew Digital, an academic digital publisher of primary source collections for the arts and humanities. Since joining the team, I have worked on a number of great projects across a variety of subjects.