“Happily ever after” is a fate reserved to only a few heroes. Most find life after their great triumphs quite disappointing. For Lafayette, the years after the victory over the British army in 1789 brought a long decline into tragedy.
Within 8 years of the Marquis’ return to France, the ruling aristocracy was in trouble. King Louis XVI had squandered the treasury so badly that, by 1789, he could only hold onto his crown by agreeing to share power with a National Assembly of citizens.
Lafayette was one of the few nobles who immediately joined this new government. He quickly directed military convoys to bring food into the poorest sections of the city. He gave orders to level the Bastille prison and he sent the gate key as a gift to President Washington. He wrote a “Declaration of the Rights of Man of the Citizen” — a French version of our bill of rights, and presented it to the Assembly in Paris.
However, his “Rights” weren’t radical enough for Parisian demagogues, who rewrote the document to their benefit. Lafayette soon recognized he was stranded in a dangerous middle ground. The old nobility had never fully trusted him since his return from America. The radicals considered him an enemy because he had tried to curb the slaughter of aristocrats by mobs. The government had put him in charge of the militia, but when he used force to disperse a mob, he was declared him a criminal.
Realizing that his life was barely more secure than the king’s, he tried to flee the country. He slipped into Holland, heading for sanctuary in the United States. But before he could reach the coast, he was captured by Austrian troops, who were massing on the border, preparing to invade France and overturn the revolutionary government.
Lafayette was a prisoner, and the crowned heads of Europe gloated. Finally they had caught the rebel aristocrat who had betrayed his class and fought for the rights of commoners
The Austrians imprisoned Lafayette, but soon moved him to a jail in Prussia. Two years later, with his health broken, his fortune seized by the French government, and his wife imprisoned in Paris, his fortunes fell again when he was moved to a dungeon in Bohemia. For the next five years, this celebrated general of the American Revolution lived in solitude, chained to the wall of a small, filthy cell.
He was released after seven years of captivity. Napoleon Bonaparte had assumed control of the government and obtained his release. He also offered Lafayette a commission in the French imperial army. But Lafayette had learned to recognize tyrants in the making. He turned down the offer and moved to a country estate. Then, in 1824, came the invitation from President Monroe.
Americans gave Lafayette all the adulation they could muster, in city after city. They crowded the streets to see him, and cheered everything he said. As one Post reporter wrote:
It is impossible to travel through the towns of Connecticut and not feel a part of the enthusiasm which pervaded all classes. Even the poor lads who drove the carriages entered fully into the common feeling, and seemed proud of the honours… “Behave pretty now, Charley,” said the drive of Lafayette’s coach to one of his horses,” behave pretty Charley — you are going to carry the greatest man in the world. [August 28]
The national celebration was a response to Lafayette’s great service to the United States, but also an awareness of the suffering he had endured for liberty. In the warmth of the adulation he felt across the country, surely Lafayette felt some of his old spirit and youth return. A Post reporter who saw Lafayette in New York observed—
The General is now about 67 years old, and must have been blessed with a good constitution to have borne so well his severe and long confinement and the suffering incident to a change of fortune. His mind appears to have been but little impaired, and retains much of its original vigor and vivacity. His memory is very retentive; he is once familiar, and he enters into the details of the war of our revolution with great accuracy. —
He is of fine portly figure, about 5 feet 11 inches high, has strong and full features, prominent eye brows, but his fine forehead is somewhat concealed by a wig — his manner is graceful and dignified; and he very soon puts his company perfectly at ease. There is always great mildness in his countenance that in conversation is brightened by a smile, which carries with it evidence that it proceeds from the heart.
He speaks the English language with fluency, and when animated, with eloquence; his pronunciation alone betraying that he is by birth a Frenchman. He is lame, but not so much so as to impede his progress, as he walks tolerably fast, and gets into his carriage without assistance —
Lafayette must surely have felt his years of hardship slip away during his visit to Virginia, where he dined with three past presidents.
We cannot image any meeting of living individuals, which it would have been so delightful and impressive to witness, as the interview between these four venerable men — Lafayette, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. What stations have they occupied, how conspicuous the parts they have acted, and what space they fill in the world’s history! The group would have been complete could the patriarch Adams have been present.
(He had earlier seen Adams in Massachusetts so he could claim, when leaving, that he had dined with all the Presidents of the United States — all but the one he still revered as his father.)
In September of 1824, Lafayette had been asked to address Congress. The speaker of the House introduced him as a hero and a paragon of republican virtues. But Lafayette didn’t respond as a hero. He spoke, instead, of his indebtedness to America and its ideals.
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 solder, a favored son of America. They have been continued to me during almost half a century of constant affection and confidence, and now, sir, thanks to your most gratifying imitation, 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 of my latest breath.
In the 43 years since he’d helped America win its independence from Great Britain, the Marquis de Lafayette had become a symbol of the revolution. Fighting alongside Washington, he had forced the British army to surrender, then sailed back to France to transplant liberty in European soil.
Early in 1824, President James Monroe invited Lafayette to return to the nation that still revered him, and the Marquis accepted. And so began a thirteen-month tour across all 24 states, covering 6,000 miles of miserable roads, bone-crunching carriages, and sluggish riverboats, one of which nearly drowned him when it sank in the Ohio river.
For older Americans of the revolutionary generation, Lafayette was a living connection to the great cause in their lives. To see the living hero, after all this time, would help bridge the gulf they felt between the early republic and the modern United States.
For younger Americans, Lafayette’s tour was an opportunity to celebrate the success of their nation. They would see for themselves one of the last founding fathers — a representative of all that their nation stood for.
As for Lafayette himself, this tour was one last chance to see his aging comrades-in-arms and to witness the state of the country he had worked so hard to create.
The Saturday Evening Post reported his arrival on August 21, 1824:
The Marquis Lafayette, the only surviving General of the seven years’ war of our revolution, was conducted from Staten-Island on Monday morning, and landed in New York city, amidst every demonstration of joy and admiration could be bestowed. The news of the General’s arrival had spread though the surrounding country with the rapidity of lightning; and from the dawn of day until noon, the roads and ferry boats were thronged with people who were hastening to the city to participate in the fete, and testify their gratitude for the services, and respect for the character, of the illustrious “National Guest.” Our citizens also turned out in immense numbers at an early hour, and, together with the military, presented the most lively and moving spectacle that we have witnessed on any former occasion.
As a young nobleman, Lafayette has been inspired by all the talk of liberty he heard buzzing about in the salons and Masonic lodges of Paris. When the news arrived that Americans had risen up against Great Britain, he leapt at the chance to fight for the rights of man. And, because he was French, to humble Great Britain. And, because he was a young man, win glory on the battlefield.
He stole away to America, expecting to be given an army to command but, upon his arrival, found he would not be given any troops, or even a military rank. At this point, Lafayette proved he was more than just a priviliged adventurer. He volunteered to serve without rank and even donated his own money to the war effort. Impressed by the sincerity and enthusiasm of this young man and fellow Mason, Washington appointed him to his headquarters staff.
Within a month, Lafayette proved the wisdom of Washington’s judgment. At Brandywine Creek, he stepped in to act as a division commander when American soldiers broke and ran from an assault by British and Hessian troops. Though shot through the leg, he remained on his horse to rally the soldiers, mount a rear-guard defense, fight off another British attack, and skillfully withdraw the Americans to safety.
He remained at Washington’s side throughout the bitter Valley Forge Winter, and helped thwart a congressional plan to replace Washington with General Nathanial Greene. He led troops at the battle of Gloucester and was instrumental in the victory at Monmouth. By now, Washington and Congress regarded Lafayette as one of their best generals. Even Lord Cornwallis, commander of the British forces, recognized his importance and launched several attacks on the colonials to capture the Marquis.
In 1779, Lafayette sailed back to France to beg King Louis XVI for more soldiers and boats, then quickly returned to America, where he was given command of his own army. In 1781, the young General drove Cornwallis back across Virginia until he and Washington trapped the British at Yorktown and forced their surrender.
Now, at age 67, he was being showered with honors and crowded by the ecstatic veterans of that long-ago war.
Decidedly the most interesting sight was the [New York] reception of the General by his old companions in arms: Colonel Marinus Willet, now in his eighty-fifth year, General Van Cortland, General Clarkson, and the other worthies whom we have mentioned… He embraced them all affectionately, and Col. Willet again and again. He knew and remembered them all. It was a re-union of a long separated family.
After the ceremony of embracing and congratulations were over, he sat down alongside of Col. Willet, who grew young again and fought all his battles over. “Do you remember,” said he, “at the battle of Monmouth, I was volunteer aid to Gen. Scott ? I saw you in the heat of battle. You were but a boy, but you were a serious and sedate lad. Aye, aye; I remember well. And on the Mohawk, I sent you fifty Indians. And you wrote me, that they set up such a yell that they frightened the British cavalry, and they ran one way and the Indians another.”
No person who witnessed this interview will ever forget it; many an honest tear was shed on the occasion. The young men retired at little distance, while the venerable soldiers were indulging recollections, and were embracing each other again and again… Such sincere, such honest feelings, were never more plainly or truly expressed. The sudden changes of the countenance of the Marquis, plainly evinced the emotions he endeavored to suppress.
When a revolutionary story from the venerable Willet recalled circumstance long passed, the incident… made the Marquis sigh; and his swelling heart was relieved when he burst into tears. The sympathetic feeling extended to all present. The scene was too affecting to be continued. One of the [veterans], anxious to divert the attention of the Marquis, his eyes floating with tears, announced the near approach of the steam ship. The Marquis advanced to the water railing, where he was no sooner perceived by the multitude, than an instantaneous cheer most loudly expressed the delight they experienced.
Through this dense and towering host, (for the doors, casements, railings, windows, chimney and turrets of the buildings were hung with spectators,) the General was conveyed in a barouche and four horses, followed and proceeded by the Lafayette Guards, through the whole distance to the City Hall, which is near a mile.
The General rode uncovered, and received the unceasing shouts and the congratulations of 50,000 freemen, with tears and smiles that bespoke how deeply he felt the pride and glory of the occasion. The ladies, from every tier of windows, waved their white handkerchiefs, and hundreds loosed by their fair owners were seen floating in the air.
Several attempts were made by the people, both in going up and returning through Broadway, to take the horses from the General’s carriage, and draw him in triumph themselves.
This action, which was repeated in other cities, drew a stern disapproval from the Post’s editors.
We regret to see that in New Haven the populace took off the horses and dragged General Lafayette in his carriage. This is not the offering it becomes a free People to bestow upon a friend of Liberty. It is ill suited to the character of Republicans, and only fit for the slaves of some military despot who are willing, both figuratively and literally to wear the yoke. For the honor of the Nation, and, more than all, for the respect due Lafayette, we trust it will not again occur in the progress of such a man through a nation of free men. [Sep 4, 1824]