Lafayette’s Visit to America in 1824-25
In 1824-25, the Marquis de Lafayette, one of the last surviving generals of the American Revolutionary War, made a grand visit to America. He toured all 24 states of the Union and received a hero’s welcome everywhere he went. The visit cemented his fame in America for a new generation and left a lasting impact in the names and monuments found around the United States.
Reasons for Lafayette’s visit to America
In January 1824, President James Monroe, supported by a Congressional resolution, invited Lafayette to visit the United States as the guest of the nation. Almost 50 years had passed since the start of the Revolutionary War and the generation that had fought to secure the country’s independence from Britain was passing away. A celebratory visit by Lafayette, who had commanded troops under George Washington, could instill the spirit of the American Revolution in younger Americans and remind them of the virtues and sacrifices involved in the struggle for liberty.
On December 2, 1823, Monroe had stated in a message to Congress that any future efforts by European nations to colonize or extend their political system to any part of the Americas would be regarded as “the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.” American political leaders feared that after France’s success in suppressing a liberal revolt in Spain, the European monarchies would help Spain reconquer its former colonies in Latin America. There were rumours of an expedition to Colombia being formed at Cádiz. The invitation to Lafayette – a prominent liberal opponent of the French regime – was a way of reinforcing this message to the European powers. Monroe and others also hoped that a visit from Lafayette would encourage the American people to support the government’s bolder stance on potential military intervention in Spanish America. “As the most famous example of a fighter for liberty on foreign shores, Lafayette could help to rally the American people to greater exertions should it prove necessary.” (1)
The invitation was not without its diplomatic dangers, since the United States was still trying to get France to pay for damages suffered by American shipping during the Napoleonic Wars. During Lafayette’s visit, both Henry Clay, who succeeded John Quincy Adams as Secretary of State in 1825, and Albert Gallatin, who served as US minister to France from 1815 to 1823, urged Lafayette to avoid anti-royalist intrigues upon his return to France.
For Lafayette, who was 66 years old, the invitation came at an opportune time. In 1821 he had supported a conspiracy to overthrow King Louis XVIII and had been accused of treason. The accusation was dropped, but in February 1824 he was defeated in his bid for re-election to the French Chamber of Deputies by a more conservative opponent. Lafayette had long wanted to revisit the United States (and had written Monroe to this effect in November 1823), but political obligations had kept him France. Now, with his political career at a low point, the prospect of an American tour offered a public relations opportunity. He could rehabilitate his reputation and revive support for his liberal agenda in France.
The trip was much more than a return to old haunts for Lafayette, much more than a chance to greet old friends and reminisce about youthful adventures. It was a means of continuing French political struggles on a new front. By focusing European attention on the United States, the most important republic in the world, he could hope to breathe new life into the almost moribund cause of liberty and constitutional government. (2)
On July 13, 1824, Lafayette left the French port of Le Havre on the American merchant vessel Cadmus. He was accompanied by his only son, Georges Washington Motier de La Fayette (age 44), and by his valet, Sebastien (Bastien) Wagner, who appears with Lafayette in Napoleon in America. Georges had lived in the United States from 1795 to 1797, staying for most of that period with George and Martha Washington. Lafayette was also joined by Auguste Levasseur, a former junior military officer who had been involved in the 1821 conspiracy and other plots against the French government. Levasseur served as Lafayette’s secretary. He produced an account of the visit, Lafayette en Amérique en 1824 et 1825, ou Journal d’un Voyage aux Etats-Unis, which was published in 1829 (an English translation appeared later that year). During the tour, Georges and Levasseur regularly sent reports and newspaper clippings back to Paris, so that the French public could be kept abreast of what Lafayette was saying and doing in America, and how he was being received there. Lafayette’s family got around French press censorship by having the material released in book form.
Although not included in Lafayette’s official entourage, Frances (Fanny) Wright and her younger sister Camilla were among Lafayette’s companions. Fanny was a bright young Scottish socialist who had earlier travelled to the United States and written Views of Society and Manners in America, published in 1821. When Fanny visited Paris later that year, the widowed Lafayette (38 years her senior) fell for her. The two became close friends. Lafayette invited Fanny and Camilla to go to America with him. When Lafayette’s family objected, the Wrights followed him in another vessel. They joined Lafayette for much of the tour, leading to considerable gossip.
Arrival at New York
Lafayette reached New York on August 15, 1824. He spent that night at the residence of Vice President Daniel Tompkins on Staten Island. The next day, the steamship Robert Fulton – full of dignitaries, marines, a West Point band, and some old comrades-in-arms – carried him to the Battery, at the southern end of Manhattan, escorted by a flotilla of crowd-filled steamboats dressed with flags and streamers. The Commercial Advertiser reported:
The news of the General’s arrival had spread through the surrounding country with the rapidity of lightning; and from the dawn of day until noon, the roads and ferryboats 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. (3)
Lafayette landed to the cheers of the tens of thousands of people who filled the Battery, the Castle, and the surrounding area. After refreshments and introductions, he reviewed the troops. He was then conveyed in a barouche to City Hall.
The General rode uncovered and received the unceasing shouts and the congratulations of 50,000 freemen, with tears and smiles which 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, unloosed by their fair owners, were seen floating in the air. He was evidently much embarrassed and even afflicted, with the conflicting and powerful sensibilities which were called up and kept in action by the continued and universal demonstrations of love.…
On the steps of the City Hall were assembled…a great number of Ladies, many of whom stepped forward and gave the General their hands as he passed along. The general enthusiasm also extended to the children of all ages; the name of the Hero continually reverberating from their lips, giving to Fayette a heart-appealing evidence that his memory has been hallowed at every family altar, and that future generations as well as this will be familiar with his name, and echo his praises. After his return to the City Hotel he had the extraordinary condescension and good feeling to come out and shake hands with 6 or 700 American youth, the future conservators of his fame. This circumstance has planted in the minds of these little ones the strongest affection of the man, which will go with them through life, and endure till its close. (4)
In response to the mayor’s greetings, Lafayette (who spoke fluent English) said:
While I am so affectionately received by the citizens of New York and their worthy representatives, I feel myself overwhelmed with inexpressible emotions. The sight of the American shore, after so long an absence; the recollection of the many respected friends and dear companions, no more to be found on this land; the pleasure to recognize those who have survived; this immense concourse of a free republican population, who so kindly welcome me; the admirable presence of the troops, the presence of a corps of the national navy, have excited sentiments to which no human language can be adequate. You have been pleased, sir, to allude to the happiest time, the unalloyed enjoyments of my public life; it is the pride of my heart to have been one of the earliest adopted sons of America. (5)
Over the next twelve months, Lafayette travelled over 6,000 miles, visiting all 24 states, some more than once. He was greeted with enthusiastic cheers, receptions, parades, processions, parties, banquets, concerts and balls. Locals decorated his route and erected ceremonial arches for him and his entourage to pass through. Church bells rang out in his honour. Cannons were fired in salutes. People praised him in toasts, speeches, poems and songs. He reviewed militias. He spoke with veterans and visited battlefields, including the site of the Battle of Brandywine, where he was wounded in the leg in 1777. He laid cornerstones and dedicated monuments. He toured mills, canals, farms and factories. He blessed children. He met Native Americans. A souvenir industry sprang up, producing dishes, ribbons, pins, badges, medallions, fans, quilts and clothing emblazoned with Lafayette’s name and/or image. Lithographs and paintings depicted scenes from the Revolution and his visit. New biographies of him were issued. Buildings, streets and towns were named for him, as were many children. His progress was breathlessly chronicled by the newspapers.
[At New Rochelle] the scene was brilliant in the extreme. The balcony and roof of the post office, and of capt. Peter’s hotel, on the opposite side of the street, were filled with ladies. The shouts of the people, the roaring of the cannon, the merry peal of the bells, the music of a full band, the eager, yet respectful anxiety of the people to shake him by the hand, and bid him welcome, must have made as gratifying an impression on the mind of the general, as any reception which had gone before. Here, more than one old seventy sixer ‘who fought and bled in freedom’s cause’ came to visit their fellow soldier. ‘Do you remember, general,’ said one, ‘who began the attack at Brandywine?’ ‘Aha! Yes – it was Maxwell, with the Jersey troops!’ ‘So it was! So it was!’ replied the delighted interrogator. ‘Well, I was with his brigade!’ A warm clasp of the hand was all the utterance to feelings which were meet reward for a life spent in the cause of liberty. (6)
Sometimes the hero worship went over the top. The Niles Weekly Register editorialized:
To preserve, in some small degree, an account of the feelings which the arrival of our venerable friend has elicited, we have noticed a few of the exhibitions of it that have taken place; but every narrative of them falls far short of the reality of what has happened. The people are wild with joy, and the gratitude and love of all persons, of every age, sex and condition, seems hardly to be restrained within the bounds of propriety – as if it would cause many to forget what was due to themselves and the general, whom they delight to honor. At one place they failed so far in self-respect as to contend with horses for the privilege of drawing the revolutionary chief in his carriage! It is to be hoped that the general will not be thus insulted again – for insulted he must be when he sees the sovereigns of this great and glorious country, aiming at the most magnificent destinies, converted into asses or other beasts of burthen. It is his desire to be treated like a man, not as a titled knave or brainless dandy. Let him be hugged to the heart of all that can approach him, so far as not to endanger his health, and incur the risk of ‘killing him with kindness’ – let the trumpet to the cannon speak, the cannon to the heavens, and the ardent prayers of free millions ascend to the throne of the OMNIPOTENT, that blessings may be heaped upon him; but, in all this, let us remember that we are men like until himself, and republicans. (7)
A dizzying itinerary
In the fall of 1824, Lafayette toured the northern and eastern states. He visited George Washington’s family and paid his respects at Washington’s tomb. He visited President James Monroe at the White House. He was hosted by three former presidents: John Adams in Massachusetts, Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, and James Madison at Montpelier. He visited Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte and met Napoleon’s nephews, Achille Murat and Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte. On December 10, Lafayette addressed Congress. Congress voted him $200,000 and gave him his choice of a township worth of land (over 23,000 acres). Lafayette chose land in Florida, near Tallahassee. He never visited it himself. He spent the winter in the Washington area, where he witnessed the presidential election of 1824.
In February 1825, Lafayette began the southern and western portion of his tour. He traveled to North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, where he met with members of the French Vine and Olive Colony among others. He visited Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee (where he met with future president Andrew Jackson), Illinois (after which his steamboat sank on the Ohio River), Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio. By the end of May he was back in Pennsylvania. He headed overland to northern New York State and visited Niagara Falls. On June 17, he laid the cornerstone for the Bunker Hill Monument in Boston, marking the 50th anniversary of the battle. He celebrated July 4, 1825, in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Back in Washington, he stayed at the White House with the new president, John Quincy Adams.
On August 6, Adams took Lafayette to see ex-president James Monroe at his home, Oak Hill, in Virginia. Levasseur recounted the following incident, which happened on the way there:
At the Potomac bridge we stopped to pay the toll, and the gate-keeper, after counting the company and horses, received the money from the president, and allowed us to pass on; but we had gone a very short distance when we heard some one bawling after us, ‘Mr. President! Mr. President! you have given eleven-pence too little!’ Presently the gate keeper arrived out of breath, holding out the change he had received, and explaining the mistake made. The president heard him attentively, re-examined the money, and agreed that he was right, and ought to have another eleven-pence. Just as the president was taking out his purse, the gate-keeper recognized General Lafayette in the carriage, and wished to return his toll, declaring that all gates and bridges were free to the nation’s guest. Mr. Adams told him that on this occasion General Lafayette travelled altogether privately, and not as the nation’s guest, but simply as a friend of the president, and, therefore, was entitled to no exemption. With this reasoning, our gate-keeper was satisfied, and received his money. Thus, during the course of his voyages in the United States, the general was but once subjected to the common rule of paying, and it was exactly upon the day in which he travelled with the chief magistrate; a circumstance which, probably in every other country, would have conferred the privilege of passing free. (8)
Later in the month, Lafayette paid another visit to Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, joined by Monroe and James Madison. Levasseur expressed the pain when it came time for Lafayette to leave his old friends, whom he would never see again.
I shall not attempt to depict the sadness which prevailed at this cruel separation, which had none of the alleviation which is usually left by youth, for in this instance, the individuals who bade farewell had all passed through a long career, and the immensity of the ocean would still add to the difficulties of a reunion. (9)
Return to France
On September 6, 1825, John Quincy Adams held a grand state dinner in Washington to celebrate Lafayette’s 68th birthday. On September 7, Adams and Lafayette exchanged farewell speeches at the entrance to the White House. Among other things, Adams said, “It were scarcely an exaggeration to say, that it has been, to the people of the Union, a year of uninterrupted festivity and enjoyment, inspired by your presence.” Lafayette concluded with, “God bless the American people, each of their states, and the federal government. Accept this patriotic farewell of an overflowing heart; such will be its last throb when it ceases to beat.” (10) They then tearfully embraced. After more farewells, Lafayette and his companions boarded the steamboat Mount Vernon for a trip to the mouth of the Potomac River. There, they transferred to the frigate USS Brandywine, which carried them back to France. They were accompanied on the voyage by 24 young naval officers, one from each state. They sailed into the harbour at Le Havre on October 4, 1825. Since Louis XVIII had died in September 1824, France was now ruled by Charles X.
From that October day in 1825 until his death in May, 1834, Lafayette, by his deeds and his rhetoric won the affection of a new generation of Americans and self-consciously perpetuated his legend in the American national consciousness. By his extensive correspondence with his American friends and admirers, by his hospitality to Americans visiting France, by public profession of his personal preference for the republican government of the United States, by his defense of his adopted country against French critics, and by effective support of American claims against France, Lafayette satisfied his appetite for public acclaim and added luster to the historic role that he had long ago chosen for himself, a symbol of French-American friendship and a champion of liberal government. (11)
You might also enjoy:
- Sylvia Neely, “The Politics of Liberty in the Old World and the New: Lafayette’s Return to America in 1824,” Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Summer, 1986), p. 169.
- Ibid., pp. 155-156
- Edgar Ewing Brandon, Lafayette, Guest of the Nation, Volume I (Oxford, OH, 1950), p. 36.
- Ibid., pp. 38-39.
- Niles’ Weekly Register (Baltimore), August 28, 1824, XXVI, p. 427.
- Ibid., p. 429.
- Ibid., p. 426.
- Auguste Levasseur, Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825; or, Journal of a Voyage to the United States, Vol. II (Philadelphia, 1829), pp. 243-244.
- Ibid., p. 246.
- Ibid., pp. 250, 254.
- Russell M. Jones, “The Flowering of a Legend: Lafayette and the Americans, 1825-1834,” French Historical Studies, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Autumn, 1966), pp. 384-385.
During the course of his voyages in the United States, the general was but once subjected to the common rule of paying, and it was exactly upon the day in which he travelled with the chief magistrate; a circumstance which, probably in every other country, would have conferred the privilege of passing free.