The Marquis de Lafayette: A Hero of Two Countries

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The Marquis de Lafayette: A Hero of Two Countries
Almost five centuries after Vikings explored and briefly settled in small areas on the eastern shores of present-day Canada, the voyages of Christopher Columbus, John Cabot and Giovanni da Verrazzano followed, changing the course of Western history. In 1492, under the auspices of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, Columbus sailed west to find a new trade route to the Far East, landing initially in the Bahamas archipelago. In 1497, John Cabot, under the commission of Henry VII of England, arrived in Newfoundland, and in 1524, Giovanni da Verrazzano, while serving France under Francis I, explored the coast of North America, disembarking in what is now New York city. All three kingdoms soon founded colonies respectively named New Spain, New Britain and New France, anxious to draw wealth from the natural resources of the New World. Subsequently, wars were fought and treaties were signed, creating a patchwork of colonies. It was in the British colony of Virginia that George Washington’s grandfather arrived, a member of the landed gentry from Essex, England, in 1631. Five generations later, in 1732, George Washington, the first president of United States, was born. Remarkably, his path would intersect with the Marquis de Lafayette twenty-eight years later during the American Revolutionary War. Known today simply as Lafayette, the Marquis was born on September 6, 1757 to Michel Louis Christophe Roch Gilbert Paulette du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette, Colonel of the Grenadiers, and his wife, Marie Louise Jolie de La Rivière, at Château de Chavaniac, in the province of Auvergne. Lafayette’s lineage is one of the oldest and most distinguished in all of France. According to legend one ancestor acquired the true Crown of Thorns during the Sixth Crusade, and another Gilbert de Lafayette III, had been a companion-at-arms in Joan of Arc‘s army during the Siege of Orléans in 1429. Lafayette’s mother’s maternal grandfather was the Comte de La Rivière, Commander of the Musketeers of the King (Mousquetaires du Roi), King Louis XV’s personal horse guard. Lafayette became Marquis and Lord of Chavaniac after his father died, but the estate went to his mother, who moved to Paris leaving him to be raised in Chavaniac by his paternal grandmother. In 1768, when Lafayette was 11, he was summoned to Paris to live with his mother and grandfather at their apartments in Luxembourg Palace. He attended school at the Collège du Plessis, part of the University of Paris. His grandfather decided that Lafayette would carry on the family martial tradition and enrolled the young boy in a program to train future Musketeers. In May 1771, at age 13, Lafayette was commissioned an officer in the Musketeers with the rank of Sous Lieutenant. At the same time, the wealthy Duc d’Ayen was looking to marry off some of his five daughters. The young Lafayette seemed a good match for his 12-year-old daughter, Marie Adrienne Françoise, and the Duc negotiated a deal; both parties agreed not to speak about the marriage plans for two years, during which time the young spouses-to-be would meet in arranged settings to get to know each other. The deal was more than successful; Lafayette and Marie Adrienne Françoise fell in love, were happily married in 1774, and remained so until her death in 1807. They had four children; Henriette (1776–1778), Anastasie Louise Pauline du Motier (1777–1863), Georges Washington Louis Gilbert du Motier, (1779–1849), and Marie Antoinette Virginie du Motier (1782–1849). After their marriage Lafayette and his wife settled in the Duc’s house in Versailles. He continued his education, both at the riding school Versailles and at the prestigious Académie de Versailles. He was soon commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Duc’s personal Dragoons.  In 1775, Lafayette took part in his unit’s annual training in Metz, where he met the commander of the Army of the East, the Marquis de Ruffec. At dinner one night both men discussed the ongoing revolt against British rule by Britain’s North American colonies. Lafayette became convinced that the American Revolution reflected his own recently acquired Freemason beliefs in liberty, morality and ethics. The following year Louis XVI and his foreign minister agreed that by supplying the American cause with arms and officers, they might restore French influence in North America, a highly desired outcome. On hearing that French officers were being sent to America, Lafayette determined to be among them, and despite his youth, was commissioned as a Major General. The plan to send French officers as well as other aid to America came to naught when the British got wind of it and threatened war. Lafayette’s father-in-law and commanding officer, the Duc, thought his son-in-law foolish for wanting to go to North America in the first place, and convinced the King to issue a decree forbidding French officers from serving in America, specifically naming Lafayette. As a result Lafayette went into hiding and, while undercover, learned that the Continental Congress (the governing body through which the American colonial government coordinated resistance to British rule during the first two years of the American Revolution) did not have the money for his voyage, so he purchased a sailing ship, Victoire, with his own funds. He journeyed to Bordeaux where the ship was being readied for the trip,…

Lead photo credit : Lafayette (right) and Washington at Valley Forge by John Ward Dunsmore (1907). Public Domain

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Sue Aran lives in the Gers department of southwest France. She is the owner of French Country Adventures, which provides private, personally-guided, small-group food & wine adventures into Gascony, the Pays Basque and Provence. She writes a monthly blog about her life in France and is a contributor to Bonjour Paris and France Today magazines.


  • Jose G
    2016-09-14 09:30:43
    Jose G
    Very interesting, thank you for the article.