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The Marquis de Lafayette is an icon of American—and French—history. Lafayette’s life story is the stuff of legend. Born into an aristocratic French family of warriors, made lieutenant in the French Royal Guard at age 14, and married into the royal family at 16, he traveled to the colonies at his own expense to fight in the American Revolution. By age 20, he was embraced by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who became his life-long friends. Here, historian Marc Leepson delivers an insightful account of the ...
The Marquis de Lafayette is an icon of American—and French—history. Lafayette’s life story is the stuff of legend. Born into an aristocratic French family of warriors, made lieutenant in the French Royal Guard at age 14, and married into the royal family at 16, he traveled to the colonies at his own expense to fight in the American Revolution. By age 20, he was embraced by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who became his life-long friends. Here, historian Marc Leepson delivers an insightful account of the great general, whose love of liberty and passionate devotion to American and French independence shines in the pages of history.
“An upbeat biography of the great French American patriot who channeled his zeal into a formidable force of leadership. This accessible life of Lafayette ably captures his essential fiery-eyed idealism…An inspiring introduction to the beloved general.”—Kirkus
"[Leepson's] eye for the telling detail and his devotion to journalistic brevity shine in all his work, and his affectionate Lafayette is the latest example." — Richmond Times-Dispatch
"A crisp, new life of Lafayette with the emphasis on his life as a military man." —The Washington Independent Review of Books
"If you didn't know this was a biography, you'd think it was an action adventure novel with the Marquis de Lafayette as the superhero. The remarkable and complex life of Lafayette is in good hands with Marc Leepson, an excellent historian and a superb writer."—Nelson DeMille
"There have been countless biographies of the famed Marquis de Lafayette, but what has been lacking is a concise account of the life of this man who played a crucial role in both the American and French Revolutions. Marc Leepson has provided such an account in this fascinating, insightful book."—Chris Wallace, host of "FOX News Sunday"
"Born and trained to command, eager for glory, and dedicated to the cause of liberty, the Marquis de Lafayette fought with Washington's army from Brandywine to Yorktown – then suffered exile and imprisonment for his responsible leadership in France from the Bastille to the eve of the Reign of Terror. Marc Leepson’s fast-paced biography delivers proven lessons in leadership as it brings the Hero of Two Worlds to life."–Jon Kukla, author of Mr. Jefferson’s Women and A Wilderness So Immense: The Louisiana Purchase and the Destiny of America
An upbeat biography of the great French American patriot who channeled his zeal into a formidable force of leadership.
Part of the new World Generals series featuring abbreviated careers of famous military leaders (Rommel, Alexander the Great, Ataturk, etc.) and their winning strategies, this accessible life of Lafayette (1757–1834) ably captures his essential fiery-eyed idealism, which might have led him to impetuousness had he not learned pragmatic lessons while on the battlefields of the American Revolution. In defiance of his family, Lafayette appeared on American shores at the age of 19. Leepson (Desperate Engagement: How a Little-Known Civil War Battle Saved Washington, D.C., and Changed American History, 2007, etc.) emphasizes his subject's empathy for the American cause as stemming from his own father's early death at the hands of the British during the Seven Years' War. Moreover, Lafayette had never fit in comfortably at the French court, and he was steeped in the writings of the Enlightenment authors. Although the Americans had no love for the French, they were won over by Lafayette, who spent freely, always advocated for the provisions of his men, kept his cool under fire and was able to rally the spirit of his men. Above all, he was utterly loyal to George Washington, whom he considered a father figure, and accepted his commands, even when they didn't suit the younger general's eagerness. He was especially invaluable to the Revolutionary War effort by lobbying inexhaustibly—American officials and French government alike. Afterward, of course, he conveyed his patriotic ideals to the French Revolution, and even preached restraint during the bloody crisis, as well as during the July Revolution of 1830 in France, when Lafayette "prevented things from devolving into chaos and anarchy." Leepson glances workmanlike over his later career.
An inspiring introduction to the beloved general.
An Ancient Family of Warriors
From the time I was eight, I longed for glory.
—Marquis de Lafayette1
MARIE JOSEPH PAUL YVES ROCH GILBERT DU MOTIER DE LA FAYETTE, the man we know as the Marquis de Lafayette, was born on September 6, 1757. He came into this world in an ornate bedchamber on the top floor of his family’s eighteen-room, two-towered, fourteenth-century Normanesque stone castle known as the Chateau de Chavaniac. Surrounded by a moat, formal gardens, and ponds, the imposing chateau sits outside its namesake small village, Chavaniac-Lafayette, about 300 miles south of Paris in the mountainous Auvergne region of south-central France.2
Historians have traced Lafayette’s venerable paternal line back to about the year 1000. Nearly all of the family’s males made their mark fighting in France’s wars, from the Crusades to the Seven Years’ War, and many of them perished on the field of battle.
One of the most honored of Lafayette’s ancestors—one who did not die in battle—was Gilbert Motier de La Fayette. One of Gilbert de La Fayette’s notable accomplishments during his long, distinguished military career was leading combined French and Scottish forces in defeating the English on March 21, 1421. The site was the Battle of Baugé, near Angers in Normandy, during the Hundred Years’ War. According to family lore, in that pivotal engagement, de La Fayette, whose motto was Cur non? (“Why not?”), had a hand in the killing of the first Duke of Clarence, the second son of England’s King Henry V.
France’s King Charles VI honored Gilbert de La Fayette by naming him Marshal of France (maréchal de france) in 1421. He also is remembered for fighting at the side of the iconic French national heroine Joan of Arc at the famed 1428 siege of Orléans.
The Motier de La Fayette family settled in Auvergne in the eleventh century. Lafayette’s great-grandfather Charles, another illustrious military man, received the title of marquis for his valor on the battlefield. Charles’s son Edouard purchased the Chateau de Chavaniac, which dated from the fourteenth century but had burned to the ground and was rebuilt beginning in the last years of the seventeenth century.
Members of the La Fayette family were among Auvergne’s most prominent citizens for generations. However, none of them were well known on the French national stage or at the Versailles court. Edouard’s son Gilbert, Lafayette’s father, was a colonel in the French grenadiers. He died, along with thousands of other French soldiers, on August 1, 1759, at the Battle of Minden in Westphalia (in northern Germany) during the Seven Years’ War. His older brother, Jacques-Roch, died in a 1733 battle in Austria, leaving the marquis title to the much-younger Gilbert.
Lafayette’s mother, Marie-Louise, was a member of the La Rivières, one of the oldest and most influential noble French families. 3 Lafayette’s great-grandfather Charles-Ives-Thibault, the Comte de La Rivière, was a highly decorated lieutenant in the French royal army. He received the Grand Cross for exceptional merit of the Royal and Military Order of Saint Louis, the French king’s highest military award. Until he retired in 1766, La Rivière was a captain-lieutenant and the commandant of the Black Musketeers, the Second Company of the Mousquetaires du Roi, the king’s Musketeers. The musketeers were the real-life personal bodyguards of the French kings, immortalized by the French novelist Alexandre Dumas in his famed 1844 story of four swashbuckling young men in the court of King Louis XIII.
When Lafayette’s father, Gilbert, married Marie-Louise-Julie de La Rivière, she had an extensive dowry, including properties in Brittany, along with an entrée into royal society in Versailles. Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette, the couple’s first child, was baptized at the small Catholic church near the family chateau. Neither his mother nor his father attended the ceremony. Marie-Louise was still recovering from giving birth; Gilbert was off fighting and, in fact, died before seeing his son.
The death of Lafayette’s father at the hands of the British—he was, Lafayette later wrote, “carried off by a ball from an English battery, commanded by a certain General Phillips”—had a strong impact on the young boy.4 Growing up, his grandmother repeatedly and forcefully reminded him that his father had been killed by the British.
Lafayette lived the life of a pampered, doted-upon noble child at Chavaniac. Following the death of his infant sister in 1760, Lafayette’s mother spent long periods of time at the Versailles court and in Paris with her father and grandfather. The young Gilbert stayed home in Chavaniac, where he came under the tutelage of his grandmother and two aunts, and grew up in the company of his cousin Marie de Guèrin, a surrogate younger sister. He was the pampered young male heir—a handsome, red-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned boy who ran wild in the forests and along the village’s streets, wooden sword in hand, playing war games with the peasant boys of the town.
Gilbert and Marie’s tutor, Abbé Fayon, spiced up his reading, writing, arithmetic, and language (French and Latin) lessons with tales of the exploits of the Gallic chieftain Vercingetorix, who waged guerrilla war against Caesar’s Roman legions in Auvergne. Fayon also recounted stories of the military triumphs of generations of Lafayette men. “It was natural that I grew up hearing many tales of war and glory in the family so closely tied to memories and sorrows associated with war,” Lafayette later said.5 “From the time I was eight,” he wrote in his memoirs, “I longed for glory. I remember nothing of my childhood more than my fervor for tales of glory and my plans to travel the world in quest of fame.”6
The idyllic life ended at Chavaniac in 1768 when Lafayette, not yet twelve years old, submitted to his mother and great-grandfather’s will and moved north to Paris. He was to live with them and with his maternal grandfather, the Comte de La Rivière, who was a widower as was Lafayette’s great-grandfather. Lafayette’s new home was a spacious suite of self-contained luxury apartments given to his great-grandfather by the king in the opulent Palais du Luxembourg on Paris’s Left Bank in the Latin Quarter.
It took a week for Lafayette’s carriage to reach Paris, where he joined his mother and for the first time met his great-grandfather, his grandfather (Joseph-Yves-Thibauld-Hyacinthe, the Comte de La Rivière), and uncle (the Comte de Lusignem). The world of the young man who was the center of his small provincial universe abruptly changed. Although his tutor, Abbé Fayon, came with him to Paris, young Gilbert left behind the carefree, lord-of-the-manor existence at Chavaniac and faced life in France’s largest city as a naïve, young, pampered boy from the provinces.
It was soon decided that the boy would carry on family tradition and become a military man, something that Lafayette happily accepted. The first step was to enroll him in the Collège du Plessis, an exclusive school for children of the nobility. Faculty from the nearby Sorbonne supervised the teaching at the Collège, where for four years Lafayette studied mathematics, history, geography, French literature, theology, law, and rhetoric. He also read the works of the later Roman Republic’s poets and philosophers (including Cicero, Seneca, and Plutarch) and Caesar’s Commentaries, all in the original Latin.
His Latin studies at the Collège included accounts of Vercingetorix’s heroic defense of Lafayette’s Auvergne homeland against the Romans in the first century BC, Something that cemented the boy’s appreciation for the military exploits of his hometown hero. Lafayette later said that he “had a higher regard for Vercingetorix defending our mountains than for Clovis [who first united France] and his successors.” He added that he “would much rather have been Vercingetorix defending the mountains of Auvergne.”7
On April 3, 1770, tragedy struck when, after a brief illness, Lafayette’s mother died at age thirty-two at Luxembourg Palace. Just three weeks later, his grief-stricken great-grandfather, the Comte de La Rivière, also died. With those deaths, the thirteen-year-old Lafayette inherited an enormous fortune. Overnight he became one of the richest people in France, inheriting vast lands in Brittany and an income of 120,000 livres a year, roughly equivalent to more than a million of today’s American dollars.
Before he died, Lafayette’s great-grandfather saw to it that the young boy enrolled in his old royal regiment, the Black Musketeers. And on April 9, 1771, six months before his fourteenth birthday and almost exactly one year after his mother and great-grandfather’s deaths, Lafayette was commissioned a sous-lieutenant (the lowest officer rank). It was a largely ceremonial job, one that barely took him away from his studies. But the youthful lieutenant did get to take part in Black Musketeer activities such as marching in military reviews and parades and presenting himself in uniform at court in Versailles to King Louis XV.
Through his connections at the court, Lafayette’s great-grandfather arranged for the young teenager to marry into another immensely wealthy French family, and one with royal blood, the Noailles. This powerful and influential family was headed by Jean-Paul-François de Noailles, the Duc d’Ayen, who was a brigadier general in the army of King Louis XV.
After months of negotiations (in which the betrothed couple did not take part; Adrienne’s father and one of Lafayette’s uncles made all the arrangements), the adults signed a marriage contract on February 15, 1773. Because royal blood was involved, Louis XV also signed the contract along with his three sons, all of whom would later become kings of France. The contract included a dowry of 200,000 livres. Lafayette’s marriage to Marie Adrienne Francoise de Noailles, known as Adrienne, did not take place until April 11, 1774. He was sixteen; she would turn fifteen six months later. As John Quincy Adams put it in an 1834 speech, a eulogy, Lafayette was joined with “the house of Noailles, the most distinguished family of the Kingdom, scarcely deemed in public consideration inferior to that which wore the Crown.”8
Abigail Adams, who formed a fast friendship with Adrienne, described her as a warm, unpretentious woman who was devoted to her husband and children. The first time they met, Abigail said, Adrienne “met me at the door, and with the freedom of an old acquaintance, and the rapture peculiar to the ladies of this nation, caught me by the hand and gave me a salute upon each cheek, most heartily rejoiced to see me. You would have supposed I had been some long absent friend, whom she dearly loved.”9
Within days after the marriage contract was signed in 1773, the adults moved young Lafayette into a suite of rooms in the Noailles family’s palatial mansion in Versailles. The family had other residences, including one in Paris; but during the time they spent in Versailles, the betrothed teenagers had the opportunity to get acquainted for the first time. By all indications they fell in love and would remain happily married until her death in 1808.
The move to Versailles also meant the end of Lafayette’s days at the Collège du Plessis. The family first arranged for him to take lessons at home again from Abbé Fayon and a former military officer named Margelay. The plan was for the young descendant of warriors to continue on the path to a military career, which included lessons at the riding academy in Versailles. One of Lafayette’s fellow students there was another young teenager, the Comte d’Artois, the future King Charles X.
Lafayette’s future in-laws then arranged for the boy to attend the prestigious Académie de Versailles. Because one of his wedding gifts from the Duc de Noailles was the promise of commanding a company in his family cavalry regiment upon turning eighteen, Lafayette received a lieutenant’s commission in the Noailles Dragoons on April 7, 1773.
The wedding of Gilbert Lafayette and Adrienne Noailles took place in the small chapel at the Noailles mansion in Paris. The reception that followed was a lavish affair that attracted members of the royal family, diplomats, and aristocrats from across the Continent. It included a feast of more than a hundred appetizers, stews, meats, salads, and desserts. After the wedding, the newlyweds moved into a wing of the Noailles Paris mansion.
Soon thereafter, Lafayette took part in summer maneuvers with his regiment at the headquarters of the French Army of the East at Metz, just inside the Prussian border. His two closest fellow officers were his flamboyant brother-in-law, the eighteen-year-old Vicomte de Noailles, and the twenty-one-year-old Louis, Comte de Ségur.
When he returned to Paris in September of 1774, Lafayette reluctantly heeded his in-laws’ wishes and plunged into life at the court of twenty-year-old King Louis XVI, who had acceded to the throne in May following the death of Louis XV. Lafayette, his young wife, and her relatives were often in the company of Queen Marie Antoinette and her court. But Lafayette was too taciturn and unsophisticated, and he did not care for the frivolousness of the infamously decadent court life that the queen fashioned at Versailles. Lafayette was not a big drinker, and he was a bad dancer. He simply did not fit in.
Lafayette later spoke of the “unfavorable opinion” that his silence earned him at the French court: “I did not heed and scarcely listened to things that did not appear to be worthy of discussion. That … inclination to be observant was not moderated by the awkwardness of my manners, which … never succumbed to the graces of the court … . And when my wife’s family obtained a place for me at court, I did not hesitate to be disagreeable to preserve my independence.”10
Lafayette lived the life of the reluctant courtier and enthusiastic young officer for two more years. He received a promotion to captain in the Noailles Dragoons on May 19, 1775, and continued to serve in that cavalry unit, making periodic trips to French Army headquarters at Metz. Life in the summer garrison was far from spartan. The young officers, Lafayette included, more or less carried on there as they did at court: with plenty of drinking, gambling, and womanizing. Nevertheless, Lafayette and the other officers did learn most of the military basics at Metz, spending time drilling troops and learning tactics and strategy from the experienced (and lower-class) professional officers.
In the summer of 1775, the seventeen-year-old captain had a portentous meeting in Metz with the British Duke of Gloucester, the younger, disaffected brother of King George III. The duke was out of favor in the House of Hanover for marrying the illegitimate daughter of the famed diarist and author Horace Walpole.
In August, the duke and his wife came to Metz, where the Comte Charles-François de Broglie, the French Army commander and innovative military leader who was rabidly anti-British, invited the royal couple to be the guests of honor at a dinner with his officers. The young Marquis de Lafayette, the Vicomte de Noailles, and the Comte de Ségur were among the guests.
Both Broglie and the Duke of Gloucester were Freemasons, and the talk at the table dealt with Masonic ideas of equality and the rights of man. The Frenchmen also received an earful from the English duke about his brother’s inadequacies and mistakes, which included waging war against the rebellious American colonists, a conflict that had begun in earnest in April of that year with the Battles of Lexington and Concord.
The atmosphere was decidedly pro-American and anti-British. The latter sentiment had a strong appeal to Lafayette, who had grown up loathing the British for killing his father. Lafayette, along with the other French officers, also believed strongly that if England put down the American colonial rebellion, it would tip the global balance of power and set the British on the road to taking over France’s overseas possessions. An American victory over the British, on the other hand, would greatly diminish England’s vast international empire.
Lafayette, his brother-in-law, and Ségur left that dinner fired up about the American cause and the tenets of Freemasonry. In Paris, they enthusiastically joined other like-minded young men in intellectual and political clubs where they discussed these and other burning issues of the day. On December 15, 1775, the three young men joined the newly established Saint-Jean de la Candeur Masonic Lodge, one of a dozen “Lodges of Adoption” in the city and one that consisted primarily of members of the nobility.11
In March of 1776, the king named the Comte de St. Germain to be the new war minister. St. Germain instituted a series of reforms, including abolishing some regiments and reducing the number of officers from the privileged classes. Among the eliminated companies was the Black Musketeers, Lafayette’s former regiment. His current unit, the Noailles Dragoons, was reorganized and a good number of its young, inexperienced, upper-class officers were relegated to part-time duty.
Lafayette was a prime candidate for demotion, with no battle experience and having had his wife’s powerful family all but purchase his commission. He was relieved from active duty on June 11, 1776, and made a captain of the reserves less than a month before the rebellious American colonies officially declared their independence from England. The demotion did not exactly bode well for Lafayette’s ambition to become a career military officer in the French Army. Nor did the fact that France was not at war, and it did not appear there were any conflicts brewing on the horizon.
Word of the July 4, 1776, Declaration of Independence did not reach France until the fall of that year. When Lafayette learned what happened, he later said, “my heart espoused warmly the cause of liberty, and I thought of nothing but of adding also the aid of my banner.”12 He knew that his wife’s family would object, and because he was under twenty-five, Lafayette would need his in-laws’ permission to go overseas. His family did not want the young husband leaving France for several reasons, one of them being that his wife had, on December 15, given birth to their first child, Henriette.
But the young man was determined.
“I depended, therefore, solely upon myself,” he said, “and I ventured to adopt for a device on my arms these words, ‘Cur non?’ that they might equally serve as an encouragement to myself, and as a reply to others.”13
The Comte de Broglie at first counseled him not to go to America. The count had seen war firsthand; he had, in fact, been with Lafayette’s father when he was killed at Minden. “I will not be accessory to the ruin of the only remaining branch of your family,” he told Lafayette.14
But Lafayette would not be swayed. He was aided in his persistence by his adventurous brother-in-law, the Vicomte de Noailles, and by their close friend, the Comte de Ségur, both of whom also longed to go to America.
Lafayette’s stubborn determination overcame Broglie’s resistance. Broglie was not acting completely out of a sense of altruism. He had big ambitions of his own—to go to America and take over as commander-in-chief in the fight against the British. Getting one of the richest young French officers in his debt, Broglie knew, could only help his audacious plan.
Months earlier, Broglie had introduced Lafayette to another ardent supporter of the American cause against England, Johan de Kalb. A German-born veteran of the Seven Years’ War, Kalb had served under Broglie at the Metz garrison. In 1768, Kalb had ventured to the American colonies on a secret mission for France’s Secretary of State Étienne François, the Duke of Choiseul, to assess the military situation there. Nothing came of that assignment, but after the fighting began, Kalb decided he wanted to make his military fortune in America and by 1776 had begun to recruit French officers to join the cause.
In November 1776, Broglie arranged for Lafayette to meet with Kalb, who worked as a sort of middleman helping other French officers who wanted to go to America and fight the British. Lafayette met almost daily throughout that month with Kalb. Then, in early December, Kalb arranged a meeting with Silas Deane and his aide, William Carmichael. Deane, a Connecticut merchant and patriot, had been sent to Paris by the Continental Congress to secure French support for the fight against the British. Posing as merchants, Deane and Carmichael helped arrange significant shipments of money, cannons, muskets, ammunition, tents, and other military supplies—and French officers—to the American cause. The two Americans had to work in secret because the French did not want it known that they were helping the rebellious Americans.
“When I presented to Mr. Deane my boyish face, (for I was scarcely nineteen years of age) I spoke more of my ardor in the cause than of my experience,” Lafayette wrote in his memoirs, “but I dwelt much upon the effect my departure would excite in France, and he signed our mutual agreement.” As for Broglie, Lafayette later said, with a certain amount of naïveté or self-delusion, “[his] affectionate heart, when all his efforts to turn me from this project had proved in vain, entered into my views with even paternal tenderness.”15
On December 7, 1776, the nineteen-year-old Frenchman signed a contract with Deane—who, like many colonial leaders, was a Mason—which they dictated to Kalb, who spoke excellent English and served as translator. During his discussions with Deane, Lafayette pushed hard to be given the rank of major general in the Continental Army. This was the same rank that Deane had offered Kalb, an experienced war veteran who was fifty-five years old. Lafayette argued that unless he received a high rank, he never would be able to convince his family—primarily his powerful father-in-law, the Duc d’Ayen—to allow him to go to America.
In the contract’s addendum, Lafayette wrote, in part: “I offer myself, and promise to depart when and how Mr. Deane shall judge proper, to serve the United States with all possible zeal, without any pension or particular allowance, reserving to myself the liberty of returning to Europe when my family or my king shall recall me.”16
The offer to fight without pay helped convince Deane to go along with the young man’s demand for a high rank. Lafayette’s “high birth, his alliances, the great dignities which his family hold at this court, his considerable estates in this realm, his personal merit, his reputation, his disinterestedness, and, above all, his zeal for the liberty of our provinces,” Deane said in the agreement, “have only been able to engage me to promise him the rank of Major General in the name of the United States.”17
Copyright © Marc Leepson, 2011.