Almost every state in America has a town named Fayetteville or a county named
Fayette. But few people realize why those place names are so prevalent.
They all were named in honor of an adventurous Frenchman with a name as
large as his ambition: Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier,
better known as the Marquis de Lafayette.
He was only twenty
years old and an orphan when in 1777 he sailed to America to offer his
services to General George Washington. Lafayette had heard about the
American revolution at a dinner party, and he immediately resolved to
help the struggling colonies.
Born in 1757 to a noble family,
Lafayette lost both his parents before he was thirteen. His father was
killed by the British in the Seven Years' War, and the young Lafayette
yearned to become a soldier himself. "I was crazy to wear a uniform," he
remembered. He also wanted revenge against the British. So Lafayette,
made wealthy by his inheritance and his marriage, outfitted a ship to
take him to America. Leaving behind his pregnant wife and year-old
daughter, and knowing no English, he set sail for Philadelphia. Upon his
arrival, he so impressed the Continental Congress with his fervor that
the delegates appointed him a major general. Lafayette not only refused
payment for his services, he also contributed over $200,000 toward the
Young Lafayette had no combat experience but
limitless energy and conviction. The red-headed romantic was intoxicated
by a love of liberty and driven by what Thomas Jefferson called "a
canine appetite for fame." George Washington found Lafayette
captivating. The young Frenchman, he wrote Congress, "possesses a large
share of bravery and military ardor." At the Battle of Brandywine,
Lafayette was shot in the leg. After recovering, he joined Washington's
threadbare army for the brutal winter at Valley Forge. There he earned
the nickname "the Soldier's Friend" for sharing the troops' privations
and relentlessly foraging for provisions. He returned to Paris in 1779
to enlist French support for the American cause, and brought back a
fresh commitment of soldiers, weapons, and cash. As one of Washington's
division commanders, Lafayette played a vital role in the entrapment of
the British army at the decisive battle of Yorktown. General Washington,
whom Lafayette views as a surrogate father, declared him an "essential
friend to America."
Having helped America gain its independence,
Lafayette returned to France in 1781, a "hero in two worlds." For the
rest of his life, the democratic aristocrat remained an incessant
champion of liberty and liberal nationalism. He promoted independence
for Greece, Italy, and Poland, and he played a leading role in the early
stages of the French Revolution.
In 1789, after an enraged crowd
launched the revolution by storming the Bastille in Paris and releasing
its prisoners, Lafayette drafted a bill of rights inspired by
Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. But his moderate stance
promoting a constitutional monarchy irritated both conservative
royalists and the militant French revolutionaries. In 1792 he fell afoul
of the radical Jacobins when he tried to protect the royal family from
execution. The Assembly denounced him as a traitor, and he fled the
country, only to be imprisoned in an Austrian dungeon. During his
five-year captivity, Lafayette learned that many of his relatives were
guillotined in Paris during the Reign of Terror. His despondent wife and
daughters traveled to Vienna to beg for his release but only gained
permission to join Lafayette in his cell.
Bonaparte defeated the Austrians in 1797, Lafayette and his family were
released. Back in France, Lafayette eventually became a leading member
of the Chamber of Deputies. At La Grange, his French estate in the
countryside east of Paris (for which LaGrange, Georgia is named), he
hosted freedom fighters from around the world.
turbulent life, Lafayette maintained an intense affection for the United
States. He named his first son "George Washington" and a daughter
"Virginia," and he cherished his American citizenship, granted by
In 1824 President James Monroe invited Lafayette to
visit the United States in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the
Revolution. After his triumphal arrival in New York City, the theatrical
Lafayette spent 19 months touring all 24 states, drawing huge and
adoring crowds, receiving six honorary degrees from colleges, and
delivering rousing speeches. He dined in the White House with President
Monroe and visited Jefferson at Monticello. In Tennessee he was greeted
by Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, who had just
lost the presidential election to John Quincy Adams.
de Lafayette died on May 20, 1834, at the age of 76. His coffin was
covered with earth from the battlefield at Bunker Hill that he had
brought back with him in 1825. The American flag has flown over
Lafayette's Paris grave ever since. A new flag is raised every July 4th.
Lafayette continues to symbolize a steadfast commitment to human rights
and political freedom. He was an apostle of liberty courageous enough
to die for it. Vive Lafayette!