Lafayette for Young Americans - Rupert Holland

"Wake Up! I'm Going to America to Fight for Freedom!"

Although the young Marquis had deliberately given up a career at court, there was every promise of his having a brilliant career in the army. Soon after his famous speech to the King's brother, in August, 1775, he was transferred from his regiment of Black Musketeers to a command in what was known as the "Regiment de Noailles," which had for its colonel a young man of very distinguished family, Monseigneur the Prince de Poix, who was a cousin of Lafayette's wife.

The "Regiment de Noailles "was stationed at Metz, a garrison city some two hundred miles to the east of Paris. The commander of Metz was the Count de Broglie, a marshal and prince of France, who had commanded the French armies in the Seven Years' War, in one of the battles of which Lafayette's father had been killed. The Count de Broglie had known Lafayette's father and had greatly admired him, and he did all he could to befriend the son, inviting him to all the entertainments he gave.

It happened that early in August the Count de Broglie gave a dinner in honor of a young English prince, the Duke of Gloucester, and Lafayette, in the blue and silver uniform of his rank, was one of the guests at the table. The Duke of Gloucester was at the time in disgrace with his brother, King George the Third of England, because he had dared to marry a wife whom King George disliked. The Duke was really in exile from England, and in the company of the French officers he had no hesitation in speaking his mind about his royal brother and even in poking fun at some of his plans. And the Duke made a special point of criticizing King George for his policy toward the colonists in America.

In that very year of the dinner-party at Metz, in the spring of 1775, a rebellion had broken out in the colonies, and there had actually been a fight between American farmers and British regulars at the village of Lexington in the colony of Massachusetts Bay. The Duke had received word of the obstinate resistance of the farmers peasants, he called them at Lexington and Concord, and of the retreat of Lord Percy and his troops to Boston. The Duke told the dinner-party, all about the discomfiture of his royal brother, laughing heartily at it, and also related how in that same seaport of Boston the townspeople had thrown a cargo of tea into the harbor rather than pay the royal tax on it.

The Duke talked and Lafayette listened. The Duke spoke admiringly of the pluck of the American farmers, but pointed out that it was impossible for the colonists to win against regular troops unless experienced officers and leaders should help them. "They are poor, they are ill led," said the Duke, "they have no gentlemen-soldiers to show them how to fight, and the king my brother is determined to bring them into subjection by harsh and forcible methods if need be. But my letters say that the Americans seem set upon opposing force with force, and, as the country is large and the colonies scattered, it certainly looks as if the trouble would be long and serious. If but the Americans were well led, I should say the rebellion might really develop into a serious affair."

Most of the officers knew little about America; even Lafayette had only a vague idea about the colonies on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. But the Duke's words stirred him deeply; he sat leaning far forward, his eyes shining with interest, his face expressing the closest attention.

Finally, as the guests rose from the table, Lafayette burst forth impetuously. "But could one help these peasants over there beyond the seas, monseigneur?" he asked the Duke.

The English prince smiled at the young Frenchman's eagerness. "One could, my lord marquis, if he were there," he answered.

"Then tell me, I pray you," continued Lafayette, "how one may do it, monseigneur. Tell me how to set about it. For see, I will join these Americans; I will help them fight for freedom!"

Again the Duke smiled; the words seemed extravagant on the lips of a French officer. But a glance at Lafayette's face showed how much the boy was in earnest. The words were no idle boast; the speaker plainly meant them. So the Duke answered, "Why, I believe you would, my lord. It wouldn't take much to start you across the sea, if your people would let you."

Lafayette smiled to himself. He had already done one thing that his family disapproved of, and he did not intend to let them prevent his embarking on such an enterprise as this, one that appealed so intensely to his love of liberty. He asked the Duke of Gloucester all the questions he could think of, and the Duke gave him all the information he had about America.

The dinner-party broke up, and most of the officers soon forgot all the conversation; but not so the young Marquis; that evening had been one of the great events of his life. As he said afterward, "From that hour I could think of nothing but this enterprise, and I resolved to go to Paris at once to make further inquiries."

His mind made up by what he had heard at Metz, Lafayette set off for Paris. But once there, it was hard to decide where he should turn for help. His father-in-law, he knew, would be even more scandalized by his new plan than he had been by the affront the young man had given the King's brother. His own wife was too young and inexperienced to give him wise counsel in such a matter. Finally he chose for his first real confidant his cousin and close friend, the Count de Segur. Lafayette went at once to his cousin's house, though it was only seven o'clock in the morning, was told that the Count was not yet out of bed, but, without waiting to be announced, rushed upstairs and woke the young man.

The Count saw his cousin standing beside him and shaking him by the arm. In great surprise he sat up. "Wake up! wake up!" cried Lafayette. "Wake up! I'm going to America to fight for freedom! Nobody knows it yet; but I love you too much not to tell you."

The Count sprang out of bed and caught Lafayette's hand. "If that is so, I will go with you!" he cried. "I will go to America too! I will fight with you for freedom! How soon do you start?"

It was easier said than done, however. The two young men had breakfast and eagerly discussed this momentous matter. The upshot of their discussion was to decide to enlist a third friend in their cause, and so they set out to see Lafayette's brother-in-law, the Viscount Louis Marie de Noailles, who was a year older than the Marquis.

The young Viscount, like the Count de Segur, heard Lafayette's news with delight, for he also belonged to that small section of the French nobility that was very much interested in what was called "the rights of man." So here were three young fellows, hardly more than boys, for none of the three was over twenty years old, all of high rank and large fortune, eager to do what they could to help the fighting farmers of the American colonies.

At the very start, however, they ran into difficulties. France and England, though not on very friendly terms at that particular time, were yet keeping the peace between them, and the French prime minister was afraid that if the English government should learn that a number of young French aristocrats were intending to aid the rebellious American colonists it might cause ill-feeling between France and England. The prime minister, therefore, frowned on all such schemes as that of Lafayette, and so the three young liberty-loving conspirators had to set about their business with the greatest secrecy.

Lafayette's next step was to hunt out a man who had been sent over to France from the American colonies as a secret agent, a representative of what was known as the American Committee of Secret Correspondence, of which Benjamin Franklin was a member. This man was Silas Deane of the colony of Connecticut. Deane was secretly sending arms and supplies from France to America, but he was so closely watched by the agents of the English Ambassador, Lord Stormont, that it was very difficult to see him without rousing suspicions.

While the Marquis was studying the problem of how to get in touch with Deane he confided his secret to the Count de Broglie, his superior officer at Metz and his very good friend. The Count was at once opposed to any such rash venture. "You want to throw your life away in that land of savages!" exclaimed De Broglie. "Why, my dear Lafayette, it is the craziest scheme I ever heard of! And to what purpose?"

"For the noblest of purposes, sir," answered the Marquis. "To help a devoted people win their liberty! What ambition could be nobler?"

"It is a dream, my friend, a dream that can never be fulfilled," said the old soldier. "I will not help you to throw your life away. I saw your uncle die in the wars of Italy, I witnessed your brave father's death at the battle of Hastenbeck, and I cannot be a party to the ruin of the last of your name, the only one left of the stock of the Lafayettes!"

But even the old Marshal could not withstand the ardor and enthusiasm of the youth. So vehemently did Lafayette set forth his wishes that finally the Count promised that he would not actively oppose his plans, and presently agreed to introduce the Marquis to a Bavarian soldier named De Kalb, who might be able to help him.

"I will introduce you to De Kalb," said the Count. "He is in Paris now, and perhaps through him you may be able to communicate with this American agent, Monsieur Deane."

De Kalb was a soldier of fortune who had been to America long before the Revolution and knew a great deal about the colonies. At present he was in France, giving what information he could to the government there. And the upshot of Lafayette's talk with the Count de Broglie was that the latter not only gave the Marquis a letter to De Kalb but also actually asked De Kalb to go to America and see if he could arrange things so that he, the Count de' Broglie, might be invited by the American Congress to cross the ocean and become commander-in-chief of the American army! Perhaps it was natural that the veteran Marshal of France should think that he would make a better commander-in-chief than the untried George Washington.

The Baron de Kalb arranged that the Count de Broglie should see Silas Deane of Connecticut. Silas Deane was impressed with the importance of securing such a powerful friend and leader for his hard-pressed people, and he at once agreed to see what he could do for De Broglie, and promised Baron de Kalb the rank of major-general in the American army and signed an agreement with him by which fifteen French officers should go to America on a ship that was fitting out with arms and supplies.

This fell in beautifully with Lafayette's wishes. De Broglie introduced the Marquis to De Kalb, and De Kalb presented him to Silas Deane. This was in December, 1776, and Lafayette, only nineteen, slight of figure; looked very boyish for such an enterprise. But he plainly showed that his whole heart was in his plan, and, as he said himself, "made so much out of the small excitement that my going away was likely to cause," that the American agent was carried away by his enthusiasm, and in his own rather reckless fashion, wrote out a paper by which the young Marquis was to enter the service of the American colonies as a major-general.

Deane's enthusiasm over Lafayette's offer of his services may be seen from what he wrote in the agreement. The paper he sent to Congress in regard to this volunteer ran as follows: "His high birth, his alliances, the great dignities which his family holds 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, are such as have only been able to engage me to promise him the rank of major-general in the name of the United States. In witness of which I have signed the present this seventh of December, 1776. Silas Deane, Agent for the United States of America."

By this time the colonies had issued their Declaration of Independence, and called themselves, as Silas Deane described them, the United States of America.

Imagine Lafayette's joy at this result of his meeting with Silas Deane! It seemed as if his enthusiasm had already won him his goal. But there were other people to be considered, and his family were not as much delighted with his plans as the man from Connecticut had been.

As a matter of fact his father-in-law, the powerful Duke d'Ayen, was furious, and so were most of the others of his family. His cousin, the Count de Segur, described the feelings of Lafayette's relations. "It is easy to conceive their astonishment," he wrote, "when they learned suddenly that this young sage of nineteen, so cool and so indifferent, had been so far carried away by the love of glory and of danger as to intend to cross the ocean and fight in the cause of American freedom." There was more of a storm at home than when the self-willed young Marquis had of his own accord disgraced himself at court.

But his wife Adrienne, girl though she was, understood him far better than the rest of the family, and even sympathized with his great desire. "God wills that you should go," she said to her husband. "I have prayed for guidance and strength. Whatever others think, you shall not be blamed."

Others, however, did have to be reckoned with. Lafayette's two friends, the Count (le Segur and the Viscount de Noailles, both of whom had been so eager to go with him, had found that their fathers would not supply them with the money they needed and that the King would not consent to their going to America. Reluctantly they had to give up their plans. But Lafayette was rich, he had no need to ask for funds from any one; there was no difficulty for him on that score.

He was, however, an officer of France, and it was on that ground that his father-in-law tried to put an end to his scheme. He went to the King with his complaint about the wilful Marquis. At the same time the English Ambassador, who had got wind of the matter, also complained to King Louis. And Louis XVI., who had never concerned himself much about liberty and took little interest in the rebel farmers across the Atlantic, said that while he admired the enthusiasm of the Marquis de Lafayette, he could not think of permitting officers of his army to serve with the men of America who were in rebellion against his good friend the King of England. Therefore he issued an order forbidding any soldier in his service taking part in the Revolution in America.

The Duke d'Ayen was delighted. He went to Lafayette, and trying to put the matter on a friendly footing, said, "You had better return to your regiment at Metz, my dear son."

Lafayette drew himself up, his face as determined as ever. "No Lafayette was ever known to turn back," he answered. "I shall do as I have determined."

One of Lafayette's ancestors had adopted as his motto the words "Cur non," meaning "Why not?" and the Marquis now put these on his own coat of arms, the idea being, as he himself said, that they should serve him "both as an encouragement and a response."

By this time the young republic in America had sent Benjamin Franklin to help Silas Deane in Paris. Franklin heard of Lafayette's desires and knew how much help his influence might bring the new republic. So he set about to see what he could do to further Lafayette's plans.

At that moment things looked gloomy indeed for the Americans. Their army had been badly defeated at the battle of Long Island, and their friends in Europe were depressed. That, however, seemed to Lafayette all the more reason for taking them aid as quickly as he could, and when he heard that Benjamin Franklin was interested in him he made an opportunity to see the latter.

Franklin was perfectly fair with Lafayette. He gave the young Frenchman the exact news he had received from America, information that Washington's army of three thousand ragged and suffering men were retreating across New Jersey before the victorious and well-equipped troops of General Howe. He pointed out that the credit of the new republic was certain to sink lower and lower unless Washington should be able to win a victory and that at present it looked as if any such event was far away. And in view of all this Franklin, and Silas Deane also, was frank enough to tell Lafayette that his plan of aiding the United States at that particular time was almost foolhardy.

The Frenchman thanked them for their candor. "Until this moment, gentlemen," said he, "I have only been able to show you my zeal in your struggle; now the time has come when that zeal may be put to actual use. I am going to buy a ship and carry your officers and supplies to America in it. We must show our confidence in the cause, and it is in just such a time of danger as this that I want to share whatever fortune may have in store for you."

Franklin was immensely touched by the generosity of the young Marquis and told him so. But, practical man as he was, although he gladly accepted Lafayette's offer, he pointed out that as the American agents were closely watched in Paris it would be better for Lafayette to work through third parties and in some other place than the French capital, if possible.

Lafayette took these suggestions. At once he found that it was extremely difficult to secure a ship without discovery by the English Ambassador. Here the Count de Broglie again gave him aid. He introduced the Marquis to Captain Dubois, the brother of his secretary, an officer in one of the King's West Indian regiments, who happened to be at home on furlough at the time, and Lafayette engaged him as his agent. He sent him secretly to Bordeaux, the French seaport that was supposed to be safest from suspicion, and gave him the money to buy and supply a ship, the plan being that Captain Dubois should appear to be fitting out the vessel for the needs of his own regiment in the West Indies.

The needed repairs to the ship would take some time, and meanwhile, in order to escape all possible suspicion of his plans, Lafayette arranged with his cousin, the Prince de Poix, to make a journey to England. The Marquis de Noailles, Lafayette's uncle, was the French Ambassador to England, and he welcomed the two young noblemen with delight. Every one supposed that Lafayette had at last given up his wild schemes, and all the great houses of London were thrown open to him. He wrote of the amusement he felt at being presented to King George III., and of how much he enjoyed a ball at the house of Lord George Germain, the secretary for the colonies. At the opera he met Sir Henry Clinton, with whom he had a pleasant, friendly chat. The next time Sir Henry and he were to meet was to be on the field of arms at the Battle of Monmouth.

But he never took advantage of his hosts. He kept away from the English barracks and shipyards, though he was invited to inspect them. He was careful to a degree to avoid any act that might later be considered as having been in the nature of a breach of confidence. And after three weeks in the gay world of London he felt that he could brook no longer delay and told his uncle the Ambassador that he had taken a fancy to cross the Channel for a short visit at home.

His uncle opposed this idea, saying that so abrupt a departure would be discourteous to the English court, but Lafayette insisted. So the Marquis de Noailles finally offered to give out the report that his nephew was sick until the latter should return to London. Lafayette agreed. "I would not have proposed this stratagem," he said later, "but I did not object to it."

The voyage on the Channel was rough and Lafayette was seasick. As soon as he reached France he went to Paris and stayed in hiding at the house of Baron de Kalb. He had another interview with the American agents and sent out his directions to the men who were to sail with him. Then he slipped away to Bordeaux, where he found the sloop Victory, bought by Captain Dubois with Lafayette's money, and now ready for the voyage across the Atlantic.

Lafayette, however, could not sail away from France under his own name, and as a permit was required of every one leaving the country, a special one had to be made out for him. This is still kept at Bordeaux, and describes the passenger on the sloop as "Gilbert du Mottie, Chevalier de Chavaillac, aged about twenty, rather tall, light-haired, embarking on the Victory, Captain Lebourcier commanding, for a voyage to the Cape on private business." His name was not very much changed, for he was really Gilbert du Motier and also the Chevalier de Chavaniac, but probably a careless clerk, who had no concern in this particular young man's affairs, made the mistakes in spelling, and so aided Lafayette's disguise.

But all was not yet smooth sailing. Lord Stormont, the English Ambassador, heard of Lafayette's departure from Paris and also of his plans to leave France, and at once protested to the King. Lafayette's father-in-law likewise protested, and no sooner had the young nobleman arrived in Bordeaux than royal officers were on his track. The French government did not want him to sail, no matter how much it might secretly sympathize with the young republic across the ocean.

Having come so far, however, the intrepid Marquis did not intend to be stopped. He meant to sail on his ship, he meant to carry out the brave words he had spoken to his cousin. "I'm going to America to fight for freedom!" he had said, and he was determined to accomplish that end.