Lafayette for Young Americans - Rupert Holland




The Marquis Aids the United States in France

Word of the surrender at Yorktown was received all through the thirteen States with the greatest joy. Watchmen calling the hours of the night in the cities cried, "Twelve o'clock! All's well, and Cornwallis has surrendered!" Everywhere the people hailed this event as heralding the close of the long and distressing war. When one thinks of what they had endured since 1775 there is no wonder at the hymns of thanksgiving. And a ship at once sailed across the Atlantic to France with the glad tidings.

The surrender at Yorktown did mark the beginning of the end of the Revolution, though the conflict went on in a desultory fashion for two years more, and it was not until November 25, 1783, that the British evacuated New York City. But after Yorktown many of the French officers went home, and among them Lafayette. He wrote to the French minister, "The play is over, Monsieur le comte; the fifth act has just come to an end. I was somewhat disturbed during the former acts, but my heart rejoices exceedingly at this last, and I have no less pleasure in congratulating you upon the happy ending of our campaign."

Both Lafayette and Congress felt that the Marquis could now help the country greatly by his presence in France in case more men and money should be needed for further campaigns. So, with Washington's approval, Congress agreed that "Major-General the Marquis de Lafayette have permission to go to France and that he return at such time as shall be most convenient to him." And Congress also voted that Lafayette "be informed that, on a review of his conduct throughout the past campaign and particularly during the period in which he had the chief command in Virginia, the many new proofs which present themselves of his zealous attachment to the cause he has espoused, and of his judgment, vigilance, gallantry, and address in its defense, have greatly added to the high opinion entertained by Congress of his merits and military talents."

He took his leave of Washington, the man he admired more than any other in the world, and the commander-in-chief, who looked on the young Frenchman as if the latter was his own son, said in his dignified fashion, "I owe it to your friendship and to my affectionate regard for you, my dear marquis, not to let you leave this country without carrying with you fresh marks of my attachment to you and new expressions of the high sense I entertain of your military conduct and other important services in the course of the last campaign, although the latter are too well known to need the testimony of my approbation, and the former, I persuade myself, you believe is too well riveted to undergo diminution or change."

The Frenchman was not so reserved as the American. His ardent spirit shows in the letter he wrote his commander. "Adieu, my dear general," he said. "I know your heart so well that I am sure that no distance can alter your attachment to me. With the same candor I assure you that my love, my respect, my gratitude for you are above expression; that, at the moment of leaving you, I feel more than ever the struggle of those friendly ties that forever bind me to you, and that I anticipate the pleasure, the most wished-for pleasure, to be again with you, and, by my zeal and services, to gratify the feelings of my respect and affection."

On December 23, 1781, Lafayette sailed from Boston on the same frigate Alliance that had carried him back to France the first time. He was to be received in his native land like a conquering hero. Already Vergennes, the Secretary of State of France, had written to him. "Our joy is very great here and throughout the nation," said Vergennes, "and you may be assured that your name is held in veneration. . . . I have been following you, M. le Marquis, step by step, throughout your campaign in Virginia; and I should frequently have been anxious for your welfare if I had not been confident of your wisdom. It required a great deal of skill to maintain yourself, as you did, for so long a time, in spite of the disparity of your forces, before Lord Cornwallis, whose military talents are well known. It was you who brought him to the fatal ending, where, instead of his making you a prisoner of war, as he probably expected to do, you forced him to surrender."

He landed in France on January 17, 1782. If his former arrival had been a succession of triumphs, this one was doubly so. When he reached the house of the Duke de Noailles in Paris his wife was attending a fete at the Hotel de Ville in honor of the birth of the Dauphin. As soon as his arrival became known the Queen took Madame de Lafayette in her own carriage and went with her to welcome the Marquis. Louis XVI. announced that he had promoted Lafayette to the high rank of "Marechal de camp," and wrote to him, through his minister of war, "The King, having been informed, sir, of the military skill of which you have given repeated proof in the command of the various army corps entrusted to you in America, of the wisdom and prudence which have marked the services that you have performed in the interest of the United States, and of the confidence which you have won from General Washington, his Majesty has charged me to announce to you that the commendations which you most fully deserve have attracted his notice, and that your conduct and your success have given him, sir, the most favorable opinion of you, such as you might wish him to have, and upon which you may rely for his future goodwill."

very one delighted to entertain and praise him; the Marshal de Richelieu invited him to dine with all the marshals of France, and at the dinner the health of Washington was drunk with every honor. And if the King and the nobles were loud in their acclaim, the people were no less so; they called Lafayette by such extravagant titles as the "Conqueror of Cornwallis "and "the Saviour of America with Washington." Had it not been that Lafayette had a remarkably level head the things that people said and wrote about him might almost have made him believe that he had won the Revolution in America single-handed.

Naturally he enjoyed being with his dear wife and children again, but he was not a man who could contentedly lead the idle life of a nobleman in Paris. Soon he was busy doing what he could to help the cause of the young American republic in France. He saw a great deal of John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, the commissioners of the United States to the French court, and Franklin wrote home concerning him, "The Marquis de Lafayette was, at his return hither, received by all ranks with all possible distinction. He daily gains in the general esteem and affection, and promises to be a great man here. He is extremely attached to our cause; we are on the most friendly and confidential footing with each other, and he is really very serviceable to me in my applications for additional assistance."

He planned to return to America to re join the army. "In spite of all my happiness here," he wrote to Washington, "I cannot help wishing, ten times a day, to be on the other side of the Atlantic." But the Continental army was merely marking time, no active campaign was in progress, and neither Lafayette nor French troops were again needed to fight across the ocean.

The negotiations for peace were long drawn out, and in the autumn of 1782 France and Spain again planned a joint expedition against the English in America. A strong fleet of sixty battle-ships and an army of twenty-four thousand men were gathered with the purpose of sailing from the Spanish port of Cadiz to capture the English island of Jamaica and attack New York and Canada. Lafayette was made chief of staff of the combined expedition, and, wearing the uniform of an American general, he set sail from Brest early in December for Cadiz. But the grand fleet was still in port when a courier arrived with news that a treaty of peace had just been signed in Paris. So the fleet did not sail. A protocol, or provisional treaty, was drawn up, and on September 3, 1783, the final treaty was signed, by which Great Britain acknowledged the independence of the United States.

As soon as he heard the good news, Lafayette borrowed a ship, appropriately named the Triumph, and sent it off to Philadelphia with the earliest word of peace. And by the same ship he despatched a letter to Washington. "As for you, my dear general," he wrote, "who can truly say that all this is your work, what must be the feelings of your good and virtuous heart in this happy moment! The eternal honor in which my descendants will glory, will be to have had an ancestor among your soldiers, to know that he had the good fortune of being a friend of your heart. To the eldest of them I bequeath, as long as my posterity shall endure, the favor that you have conferred upon my son George, by allowing him to bear your name."

To Vergennes Lafayette wrote, "My great affair is settled; America is sure of her independence; humanity has gained its cause, and liberty will never be without a refuge."

From Cadiz the Marquis went to Madrid, where he straightened out affairs between the United States and the court of Spain. Then he went back to Paris, made several visits to his old castle and estates in Auvergne, and helped Franklin and Adams and John Jay in putting the affairs of the new republic on a satisfactory footing.

He wanted greatly to see that young republic, now that war was over and peace had come, and at last his wish was gratified. Washington had written him frequently, urging the Marquis to visit him, and had begged Madame de Lafayette to come with her husband. "Come then, let me entreat you," Washington wrote to Adrienne. "Call my cottage your own; for your own doors do not open to you with more readiness than would mine. You will see the plain manner in which we live, and meet with rustic civility; and you will taste the simplicity of rural life. It will diversify the scene, and may give you a higher relish for the gayeties of the court when you return to Versailles."

Adrienne de Lafayette, however, was as much of a home-lover as George Washington. Versailles had never attracted her, and she liked to spend most of her time at the castle of Chavaniac. The voyage across the Atlantic was a long and trying experience in those days and so she answered that she preferred to stay in France. She also sent Washington a letter from her little daughter, born while her husband was in camp in America.

Lafayette sailed from Havre on July 1, 1784, and reached New York, which he had never yet seen, on August fourth. Throngs, eager to sing his praises, met him at the harbor, and followed him everywhere on his travels. From New York he went to Philadelphia, and then to Richmond, where Washington met him. He visited the scenes of his great Virginia campaign at Williamsburg and Yorktown, and spent two happy weeks with his beloved friend George Washington at the latter's home at Mount Vernon. From there he went north again, to Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. Up the broad Hudson he traveled to Albany, where he went with American commissioners to a council with dissatisfied Mohawk chiefs. And to the sons of primitive America the young Frenchman, lover of liberty everywhere, spoke so appealingly that he quickly won them away from their enmity for their white neighbors. "Father," said the Mohawk chief, "we have heard thy voice and we rejoice that thou hast visited thy children to give to them good and necessary advice. Thou hast said that we have done wrong in opening our ears to wicked men, and closing our hearts to thy counsels. Father, it is all true; we have left the good path; we have wandered away from it and have been enveloped in a black cloud. We have now returned that thou mayest find in us good and faithful children. We rejoice to hear thy voice among us. It seems that the Great Spirit had directed thy footsteps to this council of friendship to smoke the calumet of peace and fellowship with thy long-lost children."

Indeed it did seem that the Great Spirit directed the steps of this man to the places where he was the most needed.

From Albany Lafayette went across country to Boston, where he was given a great reception and banquet in Faneuil Hall. A portrait of Washington was unveiled behind the Marquis at the table, and he sprang to his feet and led in the burst of cheers that followed. Through New England he went as far as Portsmouth in New Hampshire, and then turned south to make a second visit to Mount Vernon. Everywhere he went he was received as the man whom the United States especially desired to honor. Unquestionably he deserved all the praise and gratitude that was showered upon him, for he had left his wife, his home, his friends, his fortune, and had come to America in one of the darkest hours of her fight for independence, and by his confidence in her cause had done much to help her win her victory. He had brought French troops and money, but most of all he had brought that unselfish devotion which had so heartened the people. The United States did not forget what it owed to Lafayette in 1784, it has never forgotten it; the republic of the Western World has shown that it has a long and faithful memory.

At Trenton Lafayette stopped to resign his commission in the American army, and Congress sent a committee made up of one representative from each State to express the thanks of the nation. Then he returned to Washington's estate on the banks of the Potomac, and there walked over the beautiful grounds of Mount Vernon, discussing agriculture with the owner, and sat with the latter in his library, listening to Washington's hopes concerning the young nation for which both men had done so much. History shows no more ideal friendship than that between the great American and the great Frenchman, a friendship of inestimable value for the two lands from which they sprang.

When the time came for parting Washington drove his guest as far as Annapolis in his carriage. There the two friends separated, not to meet again. Washington went back to Mount Vernon, and there wrote a farewell letter to Lafayette. "In the moment of our separation," he said, "upon the road as I traveled and every hour since, I have felt all that love, respect, and attachment for you, with which length of years, close connection, and your merits have inspired me. . . . It is unnecessary, I persuade myself, to repeat to you, my dear marquis, the sincerity of my regards and friendship, nor have I words which could express my affection for you, were I to attempt it. My fervent prayers are offered for your safe and pleasant passage, a happy meeting with Madame de Lafayette and family, and the completion of every wish of your heart."

Lafayette answered after he had gone on board the Nymphe at New York. "Adieu, adieu, my dear general," said he. "It is with inexpressible pain that I feel I am going to be severed from you by the Atlantic. Everything that admiration, respect, gratitude, friendship, and filial love can inspire is combined in my affectionate heart to devote me most tenderly to you. In your friendship I find a delight which words cannot express. Adieu, my dear general. It is not without emotion that I write this word. Be attentive to your health. Let me hear from you every month. Adieu, adieu."

On Christmas Day, 1784, Lafayette sailed for France, expecting to return to his adopted country in a few years. He was not to return, however, for a long time, and in the interval much was to happen to himself and his own land.

In the following summer the Marquis made a journey through Germany and Austria, where he was received not only as a French field-marshal, but as an informal representative of America and a friend of Washington, who could answer the questions about the new republic which every one was eager to ask. At Brunswick he visited the duke who was later to lead the German troops against the army of revolutionary France. At Potsdam he was entertained by Frederick the Great, who happened on one occasion to place Lafayette between the English Duke of York and Lord Cornwallis at table. Lafayette was, as always, delightful company, and the general he had defeated at Yorktown wrote home to a friend in England, "Lafayette and I were the best friends possible in Silesia."

The Frenchman saw reviews of the Prussian armies, and was much impressed by the discipline of Frederick the Great. But he did not like that ruler, and spoke of his "despotic, selfish, and harsh character," and he liked his military system still less. He wrote to General Knox, "The mode of recruiting is despotic; there is hardly any provision for old soldiers, and although I found much to admire, I had rather be the last farmer in America than the first general in Berlin."

From Prussia he went to Austria, where he met the emperor, and there, as in all his travels, he told every one of his admiration for the United States and for Washington, and tried to make them see how much the young republic had already accomplished for the happiness of men.

The love of liberty was the dominant motive of Lafayette's life. He had told Washington of his desire to find some means of securing the freedom of slaves, and he wrote to John Adams in 1786, "Whatever be the complexion of the enslaved, it does not in my opinion alter the complexion of the crime the enslaver commits,—a crime much blacker than any African face. It is to me a matter of great anxiety and concern to find that this trade is sometimes perpetrated under the flag of liberty, our dear and noble stripes to which virtue and glory have been constant standard-bearers." So, on his return to France, he bought a plantation in Cayenne, and brought many negroes there, who, after being educated in self-government according to his directions, were to receive their freedom. He also tried to improve the condition of the French Protestants, who were very much persecuted, and ardently pleaded their cause before the King at Versailles.

In the meantime he constantly gave his help to furthering the affairs of America. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, who had been Governor of Virginia, when Lafayette had fought his campaign there, was now the United States Minister to France. Jefferson wrote to Washington, "The Marquis de Lafayette is a most valuable auxiliary to me. His zeal is unbounded and his weight with those in power is great. . . . He has a great deal of sound genius, is well remarked by the King, and rising in popularity: He has nothing against him but the suspicion of republican principles. I think he will one day be of the ministry."

The United States at that time especially needed aid in establishing trade relations with France, and it was here that Lafayette proved himself very valuable. He obtained concessions in regard to the importing and sale of oil and tobacco, and his efforts on behalf of the American whale fishery were so successful that the citizens of Nantucket voted at a town-meeting that every man on the island who owned a cow should give all of one day's milk toward making a cheese to weigh five hundred pounds, and that the cheese should be "transmitted to the Marquis de Lafayette, as a feeble, but not less sincere, testimonial of their affection and gratitude."

The cheese was greatly appreciated, as was also the action of the State of Virginia, which ordered two busts of the Marquis to be made by the sculptor Houdon, one to be placed in the State Capitol at Richmond and the other in the Hotel de Ville in Paris.

The United States had won its independence, though its statesmen were now perplexed with the problem of making one united nation out of thirteen separate states. But France had yet to deal with its own problem of liberty. There were many men who dreamed of equality in that nation and who hoped for it, but the King and the court were despotic, the peasants yoked to the soil, bowed down by un just taxes, crushed by unfair laws. There was a spirit abroad that was destined to bring a temporary whirlwind. So the thinking men of France, and Lafayette one of the chief among them, turned their attention to affairs at home.