Today’s post comes from Megan Huang from the National Archives History Office.
On display at the National Archives until September 19, 2018, are a number of Alexander Hamilton papers, including a letter to everyone’s favorite Frenchman: Lafayette. The text of that letter, and many others both to and from Lafayette, is available on Founders Online.
Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, is the famous Frenchman with mouthful of a name who got “the job done” during the American Revolution. He was only 19 when he deceived his in-laws and joined the American cause for independence in 1777.
Financing the trip to North America through his own considerable inheritance of £14,000 (around $2,000,000 today) a year, he was given the rank of major general—an impressive title for one who had had never seen combat.
Though naive and untested, Lafayette’s role in the American Revolution was vital. Washington regarded him as one of his most invaluable officers and a surrogate son. Lafayette, whose father was killed when Lafayette was only two, likewise considered Washington a father figure and was possibly his greatest supporter. As Lafayette demonstrated his bravery, commitment to the cause, and ability to learn, he was gradually given more of the battlefield responsibilities he craved. He distinguished himself multiple times, notably at Brandywine and Yorktown.
Among Lafayette’s greatest assets was his network among the French nobility, as he was able to lobby King Louis XVI and his ministers to support the Americans. His social standing would also play a role in his life not long after his stint in America. Before his wartime service, his family and marriage had given Lafayette excellent connections and extremely high status, but his exploits abroad enhanced his reputation even more.
By the French Revolution’s beginning in 1789, he was one of the most famous, popular, and influential men in France. In a letter to John Jay, Thomas Jefferson details a few pivotal moments of the Revolution, such as the storming of the Bastille, also mentioning Lafayette several times and alluding to his role during this volatile time.
Jefferson was a Francophile and had become friends with Lafayette during the latter’s service in the United States. When Jefferson was stationed in Paris as minister to France, he and Lafayette continued their bond, with Lafayette asking for advice at various points and vice versa.
The revolution’s later years were a period of great anxiety for Lafayette. He was held prisoner by Austria starting in 1792, and his wife came near to being guillotined. She was saved by Americans James Monroe, Elizabeth Monroe, and Gouverneur Morris, who warned that the execution of the wife of a beloved American hero would hurt American support for the French. Efforts to release Lafayette were less successful, and he wasn’t freed until five years after his initial capture.
In his older age, Lafayette was semi-retired and lived with his family at his country estate not far from Paris, but he remained active in French politics to varying extents. His love for his adopted country never abated, however. In 1824, he returned to the United States and toured all 24 states to great fanfare. When he died in 1834, he was buried under soil from Bunker Hill.
Learn more about Lafayette or any of the Founders by exploring the more than 181,000 documents from 1706 to 1836 available through Founders Online, or visit the National Archive Museum to see many original documents in person.