Lafayette's Career and Historical Significance
Lloyd Kramer, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
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The Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834) was a leading figure in the American and French Revolutions of the late eighteenth century, in liberal European political movements during the early decades of the nineteenth century, and in the French Revolution of 1830. Although he played an influential role in political events on both sides of the Atlantic, he achieved his greatest success as a foreign commander in the Continental Army during America’s Revolutionary War and as a prominent European contributor to the emergence of American nationalism. Lafayette was born into a prominent noble family in the south-central French province of Auvergne. His father was killed by the British at the battle of Minden during the Seven Years War (1759), and his mother died (1770) while he was still at the Collège du Plessis in Paris, where Lafayette received most of his formal education. Like most noble boys in eighteenth-century France, he studied ancient history, prepared for a military career, and collected income from his family’s landed estates. His wealth and noble status attracted the interest of the powerful Noailles family, which arranged for Lafayette to marry the youthful Adrienne de Noailles (1759-1807) in 1774. This marriage led to Lafayette’s appointment as an officer in the prestigious Noailles Dragoons. He was therefore well-placed for a successful military career in France, but he soon developed a new political interest in the American colonies’ revolutionary declaration of independence from Britain. In December 1776 Lafayette received the promise of a military commission from the American representative in Paris, Silas Deane. Although he had not received permision to leave his French regiment, Lafayette secretly bought a ship and sailed to the New World with several other military officers in April 1777. This flight from the privileges of the European nobility became a popular story in the new American nation. Americans viewed Lafayette’s embrace of their revolutionary cause as evidence of his exceptional personal virtue, as the expression of a typical American desire to break with the constraints of the Old World, and as a valuable European confirmation of America’s political aspirations.

Lafayette in the American Revolution

Some Americans opposed the appointment of French officers in the Continental Army, but George Washington accepted Lafayette as an unpaid Major General whose family connections at the French court might be helpful in the development of a military alliance. Lafayette soon demonstrated both courage and military skill in battles at Brandywine and Barren Hill, Pennsylvania, thereby gaining Washington’s personal respect and trust. Indeed, the friendship between Washington and Lafayette grew into a kind of father-son attachment in which Lafayette emphasized his deference to the older man’s judgment and Washington expressed appreciation for a young European noble “who acts upon very different principles than those which govern the rest.” These principles included Lafayette’s ability to listen to Americans (rather than to give them instructions) as well as his exceptional understanding of the political objectives of a revolutionary war. Lafayette contributed in numerous ways to America’s revolutionary war against Great Britain. He provided valuable military leadership as he worked to train, organize, and supply the American brigades that he commanded. Equally important, he constantly urged the French government to send more supplies and military support after France entered into a formal alliance with the American Contintenal Congress; and he became an energetic cross-cultural mediator when French naval forces and a French army arrived in Rhode Island in 1780. Finally, Lafayette commanded American forces with remarkable political and military skill during the decisive Virginia campaign in the spring and summer of 1781. This campaign required careful negotiations with the local population as he gathered supplies for his small, ragtag army and imaginative military strategies as he closed the trap around the British army at Yorktown. It was impossible for Lafayette to gain a decisive victory until the Comte de Rochambeau and Washington arrived with the main French and American forces, but his strategic maneuvers prepared the way for the final French-American seige and the British surrender. His military leadership in the complex Virginia campaign and his close friendship with Washington gave Lafayette his famous reputation in American history. His constant political affirmation of the emerging national identity, however, may well have provided even greater service to the American cause. Lafayette was the first famous foreigner to affirm the new national narrative about America’s exceptional achievements, political ideals, and historical destiny. He described the emerging nation and the American people with the same themes they used to describe themselves. Lafayette assured his American friends that their struggle for national independence had the broadest possible historical significance. When he was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1781, for example, he noted in his acceptance letter that America promoted the “Rights of Mankind” on a more “Liberal” basis than any other country in the world. Such public praise for the Revolution reinforced what American leaders already believed about the moral superiority of their national cause, but the statements of a “disinterested” European nobleman added a much-appreciated credibility to American claims for the wider meaning of their struggle.

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