Lafayette's Career and Historical Significance
Lloyd Kramer, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
 
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Lafayette’s Visit to America in 1824-25

Meanwhile, however, Lafayette lost his seat in the French Chamber of Deputies (in 1824) and found his desire for political change stymied by the conservative ascendancy in France and the strong opposition to liberal nationalisms throughout Europe. He therefore welcomed an invitation from Congress and President James Monroe to return to the United States for a triumphal national tour. This thirteen-month tour of every American state in 1824-25 became Lafayette’s final important contribution to early American nationalism. He was welcomed everywhere as a living connection to George Washington and the heroic Contintental Army. Traveling through a nation that was divided in a bitter factional conflict between the supporters of Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams, Lafayette became a unifying messenger from the generation of the Founding Fathers. He assured uncertain Americans that they were carrying forward the vision of their revolutionary ancestors; and, as always, he reaffirmed the nationalist belief in America’s world-historical significance. He also praised the unique success of the American Revolution, celebrated the superior achievements of America’s constitutional government, and interpreted America’s rapid economic development as a material consequence of the nation’s freedom and republican institutions. Americans therefore hailed Lafayette as the greatest and wisest man in Europe. Newspapers reprinted his speeches, musicians composed songs to describe his accomplishments, and artists portrayed his image on souvenir dishes, handkerchiefs, and published illustrations. The celebration for Lafayette became also a celebration of America’s national history, political accomplishments, and economic progress. Towns, streets, and schools were named in his honor, and even his occasional references to the dangers of sectionalism or the deep injustices of slavery could not diminish the nationalist rituals that his tour evoked.

Lafayette’s Final Political Actions

Lafayette eventually regained his seat in the Chamber of Deputies and moved again to the center of French political culture in the Revolution of 1830. When Parisian crowds took up arms and forced King Charles X to abandon his throne, Lafayette returned to his old position as commander of the French National Guard. Although he embraced the new French king, Louis Philippe, he also called repeatedly for a "throne surrounded by republican institutions," by which he meant that France should have a constitutional monarchy that would protect the fundamental "rights of man." Reiterating his perennial defense of liberty and order, Lafayette soon lost favor again with both the conservative monarchists and the radical republicans. He was therefore forced to resign his command of the National Guard, whereupon he went back to the Chamber of Deputies and spoke often about the dangers of internal government repression and reactionary policies abroad. He also continued to support national independence movements in Poland, Italy, and Greece, which he saw as part of a broader struggle for the free and orderly political systems that he envisioned as the European political culture of the future. By the time of Lafayette’s death in 1834, the more radical European political movements were turning toward socialism, and the reigning powers were still resisting most of Europe’s liberal national movements. The European campaign to create liberal institutions would nevertheless ultimately manage to establish the constitutional governments and human rights that Lafayette had advocated. But his life and famous actions always elicited the highest praise from Americans, whose national revolution he had joined in 1777 and whose liberal conceptions of national sovereignty and human rights he had defended and adapted in his native country. John Quincy Adams summarized the American appreciation for this “Hero of Two Worlds” when he eulogized Lafayette at a joint session of Congress in 1834 and asserted that no one “among the race of merely mortal men” could rival Lafayette “as the benefactor” of mankind. Modern historians have questioned such nineteenth-century claims for Lafayette’s heroic achievements, but the praise from Adams suggests Lafayette’s exalted status in a new nation that was always eager to find foreign affirmations of its emerging national identity.

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