Marquis de Lafayette
French soldier and statesman

1757 - 1834

Marquis de Lafayette was a French soldier and statesman. He fought for American independence and was a prominent leader in the early stages of the French Revolution. Lafayette's liberal beliefs cost him his fortune, his social position, and even his freedom, but his bold actions won the respect of both Americans and the French.

Lafayette was born at Chavaniac, in Haute Loire, on Sept. 6, 1757. His given and family name was Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier. His father died in battle when the boy was 2 years old. When his mother and grandfather died 11 years later, he inherited a great fortune. Lafayette came from a long line of soldiers and studied at the Military Academy in Versailles. At the age of 16, he married Marie Adrienne Francoise de Noailles, a daughter of one of the most influential families in France. Shortly afterward, Lafayette became a captain in the cavalry.

Lafayette disliked court life. He welcomed the Revolutionary War in America as an opportunity to win military glory by fighting against Great Britain for France. He purchased a ship and landed in America in 1777 with a party of soldier-adventurers. The marquis did not impress the Continental Congress at first. But he was made a major general when he agreed to serve without pay. He joined the staff of George Washington, who developed a fatherly affection for him.

Lafayette was wounded at the battle of Brandywine. At Gloucester, he defeated a small party of Hessians. This earned him the command of a division. He served at Valley Forge during part of the terrible winter of 1777-1778. Early in 1778, at Albany, N.Y., he was given command of a proposed invasion of Canada. The plan was abandoned because of troop and supply shortages. He led soldiers in the battles of Barren Hill and Monmouth, and in the campaign of Rhode Island.

In early 1779, a few months after France declared war on Britain, Lafayette returned home as a hero. He hoped to join an invasion of Britain, but it never took place. Instead, he helped persuade his government to send aid to the American colonists.

In April 1780, Lafayette returned to his post as major general in the American army. Later that year, he served in the court-martial that condemned Major John André to be hanged as a spy for plotting with Benedict Arnold to surrender West Point.

In 1781, Lafayette led a small American force in Virginia that evaded and then battled a larger British army under General Charles Cornwallis. After the French fleet cut off Cornwallis' escape route through the entrance of Chesapeake Bay, Lafayette cooperated with the Comte de Rochambeau and Washington in forcing Cornwallis to surrender at Yorktown.

Lafayette had become a "hero to two worlds" when he reached France in 1782. He assisted in the negotiations that won American independence, and, at the age of 24, was raised to the rank of maréchal-de-camp (brigadier general) in the French Army by King Louis XVI. He was now influential in both America and in France. At home in France, he cooperated closely with Benjamin Franklin, and later with Thomas Jefferson, in behalf of American interests.

Lafayette revisited America in 1784 and stayed at Mount Vernon with Washington. He came again in 1824. Both times, a grateful nation received him with enthusiasm. American appreciation also took the form, in 1803, of a huge land grant to Lafayette in Louisiana. During Lafayette's last visit to America, the United States Congress voted that $200,000 and a township in Florida be given to him. Lafayette had by that time lost nearly all his French properties. Lafayette sold most of his American land.

After 1782, Lafayette became absorbed in the questions of free trade, tax reform, emancipation of slaves, and religious freedom for Protestants. In the events leading to the French Revolution in 1789, he did not hesitate to sacrifice court favor and position in behalf of his liberal ideas. Lafayette was one of the first people to advocate a National Assembly, and he worked to make France a constitutional monarchy.

As commander of the new National Guard, Lafayette was one of the most powerful men in France from 1789 to 1791. But he did not believe in seizing political power for himself. He was unwilling to work with the corrupt but able Comte de Mirabeau. Queen Marie Antoinette and her court resented Lafayette. She said: "It would be better to perish than be saved by M. de Lafayette." As radicalism spread, Lafayette found it necessary to suppress crowd violence. By the summer of 1791, his popularity had gone. He found himself hated by the people, the former nobles, and the court.

After the Constitution of 1791 went into effect, Lafayette temporarily retired from active politics. When war against Britain broke out in 1792, he took charge of troops in what is now Belgium. As the military front collapsed, he unsuccessfully tried to suppress the rising tide of Jacobin radicalism at home. However, the king and queen would not accept Lafayette's help, and the troops that he tried to turn on the Paris mob would not follow his orders. Lafayette, denounced as a traitor, fled abroad. The Austrians imprisoned Lafayette in 1792 until Napoleon's victories won his release in 1797.

Lafayette returned to France in 1800 to find that his personal fortune had been seized. He accepted Napoleon's dictatorship but rejected a seat in the senate and a diplomatic post in the United States. In 1815, after his first abdication, Napoleon returned from Elba and gave France a liberal constitution. Lafayette was elected to the Chamber of Deputies. As one of the vice presidents of the chamber, Lafayette worked for Napoleon's second abdication after the Battle of Waterloo.

Except for the reactionary periods of 1815 to 1817 and 1824 to 1827, Lafayette continued to serve in the Chamber of Deputies. He became a focal point of liberal resistance to the Bourbon kings. He upheld American interests, and fought for the cause of independence and reform in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Poland, and the South American republics.

Once more, in 1830, Lafayette became the leader of a revolution that dethroned the Bourbons. Again in command of the National Guard, he refused popular demand that he become president of the new republic. Instead, he helped make Louis Philippe the constitutional monarch of France. But Lafayette came to regret this decision and, before his death in 1834, he began to hope for a pure republic in France.

Contributor: James Kirby Martin, Ph.D., Prof. of History, Univ. of Houston.

Additional resources

Bernier, Olivier. Lafayette: Hero of Two Worlds. Dutton, 1983.

Buckman, Peter. Lafayette: A Biography. Paddington, 1977.

Gerson, Noel B. Statue in Search of a Pedestal: A Biography of the Marquis de Lafayette. Dodd, 1976.

Holbrook, Sabra. Lafayette: Man in the Middle. Atheneum, 1977. Also suitable for younger readers.


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