04 Mar

Who was the Marquis de Lafayette?

If your answer was something about a Frenchman helping Americans win the Revolutionary War, you are correct! 

(Washington and Lafayette at Valley Forge by John Ward Dunsmore. Library of Congress.) 

The Marquis de Lafayette, The Man 

Lafayette was a French aristocrat, born in 1757.  From a young age, he was drawn to the ideals of The Enlightenment: liberty, progress, constitutional government and the separation of church and state. That’s why the American colonies’ fight for independence appealed deeply to the Marquis; to the point where in 1777, he funded the outfitting of his own ships so he could offer his services to the Continental Army.  He later lobbied successfully for more French aid, including a naval squadron. He became a trusted advisor and close friend of General George Washington, who had Lafayette lead troops to Virginia in 1781. There, Lafayette’s forces participated in the Siege of Yorktown. Yes, that Yorktown – the last major battle of the Revolutionary War.

(Portrait of Gilbert Motier le Marquis de Lafayette by Joseph Court. Chateau de Versailles.)

Upon his return to France, Lafayette remained in close contact with his American friends, especially George Washington. In fact, when Lafayette’s own family was in grave danger during the French Revolution, the Marquis sent his son to live with the Washingtons in Virginia. George Washington’s death in 1799 was devastating for Lafayette. Then, as the years passed and the Marquis himself grew older, he received an enticing invitation from President James Monroe:  to come to America for a grand “farewell tour” of the country he loved so much. 

The Marquis de Lafayette, Received at Maysville, Fish Street Landing, May 21, 1825 by Robert Dalford. Library of Congress.

The Marquis de Lafayette and Me

Fast forward 200 years to New Hampshire. Here’s where my story intersects with that of this Revolutionary War hero. (I’m kind of in awe, just writing that sentence. Life is funny that way, and full of serendipity). 

At a Franco-American Centre brunch last fall honoring the Consul-General of France in Boston, I happened to meet Alan Hoffman, President of The American Friends of Lafayette (tall man on the left).

 The AFL is an historical and patriotic society whose purpose is to educate the public about the life and career of General Lafayette. Alan told me all about the AFL’s extensive plans to observe and celebrate the Bicentennial of Lafayette’s Farewell Tour in 2024 and 2025 – including audio tours covering several of the states that the General visited.

Would I be interested, Alan asked, in narrating the N.H. Tour? How long do you think it took me to say yes? I’m not sure poor Alan had a chance to finish his sentence. The NH tour is not live yet, but will be in May. You can enjoy it for free on the app TravelStorys.

The Marquis de Lafayette Today

With me as your guide, you can visit the 23 sites Lafayette visited in New Hampshire two hundred years ago. You will discover the history of these places, and how hugely important the Farewell Tour was to Americans at this time. Lafayette was by greeted enormous crowds everywhere he went. Cities, towns, even tiny villages put out their very best for the man dubbed “The Nation’s Guest." He attended countless banquets, balls, meet-and-greets, parades, concerts, military exercises…honestly, I’m surprised Lafayette didn’t collapse at some point. 

As you follow the tour, you will also learn about Lafayette’s long-standing opposition to slavery. Whenever Black Revolutionary War veterans came to see the General during his Farewell Tour, Lafayette took great care to honor their contributions and to repeat his stong anti-slavery views. Historian William Cooper Nell quotes Lafayette as saying: "I would have never have drawn my sword in the cause of America, if I could have conceived that thereby I was founding a land of slavery." 

(Painting title: Marquis de Lafayette and Body Servant James by Jean-Baptiste le Paon. Lafayette College.) 

The man with Lafayette is James Armistead Lafayette, who was far more than a "body servant." James Armistead served as a spy for the French General during the war. The Marquis later helped secure James Armistead's freedom, and thereafter James took Lafayette's last name.  

The Marquis de Lafayette's Tour Kickoff Gala

Working on the New Hampshire Tour with Alan and his team was a dream project, combining three longtime passions of mine: France, history, and narration. When the NH tour was finally done, we all agreed it had been a wonderful collaboration, and I thanked the group heartily. Then…they asked me to narrate the New York City tour! "Absolutely," I said. That’s why I went down to The Big Apple for a Lafayette-themed kickoff gala in early March, to celebrate the New York City tour opening on TravelStorys.

Participating in this project, I feel like I’m travelling with the General himself! I can’t wait to share these stories with you. 

*PS: Upstate New York, you are not forgotten! I’ll be narrating that tour as well later this Spring. 

*PPS: The AFL is still seeking funding for audio tours to cover more states that Lafayette visited. 

*PPPS: The historical content in this blogpost is from the AFL and the tour itself.

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