On July 11 and 12th, the French frigate Hermione will sail into Boston Harbor, just as it did two-hundred-and-thirty-five years ago. On that April morning in 1780, while the former colonies were in the heart of their struggle for independence from England, a twenty-three-year-old Frenchman named Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette, Marquis de Lafayette returned to the fledgling country to which he had first dedicated himself three years prior. The young general had returned to bolster the Americans’ efforts with an additional 6,000 troops; this visit united the Americans and reinvigorated the struggling Continental Army. Because of Lafayette’s love for America, he continued to visit the country even after the Revolution ended, including a grand countrywide tour in 1824 and 1825. By the time of this visit, Lafayette was a national hero but he found a country quickly heading toward self-destruction.
As a teenager, Lafayette became enamored with the Revolutionary cause and used his own wealth to travel to America and volunteer for the Continental Army. After Congress appointed him as an officer, Lafayette led Americans in battles such as the Battle of Brandywine, in addition to drumming up French support and aid. Lafayette was lauded for his military skill and dedication to democracy, but he was best known for his exceptional character and circle of influential friends. The Founding Fathers soon learned of Lafayette because of his prominent family name, bold pledge to serve the Continental Army without pay, and his Masonic membership; he quickly became one of George Washington’s dearest mentees. Thomas Jefferson suggested, “his foible is a canine appetite for popularity and fame. But he will get above this.” Lafayette’s magnetic attraction to notoriety may explain his lasting place in American history. His military victories were not the most famous battles, nor was he significantly influential in politics, yet Americans are still gathering to catch sight of his ship nearly two-and-a-half centuries after he came to rally the American troops.
General Lafayette earned his place in the hearts of Americans because he symbolized the inherent principles upon which the country was founded: an unshakeable belief in the democratic cause and liberty. He was an educated intellectual, and also a soldier willing to shed blood for the Continental Army. He was a favorite amongst the Founding Fathers, yet he connected with Americans from all walks of life, including black slaves. Above all, Lafayette was fully dedicated to democracy. This commitment to liberty fueled Americans’ love for Lafayette, and had them flocking to see him every time the Marquis returned to American soil.
On August 14, 1824, the aging Lafayette landed once again in the country that had always appreciated him far more than his home nation did. When he arrived at Staten Island, Americans were consumed with excitement at the chance to see their beloved hero. One 1824 newspaper noted that Americans had “read of the landing of King William, the entree of George the Fourth in Ireland, and Louis the 18th in Paris, but never witnessed a more splendid display, or more cordial, generous and spontaneous feeling than that of Monday on the landing of General LaFayette.”
In 1824, Americans desperately needed a figure to remind them of their patriotic ideals and shared history. James Monroe was the last Founding Father to hold the presidency, and the end of his term brought about the end of the Era of Good Feelings, revealing the growing cracks in the country’s foundation. The presidential election of 1824 between the well-bred New Englander John Quincy Adams and the incendiary westerner Andrew Jackson was bitterly contested and divided the country. Furthermore, tensions between the northern and southern states over slavery continued to bubble over. During such an uncertain and tumultuous era, Americans rejoiced to celebrate one of the last Revolutionary heroes. They hoped to put all contemporary struggles aside, if only for a moment.
But rather than restoring unity, Lafayette’s visit highlighted the nation’s divisions. A visit from the man so dedicated to the Revolutionary principles of democracy and liberty made Americans realize just how far they had strayed from those principles. Lafayette’s staunch abolitionism exacerbated arguments over slavery, especially when Lafayette made a point to visit with African Americans in the southern states. Lafayette’s visit also highlighted other inequalities that had developed after the Revolution. Lafayette’s visit to the self-proclaimed cradle of liberty, New England, revealed socio-economic discrepancies that did not reflect Revolutionary ideals. When thousands descended upon Breed’s Hill to watch as Lafayette laid the cornerstone of the Bunker Hill monument on the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill in June of 1825, the vast numbers of visitors became overwhelming, and the militia guard began removing citizens with force – citizens who felt they deserved the opportunity to welcome Lafayette just as much as governmental representatives did. Additionally, a “public” dinner honoring the general in Portland, Maine cost four dollars per person, or about eighty dollars a plate today. This steep cost prevented many Revolutionary veterans from being able to spend time with the general. That privilege went to the wealthy instead. In their scramble to honor Lafayette, Americans had seemed to forget why he had placed such faith in the Revolutionary cause.
Only fifty years after the founding of the United States, Americans delighted in celebrating the heroes and anniversaries of the Revolution, just as we continue to do today. Lafayette’s visit in 1824-1825, however, revealed that many of the principles that Lafayette had fought for, such as liberty and unity, were quickly fading away because of the irreconcilable differences between the North and the South and the country’s ever-growing emphasis on wealth and class. Still, Lafayette’s undying place in United States history shows that Americans, from the early 1800s to today, believe that he, rather than the divisiveness that came after him, represents the ideals of our country.