Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette, called simply Gilbert by family, was born Sept. 6, 1757, at the Château de Chavaniac in the Auvergne region of France, 250 miles south of Paris. He showed an affinity for the colonists’ cause against Great Britain and displayed bravery in the American Revolution. When he arrived in the colonies, he wrote, “When I felt American soil under my feet for the first time, my first words were ‘an oath to conquer or die for America’s cause.”
Later in politically unstable France, he played a decisive role in the brewing French Revolution.
“La Fayette was someone who latched on to a cause and an ideal at the very beginning of his adult life and he never let it go,” says Jordan Kellman, Ph.D., a French historian at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “He sacrificed everything to it. There is a heroism to that, that I think transcends time and place.”
La Fayette died from pneumonia in Paris, May 20, 1834. He is buried in Paris’ Picpus Cemetery next to his beloved wife. As an honor for his part in the American Revolution, soil from Bunker Hill was sprinkled atop his final resting place and an American flag flutters above it to this day, commemorating this true patriot’s place in America’s fight for freedom. Here are 25 facts about his life:
Meeting George Washington, 1777.
• The U.S. alone is home to more than 600 cities, towns, counties, villages, mountains, rivers, lakes, educational institutions and other landmarks named after the Marquis de La Fayette.
• At age two, his father was killed at the Battle of Minden during the Seven Years’ War.
• At age 13, he began training to be a military officer.
• At age 13, his mother and grandfather died, and he inherited a generous sum of money.
• At age 16, he married 14-year-old Adrienne de Noailles, who would later bear him three daughters and a son.
La Fayette and Washington visit the troops at Valley Forge.
• His first daughter, Henriette, died at age two.
• When he learned of the American colonists’ cause, he formally requested leave from France and was denied by the king because a French military officer was not allowed to fight a war in which France was not involved.
• At age 19, he purchased a cargo ship and left undercover for Charleston, S.C. from Los Passajes, Spain. Not even his pregnant wife knew where he was going.
• The trip was noted to have been 54 uncomfortable days.
• He could not speak English upon his arrival in the colonies.
• He served as a volunteer in the American Army under Gen. George Washington, who became his lifelong friend. “Washington had no children of his own. So in La Fayette, Washington saw a young man of manners and class,” says James MacDonald, Ph.D., a history professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “Plus, La Fayette was enthusiastic about the cause and was devoted to Washington. What probably also endeared La Fayette to Washington was his aggressive nature as an officer.”
• La Fayette named his son George Washington.
• On Sept. 11, 1777, during the Battle of Brandywine, he was shot in the leg but continued to lead his troops. “His injury became a symbol that he was a commander who was not going to sit back in the comfort of his tent and try to direct things from there,” says Kellman.
• In 1779, he left the colonies for France to successfully lobby for French support. France signed a Treaty of Alliance with the colonies at his convincing. “He was the catalyst of what brought the colonies and the French together. Without the aid of France, the colonies never would have won the war,” says I. Bruce Turner, Ph.D., head of the special collections department at Edith Garland Dupré Library at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
• He was ordered to keep British Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis distracted until more colonial troops could arrive, thus he was responsible for writing Washington a letter indicating Cornwallis had steered his troops north and more than 400 Americans opened fire there – the Battle of Yorktown. As a result, Cornwallis surrendered and the American Revolution went in the favor of the Patriots.
• He returned to France wanting to change the way the French were governed, thus he wrote his own document, Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. “The American Revolution completely redefined La Fayette. He became a crusader for liberal democracy, which helped spark the French Revolution,” says Kellman.
• King Louis XVI named him commander of the national guard.
• According to author Gregory Payan, he presented the two colors of Paris, (red and blue) and the color of the monarchy, (white) as one: the tricolor French flag.
• He bailed handfuls of Americans out of French prisons, paid their debts, offered them enough money for the return home and helped several acquire employment.
• Because he was seen as a republican against the monarchy of France, he was arrested.
• He was imprisoned five years at Olmütz in Austria until Napoleon Bonaparte negotiated his release.
• His wife and two daughters requested to be locked in prison with him – and they were.
• Napoleon Bonaparte offered him the ambassadorship to America, but he refused.
• President James Monroe invited him to revisit the U.S. Once back, he delivered speeches in each of the 24 states in the Union. “He was worshiped everywhere he went as a hero,” says Kellman. “[He was seen] as someone who sacrificed himself without any prospect of gaining from it. On the contrary, he spent his fortune on the American Revolution and was broke by the end of his life.”
• In 1899, he and George Washington appeared on a commemorative dollar, left.
Lafayette (the city) celebrates its namesake’s 250th Birthday
JULY 14. Patriotic concert by the Acadian Wind Symphony at Angelle Hall, University of Louisiana at Lafayette, 7:30 p.m. Admission fee. Information, (337) 232-4277.
AUGUST 31. History lectures: “The Marquis de La Fayette and Lafayette, La.: Connections and Legacy,” by Michael Martin, Louisiana and Colonial Era historian and history professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and “The Marquis de La Fayette and the Census of Pointe Coupée, 1809,” by Todd Bourque, Louisiana State University at Edith Garland Dupré Library, University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Information, (337) 482-5414.
SEPT. 1-Oct. Exhibit of old books and archives on the Marquis de La Fayette, Edith Garland Dupré Library, University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Information, (337) 482-5702.
SEPT. 6. Marquis de La Fayette Birthday Party: Gala event at the Lafayette Natural History Museum, 7 p.m. Admission fee. Information, (337) 291-5544.
SEPT. 7-Aug. Opening of the Marquis de La Fayette Exhibition at the Lafayette Natural History Museum. Admission fee. Information, (337) 291-5544.
SEPT. 7. Commemorative concert in honor of the Marquis de La Fayette presented by the Acadiana Symphony Orchestra, Heymann Center, 8 p.m. Admission fee. Information, (337) 232-4277.
SEPT. 8. Marquis de La Fayette puppet show, The Travels of Bouki and Lapin – The Discovery of Freedom with the Marquis de La Fayette, Jean Lafitte Acadian Cultural Center, 2-3 p.m. Information, (337) 232-0789.
SEPT. 9. Marquis de La Fayette commemorative mass, Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, 11 a.m. Information, (337) 232-1322.
SEPT. 14. History lecture, “Lafayette in Two Worlds,” by historian and Marquis de La Fayette scholar Lloyd Kramer, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Location to be announced. Information, (337) 482-5414.
OCT. 5-NOV. 24. Opening of “La Fayette: Hero of Two Worlds Quilt Exhibit” at the Acadiana Center for the Arts. Quilts from the U.S., Canada, France, England, Hungary and Senegal will be showcased. Admission fee. Information, (337) 658-3414.
OCT. 19. History lecture: “La Fayette and the Early Republic,” by Sylvia Neely, professor at Pennsylvania State University. University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Information, (337) 482-5414.
NOV. 2. Chorale Acadienne performs music from the Marquis de La Fayette’s era, 7 p.m. Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. Admission fee. Information, (337) 291-5474.
NOV. 3-4. La Belle Journée Festival with music, an old world market, historic re-enactors and a reenactment of the Marquis de La Fayette’s arrival in Louisiana. Parc International and Parc Sans Souci, downtown Lafayette, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Information, (337) 291-5474.
NOV. 16. History lecture: “The Marquis de La Fayette in New Orleans,” by Sandra Frink, historian and professor at Roosevelt University, Chicago. University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Information, (337) 291-5474.
DEC. 8. Lecture, “Lafayette, agent of the ‘American Mission,’” by Anne Loveland, professor at Louisiana State University, 11 a.m. Additional lecture, “Adrienne de Noailles, Madame de La Fayette,” by Julia Frederick, Ph.D., director of honors at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, 1 p.m. at the Paul and Lulu Hillard University Art Museum. Information, (337) 482-5414. *Participants will be invited to attend an afternoon tea reception at the Lafayette Museum/Alexandre Mouton House. Information, (337) 234-2208.
DEC. 14. Wives of the Lafayette Consolidated Government City-Parish Councilmen will host the closing luncheon, focusing on Adrienne de Noailles, the Marquis de La Fayette’s wife. Information, www.marquisdelafayette2007.com.