Virginia Memory, Library of Virginia
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Marquis de Lafayette

MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE (1757–1834)

Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette (1757–1834), Marble Bust by Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1786. State Artwork Collection, Library of Virginia.

Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette was born on September 6, 1757, in Chavaniac, France, to an aristocratic family. He was orphaned young and inherited a fortune and the title of marquis from his maternal grandfather. He was educated in Paris and was associated with powerful noble families. In 1774 he married Adrienne de Noailles. They had three children, including his only son, George Washington Lafayette.

In 1777, attracted to the ideals of the America Revolution, Lafayette bought a ship and sailed for America. He had contracted with the American commissioner to France to be a major general in the Continental army, but on reaching Philadelphia found his commission invalid. He volunteered on George Washington's staff and quickly became close friends with the general. Congress later approved Lafayette's commission in July 1777.

Major General Lafayette was wounded in the leg at the Battle of Brandywine in September 1777, and soon after was given command of a division of Virginians. Lafayette returned to France in 1779 for leave, but was back in America in 1780. In the months leading up to the Battle of Yorktown in October 1781, Lafayette commanded the Continental army in Virginia.

After the American Revolutionary War, Lafayette continued to support the ideals of democracy in France. He visited the United States in 1784 for five months, touring and being feted in ten states. He participated in the French Revolutions of 1789 and 1830, served repeatedly in France's National Assembly, and was commander of the Paris National Guard. In 1790, after titles of nobility were abolished in France, Lafayette never again used his own. During the French War with Austria and Prussia, from 1792 he spent five years in an Austrian prison. Lafayette opposed Napoleon's regime and supported a constitutional monarchy as the best government for France, yet he always held America as the example for a free and flourishing society. Between 1824 and 1825, Lafayette made another return visit to the United States, where he was honored by tribute parades and dinners. Lafayette died at Chateau La Grange, his estate near Paris, on May 20, 1834.

Suggested Reading:

Kramer, L. S. Lafayette in Two Worlds: Public Cultures and Personal Identities in an Age of Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.