In 1777, a 19-year-old French aristocrat bought a ship, loaded it with weapons and other supplies, and sailed to North America to volunteer as a fighter in the Revolutionary War. Awarded the rank of brigadier general in the Continental Army by the Congress, he quickly proved his mettle as a soldier at Brandywine, where he rallied the defeated American troops, turning a rout into an orderly retreat. Taken by the young Frenchman’s dashing personality and natural ability, George Washington immediately placed him on his staff. Thus began one of history’s most unusual friendships.
The young man, of course, was Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, and 2007 marks the 250th anniversary of his birth. The event will be fêted on both sides of the Atlantic, with historians once again examining the man, his strong bond with George Washington and his contribution to the American struggle for independence.
Lafayette biographies often begin with his arrival in America. By then, much had already happened to the young man, and not all of it was good. His father had been killed in battle when the boy was two; he had lost his mother to illness at 13. A year later, he joined the King’s personal bodyguard, the Black Musketeers, at the Palace of Versailles. Then in 1775, he was approached by Silas Deane, the American agent hired by Congress to recruit foreign officers to fight for the American cause in the Continental Army. Drawn by the Americans’ struggle against what was considered the best army in Europe, he immediately decided to volunteer. The Web site of the American Friends of Lafayette calls the date a turning point: “He now has a mission in life with a focus on political reform.”
Accounts of the instant friendship that sprang up between Lafayette and Washington hover between legend and fact. According to some biographers, the young Frenchman saw the commander of the Continental Army as an Arthurian figure and his generals as Knights of the Round Table. Whatever his view, he avoided making the mistake of other foreign volunteers, who irritated the Americans with their superior attitude toward the local soldiery. On his first meeting with Washington, Lafayette stood at attention and said, “I have come here to learn, mon Général, not to teach.” That attitude, Lafayette recalled later, “established the first bonds of mutual confidence and devotion that united two friends.” Douglas Southall Freeman, author of the definitive seven-volume biography of George Washington, describes Lafayette as “able, diligent, appreciative and almost embarrassingly affectionate” toward the older, rather taciturn American.
Not everyone in Washington’s circle took to Lafayette with such enthusiasm. Thomas Jefferson, who seems never to have warmed to the young general, judged Lafayette’s love for glory to be practically insatiable. “His foible is a canine appetite for popularity and fame,” Jefferson wrote to Madison. But to Washington, who was 45 years old, the Frenchman was “my trusted young friend,” the son he never had (although he did have a stepson). When Lafayette was injured at Brandywine, Washington urged the doctor to “treat him as if he were my own son”—this after barely three months’ acquaintance and from a man known for his reserve in personal relationships.