He’s one of the most endearing characters in Hamilton. Introduced as bashful and vaguely awkward due to his struggle with the English language, the only major character in the musical with aristocratic titles—besides the King of England, of course—is strangely modest when standing next to the likes of Alexander Hamilton or Aaron Burr. But the Marquis de Lafayette doesn’t stay that way. Soon enough good-natured modesty gives way to spitting English rhymes faster than anyone else on stage. Actor Daveed Diggs may have even secured his Tony award before playing Thomas Jefferson with Lafayette’s rapid fire verbal assault in “Guns and Ships.”
Yet the thing about the same actor portraying Jefferson is it means we see nothing of Lafayette after the American Revolution is won in Act One. In “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down),” Lafayette promises he’ll go back to France and “bring freedom to my people if given the chance.” Later the ramifications of that are only opaquely hinted at in Act Two when Jefferson, fresh from helping Lafayette draft a declaration, returns as France’s fiercest advocate… and faces opposition from Lafayette’s biggest American pal. But other than Hamilton telling Jefferson that “Lafayette’s a smart man he’ll be fine,” we don’t actually learn how things transpired for our favorite fighting Frenchman. But that might be because while he survived the French Revolution… to say he was “fine” is wishful thinking on Hamilton’s part.
The truth is Lafayette tried to bring freedom to his people when given the chance, but he lost his own freedom for more than five years in the process (and almost his head). And these horrors were only beginning to reign as Hamilton and Jefferson were rapping about possible American intervention.
In reality, Lafayette and Hamilton’s friendship began a little later than the 1776 meet-and-greet at the bar in Hamilton. Alexander was already Gen. George Washington’s aide-de-camp (secretary) by the time Washington semi-adopted the Frenchman as much as an enlisted man. Washington knew to look for Lafayette in Philadelphia because Benjamin Franklin personally wrote him about how good-natured the young nobleman of only 19 was—Franklin even feared he’d be taken advantage of for his congeniality. Well, that and because Lafayette and his wife had deep roots in French aristocracy.
Like Hamilton, Lafayette became an orphan when he was 13. Unlike Hamilton, he did not suffer from a lack of funds or prestige. Technically named Gilbert du Motier, Lafayette inherited his title after his father was killed fighting the British in the Seven Years’ War (known as the French and Indian War in the U.S.). Some historians believe the death even inspired a strong anti-British sentiment in Lafayette. But then he may also have been driven by notions of his chivalrous lineage that earned him a role in France’s mounted infantry of Dragoons while still a teenager.
No matter the exact reason, he was soon taken by the cause of the American Revolution and speeches of liberty. So much so that he disobeyed his king and father-in-law to cross the Atlantic. Indeed, after marrying Adrienne de Noailles at age 16 (she was 14), Lafayette was forced by the father of the bride to go to London two years later since he wanted to join the American Revolution. Instead he spent three weeks at British court where he was presented before King George III. Lafayette obeyed but then after returning to France, he hid from his in-laws and purchased his own sailing ship the Victoire, which eventually carried him to South Carolina.
By the time Lafayette arrived in America, the Declaration of Independence was almost a year old, the British had carved Manhattan up, and Hamilton was Washington’s right-hand man. Washington met Lafayette at a dinner in August 1777. While the general was told to keep an eye out for the well-connected Lafayette, Washington was nonetheless taken with the boy’s natural fervor for gaiety and democratic ideals. The Continental Congress was also smitten with Lafayette—his refusing payment for his service and instead offering to purchase weapons for the revolutionaries has that effect—and they awarded Lafayette the title of “major general.” While it was an honorary title, Lafayette expected to one day lead a division of men after Washington thought he was ready.
Initially Washington balked at the idea, but eventually did put Lafayette in charge of American soldiers, most famously at the Battle of Yorktown where Lafayette’s men cut off the British’s ability to retreat. The general also thought so highly of the young Frenchman that after Lafayette was wounded in battle, he wrote the surgeon to think of him as Washington’s own son.
Lafayette also formed an extremely personal friendship with Hamilton. To the degree that some still speculate the pair—like rumors about Hamilton and John Laurens—might have had a romantic relationship. They certainly wrote of each other fondly, with Hamilton’s own grandson characterizing the three as “a gay trio” who resembled the Three Musketeers in the early years of Washington’s officers camp. Near the end of the war, Lafayette wrote his wife, “Among the general’s aides-de-camp is a [young] man whom I love very much and of whom I have occasionally spoken to you. The man is Colonel Hamilton.”
After the war, Lafayette returned to France where he became a vocal advocate for a democratic republic that maintained a constitutional monarchy. He’d named his first and only son Georges Washington Lafayette and one of his daughters, at friend Thomas Jefferson’s urging, Marie-Antoinette Virginie. He was promoted high among the French Army and the royal Order of Saint Louis and quickly became a chummy hunting buddy with King Louis XVI. Despite nestling himself further into the royal aristocracy, Lafayette also welcomed what seemed to be an inevitable French Revolution.
Like Jefferson (and most Americans), Lafayette saw his homeland following in the United States’ example and building a republic that valued the rights of individuals. In some ways, he was further along in those aims than Jefferson, as Lafayette was a member of the abolitionist group the Society of the Friends of the Blacks, and called for Black slaves to not only be freed but given farmland. He even wrote Washington in 1783, pushing his father figure to free his slaves. Washington declined.
The revolution that came to France turned out to be anything but what Jefferson had suggested to James Monroe in a 1788 letter. At the time, Jefferson predicted France would soon have “a tolerably free constitution” without “having cost them a drop of blood.” While Jefferson had grown from appraising King Louis XVI as “a good man” to a do-nothing who spent half the day hunting and the other half drinking, Jefferson believed a constitutional monarchy with a strong legislature was possible. After all, for the first time since 1614, France’s Estates-General was gathering in 1719 to create a new general assembly. What emerged was the National Assembly, though in it Lafayette found himself among a minority of aristocrats who believed the upper legislature should be determined by “head” (population) as opposed to “estate” (amount of land owned).
Jefferson—who once fretted 19 of France’s 20 million people lived worse than the most destitute (white) Americans—took this as grand news. He wrote the king would soon allow “freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of commerce and industry, freedom of persons against arbitrary arrest,” and a variety of other freedoms he was simultaneously beginning to lobby for in the U.S., eventually resulting in the Bill of Rights.
In this vein, Lafayette presented on July 11, 1789 his Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen to the National Assembly. While none of the aristocrats at the time knew that it was at least edited by Jefferson (if not co-written), there was no mistaking it was intended to be seen as a French version of the Declaration of Independence. But it was perhaps already too late since the Storming of the Bastille occurred three days later on July 14. Ironically, Lafayette’s attempt to ensure a peaceful transition to a true republic might’ve helped speed along the bloodshed that soon followed. While the National Assembly eventually approved Lafayette’s Declaration on Aug. 26, King Louis rejected it outright on Oct. 2.
Three days later, a mob stormed Versailles, demanding Louis return to rule from (and be imprisoned at) his Parisian palace. By this time, Lafayette was the popular commander-in-chief of the National Guard of France, an armed force intended to maintain the National Assembly’s peace. He used this position to deescalate violence from a crowd now chanting for Marie Antoinette’s blood. Instead Lafayette appeared on the balcony with the French queen and king, kissing Marie Antoinette’s hand and squashing the bloodlust. Gestures such as these, or his order to allow Louis XVI to attend Catholic Mass in Paris (an order his men disobeyed), led to him being painted as a monarchist, or at least a soft moderate who the radical Jacobin extremists now rising to power suspected of being weak.
Around this time, Hamilton wrote to Lafayette, “I have seen with a mixture of pleasure and apprehension the progress of the events which have lately taken place in your country. As a friend to mankind and liberty, I rejoice in the efforts you are making to establish it, while I fear much for the final success of the attempts, for the fate of those I esteem who are engaged in it.” At this point in 1789, Hamilton was among a minority of Americans who believed the French Revolution could turn ugly; most preferred an optimistic view of Jefferson who predicted the goodness of human nature would reign.
In June 1791, already growing unpopular among Jacobin leaders like Maximillien de Robespierre and Georges Danton for his apparently cushy treatment of the royal family, Lafayette became an enemy of public opinion. This occurred suddenly and violently when he suppressed a gathering of 10,000 people after two men accused of being secret spies for the monarchy were hanged in a lynch mob. Lafayette ordered the National Guard to fire into the crowd, wounding and killing dozens. Afterward a new mob gathered and destroyed Lafayette’s home and attempted to assault his wife. Robespierre branded Lafayette a traitor of the Revolution and Lafayette soon resigned from his post in the National Guard.
Even out of power, Lafayette still wrote about the need of sparing the king and queen. In August 1792, Danton put out a warrant for Lafayette’s arrest. King Louis XVI, meanwhile, was executed at the guillotine on Jan. 21, 1793, where school children licked up the specks of blood that splattered from his neck and onto the ground. Marie Antoinette would suffer the same fate later that year, but by Feb. 1, France had already declared war on Britain, as well as Holland and Spain, and demanded the U.S. join them in the fighting to come. Secretary of State Jefferson was enthusiastic, but many Americans had come around to Hamilton’s cynicism about the French Revolution, most notably President Washington. Vice President John Adams summed it up best: “Danton, Robespierre, Marat, etc. are furies. Dragons’ teeth have been sown in France and will come up as monsters.”
Lafayette, for his part, attempted to flee his way back to the United States. He didn’t get further than the Austrian Netherlands (present day Belgium). There he was arrested by the rival government and began more than five years of hell. He did better than family members though. His wife’s sister, mother, and grandmother all fell beneath the guillotine and the cheers of the mob in the Reign of Terror. His wife, meanwhile, begged permission to take her five children and stay with Lafayette in prison.
By this point, Lafayette had spent more than a year in solitary confinement after almost escaping Austrian custody with the aid of Angelica Schuyler Church (Eliza’s sister and Hamilton’s sister-in-law). As punishment he was half-starved when his wife and four daughters stayed with him in his cell. Elsewhere his son Georges Washington fled to America where he hoped to meet with his namesake, the President of the United States. Washington, who viewed Lafayette like a son, reportedly wanted to meet the boy but could not do so without looking as if he was sheltering the son of an accused traitor to our nominal ally. Instead Georges spent the winter of 1796 living with Alexander and Eliza Hamilton before getting to finally meet the now former president the following spring.
As Secretary of State, Jefferson did mastermind a plan to aid Lafayette and his family. Under dubious rationalizations, he got Congress to agree to finally pay Lafayette and his wife a salary for their service during the Revolutionary War, gaining universal support to offer a monthly pension to a national hero who in his own nation was considered a traitor.
After more than five years of imprisonment—and Robespierre falling under his own guillotine—Lafayette was finally released in 1797. Alexander Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow reports his hair had entirely fallen out of his head and his countenance resembled more cadaver than a living man. But even then, Lafayette was just one of many political prisoners in the Austrian Netherlands the newly victorious General Napoleon Bonaparte negotiated the freedom of. And yet, Lafayette could not return to America as he hoped because of new tensions between Bonaparte’s emerging dictatorial government and the Adams administration. Thus Lafayette eventually returned to France in 1800 where he retired from politics, despite Napoleon offering him multiple titles and opportunities, including becoming minister to the United States. Lafayette wanted the titles, but he did not want to be a member of Napoleon’s government. He also refused his friend Thomas Jefferson, now President of the United States, when Jefferson offered to make him governor of Louisiana in 1803.
Lafayette remained absent from public life until Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo in 1815—though he made enemies with the British again when he attempted to help the disgraced French emperor flee to the United States—and in 1824 he finally returned to America where he received a rapturous welcome in all 24 existing states he visited. He even got to lay the cornerstone of the Bunker Hill Monument in Boston during the Declaration of Indpendence’s 50th anniversary. By this time, Hamilton was long dead, but Lafayette lived to see the truth in Hamilton’s enthusiastic promise from 1798 after Lafayette’s release from prison: “The only thing in which our [political] parties agree is to love you.” He also swore their friendship would “survive all revolutions and all vicissitudes.”
Lafayette died in 1834 and was buried in a cemetery in Paris… where his grave was consecrated with a layer of soil from Bunker Hill.
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