The Kid Who Cared

Four decades after the American Revolution, one of its most beloved heroes arrived in the United States for his fourth and final visit. Part triumphal tour and part sentimental journey, the Marquis de Lafayette’s travels through every state of the Union (there were twenty-four at the time) reunited him with a dwindling cadre of old friends who, like him, had grown old and frail. Yet Lafayette was a game traveler and soldiered through an itinerary that took more than a year and covered a span of ground a young man would have found daunting. This month 190 years ago he was well into the trip, visiting Thomas Jefferson at Monticello and being fêted at the University of Virginia before heading to Washington, DC, for an extravagant welcome by Congress and President James Monroe. Everywhere enormous crowds turned out to cheer.

Why all the fuss over an old French guy whose service to his hosts had been nearly a half-century in the past? The answer is in recalling the lad not yet twenty who showed up when America was fighting for its life. He asked for nothing other than a chance to help. The following is adapted from our forthcoming book Washington’s Circle that can be preordered here.

George Washington first met the Marquis de Lafayette in August 1777 at a dinner party and was mildly dismayed to be introduced to a mere child with a preposterous rank.  Slim with a self-conscious posture, he stood very erect and soldierly, possibly to accentuate his height (about 5’9”) while in the company of the towering Washington. Lafayette had reddish sandy hair, blue eyes, and a prominent slope to his forehead that gave the impression even at nineteen of a receding hairline. Despite Lafayette’s youth, Congress had made him a major general because of “zeal, illustrious family and connexions.” Washington could only see a major headache, another instance of politicians placating foreigners rather than giving him competent officers. He could only imagine the reaction of his staff and of line officers, such as Nathanael Greene, who had clawed his way up the officer chain from being a lowly private in a Rhode Island militia company. 

Yet before the evening was through, Washington was confused. Lafayette had a charming modesty, a sort of clumsy eagerness, and a disarming desire to learn rather than lecture. In the space of a few hours, George Washington gradually came to know a boy born into noble rank and high privilege and from a world alien to everything the Virginia farmer had ever known. But something had happened. If Lafayette as a toddler had padded along the halls of Mount Vernon, or had come bolting out of one of its stables spurring a young colt, or had pondered great questions while gazing from the piazza across the Potomac, or had grown to his current age in years spent under Virginia rather than French skies, it would have been just like this. By the end of that evening, Lafayette was not a foreigner, his world was not alien, his horrible English was not strange. 

Washington invited him to visit headquarters the next day. He would introduce him around and take him on an inspection tour of Philadelphia’s batteries. Lafayette appeared early. He was wearing a uniform of his own purchase, a resplendent and colorful collation of braid and shiny buttons, which placed him in high contrast with the shabby ordinariness of Washington’s aides and the tattered condition of the army’s officers, not to mention its rank and file, many of whom wore dirty linen hunting shirts. Washington awkwardly mentioned that it must not seem much of an army to someone who knew the pomp and precision of Europe’s militaries. Lafayette replied simply, “I’ve not come to teach but to learn.” Perfect.

His name was Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette. The only son of a soldier descended from a long line of soldiers, Lafayette was only two when his father was killed in the Battle of Minden in 1759. His mother died after a brief illness eleven years later. The boy was wealthy, the inheritor of not just a title but of considerable estates and capital that gave him an annual income of 120,000 livres without his ever touching the principle. Other than money, nothing about him was particularly remarkable. He was enrolled as a military cadet and received the education typical for martial nobility in France, which is to say, not very much in quality or quantity. Though still a child, he was shoved into an arranged marriage with a pleasant girl, also a child, so it is understandable that his home life was more cordial than affectionate.

Lafayette was an awkward youth, so stilted at formal balls that Marie Antoinette and her ladies-in-waiting made him a figure of fun. He was bashful and often at a loss for words until an idea seized him, causing him to erupt in torrents of exclamations that gushed with exaggerated and flowery phrases. He was a sort of fellow who knocks over everyone's wineglass when gesticulating during a story. He had no military experience and owed his position as a garrison captain to his wife's influential family.

By the time he arrived in Philadelphia, both Congress and George Washington were disgusted by the flood of foreigners spouting braggadocio far beyond their talents. Congress treated Lafayette dismissively — his interview was conducted at curbside outside Independence Hall — but he persisted. Inside of three days, Congress made him a major general in the Continental Army. Something the nineteen-year-old had said struck a chord. He said that he would ask of America only two indulgences: to be allowed to serve in her army, and to not be paid for it. Congress was stunned. The tongue-tied kid often at a loss for words had found just the right ones. It was because he meant them.

The commission Lafayette received was merely honorary, and Congress took him at his word about there being no compensation. In only three months, however, Lafayette’s earnestness and sincerity earned Washington’s affection with a meaningful command soon to follow. As the British moved on Philadelphia, Lafayette was helping rally stragglers at the Battle of Brandywine when a bullet tore into his leg. Washington told the surgeons to take care of the young man as if he were his own son. 

From then on, Lafayette moved above the jealousies and suspicions that older officers trained on one another, always managing himself without incurring their wrath or their displeasure. When the French alliance was announced in the spring of 1778, he became an official brother in arms for his American compatriots. He sustained an ability to admire without fawning, a word that his fellow Frenchman the Comte d’Estaing used to describe Lafayette's demeanor, but Admiral d’Estaing was wrong. Lafayette was sincere in everything. He adopted American customs, including how using his knife as a spoon, not using a napkin, and drinking from the same goblet as it was passed around. 

Among Americans who fought for independence, Benedict Arnold profited the most, and that was by trying to sell it out. There were other traitors, but Arnold was unfathomable to Americans. Nathanael Greene muttered that “never since the fall of Lucifer has a fall equaled this,” and Benjamin Franklin marked the traitor as “too base to be forgot." Yet it was Lafayette, the ultimate contrast in purpose and person to Benedict Arnold, who found the best epitaph. When the British put Arnold on general staff in command of a brigade, Lafayette casually observed, "There is no accounting for taste."

Lafayette, the antithesis of Arnold, was civic virtue personified, the kind of man who could deliver success as one would glad tidings by making plain the reason to fight tyranny first, last, always, forever. Like Lafayette, American soldiers had little or no experience as they leveled guns and stood their ground, but they believed they had something better. They had the purity of good motives and the unyielding courage that comes with them. Armed with that, American victory was certified as a triumph of will and virtue, a miracle against all odds, a gift from the hand of Providence to a deserving people. 

In 1784, he visited Washington at Mount Vernon, and for several glorious days they basked in each other’s glow as father and son, home together again from long and separate journeys. It was nonetheless a bittersweet visit, for Washington gauged his years and the ocean barriers to another meeting. When they parted, he said as much. “No, my dear general, our late parting was by no means a last interview,” Lafayette wrote to him from the ship that was weighing anchor to take him back to France. Lafayette knew that Washington would never come to France, "but to you I shall return.” 

He surely meant to, but he did not. While George Washington lived, Lafayette never again strolled Mount Vernon’s piazza. Yet neither did Lafayette ever leave his heart, a feeling shared by Washington’s countrymen. When Lafayette stepped ashore in the summer of 1824, Americans roared their greeting while opening their arms and their purses. Even forty years could not dull for Americans the kid who had cared when it had counted the most, and the old man he had become was now home with them again, after long and separate journeys. 

( Heidlers Photo Credit: Don Jones, Studio Nine Commercial Photography)  © David and Jeanne Heidler 2019