They say that truth is stranger than fiction, and the story of the Marquis de Lafayette fits this expression well. His is the tale of a teenage orphan who travels to a foreign land to offer his services in a David versus Goliath type battle. Winning that battle, he returns to his homeland where he is a key player in the French Revolution.
Historians all agree on the fact that without the significant economic and military aid of the French government, the fledgling United States of America would have likely lost the Revolutionary War against the British. And this particular Frenchman, the Marquis de Lafayette, was perhaps the most crucial piece of French support.
Born in 1757 as Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, he suffered the death of his father before he was two years old and the death of his mother at age 12. His family belonged to the French nobility, so he was left with quite a fortune. In addition, at the age of sixteen, he married into the very wealthy de Noailles family. There was no need to seek fame and fortune in a faraway land on a dangerous mission, so why on earth would this young man, only 19 years old, be so resolved to volunteer for the colonies in the American cause of freedom, a land he had never seen, a people he did not know?
I’m sure the reasons for Lafayette’s service in the American Revolutionary War are complex, and I’ve tried to search out some of his motives. The first thing that comes to mind is his youth. While at first glance it’s his age that strikes me as so uncommon for such a glorious cause, there is also a freshness and vigor and sense of invincibility that comes with youth. However, he did have a wife and young son he left behind when he first landed near Charleston, South Carolina in June of 1777. Being orphaned at a young age and married with child certainly matures one beyond his years. There must be more.
I turned to the issue of revenge. I considered the tragedy of his father’s death–his father was killed by a British cannonball during the Seven Years’ War. For a young man who likely longed to know his father and who he must have revered as a hero, I wondered if Lafayette had found vengeance for his father’s death. To support the American cause of liberty was to defy and destroy British domination. Revenge can only carry one so far, however, and reflecting on how Lafayette put his very life on the line, as well as spending his personal fortune to buttress the American forces, I searched still deeper.
When considering the whole of Lafayette’s life, well beyond the American Revolution, I found in him a profound and immense freedom-fighting spirit that must have propelled him even from youth. Were the American Revolution just about personal glory or youthful fantasy, Lafayette’s quest would have likely ended there. However, as we see him fight for representative government in the French Revolution, it’s clear that Lafayette was one of those unique persons in human history who was born to fulfill an instinctive yearning for freedom, no matter the time or place.
Independence and self-government are ideals that simply resonated with Lafayette. As he served under General George Washington, these two men developed a life-long friendship and considered one another as father and son. Great people like these do find each other, invisibly drawn together by the same passion and intellect.
Lafayette participated in key battles of the Revolution, including those at Brandywine and Yorktown. In addition to military expertise, he exercised great diplomacy in convincing the king of France to increase his support in substantial excess of his original intent.
As Americans celebrate their Independence, I do hope they remember France and one particular Marquis de Lafayette.