The revolutionary war of colonial America represented, for many, a period of romantic idealism facing the totalitarian regime of the world’s largest empire. The British Empire largely considered American liberty to be a minor colonial dispute until the war opened up on the world stage with the participation of France and Spain.
The French aristocrat and military officer Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier De La Fayette, usually referred to simply as Lafayette, remains one of the decisive figures in the struggle for American independence because of his efforts to broaden the scope of the revolution’s goals, procure support for the cause, and place the newly formed United States on equal footing within the international community.
Lafayette was born in 1757, on September 6th, in Chavaniac, to a family of decorated soldiers with a well-documented lineage that involved participation in all of France’s major wars to that point. His father died on the battle field of the Seven Years War, when he was only two years old. He lost the support of his mother and grandmother, in 1770, when they both passed away.
The young Lafayette, left a wealthy heir and orphan, married Marie Adrienne Françoise de Noailles, the member of another wealthy and influential French family, in 1773, the bride being only 14 years old at the time.
Upon hearing of the broiling revolutionary sentiment in America, he made arrangements with an American agent in Paris, Silas Deane, to join the American revolutionary forces as a major general.
The Departure to America: Reactions Stirred and Sacrifices Required
Lafayette’s initial departure to America was seen as a dangerous action of official support on France’s side, and he was officially forbidden by the king to embark on his journey once British spies discovered his plan. He eventually made his way to America through Spain, disguised as a woman, in 1777.
Upon arrival, the Continental Congress in power at the time delayed the promised commission of Lafayette as a major general, citing their contempt for what they called, “glory-seeking Frenchmen” that aroused suspicion due to the apparent international expectation that would arise from French involvement in the war.
After Lafayette promised to serve his post without pay, however, the Continental Congress changed its mind and commissioned him as a major general. Benjamin Franklin was instrumental in securing Lafayette’s position, believing that this arrangement could influence the French government to send more aid to the struggling United States.
This strategy worked out exactly according to plan, and, as Lafayette gathered decisive victories, he got closer to General George Washington, becoming one of his trusted aids and counselors throughout the war, and maintaining a close bond until the latter's demise.
In 1778, France formally recognized American independence, and Lafayette secured formal support for the American cause in 1779, as Tower Charlemagne writes,
“[The opportunity to enter the war] came now, when a dispatch from the United States Congress brought to the legation at Passy the astonishing news that the formidable army of General Burgoyne, from which so much had been expected in England, was defeated, captured, and held by the Americans as prisoners of war. This intelligencearoused the liveliest interest among all classes of people in France.” (234)
In 1781, Lafayette’s forces were played, to great advantage, against the British at the Battle of Yorktown, the results of which decisively ended the conflict by forcing the British Lieutenant General Cornwallis to surrender.
Now a fully Franco-American force, the war had been successfully opened up to a world stage, and what was once an isolated conflict had become a world war between Britain and France, The Netherlands, Spain, and even the South Indian Kingdom of Mysore. (Leckie 114).
Lafayette's Role and Place in American History - Repercusions
Lafayette’s contributions to the American Revolutionary effort were most evident in his early promise to fulfill his commission as a major general without pay, while leaving his pregnant wife in France in the process. Young and wealthy, with a beautiful wife and a baby on the way, he risked everything to fight for a cause that was not his, without expecting any retribution whatsoever.
This served to distinguish him as being of a very different class than the many other Frenchmen who served out of personal interests or an attempt to gain glory. It also showed his ideological position, which was clearly at the heart of the revolutionary struggle, and his resultant call for, “All nations to follow the American example” (Loth 31) became the underpinning foundation of American foreign policy, even to this day.
His actions determined the involvement of France in a war that gained international proportions, and brought the Americans the support they needed, clearly tilting the balance in their favor.
Modern historians tend to point to the Monroe doctrine and other sources as the foundation of American interventionism, but it was, in fact, Lafayette’s involvement in the Revolutionary war that showed, by contrast, that the option of isolationism could not reasonably serve American needs. The results of the attempt towards isolationism, as practiced in the years preceding World War I and II, serve as categorical evidence of this position’s decidedly un-American premise.
In light of the fact that America was founded on the basis of an alliance between extra-continental relations, managed largely through the actions of this individual, there could be no hope for a responsible, isolated nation- only one that, “ignores the call of liberty from afar” as Lafayette so succinctly put it in leveraging support from the French government during America’s time of need (Horn 111).
The Marquis De Lafayette is a principle figure in American history that has provided a foundation for the American foreign policy for years to come. If he does not receive the scholarly, cultural and popular attention that he should today, it is likely due to the particular mix of misinformation broadcast in modern times regarding the dangers of interventionism and the great merits of isolationism.
American people have, in recent years, found themselves inundated with all sorts of interventionist policies stemming from the Truman Doctrine and the Eisenhower Doctrine that continue, to this day, to affect foreign policy towards countries that the American people are often reluctant to agree with.
These policies directly stem from a sense of reciprocity that came from Lafayette’s involvement in the revolutionary war, and are given form by his later actions in France which attempted to achieve the goals of these doctrines long before they existed.
During his time in France, Lafayette lost a great deal of support because of his damaged reputation that occurred as a result of a number of political incidents, including the unsuccessful Flight to Varennes, which led to him being branded a traitor by Robespierre, and the ensuing political chaos of the French revolution. Despite his clearly very noble disposition, he unfortunately caught himself on the wrong side of the revolutionary effort taking place in his own country, and he paid the price for it during his later years.
When Lafayette returned to Napoleonic France, an understandably outraged Napoleon wanted to immediately rid himself of the man, as he represented a clear danger to his own base of political power. Lafayette managed to stay only through his promise to live in rural obscurity in his homeland.
The offer was made, many times, for him to emigrate to America, where he was still, and will always be, considered a great hero, but he felt too closely connected to his home country to leave, and continued to campaign for the political change that he had dreamed of for France.
Despite his status in France, Lafayette’s actions in America, deserve much greater emphasis as a starting point for the American foreign policy and involvement for centuries to come.
Gerson, Noel Bertram. Statue in Search of a Pedestal: A Biography of the Marquis de Lafayette. Dodd, Mead, 1976.
Horn, Pierre L. Marquis de Lafayette. Facts On File, Incorporated, 1989.
Loth, David Goldsmith. The People's General: The Personal Story of Lafayette. New York: Scribner, 1951.
Leckie, Robert. George Washington's War: The Saga of the American Revolution. HarperCollins, 1992.
Tower, Charlemagne. "The Marquis de Lafayette in the American Revolution (2 vols.)." (1895).