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Lafayette’s Two Revolutions
Washington was his idol, but he could not apply his American ideals to a France sliding into the Terror
December 1956 | Volume 8, Issue 1
His heart was set on revisiting the land of his great achievements. He was delayed by fruitless efforts to get some official glamour thrown about his journey, but at last in the spring of 1784 he was able to announce to Washington: “Yes my dear General before the month of June is over you will see a vessel coming up the Pottomack, and out of the vessel will your friend jump with a panting heart and all the feelings of perfect happiness.”
Landing in New York, the Marquis set out eagerly for Virginia. Wherever he stopped to rest his horses he was greeted by the hugs and handclasps of old comrades-in-arms, by salutes from the militia and the ringing of churchbells and candles in the windows at night and toasts at public dinners in the taverns. The words liberty, republicanism, independence, and glory rang in his ears from every welcoming address. In Baltimore a society of Irish exiles celebrated his services to the cause of oppressed humanity. At Mount Vernon he threw himself into the arms of his adoptive father.
When the two generals showed themselves to an indulgent public at a welcoming dinner in an Alexandria hostelry, some of the company claimed—so Lafayette confided in a friend—that he and Washington had gotten a little tipsy together.
He had wanted his old commander in chief to accompany him on his triumphant tour, but Washington instead invited him to come along on a hard crosscountry ride he was planning over the mountains and out to the Ohio to visit his western lands. The Marquis, who was familiar enough with American geography to know that there would be no public demonstrations along those shaggy and sparsely settled trails, pleaded other engagements.
Back in Philadelphia he fell in with James Madison, who invited him on a trip which was more to his taste. Madison had been stimulated by Jefferson to interest himself in Indian languages. He was on his way to a great Indian powwow convoked at Fort Schuyler. The little Virginian immediately saw that Lafayette would be a trump in the hands of the Amercan commissioners. Many of the Indians still regretted the fatherly French rule. Lafayette’s name had spread to their tepees, where he was known as Kayewlaah.
The trip appealed to all the Marquis’s romantic aspirations. The long ride through upper New York State gave Madison an opportunity to talk the Marquis into offering to use his good offices with the Bourbons of Spain to convince them that they should open the navigation of the Mississippi to the American settlers. This was the matter which Madison wrote Jefferson was uppermost in his own thoughts at the time. The sly Madison noted with some amusement that the newfangled cloak of gummed taffeta which Lafayette wore to protect him from the rain, had been wrapped, when his baggage was packed, in newspapers that still stuck to it, so that his companions could read snatches of Parisian news off his back as they rode. It was a dismal ride through the rain-soaked forest. Lafayette delighted everybody by his carelessness of civilized comforts and by his ingratiating manner with the savages.
Lafayette immediately, to the dismay of Guy Carleton’s agents on the scene, became the leading figure in the complicated negotiations for a peaceful withdrawal by the Indians from frontier lands inside the state boundaries. Beside a crackling campfire in the cold October night, in declamatory French worthy of Chateaubriand, he addressed a group of chiefs of the Six Nations while the tobacco smoldered in the peace pipes.
Madison wrote Jefferson, who was just settling into his diplomatic post in Paris, that part of the Marquis’s pleasure in the dramatic scene was the thought that it “would form a bright column in the gazettes of Europe.” “The time I have lately passed with the M. has given me a pretty thorough insight into his character,” he added. “With great natural frankness of temper, he unites much address; with very considerable talents a strong thirst of praise and popularity.…”
Lafayette’s American tour revived the celebrations of the peace. In Hartford the whole town turned out to do him honor at Bull’s Tavern. As far out as Watertown he was greeted by a delegation of Continental officers to escort him into Boston. Amid cannonading from the forts and from French warships in the harbor he was regaled with a banquet at Faneuil Hall on the Yorktown anniversary. He was made a citizen of three states and freeman of a number of cities. Even his best friends pointed out that some of the compliments he received did not come unasked. When the enthusiasm of welcome seemed to slacken he made no bones about suggesting fresh celebrations. For the crowds of Americans who cheered him on his prancing stallion he was the living symbol of the French assistance that had won the war for independence.
The French frigate Nymphe carried him back to Virginia to take formal farewell of George Washington. Washington was so moved that he rode with him all the way to Annapolis when he left. Back at Mount Vernon he wrote the Marquis a letter which for him was emotional: thinking of the love and affection he felt for Lafayette, he said he had asked himself, as their carriages drove out of town on different roads, whether that was the last sight he would ever have of him. “And though I wished to say no my Fears answered yes. I called to mind the Days of my Youth, and found they had long since fled to return no more; that I was now descending the Hill I had been 52 years climbing, and that though I was blessed with a good constitution, I was of a shortlived family and might soon expect to be entombed in the dreary Mansions of my Fathers. These things darkened the Shades and gave a Gloom to the Picture, consequently to my Prospect of seeing you again; but I will not repine, I have had my Day.”