Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette (also spelled Lafayette) was born on September 6, 1757. His story is incredibly complex, so for today I’ll just focus on his connection with George Washington. This French aristocrat served under Washington in the Revolutionary War, at enormous personal and financial cost. He fought in six battles, including Brandywine, where he was seriously injured, and was instumental in the Siege of Yorktown. He was absolutely essential in rousing French support for the Revolutionary cause, financial and military support that turned the tide of the war. For all this, many Americans don’t seem to know about La Fayette. I always tell my students that without him they’d probably be singing “God Save the Queen” at cricket matches instead of “The Star Bangled Banner” at baseball games.
La Fayette and Washington grew incredibly close. When the Marquis’ son was born, he was given the name George Washington La Fayette and his daughter was named Virginie, after Washington’s home state. Once back home, he worked to establish trade relations between the newly founded United States and France. He urged the new country to abolish the slave trade, to emancipate all slaves and establish them as tenant farmers. La Fayette was given an honorary degree from Harvard and made an honorary citizen of the United States.
On March 17, 1790 he wrote a letter to Washington along with which he sent the key to the Bastille, saying, “It is a tribute, which I owe, as a son to my adoptive father, as an aide-de-camp to my General, as a Missionary of liberty to its Patriarch.” Washington was so moved that he hung the key in a special case in the front hall of his home at Mount Vernon and he considered it his most prized possession.
La Fayette’s fortunes rose and fell during the French Revolution, to the point that he was nearly guillotined, imprisoned for five years, and exiled. In 1824, he had a triumphal return to the United States. Many cities and towns in the U.S. have been named after him, as well as Lafayette College. He embraced a freed slave who had taken the name Lafayette upon his emancipation, which created headlines. The National Guard is named for La Fayette’s Garde Nationale. He died on May 20, 1834 and his son sprinkled American soil on his grave.
Today’s expression, prendre son courage à deux mains (prehndruh soh courahj a deu mah) means “to take one’s courage by two hands.” It refers to courage in the face of fear. I think La Fayette would know exactly what that felt like. He’s definitely someone worth remembering.