Advice from a Founding Father
Thomas Calabrese — Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette, known in the United States simply as Lafayette was a French aristocrat and military officer who fought in the American Revolutionary War and commanded troops in several battles, including the Siege of Yorktown.
Lafayette was born into a wealthy land-owning family in Chavaniac in the province of Auvergne in south central France. He followed the family’s martial tradition and was commissioned an officer at age 13. In 1775 Lafayette became convinced that the American revolutionary cause was noble and reflected his own beliefs. The young boy had two other strong reasons for wanting to go to the colonies. He hated the British for killing his father and he had just become a Freemason and talk of the rebellion fired up his chivalrous nature. He told his friend, Henri LeCount, “My heart is dedicated to their cause and a man has got to do what he has to do.”
In 1776, Louis XVI and his foreign minister, Charles de Vergennes entered into delicate negotiations with American agent Silas Deane. The king and his minister hoped that by supplying the Americans with arms and officers, they might restore French influence in North America and exact revenge against Britain for losses suffered in the ‘Seven Years War’. When Lafayette heard that French Officers were being sent to America, he asked the King, “Sorry to bother you, Majesty, but I’d like to go to America. Do you think you could put a good word in for me?”
“You’re a little on the young side, knee-high to a croissant. If that’s what you want, tell Silas that you’ve got my recommendation,” Louis XVI smiled.
“Thanks King, I owe you one,” Lafayette replied and was off in an instant, excited to embark on his next adventure.
After Lafayette departed the castle, Louis XVI turned to one of his advisors,” I like that kid, I hope he doesn’t get himself killed.”
Lafayette found Silas Deane drinking wine and eating cheese snacks at a popular Parisian eatery “Yo, Mr. Dean, I’ve been looking for you.”
An inebriated Dean looked up from his table, “Who are you, Pepe Lepew?”
“Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette.”
“Try saying that ten times fast,” Silas joked, “What can I do for you, Markie?”
“The king gave me his endorsement, I want to go America and fight for liberty,” Lafayette said.
“That’s good enough for me. How does the rank of Major General sound?” Silas asked.
“Like music to my ears.”
“Pour yourself a glass of wine and I’ll swear you in,” Silas stammered.
Lafayette learned that the Continental Congress lacked funds for his voyage, so he bought the sailing ship Victoire with his own money for 112,000 pounds. He journeyed to Bordeaux, where the vessel was being prepared for the trip. As much as he wanted to go to America, once it departed and was out to sea for a day, Lafayette got homesick and ordered the captain to return to port. This frustrated and angered the other older French officers who were traveling with him. One of the officers was Andre’DeBroglie, who hoped to become a military and political leader in America was especially irate, “Hey, what the hell! If I knew you were going to back out, I would have found me another ride.”
“You’re right, I left you hanging,” Lafayette hung his head in shame, “Captain, we’re leaving again. This time, no matter what I say, do not turn around.”
Captain Gironde shrugged, “It’s your ship, and I’m just the driver.”
The two-month journey to the New World was marked by seasickness and boredom, not exactly the best combination for an enjoyable ocean cruise. Lafayette landed on North Island near Georgetown, South Carolina on 13 June 1777. As he wobbled down the gangplank, Lafayette grumbled, “I should have bought a bigger ship or brought more rum.”
On arrival, Lafayette met Major Benjamin Huger, a wealthy landowner, with whom he stayed for two weeks before traveling to Philadelphia. The Continental Congress had been overwhelmed by French officers recruited by Deane, many of whom could not speak English and lacked military experience. “If I wanted to be around this many French people, I would have stayed in Paris.”
Lafayette had learned some English while aboard ship and was a quick learner. His Masonic membership also opened many doors in Philadelphia, so he was in a considerably better position than his fellow Frenchmen.
The colonies were having serious cash-flow problems so when Lafayette offered to serve without pay and also make a generous donation from his inheritance, Congress had an emergency meeting to discuss his offer. Archibald Bulloch from Georgia said, “We’ve got nothing to lose and a lot to gain.”
Josiah Bartlett from New Hampshire hesitated then finally agreed, “It’s not like we have a lot of choices. I vote with Archie.”
The Continental Congress voted to confirm the military appointment that Silas Deane gave Lafayette in France. It also didn’t hurt that Benny Franklin, the recently arrived American envoy from France reminded them of one very important fact, “You turn him down and the King might take it as a personal insult. We lose his support and we’re up the proverbial creek without a paddle.”
General George Washington, commander in chief of the Continental Army, came to Philadelphia to brief Congress on military affairs. Lafayette met him at an all-you-can-eat fish and chips fundraiser on 5 August 1777 and the two men bonded almost immediately, while sharing a bowl of tartar sauce.
Washington was immediately impressed by the young man’s enthusiasm and appetite and Lafayette was simply in awe of the commanding general. General Washington took the Frenchman to view his military camp where he expressed embarrassment at its state and that of the troops, “Not exactly inspection ready.”
Lafayette responded, “My father told me that it’s more important how troops fight than how they look.”
“I can’t give you command of a division because you are of foreign birth, but I can offer you a position on my staff,” General Washington said.
“I am here to learn and serve in any way that you deem appropriate.” Lafayette replied.
Lafayette’s first battle was at Brandywine on 11 September 1777. The British commanding general, General Sir William Howe planned to take Philadelphia by moving troops south by ship to Chesapeake Bay, rather than enter the heavily defended Delaware Bay. After the British outflanked the Americans, Washington told Lafayette, “I’m sending you to be second in command to Brigadier General Thomas Conway. Good luck.”
Lafayette responded eagerly, “I won’t let you down.”
Upon his arrival at the scene of the upcoming battle, Lafayette attempted to rally the Third Pennsylvania Brigade who were greatly disheartened by recent defeats to the British. “General Washington sends his best regards. Repeat after me; we can do this…we can do this.”
The British and Hessian forces advanced with their superior forces, and Lafayette was shot in the leg. During the American retreat, the Frenchman may have been in excruciating pain from his wound, but he remained steadfast and kept his troops calm, “Don’t consider this a retreat, it’s more of an attack to the rear.” Washington later cited Lafayette for bravery and recommended him for a command of his own division.
It took two months for Lafayette to recover from his serious leg wound. When he was well enough, Washington sent him to assist General Nathan Greene in reconnaissance of British positions in New Jersey. With 300 soldiers he defeated a numerically superior Hessian force in Gloucester, on 24 November 1777.
Lafayette stayed at Washington’s encampment at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777–78, and shared the hardship of his troops. On one particularly bitter cold morning, the Frenchman said to Washington, “It’s colder than a brass outhouse.”
Washington turned his back to the harsh wind and responded, “I know, the flames on my campfire froze this morning.”
The Oneida tribe, an ally of the Americans referred to Lafayette as Mashonka Kayewla (Little Markie the fearsome horseman). In March 1778, France formally recognized American independence. The French fleet arrived at Delaware Bay on 8 July 1778 under the command of Admiral d’Estaing. General Washington planned to attack Newport, Rhode Island with their support. Lafayette and General Greene were sent with a 3,000-man force to participate in the attack. A large storm interfered with the Americans’ plans when it badly damaged the French and British fleets, Admiral d’Estaing was forced to retreat to Boston to make repairs.
George Washington was used to dealing with adversity and making the necessary adjustments on short notice, “I’m going to send you and John Hancock to Boston to make sure that those repairs get done quickly.”
Lafayette sensed that something was weighing heavily on his commanding officer’s mind, “What’s bothering you?”
“I need to ask you something, I was hoping that I wouldn’t have to because I need you here, but things are getting desperate.”
Lafayette guessed what it was, “You need me to go back to France to get more help”
Washington was amazed at the perceptive nature of Lafayette, “How did you know?”
“I’m seeing the same things as you.”
When Lafayette made it back to France, he wasted no time in securing 6,000 soldiers under the command of General Jean-Baptiste de Rochambeau. He would take on the additional duties of liaison between Rochambeau and Washington. When he arrived back in Boston on 27 April 1780, Lafayette could hardly contain his excitement at seeing his friend and commanding officer, George Washington. He asked with a sly grin upon his face, Permission to speak freely?”
“Go for it,” George Washington said.
“What’s shaking big fella?”
“Just my cherry trees,” George Washington quipped and gave the Frenchman a high five.
Over dinner Lafayette inquired about what had be happening with a few of their mutual acquaintances during his five-month absence, “How’s Tom Jefferson doing?”
George Washington, “Did you know that he can write with both hands. Nothing he likes better than seeing his words on paper. You should have seen him when he was writing the Declaration of Independence, he was happier than Betsy Ross at a quilting bee.”
“What about Benny Franklin?” Lafayette asked.
“That guy is a real nutcase. He was in here not too long ago with a pocketful of one-liners and quotes. Finally I had to say, I’ve got a war to fight, get yourself a hobby. Last that I heard he started kite flying. James Madison saw him flying one in a thunderstorm down by the Potomac, while lightning was flashing all around him,” George Washington grinned.
“I heard something else about him when I landed,” Lafayette said.
“He’s got a ventriloquist act with a dummy called Poor Richard. He’s been entertaining the troops at camps around the area.” George Washington said, “I told him with an act like his, I won’t have any trouble getting my soldiers to charge into battle. If we get some time, we’ll catch one of his shows.”
“What about John ‘Doc’ Hancock?”
“He’s got a real gambling problem. He’s got I.O.U.’s all over the colonies. It’s gotten so bad that when people don’t pay a debt now, it called putting your John Hancock down,” George Washington explained.
Not much later, Lafayette evaded Lord Cornwallis’ attempts to capture him in Richmond in June 1781. The British commander received orders from London to proceed to the Chesapeake Bay to oversee construction of a port, in preparation for an overland attack on Philadelphia. As the British column traveled, Lafayette sent small squads that would appear unexpectedly, attacking the rear guard or foraging parties, and giving the impression that his forces were larger than they were. On 4 July, the British left Williamsburg and prepared to cross the James River. Cornwallis sent only an advance guard to the south side of the river, hiding many of his other troops in the forest on the north side, hoping to ambush Lafayette.
On 6 July, Lafayette ordered General “Mad” Anthony Wayne to strike British troops on the north side with roughly 800 soldiers. Wayne found himself vastly outnumbered, and, instead of retreating, led a bayonet charge. The charge bought time for the Americans, and the British did not pursue. By August, Cornwallis had established his position at Yorktown. Lafayette deployed his troops on Malvern Hill with supporting artillery. The British, who were close to the York River had orders to construct fortifications to protect the British ships that were arriving. Lafayette’s containment trapped the British and when the French fleet arrived and won the Battle of the Virginia Capes, Cornwallis was deprived of his naval protection. On 14 September 1781, Washington’s forces reinforced Lafayette’s. On 28 September, with the French fleet blockading the British, the Americans laid siege to Yorktown. After a failed British counter-attack, Lord Cornwallis surrendered on 19 October 1781. This would be the last battle of the Revolutionary War.
With his work as a military commander over, Lafayette decided to return to France on 18 December 1781. He had a very emotional meeting with George Washington prior to his departure. The two warriors reminisced about their battle exploits, but eventually their conversation turned to the future of America.
“Any pearls of wisdom that you want to share before I diddy-bop back across the pond?” Lafayette asked.
“There’s some people in this country that are about as sharp as a bag of Potomac River flat rocks. You can explain things until you’re blue in the face and they still have a blank look on their faces.”
“I know a few of those, that’s for sure,” Lafayette agreed.
“Don’t forget the one-eight gang.”
“What’s a one eight gang?” Lafayette asked.
“That’s a person who when he gets a free mug of ale that is seven eights full and still complains about how he was cheated. Nothing is ever good enough for them. They act entitled and victimized at the same time.”
“I know those too,” Lafayette smiled as he refilled George Washington’s mug with cherry cider, “If you noticed, I filled your mug to the top. Anybody else on your list?”
“If those are abbreviations, then it could take me a while to figure it out,” Lafayette replied.
“Those are the people whose answer to everything is, It Ain’t My Job. They have about as much chance of standing up for anything as a noodle does of standing upright in a windstorm. You should count your blessings, Markie. You came all the way from France to fight possibly and die for a cause you believed in. Not many men ever feel that type of passion in their life. You’ll always have my respect and gratitude.”
It’s been my honor and privilege to serve under your command. Looking back, would you have done things differently?” Lafayette asked.
“Excuse my French, but hell yes! Like Moses told his followers after wandering 40 years in the desert when he finally realized he made a wrong turn at the oasis. ‘Hindsight is 20 20. I made the appropriate decisions with the information that I had at the time.’ Here’s my philosophy on memories; cherish the good ones and learn from the bad ones.”
“How about a hypothetical question?” Lafayette inquired.
“I love those, I’ve never been wrong on a hypothetical question in my life. Fire away!”
“Speaking about 2020, let’s say this country is still around by that time. Here’s the scenario; you’re scheduled to give a speech at a 4th of July picnic before the hot dog eating contest, what would you tell that generation of Americans?”
“There would be a whole lot I’d want to say, but I’d probably keep it brief. First thing I’d tell them, don’t destroy our history, if you don’t like what we did then learn from it. Like Adam told Eve after he took a bite of the apple in the Garden of Eden and was kicked out of paradise, you learn more from your failures than your successes.
Lafayette left Boston for France on 18 December 1781 where he was welcomed as a hero. He participated in a combined French and Spanish expedition against the British West Indies in 1782. He also took part in the negotiations of The Treaty of Paris, between Great Britain and the United States in 1783. Lafayette worked with Jefferson to establish trade agreements between the United States and France which aimed to reduce America’s debt to France. He also introduced the American statesman to ice cream and when Jefferson returned home, he brought recipes and an ice cream freezer with him. One of those recipes was pie ala mode. Thomas Jefferson became so addicted to this dessert that he would always put two scoops of ice cream on his pie. Hence the nickname, ‘Two Scoops Jefferson’. As an astute businessman, Jefferson saw a unique opportunity and went into partnership with Christopher Robbins and began opening ice cream shops in strategic locations around the colonies. His descendants eventually would sell their interests in the immensely successful dessert franchise to William Baskin and Baskin and Robbins was born.
Most men would have been content to rest on their laurels, but not Lafayette. He joined a French abolitionist group which advocated for the end of the slave trade and equal rights for free blacks. He urged the emancipation of slaves and their establishment as tenant farmers in a 1783 letter to Washington. Lafayette played a significant role in the abolition of slavery in France in 1794. He was far from perfect, but he consistently stuck to his ideals, even when doing so endangered his life and fortune. Those ideals proved to be the foundation of a legacy that few military leaders, politicians, or statesmen will ever match. Lafayette was a hero of two worlds.