The friendship that made America
"Adopted Son: Washington, Lafayette, and the Friendship That Saved the Revolution" by David A. Clary. Bantam, $27, 592 pages.
When the United States entered World War I, the first American troops to land in Europe shouted "Lafayette, we are here!" to the cheering French crowds. This battle cry was an acknowledgment of the great debt their country owed to the Marquis de Lafayette. Few men, and particularly few men so young, have played such a pivotal role in shaping the history of two continents as the Lafayette.
In spite of his fame during his lifetime, Lafayette has been largely forgotten by history -- his memory preserved in a few place names, such as Western Pennsylvania's Fayette County or as a footnote in the biographies of his contemporaries. David A. Clary's "Adopted Son: Washington, Lafayette, and the Friendship That Saved the Revolution" seeks to correct this historical oversight.
The Marquis de Lafayette was born into an aristocratic family with a long and glorious martial tradition stretching back to the crusades. When his father was cut down by an English cannonball, Lafayette inherited one of the largest fortunes in France.
Most young men of Lafayette's social rank and financial means spent their days living in exquisite splendor and seeking favor at the French court. Why did Lafayette choose, instead, a life of great personal sacrifice dedicated to defending human rights• Clary's well-written book makes the case that it was Lafayette's great admiration and friendship with George Washington that transformed him into one of history's greatest champions of freedom.
Although the French government generally supported the American cause, France was technically neutral when Lafayette joined a group of fellow officers intent on joining Washington's army. When word of the 19-year-old marquis' intentions leaked out, the king issued an arrest warrant and Lafayette was forced to leave his homeland in disguise. An outlaw in his native land, he was hardly welcomed by the American government.
The Congress had been besieged by a steady stream of Europeans seeking their fortune serving in the American army. Most were poorly qualified and sought command positions expecting generous rewards. Lafayette arrived carrying a letter of introduction from Silas Deane, the leader of the congressional mission to the French court, so he was granted an interview with John Hancock.
The young man's humility and enthusiasm charmed the patriot leader. Lafayette explained that he sought no command and only wished to serve as a volunteer under the great Gen. Washington. The fact that he was willing to serve without compensation, paying his own expenses, also made an impression on the cash-strapped American government.
Lafayette was awestruck at his first meeting with Washington. He saw the general as the embodiment of military valor. For his part, Washington liked the young man and later in life said at their first meeting that he deemed the marquis worthy of "esteem and attachment." The two men shared much in common; both had been orphaned at a young age, and both had chosen a life of service rather than privilege. Both burned with a desire to make their mark on history.
The shared hardships of the revolution forged an unbreakable bond between the two men. Lafayette's cool courage under fire and concern for his troops endeared him to both the army and its commander. Lafayette's personal bravery and creative leadership turned the tide in the Americans' favor in several key battles.
On many occasions, Lafayette fed and clothed his troops out of his own pocket, and on one occasion paid the back wages of a disgruntled American unit, preventing a mutiny.
His greatest service to the revolution might have been his steadfast loyalty to Washington during the "Conway Cabal." Lafayette's support was a major factor in foiling this attempt to remove Washington as commander of the American army. Washington wrote of Lafayette, "I do not know a nobler, finer soul, and I love him as a son." The usually emotionally reserved Washington openly wept at their final parting.
After returning to France, Lafayette continued to serve his adopted country. He successfully lobbied the French government for loans and trade concessions. His diplomatic mission to Spain staved off a war over navigation rights on the Mississippi, paving the way for the Louisiana Purchase. His experience of the American Revolution transformed the 19-year-old boy in search of adventure and glory into a tireless fighter for democracy and human rights.
Lafayette played an important part in the French Revolution, wrote the "European Declaration of the Rights of Man" and was imprisoned for his outspoken defense of freedom and the rule of law. For the rest of his long life, Lafayette fought for religious freedom, democracy and the abolition of slavery. Upon his death in 1834, Lafayette was eulogized by John Quincy Adams, who said, "Pronounce him one of the first men of his age, and you have not yet done him justice."
David Clary's fine book is a great read. It is part adventure story and part the story of a young man growing to manhood, but first and foremost it is a story of a great friendship, the friendship of George Washington and his "adopted son" the Marquis de Lafayette.
Jim Busch is a freelance writer from White Oak.