A Father Figure Larger Than Life

This Day in History

Continental Army General George Washington first made the providential acquaintance of Marquis de Lafayette during the summer of 1777. General Washington was a revered leader in charge of an “army” of minutemen mired knee-deep in a war that by all accounts should have ended in a decided defeat for the outnumbered, out-maneuvered, and ill-prepared force.

Lafayette was a nineteen year-old idealistic Frenchman and first-time father who, against his family’s wishes (and that of the Court of Louis XVI), elected to travel to America and assist in their fight for liberation from England. Lafayette had long been enthralled with the concept of liberty and wished to witness it firsthand were victory to come to the fledgling nation.

Soon after their initial meeting, Washington requested that the young Lafayette move into his “quarters.” On the surface, this generous invitation likely had to do more with the connections that the wealthy young Frenchman had back at home than with any “paternal” feelings on the part of the elder Washington. Benjamin Franklin had been working diligently to persuade France to get behind the American cause and perhaps, a relationship between the Commander of the Continental Army and Lafayette could further solidify an alliance.

Although the friendship may have initially been primarily political, it readily morphed into much more of a “father and son” relationship. Lafayette’s father had tragically met his demise during the Seven Years War with England. Thus, perhaps since he never really knew his biological father, he was eager to “claim” the brilliant, accomplished and endearing Washington as his “father.”

Lafayette was made a major general by the Continental Congress and he agreed to serve at no expense to the Americans. Soon thereafter, Washington convinced Congress to name Lafayette commander of a division of the Army. Both parties were quite pleased with the appointment.

Washington and Lafayette at Mount Vernon

General Washington seemed to have a calming influence on his oftentimes brash and headstrong young charge. Under the sage tutelage of the Commander, Lafayette learned to dearly treasure the concept of liberty as a God-given right to all men. And further, no government should have the power to deny this natural law to any of its citizens. Washington’s views had such a profound impact on the young man, that twelve years after their first meeting, he authored the Declaration of the Rights of Man. This well-constructed document would provide the basis for what would later become the French Revolution.

Although Washington was both a father figure and a mentor to young Lafayette, the relationship was anything but one-sided. In fact, the General enjoyed many a convivial dinner with his dear friend with whom he was able to speak freely and openly. For a leader who was usually considered rather “buttoned up,” this relationship must have provided a much-needed respite during such tumultuous times.

Lafayette departed America for France in January 1779 with an impressive commendation penned by Congress that lauded the young soldier’s performance on behalf of a beholden nation. He was received in France with great fanfare as the hero he had become overseas. While back home, the marquis and his wife had their second child and promptly named him none-other-than George Washington, but of course!

George Washington's Tomb in Mount Vernon

In April 1780, he ventured again to America. He was tasked with the glorious duty of delivering the news that France was officially getting behind the cause of America’s liberation from England. Seems that the long-standing diplomatic efforts of Mr. Franklin had finally paid off. Naturally, Lafayette was greeted in Boston Harbor with uproarious applause.

As soon as General Washington learned that his dear friend and “son” had arrived, he is said to have cried great tears of joy. The marquis would also reveal that 6,000 French infantrymen would soon arrive along with desperately-needed munitions and arms; “music to the ears” of a weary and war-torn land.

Alas, after five brutal years of what should, by most accounts, have been a swift defeat for a hopeful and idealistic nation, victory reigned supreme at Yorktown in 1781; thanks in no small part to the tremendous efforts of the Marquis de Lafayette and the country of his birth. With the surrender of Cornwallis, America would now become its own nation, fraught with all the challenges to which any young country must rise.

Lafayette’s third visit to his “second home” occurred in 1784 after Washington’s retirement and subsequent return to his beloved home on the Potomac, Mount Vernon. There the two men visited and discussed the matters of the day. Washington was becoming a proponent of a stronger federal government, an idea that struck a chord with the marquis. As he traveled throughout the country, he would often speak out in favor of strengthening the central government of the fledgling nation.

Sadly, Lafayette was not able to return to the United States until twenty five years after the death of his beloved confidant and “father.” His plan during this visit was to buoy the spirits of a weary young republic determined to be more than just a footnote in the annals of history. He again received a grand and boisterous hero’s welcome as he tirelessly traveled the twenty-four state nation encouraging its citizens to hold fast to the tenets so eloquently dispensed by President Washington during his lifetime.

While in Virginia, he visited Washington’s tomb at Mount Vernon wherein he spent an hour of solitary contemplation in the treasured and comfortable companionship of his much-adored adoptive “father,” the father of our great nation. What a bittersweet passage of time that must have been as the book was closed on perhaps the most meaningful and productive alliance of our great American story.

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