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This Week in History
March 8-14, 2015

Triumphal Tour of Lafayette Reaches Charleston
March 14, 1825

By Pamela Lowry

Our "This Week in History" column is pleased to post contributions from the extended American "Committee of Correspondence".[1] Historian Pamela Lowry reports on the historic event as if from on the scene. Additional material was contributed by Charles Notley. A more extensive article can be read here: "Rekindling the Spark of Liberty: Lafayette's Visit to the United States, 1824-1825."

Lafayette as a lieutenant general. Portrait by Joseph-Desire Court. 1791.

March 14, 1825 -- The triumphal tour of the Marquis de Lafayette through all the twenty-four states of the Union has reached Charleston, South Carolina. It was here, in 1777, that the last surviving Major-General of the Revolution first landed in America, coming at the age of 19 to serve in the Continental Army. The militia of the entire state was represented in the long procession accompanying Lafayette into the city, and many of the men had marched fifty miles a day in order to join in the celebration. Cries of "Welcome, Lafayette," reportedly drowned out the band music, and competed with the thunder of cannons from ships in port and the ringing of all the city's bells.

We are pleased to provide some history of the life of this remarkable man for those of our readers who may not be familiar with it.

Born in Chavaniac, in Auvergne Province in south central France, Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette, Marquis de Lafayette came from a wealthy landowning family. Following its martial tradition, he was commissioned an officer at age 13. At 19, convinced that the American cause in our revolutionary war was noble and just, he came to the New World, and was made a major general, though initially was not given troops to command. Wounded during the Battle of Brandywine, he still managed to organize an orderly retreat. He served with distinction in the Battle of Rhode Island. In the middle of the war, he returned home to lobby for an increase in French support. He again sailed to America in 1780, and was given senior positions in the Continental Army. In 1781, troops in Virginia under his command blocked forces led by Gen. Cornwallis until other American and French forces could position themselves for the decisive Siege of Yorktown.

Lafayette returned to France and, in 1787, was appointed to the Assembly of Notables convened in response to the fiscal crisis. He was elected a member of the Estates-General of 1789, where representatives met from the three traditional orders of French society—the clergy, the nobility and the commoners. He helped write the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, with the assistance of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. After the storming of the Bastille the morning of July 14, 1789, Lafayette was appointed commander-in-chief of the National Guard to keep order throughout France.

After the Bastille, long a symbol of royal despotism, fell, its main key was turned over to Lafayette. Optimistic about the fate of the Revolution in France, Lafayette shipped the key to George Washington in March of 1790, entrusting it to Thomas Paine, also well-known for his participation in the American Revolution, for delivery to the South Carolinian John Rutledge, Jr. who presented it to President Washington. The key is now displayed in the main hall of Mount Vernon.

The most affecting moment in Lafayette’s stop in Charleston came when the sixty-seven year old Lafayette was reunited with Colonel Francis Huger, who as a child had welcomed Lafayette to America in 1777, and later took part in the daring plan to rescue him from the Fortress of Olmutz in Austria. Many Americans will remember that when Lafayette fled through Belgium from the Reign of Terror in 1792, he was captured by Austrian troops, and imprisoned for five years in various Prussian and Austrian dungeons at the order of Prime Minister Pitt of Great Britain. Col. Huger was at the time studying surgery in Vienna. He joined forces in 1794 with a young German doctor named Justus Bollman, and together they mounted an attempt to rescue Lafayette, which resulted in their own capture. After eight months in the dungeon of Olmutz, Col. Huger and Dr. Bollman were released just in time to escape the Emperor of Austria's order to throw them back into prison.

Lafayette survived the remaining years of his captivity because his wife Adrienne traveled to Austria on an American passport and guarded him from assassination attempts until Napoleon Bonaparte secured his release in 1797. Lafayette returned to France, but refused to participate in Napoleon's government. After the Bourbon Restoration of 1814, Lafayette became a liberal member of the Chamber of Deputies, a position he still holds.

Now, at the invitation of President James Monroe, Gen. Lafayette has returned to receive the grateful thanks of a nation for his efforts to secure the blessings of liberty for both the Old World and the New.



[1] The Committees of Correspondence, best known from Benjamin Franklins' work, were the American colonies' means for maintaining communication lines in the years before the Revolutionary War. In 1764, Boston formed the earliest Committee of Correspondence to encourage opposition to Britain's stiffening of customs enforcement and prohibition of American paper money. The following year, New York formed a similar committee to keep the other colonies notified of its actions in resisting the Stamp Act. In 1773, the Virginia House of Burgesses proposed that each colonial legislature appoint a committee for intercolonial correspondence. The exchanges that followed built solidarity during the turbulent times and helped bring about the formation of the First Continental Congress in 1774. The Committees continued to function in the following years as a US Intelligence Service.


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