This Day in History: Marquis de Lafayette, adopted son of George Washington
On this day in 1757, a future Revolutionary War hero is born—in France! Do you know about the Marquis de Lafayette, the Frenchman who became like a son to George Washington?
The two men first met in 1777, soon after Lafayette came to America, ready to help the American Army. Lafayette was then just 19 years old. General Washington was 45. Nevertheless, one of Lafayette’s biographers would say, “the two men bonded almost immediately.”
Some people would find Washington rather stoic. Not Lafayette. He thought Washington warm and inviting—like the father he’d never had. For his part, Washington was taken by the enthusiasm of the younger man. Lafayette was invited into Washington’s fold almost immediately.
Why was Washington so quick to include Lafayette in his inner circle? Historian James Gaines theorizes that Washington “saw something of himself in this ambitious young general with no battlefield experience who harbored dreams of his own division.” The friendship may have been further cemented a week later, as Lafayette was reviewing the badly trained, ragtag American force.
“[W]e should be embarrassed to show ourselves to an officer who has just left the French army,” Washington said. But Lafayette responded simply: “It is not to teach but to learn that I come hither.”
Washington was surely impressed.
Mere weeks later, Lafayette earned Washington’s respect yet again, during the Battle of Brandywine. Lafayette was badly wounded in one leg, but never seemed to notice until after the battle. As Lafayette was being taken away, General Washington reportedly told the surgeon to “[t]ake care of him as if he were my son, for I love him the same.”
Remember, at this point, the two men had known each other for only two months!
By mid-October 1777, Lafayette was recovering and ready to resume his duties. He wrote Washington, asking for a command. Lafayette spoke “with all the confidence of a son, of a friend, as you favoured me with those two so precious titles.” He made his case, but then added: “I do not tell all that to my general, but to my father and friend.”
Lafayette soon proved himself again, serving gallantly during a raid with General Nathanael Greene. “The Marquis is determined to be in the way of danger,” Greene wrote Washington. But Washington had already decided to write Congress on Lafayette’s behalf.
“[General Washington’s] trust in me is deeper than I dare say,” Lafayette wrote his wife, “In the place he occupies, he is surrounded by flatterers and secret enemies. He finds in me a trustworthy friend in whom he can confide and who will always tell him the truth.”
Lafayette and Washington remained fast friends—and adopted family—even after the Revolution. Lafayette would name his only son Georges Washington Motier de Lafayette. He sent Washington a key to the Bastille during the French Revolution. Washington, too, sent return gifts to France.
The French Revolution caused Washington a special kind of angst when Lafayette was imprisoned for his role in it. By then, Washington was President. He wanted to intervene, but there was little he could do without endangering American interests. He found a way to get money to Lafayette and his family, though. He also took Lafayette’s son under his wing in America, although he had to be discreet about it.
“Never during the Revolution was there so speedy and complete a conquest of the heart of Washington,” one of Washington’s biographers writes. “How did [Lafayette] do it? History has no answer.”
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David A. Clary, Adopted Son: Washington, Lafayette, and the Friendship that Saved the Revolution (2007)
James R. Gaines, For Liberty and Glory: Washington, Lafayette, and Their Revolutions (2007)
Letter from Major General Lafayette to Adrienne Lafayette (Jan. 6, 1778)
Letter from Major General Lafayette to George Washington (Oct. 14, 177)
Marc Leepson, Lafayette: Lessons in Leadership from the Idealist General (2011)
Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life (2010)