On December 24, 1779, during a brief year living in France during the American Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette welcomed his son and heir into the world. The next day Lafayette and his wife christened the baby Georges Washington Motier de Lafayette, in a gesture that Lafayette explained was "a tribute of respect and love for my dear friend."1 Georges Washington Lafayette was one of Lafayette's three children to survive into adulthood and his only son.
Georges Washington Lafayette spent many of his developing years away from his family, due to the consequences of his father's political alignment during the French Revolution. When Lafayette was thirteen his family was imprisoned after Maximilien de Robespierre came into power and began the infamous Reign of Terror. The young Lafayette escaped this fate when his parents disguised him as a peasant and sent him to live with a priest in the mountains. Three years later in 1795, the Marquise de Lafayette was released from prison and was subsequently hosted by the American Minister to France, James Monroe. During this time Monroe convinced the Marquise to send her son to the United States to stay with President Washington.
By August of 1795, Lafayette reached the United States with Monroe's assistance in procuring a passport. However, the political climate in America made it difficult for George Washington to openly embrace his visitor. Tensions existed between the U.S. and France over the actions of French privateers against American cargo ships heading to Britain. These seizures helped build public opinion against the French and placed Washington in a difficult position.
As sensitive as Washington was to public opinion, he still sought to help his close friend's son by discreetly making arrangements for Lafayette to be admitted to Harvard. However, the young Lafayette instead chose to make his way to New York where he waited in hopes to join Washington in Philadelphia. Washington followed the advice of Alexander Hamilton to avoid risking political friction and delayed extending Lafayette an invitation until February of 1796. Shortly after, Washington was relieved to receive support for his action from the House of Representatives.
Lafayette lived with the Washingtons for the next two years, including time at Mount Vernon. Upon his father's release from prison in 1798, Lafayette immediately set sail to rejoin his family in France. Lafayette eventually engaged in a military career, serving as a second lieutenant in the French Army under Napoleon. He later married and had children with Emilie de Tracy, the daughter of a family friend, and the couple lived at the Lafayette family estate LaGrange, near Paris. Lafayette joined his father in a tour of America between 1824 and 1825, and then lived out a relatively quiet life until his death in 1849.
University of Northern Colorado
1. Quoted in David Loth, The People’s General: The Personal Story of Lafayette (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1951), 128.
Gaines, James R. For Liberty and Glory: Washington, Lafayette, and their Revolutions. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007.
Latzko, Andreas. Lafayette: A Life. Garden City, NY: Country Life Press, 1936.
Loth, David. The People’s General: The Personal Story of Lafayette. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1951.
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