How Lafayette Came to America
LAFAYETTE belonged to the highest rank of the French nobility. When he was only thirteen years old, he was left with large landed estates, and the title of Marquis. He went to college in Paris, and, while there, met the King of France, Louis XV, who took him as a page into the royal household. When he was fifteen years old, he was given a military commission through the influence of the Queen.
Soon after this, he was married, and was stationed as Captain of Dragoons, at a fort on the German border. At dinner, one day, he heard someone talking about the Americans and the Declaration of Independence. He listened very attentively, and then said:
"If what you say of those Colonies is true, they deserve their liberty, and I, for one, would like to help them."
Shortly after this, he heard of the American victories at Trenton and Princeton, and, hastening to the American agents in Paris, he said to them, "I desire to aid America in her fight for freedom. I am willing to go in person, if you can find a way to send me."
But Lafayette was only nineteen years of age, and belonged to the French nobility. France and England were at peace. If he should try to come to America, there might be trouble with the English government, and, besides that, his own King probably would not let him undertake so foolish an enterprise. So the agent said:
"Marquis, you are very brave and you are very wealthy. We cannot help you even if we would, for America has no ships on this side of the ocean. If you desire to go to America, it must of necessity be at your own expense. We shall be glad to know that you have decided to go."
Lafayette, thereupon, went about getting ready. His preparations were made secretly, for fear the King of France would forbid his going on account of the existing friendship with England. At his own expense, he purchased a ship and fitted it out for the voyage. While the vessel was being prepared, Lafayette paid a visit to London so as to remove suspicion from his design.
While he was in London, the British Ambassador at Paris in some way learned of his purpose to go to America, and procured orders for his arrest. Accordingly, when Lafayette reached his ship, and was about to sail, he was arrested by order of the King. Letters were sent to him by all his noble relatives, telling him how foolish he was, and urging him to abandon his purpose. His wife wrote to him, however, not to give up his enterprise, but to go to America if he could find a way to do so.
Lafayette was not to be stopped by orders from the King or any one else. So, while the arresting party was on the way to Paris, the bold young nobleman blackened his face, put on false hair and old clothes, and passed the guards, making them think he was a negro laborer.
After a few hours, the guards discovered the trick played upon them; a great stir and commotion followed. Swift horses were saddled, and men went galloping in the direction the escaping Marquis had taken. But Lafayette had three hours start, and was driving the best horses that could be found. He was headed for the border of Spain, after passing which he would be safe from arrest.
In spite of the furious pursuit, Lafayette at last was safe; in a short while he was on board his own vessel and ready to set sail. With him were eleven officers bent on the same mission. His departure created a great sensation in France and England, but Lafayette cared very little for that.
The Captain of his vessel did not know where he was bound, until Lafayette ordered him to steer for the shores of America. The Captain was alarmed and said, "I dare not do so. The English will capture us." To which Lafayette replied, "If you do not do as I tell you, I shall put you in irons. This is my vessel, and I will order it wherever I desire." Thereupon the Captain steered the ship for America.
The voyage was long and stormy, but at last Lafayette and his party arrived one night near Georgetown, South Carolina. At first they were taken for the enemy, but, as soon as it was known who they were, the people of Georgetown and Charleston entertained them with great hospitality. Their arrival in America created a greater sensation than their departure from Europe, for the fortunes of the American army were at a low ebb just at this time, and the people were much discouraged.
Lafayette and his party proceeded by land to Philadelphia, where Congress was then in session. Upon his arrival, he wrote a letter to the President of that body, asking leave to enter the army as a volunteer, and to serve without pay. But Congress had no idea of letting so brave a man take such a low position; he was at once given the rank of Major-General.
He then lacked one month of being twenty years old. Those who saw him, at the time, described him as tall and slender, very graceful in his movements and gracious in his manners. He talked rapidly, with many gestures, and, when he spoke of liberty for the Colonies in America, his eyes shone very brightly and his face expressed his great emotion.
Soon afterwards, Lafayette met Washington at a dinner party in Philadelphia. The two men looked at each other with interest. Washington was tall, dignified, and forty-five years of age. Lafayette was hardly more than a college boy, slender and enthusiastic. After the dinner was over, Washington took him aside and said:
"Sir, I thank you for the sacrifice you are making for the cause of America. I shall be glad to have you a member of my military family."
Thus began the intimacy between these two great men, which was never for a moment interrupted. Washington loved Lafayette as a son, and learned to trust him as a General of ability and courage. He served in many battles with distinguished gallantry.
When Lafayette went back to France to get more aid for America, he was forgiven for running away, and was received everywhere with great enthusiasm. France became the ally of America in the War for Independence, and Lafayette raised large sums of money for the Colonists. The head of the French Ministry laughingly said:
"It is a fortunate thing that Lafayette did not take it into his head to strip his Majesty's palace of all its furniture to send to his dear Americans for I verily believe the King now would refuse him nothing."