Lafayette's Return to America
IN 1824, Lafayette, now an old man, longed to visit once more the people of America, and to see again the scenes of his youthful glory. Congress at once invited him to be the nation's guest.
More than forty years had passed since he had come to America's aid. The thirteen colonies were now twenty-four states. The nation was prosperous, peaceful, and powerful—a republic of twelve million people. Towns and villages had sprung up, and even the Far West was being opened to adventurous explorers and settlers.
Death had claimed many of the intimate friends of Lafayette. Washington had been dead for twenty-five years. Greene, Wayne, Marion and Morgan were all gone. Lafayette was the last surviving Major-General of the Revolution. But there were many veteran soldiers yet alive, and there was an entire nation of grateful people to welcome him to the shores of America.
Lafayette himself had had a busy and turbulent career since his part in the American War for Independence. He had fought the battles of liberty in his own country and had for five years been a prisoner in an Austrian dungeon. But in spite of this exciting life, he was still a strong and vigorous man.
In appearance, he was very tall and rather stout. He had a round face, with regular features and a high forehead. His complexion was clear, and his cheeks were red. He had lost his hair in the Austrian prison, and wore a curly, reddish-brown wig to conceal his entirely bald head.
Accompanied by his son, George Washington Lafayette, and his private secretary, Lafayette reached New York, in August, 1824. Six thousand citizens, aboard gaily-dressed vessels, went out to meet his approaching ship. With cannon booming from the forts, and with flags flying from every masthead and building, the boat, bearing the distinguished foreigner, came to shore while many thousands of people lined the docks, and shouted, "Welcome, Lafayette! All honor to the nation's guest!"
In a few days, Lafayette went to Washington, and President Monroe formally received him at the White House as the guest of the American people. From that time on, for more than a year, he was engaged in a long series of receptions and ovations, in every state of the Union.
Having promised to attend the graduating exercises of Harvard College, Lafayette started for Boston. There were no railroads in those days, and traveling was done by carriages. His party, therefore, traveled for five days, from early morning until late at night.
Every village had its triumphal arch, and its procession of citizens and soldiers. Over the streets were mottoes of greeting to the great friend of Washington. Music and banquets and speeches of welcome greeted the party along the entire way.
People gathered from many miles around, and camped along the road to see his carriage pass. A large procession of horsemen followed him, as escort, from place to place. Cannon were fired, bells were rung, and bonfires were built by the eager and grateful crowds.
In this fashion the party came to Boston; and it was thus the people of the United States greeted their guest wherever he went.
A few weeks after his arrival, Lafayette went to Yorktown to attend the celebration of the anniversary of the surrender of Cornwallis, which had occurred forty-three years before. He was entertained in the house which had been Cornwallis's headquarters. Lafayette was provided with a bed; but many distinguished persons had to sleep in tents or on straw upon the floors of the houses, so great was the crowd.
A laurel wreath was offered to Lafayette at Yorktown; after wearing it on his head for a short while, he gave it to his friend, Colonel Nicholas Fish, who had helped him take a fort at Yorktown. "You must wear this also," he said. "It belongs to you more than it does to me."
As these two old comrades later on sailed up the Hudson River, Lafayette turned to Colonel Fish, and said, "Nicholas, do you remember when we were young, how we used to slide down those hills in an ox-sled with the girls from Newburgh?"
Then they fell to talking about the old times during the Revolution; often they would laugh over some remembered incident, and then again their eyes would fill with tears.
In Nashville, Tennessee, the hero was given a rousing welcome. In New Orleans, a band of Choctaw Indians, who had been camped there for a month, awaiting his arrival, marched before his carriage to see "the great warrior, brother of our good father, Washington."
Lafayette visited Mt. Vernon, the home of Washington. He went through the rooms, the halls, and over the grounds, with which he had been so familiar. He went to the tomb of his good chief, and stood with bowed head before the stone coffin. Reverently, he kneeled and kissed the last resting-place of the great man he had served so well and loved so truly. Tears were in his eyes as he rejoined his waiting companions.
Many other places did Lafayette visit in America. He was present at the laying of the corner-stone of the Bunker Hill monument; he visited the aged Jefferson in Virginia; he went to Philadelphia.
In September, 1825, he was given a farewell dinner at the White House, by the new President, John Quincy Adams, and, shortly afterwards, sailed for France, amid the blessings and prayers of a grateful nation.