by Tom Chaffin
In our fourth excerpt from Revolutionary Brothers, the Marquis de Lafayette returns to Paris where he is received as a war hero after the triumph of Yorktown in 1781.
In November 1781, more than a month after the Patriots’ Yorktown triumph, New York and Charlestown remained under British occupation. Moreover, the terms of the war’s formal conclusion—a conflict that now involved Spain, France, and the Dutch Republic—had yet to be negotiated. Even so, Cornwallis’s surrender had largely concluded the fighting in the seven-year-long war. And for Lafayette—whose post-Yorktown months had proved more gratifying than Jefferson’s—the pause in fighting, whether temporary or permanent, presented an opportune interval to visit France.
Thus, after the marquis bade adieu to his troops and informed Washington of his desire for the visit, Congress, on November 23, readily acceded to his request. Indeed, in Congress’s letter—drafted by James Madison—granting the leave, the delegates showered praise on both Lafayette and those who had served under him. Moreover, they beseeched him to “make known to the officers & troops whom he commanded,” Congress’s “particular satisfaction & approbation.”
But the delegates also made clear that they did not expect Lafayette to be idle while in France. He was instructed to deliver letters to U.S. negotiators already in Paris, to update Congress on war-related matters, and to assist efforts to arrange more French aid for the young republic.
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On Christmas morning 1781—again, as in 1779, sailing aboard the frigate Alliance—Lafayette departed Boston Harbor. Joining him for the crossing was a coterie of other homesick, French-born Continental army officers.
On January 17, 1782, arriving at the port of Lorient, they again stepped on French soil. Four days later the marquis was back in Paris. There he headed directly to his in-laws’ town house, the Hôtel de Noailles, where Adrienne and his children still resided. Clanking over the rue Saint-Honoré’s cobblestones, his carriage halted before the building’s gated entrance. It was early afternoon on a chill winter’s day, and as he stepped to the sidewalk, several dames de la halle, women who operated stands in the city’s markets, greeted him. Having heard through the grapevine of his arrival, they surrounded the returning hero, offering laurel branches.
Inside the Hôtel de Noailles, Lafayette was reunited with his two children—Anastasie, now four years old, and George, now two. As they embraced, Lafayette was struck by how different each seemed since his last visit two years earlier. To Washington he wrote of finding them “grown up so Much that I find Myself [a] great deal older than I Aprehended [sic].” But as he gathered the children in his arms, he was also crestfallen to learn that Adrienne was away for the afternoon, at the Hôtel de Ville—Paris’s City Hall.
Three months earlier Marie Antoinette, after eleven years of marriage, had finally produced a male heir to the Bourbon throne. The queen and Adrienne were old friends, and shared experiences over the years had nurtured sisterly bonds between the two young women; and though the queen was four years older than Adrienne, the two even shared the same birthday. That day, however, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were marking another birth—that of their son, Louis-Joseph, born the previous October— and to celebrate they were hosting a banquet. The event, Lafayette learned, was to last several hours; afterward Adrienne was to join a procession of noble ladies, likely to take several more hours, to accompany the royal couple from the Hôtel de Ville to the Château de la Muette, a residence of the royal couple on Paris’s western edge.
Hours later, Lafayette, still at the Noailles residence, heard the sounds of horse hooves and carriage wheels on the rue Saint-Honoré. Hastening outside to the town house’s gate, he craned his neck, hoping to glimpse Adrienne as she passed by in the royal procession.
But instead of passing, the entourage halted in front of the Noailles town house. Earlier that day, learning that Adrienne’s husband had returned, the king and queen had tried to persuade her to leave the banquet early. But, steeped in court protocols, Adrienne had declined. She did, however, ask if later that day, the retinue might divert from its usual course and pass before the Noailles mansion—if only so that she might glimpse her husband as the procession rolled down the street.
The royal couple had assented. Beyond that, Marie Antoinette had insisted that Adrienne ride in her carriage—ahead of where in the retinue (the order of its carriages ranked by descending order of social prominence) Adrienne other-wise would have been consigned.
After stopping in front of the Hôtel de Noailles, the passengers in the queen’s carriage immediately spotted Lafayette standing at salute— resplendent in his blue-and-white gold-brocaded uniform. Adrienne and Marie Antoinette stepped down from the carriage; and as Adrienne, now twenty-two, embraced Lafayette, the twenty-six-year-old queen congratulated him on the Yorktown victory. Gathering throngs, meanwhile, realizing what they were witnessing, erupted in cheers and applause.
Moments later, by one account, “Trembling and faint with joy, Adrienne fell into her Lafayette’s arms, and he carried her into the house.” Moreover, “for a long time afterward, Adrienne later confessed, she would grow weak whenever her husband entered a room where she was and, afraid to become a nuisance to him, tried to restrain her feelings.”
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The next day, when Lafayette was summoned to La Muette to discuss with Louis XVI the war in America, the king declined to promise more aid. “It is Generally thought in this Quarter, that the Exertions of America are not Equal to Her Abilities,” Lafayette reported to Washington. Even so, the monarch did express satisfaction with France’s newest ally, avowing his “Confidence, Regard, Admiration, and Affection” regarding George Washington.
Over the coming weeks Lafayette found himself awash in praise for America and its victory over France’s rival. To Washington he crowed: “The Reception I Have Met With from the Nation at Large, from the King and from My friends Will I am Sure Be pleasing to You and Has Surpassed My Utmost Ambition.” Typifying those plaudits was one from France’s foreign minister, the comte de Vergennes. Two years earlier, the now sixty-four-year-old minister had rebuffed Lafayette’s bid to lead France’s expeditionary army to America. But now he was unstinting in praise: “History records few examples of as complete a success [as yours],” wrote Vergennes. “You may rest assured that your name here is held in veneration.”
Predictably, Lafayette’s court-society admirers included young noblemen who, aspiring to replicate his renown, beseeched him to arrange Continental army commissions for them. On Paris’s streets, meanwhile, admirers of both high and low station flocked around him. And, over the coming months—in verses, articles, songs, and plays—writers and musicians expressed admiration for the returning hero. One evening, while Lafayette was attending the opera, a production of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide, a singer on-stage was portraying a heroine about to bestow a crown of laurel leaves on the head of Achilles. Instead, breaking character, she suggested the crown more properly belonged to an audience member. The resultant applause ended only after Lafayette, rising from his seat, delivered a brief speech.
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TOM CHAFFIN is the author of, among other books, Giant’s Causeway: Frederick Douglass’s Irish Odyssey and the Making of an American Visionary; Sea of Gray: The Around-the-World Odyssey of the Confederate Raider Shenandoah; and Pathfinder: John Charles Frémont and the Course of American Empire. His writings have also appeared in the New York Times, the Oxford American, Time, Harper’s, and other publications. He lives in Atlanta.