Lafayette's Triumphant Return to America

The extensive year-long tour of America by the Marquis de Lafayette, a half-century after the Revolutionary War, was one of the greatest public events of the 19th century. From August 1824 to September 1825, Lafayette visited all 24 states of the Union.

The Marquis de Lafayette's Celebratory Visit to All 24 States

Illustration of Lafayette arriving at New York City in 1824
Lafayette's 1824 arrival at New York City's Castle Garden. Getty Images

Called the "National Guest" by newspapers, Lafayette was welcomed in cities and towns by committees of prominent citizens as well as vast crowds of ordinary people. He paid a visit to the tomb of his friend and comrade George Washington at Mount Vernon. In Massachusetts he renewed his friendship with John Adams, and in Virginia he spent a week visiting with Thomas Jefferson.

In many places, elderly veterans of the Revolutionary War turned out to see the man who had fought beside them while helping to secure America's freedom from Britain.

Being able to see Lafayette, or, better yet, to shake his hand, was a potent way of connecting with the generation of Founding Fathers that was quickly passing into history.

For decades Americans would tell their children and grandchildren they had met Lafayette when he came to their town. The poet Walt Whitman would recall having been held in Lafayette's arms as a child at a library dedication in Brooklyn.

For the United States government, which had officially invited Lafayette, the tour by the aging hero was essentially a public relations campaign to showcase the impressive progress the young nation had made. Lafayette toured canals, mills, factories, and farms. Stories about his tour circulated back to Europe and portrayed America as a thriving and growing nation.

Lafayette's return to America began with his arrival in New York harbor on August 14, 1824. The ship carrying him, his son, and a small entourage, landed at Staten Island, where he spent the night at the residence of the nation's vice president, Daniel Tompkins.

On the following morning a flotilla of steamboats, decorated with banners and carrying city dignitaries, sailed across the harbor from Manhattan to greet Lafayette. He then sailed to the Battery, at the southern tip of Manhattan, where he was welcomed by a massive crowd.

Lafayette Was Welcomed In Cities and Villages

Illustration of Lafayette laying cornerstone of Bunker Hill monument.
Lafayette in Boston, laying the cornerstone of the Bunker Hill monument. Getty Images

After spending a week in New York City, Lafayette departed for New England on August 20, 1824. As his coach rolled through the countryside he was escorted by companies of cavalry riding alongside. At many points along the way local citizens greeted him by erecting ceremonial arches his entourage passed under.

It took four days to reach Boston, as exuberant celebrations were held at countless stops along the way. To make up for lost time, traveling extended late into the evenings. A writer accompanying Lafayette noted that local horsemen held torches aloft to light the way.

On August 24, 1824, a large procession escorted Lafayette into Boston. All the church bells in the city rang out in his honor and cannons were fired in a thunderous salute.

Following visits to other sites in New England, he returned to New York City, taking a steamship from Connecticut via the Long Island Sound. 

September 6, 1824 was Lafayette's 67th birthday, which was celebrated at a lavish banquet in New York City. Later that month he set out by carriage through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, and briefly visited Washington, D.C.

A visit to Mount Vernon soon followed. Lafayette paid his respects at Washington's tomb. He spent a few weeks touring other locations in Virginia, and on November 4, 1824, he arrived at Monticello, where he spent a week as a guest of former president Thomas Jefferson.

On November 23, 1824, Lafayette arrived in Washington, where he was a guest of President James Monroe. On December 10 he addressed the U.S. Congress, after being introduced by Speaker of the House Henry Clay.

Lafayette spent the winter in Washington, making plans to tour the southern regions of the country beginning in the spring of 1825.

Lafayette Travels Took Him From New Orleans to Maine in 1825

Printed silk souvenir of Lafayette's American tour.
Silk scarf depicting Lafayette as the Nation's Guest. Getty Images

In early March 1825 Lafayette and his entourage set out again. They traveled southward, all the way to New Orleans, where he was greeted enthusiastically, especially by the local French community.

After taking a riverboat up the Mississippi, Lafayette sailed up the Ohio River to Pittsburgh. He continued overland to northern New York State and viewed Niagara Falls. From Buffalo he traveled to Albany, New York, along the route of a new engineering marvel, the recently opened Erie Canal.

From Albany he traveled again to Boston, where he dedicated the Bunker Hill Monument on June 17, 1825. By July he was back in New York City, where he celebrated the Fourth of July first in Brooklyn and then in Manhattan.

It was on the morning of July 4, 1825, that Walt Whitman, at the age of six, encountered Lafayette. The aging hero was going to lay the cornerstone of a new library, and neighborhood children had gathered to welcome him.

Decades later, Whitman described the scene in a newspaper article. As people were helping children climb down into the excavation site where the ceremony was to take place, Lafayette himself picked up young Whitman and briefly held him in his arms.

After visiting Philadelphia in the summer of 1825, Lafayette traveled to the site of the Battle of Brandywine, where he had been wounded in the leg in 1777. At the battlefield he met with Revolutionary War veterans and local dignitaries and impressed everyone with his vivid memories of the fighting a half-century earlier.

An Extraordinary Meeting

Returning to Washington,  Lafayette stayed at the White House with the new president, John Quincy Adams. Along with Adams, he made another trip to Virginia, which began, on August 6, 1825,  with a remarkable incident. Lafayette's secretary, Auguste Levasseur, wrote about it in a book published in 1829:

"At the Potomac bridge we stopped to pay the toll, and the gate-keeper, after counting the company and horses, received the money from the president, and allowed us to pass on; but we had gone a very short distance when we heard someone bawling after us, 'Mr. President! Mr. President! You have given me eleven-pence too little!'

"Presently the gate-keeper arrived out of breath, holding out the change he had received, and explaining the mistake made. The president heard him attentively, re-examined the money, and agreed he was right, and ought to have another eleven-pence.

"Just as the president was taking out his purse, the gate-keeper recognized General Lafayette in the carriage, and wished to return his toll, declaring that all gates and bridges were free to the nation's guest. Mr. Adams told him that on this occasion General Lafayette traveled altogether privately, and not as the nation's guest, but simply as a friend of the president, and, therefore, was entitled to no exemption. With this reasoning, our gate-keeper was satisfied and received the money.

"Thus, during his course of his voyages in the United States, the general was but once subjected to the common rule of paying, and it was exactly upon the day in which he traveled with the chief magistrate; a circumstance which, probably in every other country, would have conferred the privilege of passing free."

In Virginia, they met up with former president Monroe, and traveled to Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello. There they were joined by former president James Madison, and a truly remarkable meeting took place: General Lafayette, President Adams, and three former presidents spent a day together.

As the group separated, Lafayette's secretary noted the former American presidents and Lafayette sensed they would never meet again:

"I shall not attempt to depict the sadness which prevailed at this cruel separation, which had none of the alleviation which is usually left by youth, for in this instance, the individuals who bade farewell had all passed through a long career, and the immensity of the ocean would still add to the difficulties of a reunion."

On September 6, 1825, Lafayette's 68th birthday, a banquet was held at the White House. The following day Lafayette departed for France aboard a newly built frigate of the U.S. Navy. The ship, the Brandywine, had been named in honor of Lafayette's battlefield valor during the Revolutionary War.

As Lafayette sailed down the Potomac River, citizens gathered on the banks of the river to wave farewell. In early October Lafayette arrived safely back in France.

Americans of the era took great pride in Lafayette's visit. It served to illuminate how much the nation had grown and prospered since the darkest days of the American Revolution. And for decades to come, those who had welcomed Lafayette in the mid-1820s spoke movingly of the experience.

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McNamara, Robert. "Lafayette's Triumphant Return to America." ThoughtCo, Oct. 23, 2017, thoughtco.com/lafayettes-triumphant-return-to-america-1773928. McNamara, Robert. (2017, October 23). Lafayette's Triumphant Return to America. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/lafayettes-triumphant-return-to-america-1773928 McNamara, Robert. "Lafayette's Triumphant Return to America." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/lafayettes-triumphant-return-to-america-1773928 (accessed November 18, 2017).