American Revolution: Marquis de Lafayette

Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette

Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette (September 6, 1757–May 20, 1834) was a French aristocrat who gained fame as an officer in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. Arriving in North America in 1777, he quickly formed a bond with General George Washington and initially served as an aide to the American leader. Proving a skilled and dependable commander, Lafayette earned greater responsibility as the conflict progressed and played a key part in obtaining aid from France for the American cause.

Fast Facts: Marquis de Lafayette

  • Known For: French aristocrat who fought as an officer for the Continental Army in the American Revolution, and later, the French Revolution
  • Born: September 6, 1757 in Chavaniac, France
  • Parents: Michel du Motier and Marie de La Rivière
  • Died: May 20, 1834 in Paris, France
  • Education: Collège du Plessis and the Versailles Academy
  • Spouse: Marie Adrienne Françoise de Noailles (m. 1774)
  • Children: Henriette du Motier, Anastasie Louise Pauline du Motier, Georges Washington Louis Gilbert du Motier, Marie Antoinette Virginie du Motier

Returning home after the war, Lafayette served in a central role during the early years of the French Revolution and helped write the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. Falling from favor, he was jailed for five years before being released in 1797. With the Bourbon Restoration in 1814, Lafayette began a long career as a member of the Chamber of Deputies.

Early Life

Born September 6, 1757, at Chavaniac, France, Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette was the son of Michel du Motier and Marie de La Rivière. A long-established military family, an ancestor had served with Joan of Arc at the Siege of Orleans during the Hundred Years' War. A colonel in the French Army, Michel fought in the Seven Years' War and was killed by a cannonball at the Battle of Minden in August 1759.

Raised by his mother and grandparents, the young marquis was sent to Paris for education at the Collège du Plessis and the Versailles Academy. While in Paris, Lafayette's mother died. Gaining military training, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Musketeers of the Guard on April 9, 1771. Three years later, he married Marie Adrienne Françoise de Noailles on April 11, 1774.

In the Army

Through Adrienne's dowry he received a promotion to captain in the Noailles Dragoons Regiment. After their marriage, the young couple lived near Versailles while Lafayette completed his schooling at the Académie de Versailles. While training at Metz in 1775, Lafayette met the Comte de Broglie, commander of the Army of the East. Taking a liking to the young man, de Broglie invited him to join the Freemasons.

Through his affiliation in this group, Lafayette learned of the tensions between Britain and its American colonies. By participating in the Freemasons and other "thinking groups" in Paris, Lafayette became an advocate for the rights of man and the abolition of enslavement. As the conflict in the colonies evolved into open warfare, he came to believe that the ideals of the American cause closely reflected his own.

Coming to America

In December 1776, with the American Revolution raging, Lafayette lobbied to go to America. Meeting with American agent Silas Deane, he accepted an offer to enter American service as a major general. Learning of this, his father-in-law, Jean de Noailles, had Lafayette assigned to Britain as he did not approve of Lafayette's American interests. During a brief posting in London, he was received by King George III and met several future antagonists, including Major General Sir Henry Clinton.

Returning to France, he obtained aid from de Broglie and Johann de Kalb to advance his American ambitions. Learning of this, de Noailles sought aid from King Louis XVI who issued a decree banning French officers from serving in America. Though forbidden by King Louis XVI to go, Lafayette purchased a ship, Victoire, and evaded efforts to detain him. Reaching Bordeaux, he boarded Victoire and put to sea on April 20, 1777. Landing near Georgetown, South Carolina, on June 13, Lafayette briefly stayed with Major Benjamin Huger before proceeding to Philadelphia.

Arriving, Congress initially rebuffed him as they were tired of Deane sending "French glory seekers." After offering to serve without pay, and aided by his Masonic connections, Lafayette received his commission but it was dated July 31, 1777, rather than the date of his agreement with Deane and he was not assigned a unit. For these reasons, he nearly returned home; however, Benjamin Franklin dispatched a letter to General George Washington asking the American commander to accept the young Frenchman as an aide-de-camp. The two first met on August 5, 1777, at a dinner in Philadelphia and immediately formed a lasting rapport. 

Lafayette and Washington
First meeting of the Marquis de Lafayette and George Washington, 1777. Library of Congress

Into the Fight

Accepted onto Washington's staff, Lafayette first saw action at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777. Outflanked by the British, Washington allowed Lafayette to join Major General John Sullivan's men. While attempting to rally Brigadier General Thomas Conway's Third Pennsylvania Brigade, Lafayette was wounded in the leg but did not seek treatment until an orderly retreat was organized. For his actions, Washington cited him for "bravery and military ardour" and recommended him for divisional command. Briefly leaving the army, Lafayette traveled to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to recuperate from his wound.

Recovering, he assumed command of Major General Adam Stephen's division after that general was relieved following the Battle of Germantown. With this force, Lafayette saw action in New Jersey while serving under Major General Nathanael Greene. This included winning a victory at the Battle of Gloucester on November 25 which saw his troops defeat British forces under Major General Lord Charles Cornwallis. Rejoining the army at Valley Forge, Lafayette was asked by Major General Horatio Gates and the Board of War to proceed to Albany to organize an invasion of Canada.

Before leaving, Lafayette alerted Washington about his suspicions regarding Conway's efforts to have him removed from command of the army. Arriving at Albany, he found that there were too few men present for an invasion and after negotiating an alliance with the Oneidas he returned to Valley Forge. Rejoining Washington's army, Lafayette was critical of the board's decision to attempt an invasion of Canada during the winter. In May 1778, Washington dispatched Lafayette with 2,200 men to ascertain British intentions outside Philadelphia.

Further Campaigns

Aware of Lafayette's presence, the British marched out of the city with 5,000 men in an effort to capture him. In the resulting Battle of Barren Hill, Lafayette was skillfully able to extract his command and rejoin Washington. The following month, he saw action at the Battle of Monmouth as Washington attempted to attack Clinton as he withdrew to New York. In July, Greene and Lafayette were dispatched to Rhode Island to aid Sullivan with his efforts to expel the British from the colony. The operation centered on cooperation with a French fleet led Admiral Comte de d'Estaing.

This was not forthcoming as d'Estaing departed for Boston to repair his ships after they were damaged in a storm. This action angered the Americans as they felt that they had been abandoned by their ally. Racing to Boston, Lafayette worked to smooth things over after a riot resulting from d'Estaing's actions erupted. Concerned about the alliance, Lafayette asked for leave to return to France to ensure its continuance. Granted, he arrived in February 1779 and was briefly detained for his earlier disobedience to the king.

Virginia & Yorktown

Working with Franklin, Lafayette lobbied for additional troops and supplies. Granted 6,000 men under General Jean-Baptiste de Rochambeau, he returned to America in May 1781. Sent to Virginia by Washington, he conducted operations against the traitor Benedict Arnold and shadowed Cornwallis' army as it moved north. Nearly trapped at the Battle of Green Spring in July, Lafayette monitored British activities until the arrival of Washington's army in September. Taking part in the Siege of Yorktown, Lafayette was present at the British surrender.

Return to France

Sailing home to France in December 1781, Lafayette was received at Versailles and promoted to field marshal. After aiding in planning an aborted expedition to the West Indies, he worked with Thomas Jefferson to develop trade agreements. Returning to America in 1782, he toured the country and received several honors. Remaining active in American affairs, he routinely met with the new country's representatives in France.

French Revolution

On December 29, 1786, King Louis XVI appointed Lafayette to the Assembly of Notables which was convened to address the nation's worsening finances. Arguing for spending cuts, he was one who called for the convening of the Estates General. Elected to represent the nobility from Riom, he was present when the Estates General opened on May 5, 1789. Following the Oath of the Tennis Court and the creation of the National Assembly, Lafayette joined the new body and on July 11, 1789, he presented a draft of the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen."

Marquis de Lafayette
Lieutenant General Marquis de Lafayette, 1791. Public Domain

Appointed to lead the new National Guard on July 15, Lafayette worked to maintain order. Protecting the king during the March on Versailles in October, he diffused the situation—although the crowd demanded that Louis move to the Tuileries Palace in Paris. He was again called to the Tuileries on February 28, 1791, when several hundred armed aristocrats surrounded the palace in an effort to defend the king. Dubbed the "Day of Daggers," Lafayette's men disarmed the group and arrested many of them.

Later Life

After a failed escape attempt by the king that summer, Lafayette's political capital began to erode. Accused of being a royalist, he sunk further after the Champ de Mars Massacre when National Guardsmen fired into a crowd. Returning home in 1792, he was soon appointed to lead one of the French armies during the War of the First Coalition. Working for peace, he sought to shut down the radical clubs in Paris. Branded a traitor, he attempted to flee to the Dutch Republic but was captured by the Austrians.

Marquis de Lafayette
Marquis de Lafayette, 1825. National Portrait Gallery

Held in prison, he was finally released by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1797. Largely retiring from public life, he accepted a seat in the Chamber of Deputies in 1815. In 1824, he made one final tour of America and was hailed as a hero. Six years later, he declined the dictatorship of France during the July Revolution and Louis-Phillipe was crowned king. The first person granted honorary United States citizenship, Lafayette died on May 20, 1834, at the age of 76.


  • Unger, Harlow Giles. "Lafayette." New York: Wiley, 2003.
  • Levasseur, A. "Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825; or, Journal of a Voyage to the United States. Trans. Godman, John D. Philadelphia: Carey and Lea, 1829.
  • Kramer, Lloyd S. "Lafayette and the Historians: Changing Symbol, Changing Needs, 1834–1984." Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques 11.3 (1984): 373–401. Print.
  • "Lafayette in Two Worlds: Public Cultures and Personal Identities in an Age of Revolutions." Raleigh: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Marquis de Lafayette." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 28). American Revolution: Marquis de Lafayette. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Marquis de Lafayette." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).