The New York welcome is famous. Charles Lindbergh was paraded up Broadway under a deluge of ticker tape after flying the Atlantic solo in 1927. The Apollo 11 astronauts received an even grander reception 42 years later when they returned from the moon.
But no one was ever given a welcome like the one that Lafayette received in 1824. He was returning, one last time, to see the country whose independence he had fought for almost a half century earlier. His tour was a sensation. Echoes of it can be seen across New York to this day.
Lafayette had first come to the New World in 1777 when he was nineteen. A fabulously wealthy nobleman, Lafayette received an honorary rank of major general from a Congress eager to court help from the French government.
On September 11, 1777, British forces were giving George Washington’s army a drubbing at Brandywine Creek outside Philadelphia. Desperate, the commander sent the teenage general to rally troops. Lafayette rushed into combat, was shot in the leg, but still managed to organize an orderly retreat. Washington, who was childless, came to look on the orphaned Lafayette like a son.
After the war, Lafayette returned to France, where he instilled the ideals of America into his own country. Amid the turmoil of the French Revolution, Lafayette was forced into exiled, captured and imprisoned for five years by the revolution’s enemies. When he was finally freed, he retired to his estate, known as La Grange, outside Paris.
By 1824, Lafayette was sixty-seven. President James Monroe invited him to come to America to kick off the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the nation’s founding. The Nation’s Guest, as he was officially designated, arrived in New York City in August 1824. His secretary August Levasseur wrote that it was “impossible to describe” the Frenchman’s arrival at New York harbor. He estimated that 200,000 people turned out to cheer Lafayette. A parade took him to City Hall. He attended a gala banquet. And this was just the opening of a welcome that would go on for thirteen months.
Adulation that frequently reached the level of hysteria greeted the French hero wherever he went. He was so much in demand that he had trouble maintaining his taxing schedule of public appearances. The citizens of every town wanted to see him.
From New York City, he ascended the Hudson River. Having visited West Point, his boat pulled into Newburgh. The reception there was “more tumultuous than I had yet seen anywhere,” Levasseur recorded. As thousands of local people mobbed the
Orange Hotel where Lafayette was feted at a banquet, the militia had trouble controlling the crowd. The mayor finally had to bring the guest out onto a balcony to satisfy the onlookers.
He didn’t have time to stop at Poughkeepsie, but a huge crowd waited there until the wee hours to cheer him as he sailed past. At Clermont he visited Robert Livingston, son of the patriot family, and greeted people who came from all around the area. He landed at “the little town of Hudson” where arches and a public banquet awaited. But Lafayette had to miss these festivities in order to reach Albany in time.
He received another outpouring at the state capital. Across the river, where only two or three cottages had stood during the days of the Revolution, Lafayette was amazed to find the prosperous new city of Troy.
And so it went as Lafayette continued his tour, determined to visit every one of the twenty-four states. He stopped at the Brandywine battlefield to show his son, Georges Washington de Lafayette, who was traveling with him, the scene of his first glory. Descending into the crypt at Mount Vernon that held the bodies of George and Martha Washington, Lafayette was overcome with emotion at the memory of the man he called his “adopted father.”
Lafayette spent the winter at the nation’s capital before continuing on his journey the following spring. At many stops he greeted men he had fought with so many decades earlier, whose faces he still remembered.
The timing of Lafayette’s visit was fortuitous and explains much about the extraordinary outpouring of patriotic emotion that greeted him. Lafayette was the last living major general of the Revolutionary War. His arrival reminded citizens that the men and women who had created the country were on the verge of passing into history.
At the time, partisan rancor was increasingly dividing Americans. The presidential election of 1824 had been one of the most vicious ever fought. It had ended with the House of Representatives handing the office to John Quincy Adams even though he had received far fewer votes than Andrew Jackson.
Lafayette was a hero with neither party nor sectional connections. Divided citizens could put politics aside and celebrate the great achievement of their fathers and grandfathers, of which Lafayette was the living face.
Leaving Erie, Pennsylvania, Lafayette entered the far western end of New York State in early June 1825. Rushing to keep up with his itinerary, he passed bonfires in tiny villages where the whole population had waited through the night just to see his carriage pass.
At Fredonia he was met by a “magical scene.” Folks there had hung thousands of candles from houses and trees. A huge crowd greeted him. “Mothers presented their children to him and requested his blessing for them.” A band played, bells and cannon erupted in joy.
In Buffalo, another welcome waited. He took in Niagara Falls, “a sublime spectacle,” then went on to Lockport where he boarded a boat on the not-yet-completed Erie Canal, a “work of giants.”
Through the night to Rochester, then by land through Canandaigua, Geneva, Auburn, Skaneateles, and Syracuse. The Finger Lakes particularly impressed the Frenchmen. “No part of America, and perhaps the entire world,” Levasseur wrote, “contains as many wonders of nature as the State of New York.”
Lafayette hurried to Boston for the June 17 anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill. At the ceremony, Daniel Webster described Lafayette was the missionary of the American cause, the man who spread “the electric spark of liberty” to the world.
After a tour of New England, Lafayette again returned to New York. He traveled to Brooklyn, where he helped dedicate the Apprentices’ Library, a charitable institution for children, which later evolved into the Brooklyn Museum. Lafayette pitched in to help the crowd of boys and girls to places where they could see the ceremony. One whom he lifted in his arms was a six-year-old named Walt Whitman. The poet remembered the occasion fondly all his life.
Lafayette spent another week in the city, in part to recuperate from the year-long tour. Thousands of citizens turned out to see him depart. “A profound dejection was imprinted on every face,” Levasseur reported, “ and although the wharfs were covered with a huge crowd, a solemn silence alone reigned.”
The same scene, the same silence, marked Lafayette’s departure from Washington in September. When he died nine years later, both houses of Congress were draped in black for a month.
Around New York State today, we can still see the traces of Lafayette’s visit. A town south of Syracuse is named Lafayette. A large township between Cayuga and Seneca Lakes is called Fayette. The village of Fayetteville is east of Syracuse. The town of LaGrange, near Poughkeepsie, honors Lafayette’s estate in France. Buffalo has its Lafayette Square, New York City its Lafayette Street. Both Albany and Troy have Lafayette Parks. In the northern reaches of Dutchess County, a tiny hamlet, barely more than a crossroad, was named Lafayetteville to commemorate the visit.
Thirty-six years after Lafayette’s tour, Abraham Lincoln, during a time of national crisis, spoke of “the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart.” He imagined that thoughts of the Revolution, of those who had fought and died for independence, would prompt Americans to avoid the cataclysm of disunion. He hoped that those mystic chords would be touched “by the better angels of our nature.”
Lafayette was a symbol of those better angels. In his day, he did inspire Americans to remember, to overcome their differences, and to celebrate the republic whose blessings they enjoyed.
Photos, from above: Portrait of Lafayette, courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Statue of Lafayette in New York City’s Union Square courtesy NYC Parks Department; and The hamlet of Lafayetteville by Jack Kelly.