Today in 1776, Gilbert du Motier, more commonly known as the Marquis de Lafayette, entered the Continental Army as a major general.
Born into a rich and noble French family, Lafayette became convinced that the cause of the states was just. His choice altered the course of history, where he emerged as an American hero that befriended many of the most important people of his time. His decision to fight for the American cause may have been influenced by the death of his father at the hand of the British at the Battle of Minden during the Seven Years’ War.
At first appearing as no different from other foreign soldiers of fortune that entered the war on the side of the American states, Lafayette’s deeds won him incredible admiration. He bonded instantly with George Washington, served as an able fighter in the war, and even played a key role in the French Revolution.
What set Lafayette apart from other foreign soldiers was his candid demeanor. He refused to accept any pay for his services, and explained that his job was to do whatever he could to help Washington and the Continental Army. “I am here to learn, not to teach,” he told Washington. He even committed himself fully to learning English en route to North America.
Despite Lafayette’s eventual popularity, some confusion existed concerning his stature in the army. Congress viewed his commission as an honorary one, but Lafayette considered himself as a true general that would gain control of a division when Washington deemed him ready. In the end, Lafayette complied with Washington’s wishes concerning his leadership, realizing that full command would be impossible given his foreign birth.
Outside of his military service, Lafayette did much to influence the course of the war by encouraging French assistance. Lafayette used his political influence to secure the deployment of 6,000 French soldiers to North America to be commanded by Jean-Baptiste Rochambeau. In 1779, his wife even gave birth to a son, who they named Georges Washington Lafayette.
After his interregnum in France, Lafayette returned to the states to fight again.
Lafayette fought honorably at almost every major battle of the war, including Brandywine, Valley Forge, Monmouth, and Yorktown. With the assistance of Thomas Jefferson, Lafayette even wrote The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, France’s declaration of rights. Today, his name is recognized by thousands of streets and parks, where he is possibly the most admired foreign person in the United States.