When you want to see where American and European history crossroads, you may take a tour of Morristown, New Jersey, a place of America's most decisive international meeting between General George Washington and French aristocrat Marquis de Lafayette in Morristown on May 10, 1780. The panel also included Washington's secretary Alexander Hamilton at the Morristown Ford Mansion – built by Jacob Ford Jr. in 1774 – which served in 1777-1780 as one of two Washington's winter headquarters. The other Place was Jacob Arnold's Tavern adjacent to the Green – today a public square central to Morristown – with a life-size monument of the three men commemorating the meeting.
Gilbert du Motier Marquis de Lafayette was born on September 6, 1757, in Chavaniac, the province of Auvergne in France, in a wealthy aristocratic, landowning family. A close friend of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson, Lafayette was a crucial figure in the American Revolution and French Revolution. In America, he became a major general at age 19, fighting alongside George Washington in Continental Army against the British Army, wounded during the Battle of Brandywine in Pennsylvania in 1777. In 1778, in the middle of the American war with the British, he sailed back to France to obtain from King of France Louis XVI the critically important support for George Washington's struggling Continental Army.
Lafayette successfully convinced French king Louis XVI to help Americans in war with Great Britain and informed George Washington in the Morristown historic meeting that the French fleet was on its way, with 6,000 troops.
A year later, at age 24. Lafayette advanced to one of the commanding officers at the American Continental Army and participated in a decisive American Revolution siege of Yorktown, Virginia, on October 14-17, 1781. The British General Cornwallis and his army in Yorktown capitulated on October 17, which started the negotiations between the United States and Great Britain, ending successfully with the Treaty of Paris of 1783.
Upon returning to France in December 1781, Lafayette became one of the key figures in the French Revolution and the Bastille Day – July 14, 1789 - the beginning of the French Revolution. The French Revolution of 1789-1799, and its famous Bastille Day event, has shaped modern France and will always be linked with the name of Marquise de Lafayette and his alliance with young America of George Washington.
The Bastille Day occupies a special place in French history and French people's hearts. In 1789 France and the monarchy of King Louis XVI faced growing social unrest due to corruption and social injustice. To address the source of those hostilities, Lafayette, on July 11, 1789, met with King Louis XVI and the French legislative assembly presenting a draft of the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen," a document inspired by the US Declaration of Independence and written by himself in consultation with Thomas Jefferson (the future 3rd US President). The French declaration's paper decorated with blue, white, and red colors, as proposed by Lafayette, gave the origins to the French tricolor flag.
Meanwhile, to confront the mob of Parisians mounting up, the King had the royal army under the Duc de Broglie surround Paris. That military move fused the tense situation. On July 14, 1789, Camille Desmoulins, a lawyer, led armed Parisians and stormed the Bastille, a fortress and a state prison holding primarily political prisoners, releasing prisoners in a bloody confrontation between the mob and defending guards. This historical event triggered by social oppression is associated with famous words spoken during the French Revolution: Liberté, égalité, fraternité – freedom, equality, and brotherhood! For French people in France and around the world, July 14 is celebrated as Bastille Day, marking the beginning of the French Revolution and freedom from the oppressive monarchy of King Louis XVI.
Sadly, contrary to the inspirational message of the Bastille event, the French Revolution on the street was tremendously violent with bloodshed. Lafayette increasingly lost the struggle to maintain peace between the King and the revolutionaries representing the emerging new order. Soon he realized futility to negotiate the understanding between the irrational and hostile opponents, and his and his family's safety directly threatened. In August 1792, a radical branch of the revolutionaries under Georges Danton, one of the prominent leaders of the Revolution, ordered Lafayette's arrest. Lafayette fled to the nearby Netherlands ruled by Austrians, even though Austrians were at war with France, to avoid imprisonment and possible execution by the revolutionaries.
The bloody riots leading to the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, began with the capture and beheading of the governor of the Bastille, Marquis Bernard-Rene de Launay. What followed was several years of terror of executions. By education, a lawyer and politician, Maximillian Robespierre, was a primary architect of the terror system to intimidate and eliminate anybody who questioned the Revolution. At least 300,000 Frenchmen and women arrested during ten months between September 1793 and July 1794, and an estimated 40,000 French citizens executed by guillotine, used as "a quick and rational means of execution" and introduced in October 1789 by Joseph Guillotin, a medical doctor and member of the revolutionary National Assembly. Those who were considered "traitors to the revolution," predominantly aristocracy and clergy, were guillotined massively, to the point that towns needed to share guillotines to meet the demand for executions.
In the heart of Paris at Place de la Concorde, formerly Place de la Revolution, there is a 3,300-year-old obelisk, Luxor, part of the ancient city gate from Egipt. The obelisk stands where the Paris guillotine was installed and operated mercilessly during the French Revolution to decapitate thousands of French citizens, including King of France Louis XVI (January 1793) and his wife Marie Antoinette (October 1793). Ironically, at the end of the worst two years of executions, the revolutionary leaders who started the "system of terror," Georges Danton and Maximillian Robespierre, were decapitated at the Paris guillotine April and July 1794, respectively.
Since Lafayett's escape to the Netherlands in 1792, despite being well recognized and respected in France, Europe, and America, he and his family spent five tumultuous years held as political prisoners in various European countries. Predominantly in the Austrian prisons (since Austria was at war with France) in Luxembourg, Magdeburg (Germany), Nysa (Poland), and Olomouc (Czech). Finally, when Napoleon Bonaparte became ruler of France in 1797, he secured the release of Lafayette and brought him and his family back to France. Following the fall of Napoleon after his defeat by the English at Waterloo battle in 1815, the Bourbon dynasty reinstated by brothers of the executed Louis XVI came back to power, and Lafayette joined the French Chamber of Deputies.
In 1824, Lafayette, in recognition of his contributions to the American Revolution, was invited by President James Monroe (the 5th President) to the United States as the nation's guest. He visited all states in the union accompanied by his son Georges Washington (named in tribute to George Washington) to an enthusiastic reception by welcoming crowds of Americans and Revolutionary War veterans who had fought alongside Lafayette many years before. The Americans were enchanted with Lafayette's visit, describing it as "a mystical experience" to relate to their heirs through generations to come. They all knew that "they are meeting the last leader and hero at the nation's defining moment and that the world would never see his kind again." Lafayette returned to France aboard a ship initially called the Susquehanna but renamed the USS Brandywine to honor his first battle for the United States in 1777 at Brandywine, Pennsylvania.
Lafayette died of pneumonia at age 76 on May 20, 1834, in Paris and was buried next to his wife at the Picpus Cemetery under soil from Bunker Hill (a first American Revolution battle near Boston) son Georges Washington sprinkled upon father's grave. King Louis-Philippe ordered a military funeral for Lafayette. In the United States, President Jackson (the 7th President) ordered that Lafayette receive the same memorial honors bestowed on George Washington at his death on December 14, 1799.
Marquis de Lafayette is undoubtedly a celebrated hero in France and America who stayed true to his ideals, even when he endangered his life and fortune. At one point dispossessed of all his French properties rendering him homeless and impoverished. Those ideals proved to be the founding principles of the United States and France.