On the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the American Revolution, the marquis de Lafayette embarked on a tour of the United States, returning for a final time to the country he helped establish and whose democratic experiment he saw as a model for the rest of the world. In August 1824, Lafayette sailed into New York Harbor, beginning a thirteen-month tour of the United States that took the Frenchman to all twenty-four states of the union. He was celebrated in each city and town, and the routes along the way, with processions, banquets and receptions, worship services, and visits to important sites. His presence was commemorated with a flood of souvenirs—prints, ceramics, ribbons and other decorative and household goods—that met the intense demand for a memento of the French hero. Marking the bicentennial of Lafayette’s farewell tour, this exhibition will explore the impact of the American Revolution on a new generation of American citizens and Lafayette’s role in highlighting the fulfillment and ongoing promise of its ideals.

Born into an aristocratic French family, Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert Du Motier, marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834), would devote his life to the cause for liberty. Orphaned at the age of thirteen with a sizeable inheritance, the young marquis joined the French military and soon learned of the rebellion in America. In December 1776 he formally pledged to join the American fight for independence and would become a major general in the Continental Army. Lafayette quickly established himself as one of George Washington’s most trusted officers during the American Revolution, as well as a brave battlefield commander and an indispensable advocate of the Franco-American alliance. Once American independence was secured, Lafayette returned to France as an international hero. There he was instrumental in organizing the French branch of the Society of the Cincinnati, a hereditary organization founded in New York in 1783 to memorialize the principles of the American Revolution and the service of the men who fought for American independence—on both the American and French sides.

Lafayette hoped to secure the kind of liberty for France and other countries that he had fought for in America. An early leader of the French Revolution, he was the principal author of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which was inspired by his experience in the American Revolution. He also encouraged national independence movements in Poland, Ireland, Italy, Greece and South America. Lafayette fought just as vehemently for personal freedom, working to establish and preserve universal liberty for all men and women. His most extensive efforts in support of human liberty were his work to end slavery and the African slave trade. He participated in abolition societies in the United States and France, argued in the French National Assembly for the rights of free blacks, lobbied his slave-owning American friends on emancipation, and even purchased property in the Caribbean where he thought enslaved people could eventually be freed and given work.

To Americans in the 1820s, Lafayette represented the French alliance that helped to win American independence and all the soldiers who served in the American Revolution, providing a personal link to George Washington and other founders of the nation. His farewell tour revived an interest in and appreciation for the Revolution, its ideals, and its veterans in popular American culture. It celebrated the United States’ ongoing experiment in democracy, while exposing ways in which the ideals of the Declaration of Independence had not been fully applied in America, as Lafayette argued for an end to slavery and an expansion of civil rights for all citizens. Lafayette’s tour also coincided with the 1824 presidential election, an extremely contentious race primarily between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. The Frenchman’s presence helped remind Americans of the ideological origins of their nation in the Revolution as they struggled for national unity at a difficult political time.

Through more than forty objects, Fete Lafayette will explore Lafayette’s farewell tour of the United States in 1824-1825 and its role in highlighting the country’s revolutionary ideals for a new era. What Americans celebrated about Lafayette’s life—and what didn’t get wide popular attention—indicated what they thought was important to remember about the French hero, as well as their own revolutionary origins. Layered with what Lafayette himself celebrated about the young republic and what promises of liberty he considered unfulfilled, the exhibition offers a picture of the American democracy just shy of fifty years old and Lafayette’s role in its creation and its vision for the future. Drawn from the collections of the American Revolution Institute of the Society of the Cincinnati and of various lenders, highlights of the exhibition include a mezzotint engraving of Lafayette by the noted American artist Charles Willson Peale; letters between Lafayette, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and other notable figures in the United States and France; first-hand accounts of Lafayette’s farewell tour and ceramics, silver, medals and other artifacts used to celebrate it; and sculpture, textiles and other objects showing Lafayette’s legacy through World War I and beyond.

Related Programs

Join us for a series of lectures, object talks, and other programs exploring Lafayette’s life and legacy and the importance of his 1824-1825 farewell tour.

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