Lunch ‘N’ Learn revolves around Marquis de Lafayette’s visit to Alabama

Published 1:00 pm Tuesday, November 26, 2019

VALLEY — One of the most emotional, celebrated and entertaining spectacles in Alabama history took place only six years into statehood. Alabama became a state on Dec. 14, 1819, and just six years from that historic event the Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834) visited the state as part of a grand tour of the United States. He made that visit in 1824-25 and went to all 24 states that were in the U.S. at the time. Nothing else like it has happened before or since.

Dr. Ed Bridges spoke of Lafayette’s famed visit to the U.S. and the tumultuous receptions he received at a recent Lunch ’N Learn program at Bradshaw-Chambers County Library. A native of Bainbridge, Georgia, Bridges has degrees in history from Furman University and the University of Chicago. He has taught history at Georgia Tech and has been a director of the Georgia Archives. He’s the author of a new book about the founding of the state of Alabama.

Bridges said Lafayette was so well received everywhere he went in the U.S. in 1824-25 because it was the closest any American could come to meeting George Washington. Lafayette was only 18 when he met Washington in 1776. From then on, he would be the closest thing to a son he would ever have. Bridges said that Lafayette was born into great wealth and could have had a life of ease. He instead chose to have a military career. His father had died fighting the British at the Battle of Minden in 1759.

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“He hated the English and was intrigued with what was going on with the rebellion in the American colonies in 1776,” Bridges said. “He bought a ship, loaded it with supplies and sailed for America, landing in Charleston, where he received hero’s welcome. He told everyone he wanted to meet George Washington. That was arranged, and Washington took to him immediately. He’d always be like a son to him.”

In 1777, Lafayette was wounded at the Battle of Brandywine Creek and led an organized retreat of the colonial army. He was with the troops at Valley Forge and purchased food and supplies for them out of his own pocket. He went back home to France for a time and lobbied the French government to enter the war on the side of the colonies. He was successful in that bid, and it played a key role in the outcome of the war.

In 1781, troops under Lafayette’s command blocked British forces under Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, and with the French fleet blocking the British Navy from helping, Cornwallis had to surrender, guaranteeing freedom for the colonies.

Lafayette returned to France a hero and became involved in the French Revolution of 1789. With Thomas Jefferson’s assistance, he helped write the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. It was a document clearly inspired by the Declaration of Independence. The French Revolution was immensely successful, but by 1792 radicals had become in charge. They considered Lafayette too moderate and had him placed under arrest. He was imprisoned for years before Napoleon Bonaparte secured his release in the 1790s. He refused to participate in Napoleon’s government but did become a liberal member of the House of Deputies after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. In 1824, President James Monroe asked him to return to the U.S. and he agreed, having great interest in seeing how this still new democracy was making out.

“The radicals threw him out because he was a fan of America, and they didn’t like that,” Bridges said of his fall from grace in France. “He didn’t want to serve Napoleon because he was a dictator and Lafayette believed in democracy.”

Lafayette’s visit to the U.S., Bridges said, was a prolonged celebration the likes of which the country may never see again.

“He went to every state that was in the U.S. at the time and was treated warmly everywhere,” Bridges said. “Each state tried to top what the other states had done. Every town along the way had a reception waiting for his arrival. He met with two former presidents, John Adams in Massachusetts and Thomas Jefferson in Virginia. He went to Mount Vernon and stood in quiet reflection for long minutes at the grave of George Washington. He laid the cornerstrone at a monument at Bunker Hill, where colonial forces had gained a victory over the British.”

Lafayette celebrated his 68th birthday on the grand tour of the U.S.

“At his age, I don’t see how he stood up to all the attention he was getting,” Bridges said.

Though perhaps a grueling journey, Lafayette was always gracious and polite in meeting people. He would always listen approvingly when elderly men told him they had fought alongside him and Washington. He likely understood that some of those accounts were possibly true but most of them in the realm of tall tales. Ever the gentleman, Lafayette danced with thousands of well-dressed ladies who came out to meet him.

In March 1825, Lafayette arrived in Georgia by steamship (then a recent invention) to Augusta. After a very warm reception there, he journeyed by coach on the old federal road. There was a stop in Milledgeville, then the state capital and then went through Indian country toward Alabama.

“This was a dangerous time,” Bridges said. “A Creek chief, William McIntosh, had sold most of the Creek land in Georgia to the U.S. government. Other Creeks didn’t like it. They thought the entire council had to approve it before it was valid. They considered what McIntosh did was an act of treason to the Creek people.”

Around the time the Lafayette party had crossed the Flint River deep in Indian country, McIntosh was executed in nearby Indian Springs.

The Creeks did not bear any ill will toward Lafayette.

“They had heard many good things about him,” Bridges said.

Staying on the federal road, the Lafayette party made it to the new city of Columbus and crossed the Chattahoochee River into Alabama at Fort Mitchell.

“The Creeks wanted to take care of him,” Bridges said. “He watched an Indian ball game before journeying on to Payne’s Crabtree Store near the Macon County line. He spent some time in Warrior Stand, named for Big Warrior, a Creek chief who is now buried in Washington, D.C.”

When he arrived in Mount Meigs, a delegation from the new town of Montgomery was there to meet him. They escorted him to town the next day. A crowd of approximately 3,000 people was there to greet him.

“It was a big, loud, fancy reception,” Bridges said. “Two tents were set up on Goat Hill. That’s where the state capitol building is today. One of the tents was filled with prominent citizens of the area and the other with pretty women – Lafayette was known to be a ladies’ man.”

A big ball took place that day at Freeney’s Tavern in Montgomery. The Renaissance Hotel is at this spot today.

“Everywhere he went there were barbecues and speeches,” Bridges said. “Lafayette was very cordial, gracious, patient and personable with everyone, and they loved him for it. One man who had a reputation for never getting emotional was moved to tears when shaking hands with Lafayette.”

The next day the party boarded two riverboats, The Belize and The Henderson, for a trip down the Alabama River to Mobile, a place that was then booming due to cotton exports.

“He was behind schedule,” Bridges said. “Every town where he stopped had planned for celebrations that might last three or four days, and they had to compress it into one day.”

Governor Pickens and Speaker of the House Dellett accompanied him. When the two boats pulled into the wharf at Cahawba, then the state capital, a cannon was fired to welcome them. Unfortunately, it exploded, mortally wounding the man who had set it off.

“Even though the state was only six years old at the time, LaFayette’s visit would be one of the most exciting events that would ever happen in Alabama,” Bridges said. “Everyone knew it would be the closest they’d ever come to meeting George Washington.”

Lafayette would go on to visit General Andrew Jackson at his home in Tennessee. While traveling up the Ohio River by steamboat, the vessel sank beneath him, forcing him, his son George Washington Lafayette and secretary Auguste Lavasseur to escape to the Kentucky shore in a lifeboat. He would then see the wonder of Niagara Falls and see the Erie Canal, then considered a technological marvel.

He left the U.S. with many gifts, including some soil that was to be put on his grave. Congress voted him $200,000 in gratitude of his services to the U.S., and he was given a large tract of land in Florida. He returned to France aboard a ship originally named The Susquehanna but later ranked The USS Brandywine in honor of the place where he had shed blood in the War of the Revolution.

When he died in 1834, Lafayette was buried underneath soil from Bunker Hill and former President John Quincy Adams gave a eulogy some three hours in length, calling Lafayette “high on the list of the pure and disinterested benefactors of mankind.”

LaFayette, Alabama and LaGrange, Georgia are two local cities named in his honor. Whether pronounced La-FEE-et as it is in most places, la-FAY-et as it is in Chambers County or LAFF-a-et as it is in Louisiana, it still honors a man who held a special place in the hearts of Americans some 200 years ago.