Welcome to the season 2 finale of Anti-Social Studies! Think about how far we’ve come. This season we’ve talked about Putin and Kim Jong Un, Colin Kaepernick and Squanto. We’ve traveled to England to figure out what the heck is going on with Brexit and Saudi Arabia to figure out what the heck is going on between Jared and MbS. I’m really proud of this season but it’s time for a break. And by break I mean, time for me to create my new AP World History curriculum, attend a ton of teacher trainings and meetings, and of course, get ready for Season 3!
Get excited because I’m coming back in August and I’m going back to my roots. I started this podcast with the intent of opening up my classroom to anyone and everyone who wanted to learn. Season 1 we learned the whole history of the world. Season 2 we got some historical context for current events. And Season 3 were going back to high school to learn some US History. That’s right! We’ll be talking about John Smith and Pocahontas to JFK and Jackie. We’ll fight the War of 1812 for some reason and then fight the War in Vietnam for some reason. We’ll look at controversial presidents like Andrew Jackson and Richard Nixon and I’ll do my best not to make too many allusions to today’s political situation. You’ll finally understand that Seinfeld episode about the Van Buren Boys and understand the backstory to South Pacific, and Hairspray, and Hair, and Miss Saigon, and 1776, and Bye Bye Birdie… Whoa. I never realized how many musicals stole so much of their material from history. But hold on. We’ll get back to musicals in a second.
If you’re sad that I won’t be covering current events for a while, don’t be! Because I’ll still be covering current events and their historical context every single week. Even during my summer break! My Patreon members will still get to hear me rant about Congress or try to explain what Iran is up to. So make sure you’re signed up so you don’t miss anything! Or, if you just really like the content I’ve been creating, Patreon is a way to show your support and help me continue making these episodes that will always be free and available to everyone. And if you can’t join my Patreon right now for whatever reason, then I’m asking you to share my podcast with any and everyone who might be interested! Let’s spread the word and keep this History Nerd Empire growing.
OK. Back to today. In our season 2 finale, you’re going to get somewhat of a preview into what’s in store after the summer break because we’re going back in history for this one…
Lin Manuel Miranda Screwed Up
I just saw Hamilton and, obviously, I loved it. Don’t worry – you don’t have to have seen the musical to find this episode interesting. And I can’t really “spoil” it for you because, well, it happened over 250 years ago. But, I do have a bone to pick with Lin Manuel Miranda. There he is making an amazing musical entirely inspired by history – easily one of the greatest modern musicals of all time – and he goes and makes it about the wrong person.
I’m in love. He’s tall, handsome, accomplished, French, and he’s 261 years old. He’s stolen my historical heart and I’m legit not sure how I feel about it. I feel like I’m cheating on George or Eleanor, but honestly, I think he’s the most interesting individual I’ve ever researched before. In all of human history. And I’m actually not being sarcastic or hyperbolic. About three lines into his Wikipedia page I made a bowl of popcorn, curled up on my couch, and spent the next hour and a half straight reading every single thing I could find about his life. I’m not joking.
This episode was originally going to be about Alexander Hamilton. But the musical pretty much covered him. Then it was going to be about all of the side characters that I wanted to learn about – John Laurens, Hamilton’s best friend (and possibly the love of Hamilton’s life – seriously, go read their letters to each other. It’s a real thing.) Laurens, despite the fact that his father was one of the most successful slave traders in the colonies and the President of the Continental Congress, he made it his life’s mission to convince the Revolutionary leadership that the colonies couldn’t truly be fighting for freedom if they still enslaved Africans. And he was right. But nobody listened to him.
And I was going to go into detail about the Schuyler sisters. Eliza acted essentially as Hamilton’s agent negotiating with his publisher as he wrote the now-legendary Federalist Papers. She danced with George Washington at the first Inaugural Ball and later was the first person to hear his Farewell Address (easily my favorite document in American history) as she stayed up late while Hamilton worked and read it aloud to her. After he died, she collected all of his writings and published the first biography of Alexander Hamilton, and she teamed up with Dolley Madison and Louisa Adams to raise money to build the Washington Monument. Or, my favorite Schuyler sister, Angelica. After marrying a British-born merchant who made a ton of money supplying weapons to the Americans and the French during the Revolution, she lived in Europe for decades. She was close friends and pen pals with the greatest minds of the day like George, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and my main man.
Which brings me to today’s episode. He’s the man who stole my heart and totally destroyed my original plan for this episode. I couldn’t contain his fascinating life in just one act. He needed his own episode.
Today we’re talking about Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette. Who was this mysterious Frenchman who helped us win our Revolution? And what happened to him after the war was over? Spoiler: like everything. All of the things happened to him after the war was over. Today’s episode is called Lafayette or, “He was in all the rooms where it happened.”
This is Anti-Social Studies; I’m Emily Glankler; settle in and let’s get some historical context.
Act 1: The French American Revolutionary
Lafayette was a member of the French nobility, born in 1757. And, in case you don’t know much about European history, that’s pretty much the worst era to be born into French nobility. So the fact that he will not only survive, but thrive, during the Age of Revolutions is amazing. He was made an officer in the French military at 13, the same year he lost his family and inherited a ton of wealth. He married a 14-year-old – I mean, he was 16 so it’s slightly less creepy, but still – and she was, how do you say?, loaded. He moved in with his wife’s family in their home in Versailles. That’s right – his father-in-law was part of the King’s court that was allowed to live at the palace. So, that’s pretty sweet.
Despite growing up in the literal lap of luxury, Lafayette was an Enlightened man. And when he heard about the rebellion in the American colonies against the British he was inspired. Now, a lot of Frenchmen were excited by this development and they wanted to go help the Americans – but that was mostly about sticking it to their mortal enemy: the British. But Lafayette was unique in that he seemed to genuinely believe in the democratic cause for which many of the colonists were fighting and he wanted to help.
The French government refused to send soldiers because it would threaten outright war with the British. So Lafayette, going against his king’s and his father-in-law’s direct orders (his father-in-law was also his commanding officer – awkward), he used 112,000 pounds of his inheritance to buy a ship. He sailed away in secret, landing in South Carolina in 1777.
When he made it to Philadelphia he was not the only Frenchman who had made his way there. Americans had been recruiting French soldiers for a few years now so the Continental Congress was, frankly, drowning in inexperienced soldiers who didn’t speak English. Lafayette was different. For one, he learned basic English on the voyage over, although he would become fluent within a year thanks to the tutoring of his soon-to-be BFF John Laurens. But, Lafayette was also a member of the Freemasons, a secret fraternal organization of which a guy named George Washington was also a member. This, along with the fact that American envoy to France Benjamin Franklin had met Lafayette back in France and vouched for him, opened doors for Lafayette to be “the room where it happens,” as Lin Manuel Miranda would say. But, the most persuasive reason why the Revolutionary leaders paid attention to Lafayette was because he offered to serve without pay – Oh hello!
Now, his commission in the military was supposed to be honorary – it looked good for the colonists to have a Frenchman of such high standing on their side – but Lafayette would see to it that this was changed so that he could actual fight in the war. But, in the meantime, he became part of what is known colloquially by historians as “Washington’s family.” George Washington had a few dozen aides-de-camp – personal assistants and advisors – whom he personally recruited from the best and brightest revolutionary minds, including John Laurens and Alexander Hamilton. Washington quickly recognized Lafayette’s intelligence and his earnest belief in their cause and he asked Lafayette to hold him in confidence as a “friend and father.” George, will you be my friend and father too?
What Lafayette is known for, at least in high school history textbooks, is his success in getting support from France during the war. This is all that I knew about him before I went to see Hamilton. I just knew he was “the French dude who helped get money and troops to help us win the Revolution.” In 1779 – at the age of 22 – he traveled to France to petition the government for more support. He was placed under house arrest for a week for defying the king’s orders when he slipped away to America, but this was a formality. Lafayette was greeted back in Paris as a celebrity – the first of many “Hero’s Welcomes” he would receive in his lifetime.
Lafayette ended up securing 6,000 French troops under the command of General Rochambeau – yeah, the guy Rock/Paper/Scissors is named after for some reason. Really, historians have researched it and they don’t know where that came from. But Lafayette asked for more: he wanted a full-scale French invasion of Britain, with himself at the head. Many of the world powers were beginning to ally with the American cause – again, mostly just to take down the great British Empire a few pegs; Spanish ships were already on their way to join the French fleet. But they didn’t arrive in time and the invasion was abandoned. Lafayette returned to America, but not before fathering a son with his wife, whom he named Georges Washington Lafayette. Oh yeah. And the ship he took back to the Americas was called the Hermione. Ugh. I already love this guy’s life so much.
When he rejoined Washington, he continued to use his influence to write personal letters to foreign dignitaries to send support. These letters, spellchecked by Hamilton, also went out to leaders in the American colonies, pushing them to send more men to the cause. I mean, if the French were willing to risk their life for your freedom, why aren’t you? It’s a solid argument.
Also, not only did the Frenchman recruit Europeans to help. He recruited Native Americans, too. He and a friend had gone to upstate New York to establish good relations with the Oneida Nation. During the terrible winter at Valley Forge, after traveling 200 miles on foot, 49 Oneida warriors strode into camp to a 13-gun salute, where they joined Lafayette’s men, patrolling the countryside keeping tabs on the British army. They proved themselves very quickly when they protected Lafayette from an attempted kidnapping and defended against a British force much larger in size long enough for Washington’s troops to join and drive the British back. By the end of the war, other Native Americans had joined the fight – although many were targeted by other native groups who saw their alliance with the colonists as a betrayal. 300 Oneida warriors fought in the Revolution, including seven who were commissioned as lieutenants and captains.
Lafayette eventually got his wish, commanding troops in battle, where he distinguished himself. His biggest victory was holding back General Cornwallis’s troops in Virginia so that the American and French troops could prepare themselves for the Siege at Yorktown. This ended up being the decisive battle that effectively ended the American Revolution. Hamilton and John Laurens also distinguished themselves in this battle, and John Laurens was selected to actually write up the formal letter that Cornwallis would sign, surrendering to the Continental Army. These dudes were on fire.
Yorktown was the last major land battle of the Revolution, although there was still fighting to be done. For example, John Laurens traveled to his home state of South Carolina to join up with General Nathaniel Greene, where he was killed in a skirmish when the war was all but over. While Lafayette wanted to lead troops into the major port cities to capture the rest of the British troops, George Washington convinced him that it would be more effective if he could convince the French navy to get more involved. He was put in charge of all of the American envoys to Europe, meaning that Benjamin Franklin in Paris, John Jay in Madrid, and John Adams in The Hague, all reported directly to him. Any deal they made with their respective foreign allies had to be run through and agreed upon by Lafayette. He was 25 years old and he had already helped turn the tide in his first revolution, but it wouldn’t be his last. One revolution down. At least two more to go.
Act 2: A French French Revolutionary
Lafayette was a hugely important connection for the brand new United States. He returned to France and worked to continue growing the alliance between his two countries. He set up his unofficial headquarters in a hotel in Paris where any and every prominent American of the day stopped by for dinner. Every Monday night he and his wife hosted Benjamin Franklin, John and Sarah Jay, and John and Abigail Adams for dinner. I like to imagine they also had a game night – I bet Lafayette was amazing at charades.
Throughout his life, Lafayette was a fierce advocate for the abolition of slavery. He joined the French abolitionist group called the Society of the Friends of the Blacks. This group was radical in that it didn’t just push for the end of the practice of slavery, but it argued for full and equal rights for free blacks. This is something it would take the United States two hundred more years to establish (or more, depending on who you ask.)
Lafayette was a badass. He visited the United States in 1784 where he visited George Washington’s estate where he spoke with the Virginia House of Delegates on the need to end slavery. Let me say that again: he spoke in front of the most powerful slaveholding men in the country, on one of the largest slave plantations in the country, and urged them to emancipate their slaves and accept the true “liberty of all mankind” that they had just claimed to fight for. He had nerves of steel.
This commitment to liberty came in handy a few years later back in France. First, he was invited by King Louis XVI to join an assembly he had chosen to deal with the growing economic crisis in France. Lafayette was one of the only ones in attendance who argued straight to the king’s face that he should include all of his people by calling a “true national assembly” but the King refused.
Two years later, in the year that would see the opening shots of the French Revolution, he was elected to the Estates General. Now, this isn’t a French government lesson but basically the Estates General was their Parliament or Congress – a holdover from the Middle Ages. Representatives from the three estates – the 1st estate (clergy), the 2nd estate (nobility – that’s what Lafayette was), and the 3rd estate (everyone else). The problem was that whenever an issue came up, each estate essentially got one vote. So… typically, the 1st and 2nd estate always joined together to outvote the 3rd estate – even though the 3rd estate represented 90% of the population. Not good.
Lafayette was in a position of power already. But instead of sitting back and eating his cake, he argued that the Estates General should be made more democratic by voting by head – meaning, voting based on the population you represent. Obviously, the 3rd estate loved this idea and some members of the clergy joined him, but by and large his own nobility of the 2nd estate refused to join in. I predict some heads will roll in a few years…
So, for those of you familiar with the French Revolution (I’m talking to you World History teachers!), Lafayette’s resume reads like a timeline of the most important events in French history. He was one of the original members to declare the National Assembly to replace the Estates General. When they were kicked out of the palace, he agreed to the Tennis Court Oath (so called because it was an oath… that they made on… a tennis court.) From that oath, they agreed to draft a formal constitution that they would force the King to sign.
Lafayette was the one who wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. And for those history teachers who always have students compare that document with the US Declaration of Independence, comparing similarities: they are so similar because Lafayette consulted his old friend Thomas Jefferson. He couldn’t have asked a better person – literally. That’s like asking Cyrus the Great how to build an empire. Or Beyonce how to perform.
As he was writing his draft of the Declaration, he broke with his friend TJ and advocated for the abolition of slavery but it mostly fell on deaf ears for now. When the Bastilles prison and armory was stormed by a mob – the official “beginning” of the French Revolution for most – Lafayette was appointed by the National Assembly as the commander-in-chief of France’s National Guard. His job was to maintain order between the revolutionaries and the king’s men – good luck with that. He answered to the National Assembly – not the king – so he was definitely on the side of the Revolution. This was solidified by the fact that the mob handed over the key to the Bastilles to Lafayette, who promptly packed it up and shipped it to his old friend George Washington. You can see the key to the Bastilles at Mount Vernon today. I don’t know why but this makes me want to cry. He loved George Washington as much as I do.
As head of the National Guard, Lafayette chose the new colors for the group to combine the red and blue of Paris – to represent the people – with the royal white. So, he created the French flag. He had an almost impossible job as he tried to steer a middle path of an orderly end to the absolute monarchy. Essentially, those who opposed the king fell into two camps: there were moderates who just wanted him to sign a constitution, making France a constitutional monarchy where the people had rights and a voice like in Britain. And there were the radicals, who didn’t want a king at all. Lafayette was stuck in the middle of the two.
For example, a Parisian crowd led by women fishmongers marched from Paris to the Palace at Versailles, demanding that the monarchs leave the palace so that they could be more responsive to the revolution from the capital city. Lafayette led the National Guard to follow the march to attempt to keep order. But when it turned violent, he also had to step in and protect the royal family. When Marie Antoinette stood on the balcony and tried to address the crowds, the only thing that stopped the mob from tearing her apart was probably the fact that Lafayette kissed her hand and led her back inside.
This middle path made sense, but it put him in the crosshairs of the radicals, especially the Jacobins. When they took power, Lafayette was denounced as a traitor to the people by Maximilien Robespierre – the instigator of the Reign of Terror himself. Honestly, if I had to be denounced during the Reign of Terror, I would only be OK with it if it was by Robespierre. I don’t want some rando putting me to the guillotine – I want to earn it.
When the Reign of Terror began, Lafayette was with his troops in Europe – fighting against Austria. They weren’t OK with a revolution against absolute monarchy, especially because Marie Antoinette was the daughter of Austrian Empress Maria Theresa. He returned home after sending a letter in advance denouncing the Jacobins (bad timing, dude. Read the room.) When he got to Paris he was like, “What’d I miss?” and he quickly fled to the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium today) hoping to catch a ship to the US. But he was captured by Austrian troops and spent the next five years in prison.
At this point, you might be wondering: What did the United States do to help him? After all, they had made him a citizen and he was one of their national heroes who helped free them from the prison of an absolute ruler. Surely, they would return the favor.
Yeah not really. The US stayed out of the French Revolution, not wanting to get into entangling alliances in Europe – smart advice from George Washington but ironic, considering that meant that they didn’t help the French in their own revolution. The most they did was send Lafayette money while he and his wife were in prison that made their captivity more comfortable. Yeah thanks.
But you know who did step in to help? Angelica Schuyler! That’s right. Get it girl! She and her husband, a British Member of Parliament, orchestrated Lafayette’s escape from prison, with the help of the son of Benjamin Huger, the man whom Lafayette had stayed with in South Carolina during his first two weeks in the U.S. Y’all. Be nice to everyone. You never know who’s going to help you escape from an Austrian prison. That’s what I always say.
Unfortunately, Lafayette was recaptured and spent much of the rest of his imprisonment in solitary confinement. How would he ever get out of prison? It would take a really high-level person of importance to arrange that.
Well, let’s review: as a young man he lived in Versailles with King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette; he traveled Europe and personally met with Frederick the Great of Prussia and King George III of England – awkward considering he would go on to help fight against him. Then, he became a loved and trusted friend to George Washington and just about every other founding father. So who else could we add to this ridiculous laundry list of notable historical figures that pop up in Lafayette’s life?
Make sure you’re sitting down. I’m bringing out the big guns for this one…
Act 3: A Global Revolutionary
Lafayette is in prison and in walks… NAPOLEON BONAPARTE! (**air horn sounds*)
The French Revolution has subsided – the Reign of Terror ended and Napoleon had stepped into the power vacuum to become Emperor of France. And now, I don’t know if you’ve noticed yet but Lafayette isn’t a fan of absolute monarchs. He refused to swear alllegiance to Napoleon, even though it meant that he would be stripped of his titles and lands – leaving him and his family destitute. Well, destitute in the way a global celebrity of noble birth can be. He lived in Hamburg with his wife’s aunt, unable to go to the United States because they were in a quasi-war with France over unpaid debts, among other things. So Lafayette went from being a dual citizen to a man with no country.
Eventually, his wife Adrienne negotiated with Napoleon to allow her husband to return to France if he agreed to retire from politics. In fact, he would be arrested if he was found engaging in politics – that was how threatening Napoleon found Lafayette to him. Unfortunately, banishment from public life occurred at the same time that George Washington died on the other side of the ocean. Unable to attend his funeral or even a memorial service in Paris, Lafayette’s name wasn’t even mentioned.
Over time, Napoleon approached Lafayette with offers to help him negotiate a better relationship with the United States, even offering him Minister to the U.S. but Lafayette refused unless Napoleon instated the democratic government originally envisioned by the Revolution. On the other side of the ocean, after tensions between the two countries subsided, his old friend President Thomas Jefferson offered Lafayette to be Governor of the entire Louisiana Purchase (over 800,000 square miles from New Orleans to Montana.) But, again, Lafayette refused because he believed he could better serve his countrymen pushing for more liberty in France.
When Napoleon fell at Waterloo in 1815, Lafayette arranged his secret passage to the United States but the British prevented this plan from going through and Napoleon died in exile on the island of St. Helena. Following the defeat and death of Napoleon, a group of European nations secured the so-called Bourbon Restoration in which Louis XVI’s brothers returned from exile and ruled as absolute monarchs. It was as if the entire French Revolution hadn’t happened. During this time, of course, Lafayette didn’t stop. He supported various liberal conspiracies against the monarchs and helped fund and promote democratic rebellions in other countries as well, including the Greek War for Independence against the Ottoman Empire. At this point, his son Georges Washington was old enough to learn the family trade – spreading democracy, that is – and he worked with his father in these efforts.
In 1824, preparing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Revolution, President Monroe invited Lafayette on a Grand Tour of the United States – now 24 states in total, of which Lafayette visited all of them. He was received in every town and city as a celebrity – the last great hero of the Revolution. In fact, cities competed to see who could outdo each other and commemorative everythings were plastered with his face. In Philadelphia, Independence Hall was saved from demolition and renovated just to have a place grand enough to receive Lafayette. Over the course of 16 months he traveled the U.S., seeing with his own eyes the nation that he had helped build.
His trip also put him in Washington D.C. during the climax of the most dramatic presidential election to date. The Election of 1824 between John Q. Adams, son of Lafayette’s old friend from Paris, and the rough-and-tumble frontiersman Andrew Jackson was not only a dramatic and mudslinging campaign, but it was the first time that no candidate secured a majority of the Electoral College. With the decision up to the House of Representatives, the much more palatable Adams was chosen, despite that fact that Jackson won the popular vote. It’s impossible now to know what Lafayette thought of all of this, but it would be crazy not to think that his visit had some influence on the outcome. The nation was nostalgic for the Revolutionary Era and wasn’t quite ready to lose the entire Founding generation. And it wouldn’t be unreasonable that Lafayette might have spoken kindly for his old friend’s son. I mean, let’s be clear. The elites in Washington were terrified of Andrew Jackson – both literally and symbolically. So they would have probably chosen Adams either way, but having Lafayette there might have made that decision just slightly easier.
Finishing out this Grand Tour, Lafayette did visit General Jackson – the Hero of New Orleans from the War of 1812 – at his home The Hermitage in Tennessee; he saw Niagara Falls and the modern marvel of the Erie Canal; he heard an oration by famed lawyer Daniel Webster and he visited the Battle at Bunker Hill site before he returned to France.
It feels like this should be the end of his story, right? Well not quite. He has one more revolution to be a part of. And you’ve probably never heard about it. Charles X was now on the throne and it just so happened that he and Lafayette grew up together at Versailles because of course they did. Lafayette opposed the king, who continued to rule as an absolute monarch. Unfortunately for the king, Lafayette was so famous and popular that to arrest him could spark a rebellion so he had to continue to listen to him give toasts in honor of American liberty and democracy.
But, rebellion was sparked even without Lafayette. After signing an ordinance that would remove voting rights from the middle class and dissolve their parliament, the people resisted. They set up barricades throughout Paris and though many political leaders were hesitant, Lafayette joined the riots and routed the royalist troops. He was made head of the National Guard again… history repeating itself 41 years later. And the leadership voted to proclaim Lafayette the new ruler. Finally! This whole time I’ve been like, “Oh my gosh someone get this guy in charge of a country!” But, of course, our dear Lafayette refused. And why? Well you should know why by now: this granting of power by the political leadership was unconstitutional and undemocratic. So he turned down the offer to essentially become the new king. George Washington would have been so proud.
Lafayette stayed involved in politics for the next few years, trying to guide France toward a constitutional monarchy. He served as a pallbearer in the funeral for an opponent of the king and when riots broke out in the streets at the event, Lafayette pleaded for calm. He was unsuccessful, but I’m glad of glad he didn’t disperse the mobs because if he had we wouldn’t have gotten Les Miserables, which was set during this short-lived 1832 June Rebellion. Ah to see Eddie Redmayne singing as a young revolutionary makes it all worth it, doesn’t it?
Lafayette died in 1834 at the age of 76 (even his age at death is a patriotic callback to 1776.) He was buried next to his wife in Paris and even though the king ordered a military funeral so that the public wouldn’t be allowed to attend, crowds formed around his funeral to pay their respects. In the U.S., President Andrew Jackson granted Lafayette the same memorial honors that had been given to Washington upon his death. Both Houses of Congress were draped in black for 30 days and all members wore badges of mourning, while Congress urged all Americans to follow similar mourning practices. Later, John Q. Adams gave a three-hour long eulogy calling Lafayette “high on the list of the pure and disinterested benefactors of mankind.”
Known as the “Hero of Two Worlds,” the United States owes, possibly, everything to Lafayette. Without his connections and ardent support of our cause, the U.S. may never have been able to outlast the British. And he clearly loved the American nation. In addition to his son named Georges Washington Lafayette, one of his daughters bears the name Virginie, after George’s home state. During his lifetime, Lafayette received an honorary degree from Harvard, a portrait of George Washington from the city of Boston, and a bust as a gift from the entire state of Virginia. He was made a natural-born citizen of the United States upon the ratification of the Constitution – making him an American citizen before the concept of citizenship in his own country even existed. At his funeral, his son sprinkled dirt over his grave that Lafayette had taken from Bunker Hill during his tour of the states years ago.
Damn, Lafayette. You might just be the greatest American of all time.