By the second decade of the nineteenth century, General Gilbert du Motier [Marquis de] Lafayette had fought for republicanism on two continents, leading men in battle and in peace. This great soldier and philosopher had demonstrated an unflagging commitment to those values of freedom and liberty that the young American nation held most dear. So it seemed only natural that in 1824, as many of the founding fathers of the nation entered their twilight years, that the United States would extend an invitation to their greatest Revolutionary hero from across the Atlantic.
Arriving on American soil in 1824 at the invitation of a grateful American nation, Lafayette set out on a journey that would take him to every state of the fledgling nation. Among the many towns and cities that fêted Lafayette was Charlottesville in Virginia, where the French general arrived just days after his landing in the New World. He and his old friend Jefferson spent days discussing the great issues and events of the contemporary world during his stay at Monticello, touching on everything from the freedom of South American nations to the issue of slavery. Most importantly, the two talked about Jefferson’s final ambition – the creation of his University of Virginia. The two descended from the foothills to walk amongst the columns of the Academical Village and lunch together in the unfinished Rotunda, debating the best ways to educate future generations in the values of democracy and liberty.
Considering his growing interests in the future of American liberty, it seemed natural for Lafayette to return to Jefferson and the University as he prepared to leave his adopted nation a year later. While his friend had grown too ill to leave his “little mountain,” the pair could take solace in the fact that his final dream had been accomplished. After spending a week with Jefferson, a group of students arrived and escorted Lafayette down to the grounds of the recently opened University. Upon arrival he was greeted by William B. Preston of the newly established Jefferson Society, representing both the students and professors. Though Mr. Preston’s words have been lost to us, Lafayette’s reply captures the emotion of the moment:
Amidst the painful emotions of my too speedy departure from the shores of the United States, and anguish most keenly felt on the farewell visit to your paternal rector, my illustrious and venerated friend; I feel highly gratified in the opportunity you have given me of a personal acquaintance with all of you gentleman, Professor and Students, of this young, yet already celebrated University of Virginia. [A] University, upon whom, it is already understood in both hemispheres, that those feelings and talents are as a family inheritance, forever entailed by which, the rights of man, national independence, religious, civil, political liberty, and equality have been eloquently promulgated and strenuously promoted – nor can I think of the ancient and endearing connections of the old and recent obligations to the State of Virginia, which you have been pleased so kindly to mention, without feeling a particular delight at the sight of this new, great luminary knowledge and patriotism, where the principles and the sentiments of unalloyed philosophy, philanthropy and republicanism cannot fail to be diffused. To those general anticipations in which I cordially sympathize with you; to my best wishes for the prosperity of this University, and of every one of you, gentleman, permit me to add the expression of my affectionate gratitude.
Following Gen. Lafayette’s gracious remarks, all retired to the several pavilions, where professors hosted receptions for students and their distinguished guest.
As the festivities were moving to the Rotunda, Lafayette was approached by another student. Mr. John H. Lee, speaking on behalf of the Jefferson Society, informed the General that he had been elected to honorary membership in the fledgling society. Touched by the honors bestowed on him by the Society, Lafayette responded:
While under the auspices of a name equally cherished and venerated by all of us, gentleman, I am initiated to the honour of a fellowship in your institution, I find myself under an additional obligation to an old friendship, and under a most gratifying obligation to your juvenile kindness. I am happy, my dear sir, in those testimonies of affection, to recognize your feelings towards us, the soldiers of independence and freedom – and your attachment to the republican principles for which we have had the honour to fight and bleed. With the most lively gratitude, I accept and shall ever keep the favour you have been pleased to confer upon me, and while I most cordially reciprocate your friendly wishes in my behalf, I beg you to accept my affectionate acknowledgements.
The company then adjourned to a sumptuous dinner in the Rotunda, where a number of Virginia notables including former President James Monroe joined them. Toasts were then drunk to all manner of men and liberties, including “Our distinguished Rector” Thomas Jefferson, who it was said had “a patriotic devotion that power could not awe, the labours of fifty could not weary, and the frost of eighty cannot chill.” Cheers continued to sound into the night as Mr. William Preston rose to propose one of the most eloquent toasts of the evening. Raising his glass, he celebrated America – “the land whose crown is wisdom, whose mitre [sic] is purity; whose heraldry is talent; where public sentiment is supreme, and where every man may erect the pyramid to his own fair fame.” While what happened beyond these events is unrecorded, it can surely be assumed that Lafayette left the shores of the United States with fond memories of his time spent in Charlottesville, both of his old friend Jefferson and of the University he believed would “diffuse through every part of mankind the principles, the feelings, and the benefits of true knowledge, general philanthropy, and unalloyed Republicanism.”
While there is little doubt that Lafayette made a major impression on America and its inhabitants in 1825, it might also be possible that impressions of his visit remained with him long after his return. For like Jefferson, Lafayette would devote the efforts of his remaining years to establishing a system of public education that would continue to spread the ideals of liberalism and republicanism. Standing before Chamber of Deputies years after his American tour, he may have thought of his old friend and the students of the University of Virginia as he started a new yet familiar discourse. “National education and most of all elementary education,” he began, “this great inspirer of public reason, of practical morality and public peace, is today the most essential need of the French people, as well as it constitutes the first debt the government has to pay them.” Such a thought was as true in France as it was in America, but it in many ways represented a distinctly Jeffersonian idea, one adopted by his University and the Society that bears his name.
Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert Du Motier, marquis de Lafayette. The Letters of Lafayette and Jefferson. Ed. Gilbert Chinard. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins Press, 1929. 359
All quotes above are from The Richmond Enquirer, September 6, 1825.