On this day (Nov. 4) in 1824, the 67-year-old French aristocrat Marquis de Lafayette began a 10-day visit to the Monticello home of 81-year-old former U.S. President Thomas Jefferson.
On what would be Lafayette’s last trip to America, he had accepted President James Monroe’s invitation for a farewell tour of the United States to participate in the celebration of the country’s 50th anniversary (July 1826), and, thereby, help instill the now 40-year-old “Spirit of 1776” among the growing number of Americans who were not participants in the “Glorious Cause.”
During his highly emotional triumphant tour of the country he helped to create, Lafayette visited all 24 U.S. states and Washington, D.C. Accompanied by a sizable entourage that included his son, George Washington Lafayette, and secretary, Auguste Levasseur (who later published a detailed account of the 6,000-mile excursion), the Marquis was enthusiastically regaled, honored, memorialized and “wined and dined” at virtually every village, city and historic site visited.
Also during the tour, which lasted 13 months (from Aug. 15, 1824, to Sept. 7, 1825), Lafayette visited with many of his famous Revolutionary War colleagues, which included most notably President Monroe, former President James Madison, and, after March 1825, President John Quincy Adams (with whom the Frenchman celebrated his 68th birthday at a banquet at the White House).
He also visited many of the Revolutionary battlefields (Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, Germantown, Brandywine and Yorktown) and historic sites, which included Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, where he gave an emotional speech; his American mentor George Washington’s estate and tomb at Mount Vernon; the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, where he received the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws; the White House; and the Capitol, where he addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress.
However, the most noteworthy and, perhaps, the most emotional event of this entire tour was Lafayette’s widely reported trip to Jefferson’s mountain top estate and to his “Academical Village” (the University of Virginia). When Jefferson learned that Monroe had invited Lafayette to visit America, he wrote a letter to the Frenchman inviting him to be sure to visit him. As it turned out, Lafayette spent some 12 days (Nov. 4-15) as an honored guest of the now increasingly feeble Sage of Monticello.
In the midafternoon of Nov. 4, Lafayette’s entourage started up the mountain from Charlottesville in a landau, drawn by four gray horses, accompanied a cheering crowd of marching citizens, a detachment of cavalry and several carriages with state and local dignitaries.
When the visitors reached the front entrance of Jefferson’s mountaintop mansion, what was widely reported to have been the most heartwarming, moving moment of Lafayette’s entire visit took place, when the two Revolutionary War heroes tearfully embraced amid the cheers of the large crowd that had gathered to honor the French visitor.
After a few days of rest, relaxation and, one suspects, stimulating conversation and reminiscing, Jefferson invited his celebrated visitor and a number of dignitaries, which included ex-President James Madison, as the first official guests to the University of Virginia to a formal dinner, which was held in the just completed Dome Room of the Rotunda.
Lafayette somewhat reluctantly bid farewell to Jefferson and Monticello on Nov. 15.
After his triumphant tour, Lafayette left Washington, D.C., aboard the USS Brandywine on Sept. 7, 1825 for France, where he died May 20, 1834.
Jefferson, of course, died famously on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence he authored (July 4, 1826).
• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.