Colleagues and Friends

James & Dolley Madison

Marquis de Lafayette

Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, was a French aristocrat who became an American Revolutionary War hero. Committed to the ideal of liberty, the 19-year-old Frenchman sought out an American representative in Paris in 1776 and received a commission as a major general in the American army. He became a close advisor to General Washington and was wounded while directing the American retreat at the Battle of Brandywine.  Lafayette returned to France in 1779 and successfully appealed to the king for loans and military aid to the United States. The French fleet, along with French troops under General Rochambeau, and American troops under Washington and Lafayette, defeated British General Cornwallis at Yorktown in the last major battle of the war. 

James Madison became acquainted with Lafayette in 1784. Madison was beginning a trip through the northern states when he encountered Lafayette at Baltimore and decided to accompany him on a journey to Philadelphia, New York, and Fort Schuyler (also known as Fort Stanwix), where a treaty was to be negotiated with the Iroquois tribes.   Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson,

The time I have lately passed with the M.[arquis] has given me a pretty thorough insight into his character. With great natural frankness of temper he unites much address; with very considerable talents, a strong thirst of praise and popularity. In his politics he says his three hobby horses are the alliance between France and the United States, the union of the latter and the manumission of the slaves. ... In a word I take him to be as amiable a man as his vanity will admit and as sincere an American as any Frenchman can be; one whose past services gratitude obliges us to acknowledge, and whose future friendship prudence requires us to cultivate. 

Lafayette was an early leader in the French Revolution, co-authoring the Declaration of the Rights of Man and serving as head of the National Guard in Paris. Lafayette’s fortunes rose and fell as various factions came to power. He was imprisoned for five years by the Jacobins and freed by Napoleon. He served as a Liberal member of the Chamber of Deputies during the Bourbon Restoration, and lost his seat in 1824 when the government leaned in the ultraroyalist direction. 

That year, President James Monroe invited Lafayette to be the “Nation’s Guest” in a celebratory tour of the United States commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the American Revolution. Lafayette was by this time the last surviving general of the war. His 13-month tour was filled with displays of honor and affection from the American people, as well as reunions with members of the revolutionary generation. 

Lafayette visited Monticello and Montpelier in November 1824. Madison joined Lafayette and Jefferson at Monticello, reporting to Dolley, “My old friend embraced me with great warmth. He is in fine health & spirits but so much increased in bulk & changed in aspect that I should not have known him.”  Madison gave a toast to Lafayette during a public celebration in Orange, praising “his zeal, truly American, in maintaining our Rights our honour, and our interests, as a free & independent people. In his absence I could say much which I can not trust my feelings to utter in his presence. But were he absent I could not say more than would be due, nor more than I am sure would be ecchoed by every heart present.”  Dolley wrote that she “was charmed with [Lafayette’s] society -- & never witnessed so much enthusiasm as his appearance occationed here and at our court house, where hundreds of both sexes collected together, to hail & welcome him.”  

Lafayette returned to Monticello and Montpelier in August 1825, toward the end of his tour. Lafayette visited the slave quarters at Montpelier, meeting the 104-year-old slave Milly, her daughter, and nearly 70-year-old granddaughter.  Lafayette and Madison continued to discuss slavery, which both agreed was evil. While Lafayette believed that the eradication of slavery was possible, Madison saw only obstacles. Writing to Lafayette in France after the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829, Madison reported no progress in outlawing slavery: “I scarcely express myself too strongly in saying, that an allusion in the Convention to the subject you have so much at heart, would have been a spark to a mass of Gunpowder.” Madison unrealistically hoped that the colonization societies, by relocating freed slaves to Africa, would provide “rapid erasure of that blot from our Republican character.” 

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Lafayette Makes Two Trips to Montpelier

Lafayette visited Montpelier twice - November 1824 and August 1825. During his 1824 visit, Lafayette and Madison walked the estate and spent the evenings engaged in conversation on topics of national interest.