The Marquis de Lafayette's Dual Role in French Engagement in America

1777 to 1780

By Dean Engle

Introduction: Lafayette and the Franco-American Alliance

Diplomatic developments in the 1760s and 1770s "miraculously paved the way for French The Marquis de Lafayetteintervention in North America." France's withdrawal from Canada at the close of the Seven Years' War reassured the American colonists that France harbored no territorial claims on the continent; the April 1779 Aranjuez Convention renewed the Franco-Spanish Family Compact, assuring France of Spanish naval assistance against England; and the Peace of Teschen one month later between Prussia and Austria guaranteed continental security. "In the end, the project," which was the engagement of French military and naval forces in support of America, "did not lack some of the aspects of a crusade." The charismatic leader of that crusade was a 19-year old French Dragoon captain who departed Bordeaux with a contract as major-general in the American army.

Neither a consummate politician nor a devout diplomat, the Marquis de Lafayette provided a crude, but effective glue between the United States and France. Although he was not the catalyst for the French foreign office's decision to intervene and support the American cause, he played two important roles in France's engagement in the American Revolution. First, he helped convince Americans, notably General George Washington and the factious Continental Congress that French engagement would not be at the risk of French control of the Revolution's aims and purposes. Second--in part the consequence of his relationship with Washington--he worked with, and fought beside, key Americans in order to build a critical relationship with American leaders. His close friendship with Washington and the United States on the one hand, and his unswerving devotion to the service of his native France on the other, would prove invaluable to French intervention.

Convincing Americans to Trust the French

The Lafayette Name

Lafayette had close ties to the highest order of the French nobility through his father-in-law, the Duc d'Ayen of the Noailles family. Both the Duc's father and grandfather had been marshals of France, the Duc was governor of the king's Chateau of St. Germain and captain of the King's Bodyguard, and his wife Henriette Daguesseau was grand-daughter of one of Louis XV's great ministers.

In his letter of recommendation to Congress for Lafayette, Silas Deane, American representative in Paris impressed upon the Americans Lafayette's inherent value. Writing to Robert Morris, he noted: "LaFayette . . . is of the first Family & Fortune in this Kingdom [both by?] birth & marriage. A generous reception of [him] will do Us infinite Service." Henry Laurens, who had replaced John Hancock as President of the Second Continental Congress in 1775, was not blind to the potential uses of Lafayette's royal connections. He wrote to a friend: "This illustrious Stranger whose address & manner bespeak his birth will have a Short Campaign & then probably return to France & Secure to us the powerful Interest of his high & extensive connections."

Lafayette intended differently, however. The youngest major-general in the American Army was committed to the cause of liberty and drawn by his own individual expectations of glory, both of which would take him from Brandywine to Yorktown.

Why the Americans Disliked French Officers

"I do most devoutly wish that we had not a single Foreigner among us, except the Marquis de la Fayette, who acts upon very different principles than those which govern the rest." -- Washington to Gouverneur Morris, 24 July, 1778.
Lafayette and George Washington at Valley Forge

Lafayette landed in Charleston in June 1777 with a group of 12 French officers, all of whom had been granted commissions with the American Army by Silas Deane, Congress' representative in Paris. Their reception in Charleston was poor. One of the officers, the Chevalier Dubuysson wrote: "We ... arrived at Charleston, after three days of walking, looking very much like beggars and brigands. We were received accordingly...[and] pointed at in scorn by the local populace when we said we were French officers, motivated solely by the desire to attain glory and defend their liberty . . . We were treated as adventurers, even by the French, who are very numerous in Charleston."

A group in Congress, led by the Lees of Virginia (one of whom was in Paris at the same time as Silas Deane and reportedly Deane's "most bitter enemy") were against formal support from the French. French military interests were viewed with suspicion, especially by the New England congressmen who saw the northern fish and fur trades as exclusive domain for American traders. More immediately, French military representation was poor, terrible even in America, ever since the first arrivals of Deane's commissioned officers in April. A growing distrust of Deane in Congress undermined the French cause. News of Deane's support for the Comte de Broglie as commander-in-chief of the American Army added to the already-strained relations with French officers such as the Chevalier Ducoudray. Ducoudray, notorious for his rude and patronizing behavior, had received a contract from Deane to act as "commander both of artillery and engineering" which immediately drew letters of resignation from Generals Greene, Sullivan and Knox. Ducoudray's "effrontery had practically destroyed the confidence of Congress in any recommendations from Deane." There were a number of cases like Ducoudray's, especially among the higher-ranking officers.

At the time of the Lafayette party's arrival, Congress had already resolved to discourage granting commissions to foreigners who did not speak English. Lafayette's English was poor at best, his companions were no better endowed, and they were met by the French-speaking James Lovell, a Massachussetts congressman. Lovell was chair of the newly-formed Committee on Foreign Applications, and led the anti-French faction in Congress. After a brusque reception by Lovell, at which Lafayette's colleagues were told that Deane's commissions could not be recognized, Congress reconsidered Lafayette's application, given his important rank and connections with the French nobility. Combined with his assurances that he would request no pay and accept an honorary commission, Congress commissioned him as a major-general and wrote him a letter of introduction to General Washington. He was assigned to Washington's command, and as one Congressman noted, Lafayette was: "only to hav e Liberty to be with Gen. Washington in every Engagement, a noble Instance of Honour." His close affiliation with Washington, which he assiduously developed, partly determined the influence he--and through him, the French--were to have during the war in America.

Lafayette's Efforts to Improve the French Reputation

With General Washington

Lafayette was keenly aware of the influence Ducoudray had had on American willingness to engage French military support, especially upon George Washington. Washington had an indelible and lasting influence upon the young Lafayette. Their close collaboration, combined with Lafayette's demonstrations of military leadership in the early battles of Brandywine and Monmouth against Lords Cornwallis and Howe largely changed Washington's outlook on the Marquis and on French officers in general.

Within a few months of his arrival in Philadelphia, Lafayette had requested Washington to command a division. Frustrated by the youth's persistence, Washington saw in him the embodiment of the general scourge of foreign officers. Referring specifically to Lafayette, he wrote to Benjamin Harrison: "This difficulty with the numberless applications for Imployment by Foreigners, under their respective appointments, adds no small embarrassment to a command which, without it, is abundantly perplexed by the different tempers I have to do with . . . the combination of all which, is but too just representation of a great Chaos from whence we are endeavoring (how successfully time can only tell) to draw some regularity & order."

One year later, after having seen the young Marquis in action at Monmouth and Brandywine, favorably influenced by Henry Laurens' close friendship with Lafayette, and impressed by his presence during Henry Lee's court-martial after Lee's controversial retreat at Monmouth, Washington had reversed his opinion of the Marquis. In the wake of the d'Estaing-Sullivan controversy over the battle of Rhode Island in August 1778, he wrote to Lafayette: "It is the nature of Man to be displeased with every thing that disappoints a favourite hope, or flattering project; and it is the follow of too many of them, to condemn without investigating circumstances. Let me beseech you therefore my good Sir to afford a healing hand to the wound that, unintentionally has been made. America esteems your Virtues & yr. Services and admires the principles upon which you act. Your Countrymen, in our Army, look up to you as their Patron. The Count and his Officers consider you as a ma n high in Rank, & high in estimation, here and in France; and I, your friend, have no doubt but that you will use your utmost endeavours to restore harmony, that the honour, glory, and mutual Interest of the two Nation's may be promoted and cemented in the firmest manner." However much Washington was attempting to soothe the Marquis' ruffled French feathers, he betrayed the extent of his friendship for Lafayette and the esteem in which he held him.

With Congress

Lafayette's second contribution to the strengthening of Franco-American cooperation was the result of a specific incident. Having revived the idea of a Canadian expedition with the French Vice-Admiral d'Estaing in the wake of the Sullivan-d'Estaing controversy [see below], Lafayette came to Philadelphia in October 1778 to propose the Canadian plan to Congress. The plan would commit both US and French troops to sail with d'Estaing to Canada, liberating Halifax and securing the Newfoundland Banks for French fishing along the way.

Congress, which was in favor, requested French assistance. Lafayette's close relationship with Henry Laurens, President of the Second Continental Congress, which he had judiciously nurtured through regular correspondence, was the backbone for his success in winning over Congress to support French engagement in the war. Lafayette, enthusiastic about a mission that would engage the French directly on the American continent, said he would play messenger to the French king if Congress allowed him leave for the winter. Gerard, first assistant to the French Foreign Minister, whom the minister had sent to Philadelphia as plenipotentiary after the signing of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce on 6 February 1778, wrote on October 20 that Lafayette's "wisdom and dexterity" had resoundingly carried discussions with the congressional committees. "They had warmly solicited his return with troops sent by the king. He responded with a correct sensibility and showed himself completely resigned to the king's will." In a private note to the minister, Gerard added: "I cannot help saying that the conduct of M. de Lafayette, equally prudent, courageous, and amiable, has made him the idol of Congress, the army, and the American people."

Lafayette himself recognized all-too-keenly that to assure French engagement in the American Revolution, he himself had to win over Congress while simultaneously maintaining the support of General Washington. As Lafayette wrote to d'Estaing during the Admiral's fall-out with Sullivan: "We must recognize . . . Monsieur le Comte, that offending Mr. Sullivan and the people of New England need not mean falling out with General Washington and Congress, the two great movers of all our undertakings." D'Estaing never did fall out with Congress, though not due to his own intervention: he never met Congress during this time, and relied heavily upon the Marquis to negotiate with the Americans.

Convincing the French to Assist a Worthy Cause

"Broglie had sent him forth to conquer an empire; he was to return a missionary

of a new faith."

Louis Gottschalk

Lafayette and the Franco-American Alliance

Lafayette was not a key player in the Franco-American alliance of commerce and amity that was signed in February 1778. He was not privy to the negotiations between the American commissioners in Paris, the Continental Congress, and Minister Vergennes on this subject. He was largely responsible, however, for the faith which Vergennes and the Minister of War, Montbarey, placed in General Washington's command. This step was crucial for the military alliance which followed on the heels of that of commerce and amity. Louis Gottschalk places the Marquis alongside Benjamin Franklin, Beaumarchais and Vergennes as "a chief agent" of the alliance. A close friend of Lafayette's in Paris, the Comte de Ségur, wrote: "When Paris heard rumors of the first battles in which Lafayette and his companions did honor to the name of Frenchmen, there was general approval...Thus, public opinion, turning more and more toward war, made it inevitable, and inevitably dra gged a government too weak to resist in the same direction." Additionally, Lafayette's family, initially the young adventurer's most outspoken critic, "had now become the foremost in advocating the American cause."

Upon receiving news of the alliance on May 1, 1778, Lafayette wrote to Henry Laurens: "I am myself fit to receive as well as to offer congratulations in this happy circumstance. If you remember, sir, in which moment in which sentiments I left my country, you will easely [sic] conceive how surprised, how pleased I must be to see our noble cause arrived at such a period of Glory and Succes [sic]...I glorify myself to have been the witness of this ever famous revolution."

Hero of Two Worlds

Lafayette's most important role vis-a-vis the French leadership was to secure the trust of Vice-Admiral d'Estaing, and through him, Vergennes and Montbarey. Two days after signing treaty of amity and commerce, Vergennes planned a vast armada for America. On July 5, 1778, the Comte d'Estaing led 12 ships of the line and 4 frigates into Newport, contacted General Sullivan, the northern commander of the American forces, and planned an attack against the British fort of Rhode Island.

The battle of Rhode Island, saw the American General Sullivan fall out with his French counterpart, the Comte d'Estaing, over a misperception of storm damage to the French fleet. The misunderstanding of objectives by the two respective commanders was potentially damning to Franco-American relations. Had it not been for Lafayette's shuttle diplomacy between Sullivan and d'Estaing, d'Estaing may very well have left Rhode Island and sailed for the French West Indies. Vergennes could have then put a hold on further support to the Americans during the 1778 campaign.

Lafayette used his familiarity with the American commanding generals to counsel d'Estaing on the nature of the American character, and on General Sullivan's in particular. "I ask your permission to add what my slight acquaintance with this country makes me hope for," he wrote to d'Estaing. "In your answer to General Sullivan, speak of [his sending a detachment of Continental troops to fight the front line during the landing] again as seeming necessary for the success of the expedition and consonant with your desires as well...If while adding your military reflections you stress them firmly, these gentlemen will find it easier to agree to them than to answer them and thus will enlarge the detachment that will be given to you...." Acknowledging Lafayette's close ties to the American leadership in Philadelphia, and to the Army's commander-in-chief, d'Estaing wrote to Lafayette from his flagship Languedoc: "You are the one who will have won o ver the opinion and assistance that were essential needs" during these negotiations.

To Washington and to the Continental Congress, Lafayette communicated his immense disappointment with Sullivan's reaction to d'Estaing, but took the liberty of speaking for the Comte to Washington. "I wish, my dear general," he wrote to Washington on 25 August, 1778, "you would know as well as myself how desirous is the Count d'Estaing to forward the public good, to help your succes [sic], and to serve the Cause of America." When Congress learned of the protest Sullivan had lodged against d'Estaing as well as Lafayette's communications to Washington, it immediately recognized the potential damage it could do to Franco-American relations. Congress hastily ordered "that General Washington take every measure in his power that the protest of the officers of General Sullivan's army against the departure of Count d'Estaing not be made public."

Ever conscious of his dual role as proponent of both French and American interests, Lafayette wrote to Washington after mollifying d'Estaing: "The Count d'Estaing is entirely ours--so at least I aprehend [sic] by his confidential letters to me, and it affords me a great pleasure." "For the first time," wrote Louis Gottschalk of the Marquis in the fall of 1778, "Lafayette had been publicly celebrated as the hero of two worlds."

At Work on the Old Continent

"I love this cause, it is true, with some enthusiasm; but I would be quite displeased and quite dismayed if it succeeded in a way that would be disadvantageous to my very well beloved and very much adored country."

Lafayette to Lazare-Jean Theveneau de Francy, 2 May 1778.

Lafayette returned to France at the end of 1779, partly in order to engage Vergennes--and to influence the likes of Louis XVI and those ministers who were against engagement in America, notably Montbarey (war) and Necker (finance). Another reason for Lafayette's return was to see Adrienne, his wife, and Anastasie, his daughter who was born while Lafayette was in America. In Paris, he engaged himself unreservedly in support of the American cause, but despite his family's reputation and his heralded acclaim, he was unable to secure French military forces to America until the spring of 1780. The Americans' failure to recover ground after the British repulsed the Franco-American attack on Savannah in October 1777 did little to encourage the reluctant Vergennes. What was needed was a convincing sign from the Americans that they could win a battle against England. General Washington had nothing to show for himself in the winter of 1779-1780; the Spanish takeover of Bat on Rouge in September 1779 did little to shift the balance of power on the continent; and the League of Neutrality engaging Denmark, Russian, the Holy Roman Empire and Norway, among others, did little to encourage a large-scale French expeditionary force to America. In the absence of any single explanation as to why France should engage in the spring of 1780, individual pressures upon Vergennes and the French Prime Minister Maurepas should be taken as important explanations for France's eventual engagement. This is what Lafayette engaged in successfully during his 15 months in France during 1779 and early 1780.

Lafayette's foremost contribution during this period was to outline exactly how French forces could engage in America: where they would land, how many should be sent, and why they should be sent as quickly as possible. Vergennes asked Lafayette for his thoughts on an expeditionary force in July 1779, to which Lafayette replied with a detailed description of a plan of attack on Rhode Island. While at Le Havre, awaiting orders for the abortive French invasion of England, he wrote a detailed memoir on the subject of French engagement in Rhode Island, and submitted it both to Maurepas and to Vergennes. In a letter to Vergennes on 30 July, 1779, he proposed immediately sending a small force of 2,000 men, including 300 of the king's elite Dragoons to: a) restore the value of the Continental paper currency; b) permit the French to capture Halifax, and most importantly; c) provide the vital support the American army needed to gain the upper hand. This would: "impart some vigor to the American army, would form the spearhead of an attack to retake the North River forts, and would persuade the Americans to attempt some enterprise, according to the circumstances." Although unsuccessful at the time, Lafayette, together with Benjamin Franklin in Paris, succeeded in convincing Vergennes of the Rhode Island expedition's importance in the spring of 1780. Lafayette's persuasiveness in his single-minded support for the expedition probably gradually gained favor with Maurepas and Vergennes. (see Appendix I.)


That Corwin does not treat Lafayette in his excellent study of the French objective in the American Revolution is telling. Lafayette was not part of formulating France's objective, which was played out by French Foreign Minister Vergennes, Prime Minister Maurepas, King Louis XVI, Congress, and the American representatives in Paris. Lafayette did much to fine-tune the objective, however.

It was Lafayette who helped to coordinate Vice-Admiral d'Estaing's campaign in Rhode Island. It was he who defined the terms for the French General Rochambeau's arrival in 1780, and it was he who shuttled between the French and the American commands. Most importantly, Lafayette was able to lead an important change in the American perception of the French. This proved crucial to American willingness to engage the French within--and in close cooperation with--their own American army. Such achievements were remarkable for a man who had never served in battle upon his arrival in America; who was given command at the side of the commander-in-chief of the American army; and who, by dint of his courage, prudence and amiability, spurred the cooperation of America and France.

Appendix I

Lafayette's 25 January 1780 letter to French Prime Minister Maurepas is an excellent example of the young Marquis' remarkable acumen:

. . . After having spoken of the beginnings of our acquaintance and of the eternity through which this friendship should endure, General Washington adds: "Whether you come here in the character of commanding officer of a corps of gallant French, should circumstances lead to that event; whether as an American major general you come to retake command of a division of our army; or whether after the peace you come to see me simply as my friend and my companion, I shall receive you in ever case with all the tenderness of a brother," ect. This statement, Monsieur le Comte, in conjunction with Hamilton's letter, shows this general's ideas about an operation undertaken early in the spring . . .

Before the last campaign, Monsieur le Comte, I proposed to you that envoy of ships that you see would have had such a useful effect. You aproved my ideas, but plans had been made; tht was your only objection.Vexed no to be able to adopt this project, you told me that there was no longer time and that we had to wait to see what would become of the operations that had already been decided upon. While these operations were being worked on--when I had only too much leaisure at Le Havre--I was asked for my view on a new campaign in America. If it was basically the same as it was the first day, it is because I know that country too well to change my opinion. I obtained your approbation, Monsieur le Comte, but you were waiting at that time to know what would be done and what Monseiur le Comte d'Estaing would think. What he thinks surely cannot be adverse to the expedition. By writing me that you will be as vigilant as possible, so that nothing is done that may stand in the way of what I propose, I venture, Monsieur le Comte, that you have given me some right to speak to you about it again on this occasion.

I am persuaded as you are that this assistance should be sent; briefly, here are the points of view from which I consider it: first, even if we were not to gain any advantage, America's situation is such that it becomes almost essential to send this assistance; second, even if America could do without assistance, there are so many advantages to be expected that it would be unreasonable not to employ this small number of ships and troops there.

The miscarriage of our great preparations in Europe, the defeat at Savannah, the reconciliation with Ireland, perhaps the taking of Charleston: these are the events that will affect the credibility of the cause and the condition of American finances. The total ruin of commerce, the devastation of the coastal cities undertaken by small English corps, the very dangerous extension of British power in the southern sates, offensive operations undertaken from New York: these can be prevented only by obliging the enemy to confine itself to its posts. These considerations, combined with so many others, make our aid almost indispensable.

From another perspective, Monsieur le Comte, cooperation with General Washington would double the force and strength of his army. It would persuade the army to be daring and would, perhaps, assure some successes . . . But without getting lost in a void of hopes, without even determining the offensive plans that must depend upon General Washington and circumstances, the excellent post of Rhode Island would then belong to our allies; the enemy would no longer have the use of that port for their large ships; and by preventing them from unloading, we would serve our own islands.

Nevertheless, Monsieur le Comte, it is pointless to detail the plan minutely, and since you approve of assistance of this kind, I shall tell you frankly that we are wasting precious time and that military preparations should have begun already. . . .