Explore 10 surprising facts about the French aristocrat and hero of the American Revolution.
1. His birth name was quite a mouthful.
The future hero of the American Revolution was born Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette in an expansive chateau in Chavaniac, France, on September 6, 1757. “It’s not my fault,” he joked in his autobiography. “I was baptized like a Spaniard, with the name of every conceivable saint who might offer me more protection in battle.”
2. King George III’s brother convinced Lafayette to fight against Great Britain.
In August 1775, Lafayette attended a dinner party at which Great Britain’s Duke of Gloucester, younger brother of King George III, was the guest of honor. The duke, who had been condemned by the king over his recent choice of a bride, hit back at his royal brother’s policies in the American colonies and praised the exploits of liberty-loving Americans at the opening battles of the American Revolution at Lexington and Concord months earlier. Lafayette, whose father died in 1759 fighting the British during the Seven Years’ War, received the inspiration he needed to strike back against the empire. “From that hour,” he wrote, “I could think of nothing but this enterprise, and I resolved to go to Paris at once to make further inquiries.”
3. Lafayette was only 19 years old and without combat experience when he arrived in America.
Defying the explicit orders of King Louis XVI, who did not wish to provoke Great Britain, the marquis eluded authorities and crossed the Atlantic Ocean to assist the rebellious Americans in 1777. Although still a teenager who spoke little English and lacked any battle experience, Lafayette convinced the Continental Army to commission him a major general on July 31, 1777.
4. He was shot in the leg during his first battle.
During the Battle of Brandywine, near Philadelphia, on September 11, 1777, Lafayette was shot in the calf. Refusing treatment, the military novice managed to organize a successful retreat. Following a two-month recuperation, Lafayette was given command over his own division for the first time.
5. Lafayette named his only son after George Washington.
As both a “friend and a father,” the commander of the Continental Army held the young Frenchman in high esteem. Lafayette remained at Washington’s side during the harsh winter at Valley Forge in 1777 and through to the conclusive battle at Yorktown in 1781. In 1779 the marquis named his newly born son Georges Washington de Lafayette in honor of the American revolutionary. Three years later, at the suggestion of Thomas Jefferson, Lafayette named his youngest daughter Marie Antoinette Virginie to honor both the French queen and the state of Virginia.
6. Hounds that Lafayette sent to Washington helped to create a new breed of dog.
In 1785, Lafayette sent seven large French hounds across the Atlantic Ocean as gifts for Washington. To increase the size of a pack of black-and-tan English foxhounds that had been given to him by his patron, Lord Fairfax, the future first president of the United States bred the hunting dogs with the imports. The combination of the English hounds, descended from those brought to the American colonies by Robert Brooke in 1650, and French canines helped to create the American Foxhound. The American Kennel Club, which calls the dog “easy-going, sweet-tempered, independent,” recognized the American Foxhound as a breed in 1886.
7. Lafayette co-authored the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.
Inspired by the ideals of the American Revolution, the marquis penned one of history’s most important documents about human and civil rights with the help of Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence’s principal architect. The National Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen on August 27, 1789, and it remains enshrined in France’s present-day constitution.
8. Lafayette is an honorary American citizen.
In 1784, Maryland conferred honorary citizenship upon Lafayette, and other colonies followed suit. The U.S. State Department, however, determined in 1935 that the measures did not result in the marquis becoming a United States citizen following the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. That changed in 2002 when Lafayette became the sixth foreign national to be given honorary American citizenship by Congress.
9. At the age of 72, he was still a revolutionary leader.
After King Charles X dissolved the National Assembly and suspended the free press in 1830, Lafayette took chare of the National Guard and rushed to the aid the revolutionaries who erected barricades in the streets of Paris. After the king was forced to abdicate, Lafayette turned down a chance to rule as dictator and instead backed the installation of Louis-Philippe on the throne as a constitutional monarch. The new king quickly disappointed the marquis with his lack of reforms, and Lafayette led the liberal opposition to the ruler in his last years.
10. Lafayette was buried in France underneath dirt taken from Bunker Hill.
After the 76-year-old Lafayette died in Paris on May 20, 1834, he was laid to rest next to his wife at the city’s Picpus Cemetery. To carry out the request of “The Hero of the Two Worlds” to be buried in both American and French soil, his son covered his coffin with dirt they had taken from Bunker Hill in 1825 when the marquis laid the cornerstone to the monument that still marks the battlefield.