This Day In History: July 15

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On July 15, 1789, only one day after the fall of the Bastille marked the beginning of a new revolutionary regime in France, the French aristocrat and hero of the American War for Independence, Marie-Joseph Paul Roch Yves Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, becomes the colonel-general of the National Guard of Paris by acclamation. Lafayette (as he was more commonly known) served as a human link between America and France in what is sometimes known as The Age of Revolutions.

At the age of 19, the young Frenchman’s willingness to volunteer his services without pay won the American Congess’ respect and Lafayette a commission as a major-general in the Continental Army on July 31, 1777. Lafayette served in the battle at Brandywine in 1777, as well as at Barren Hill, Monmouth and Rhode Island in 1778. Following the formal treaty of alliance with Lafayette’s native France in February 1778 and Britain’s subsequent declaration of war against France, Lafayette asked to return to Paris and consult the king as to his future service. Washington was willing to spare Lafayette, who departed in January 1779. By March, Benjamin Franklin reported from Paris that Lafayette had become an excellent advocate for the American cause at the French court. Following his six-month respite in France, Lafayette returned to aid the American war effort in Virginia, where he participated in the successful siege of Yorktown in 1781, before returning to France and the further service of his own country. That service involved bringing many of the ideals of the American Revolution to France.

On July 11, 1789, Lafayette proposed a declaration of rights to the French National Assembly that he had modeled on the American Declaration of Independence. Lafayette’s refusal to support the escalation of violence known as the Reign of Terror that followed the French royal family’s attempt to flee the country in 1791 resulted in his imprisonment as a traitor from 1792 to 1797. Lafayette returned to military service during the French Revolution of 1830. He died in Paris four years later, where he was buried among many of his noble friends executed during the Reign of Terror at the Cimetière de Picpus.