The Return of Lafayette

Jonathan Wilson of the University of Scranton has written a really nice piece for The Readex Report on the Marquis de Lafayette‘s visit to the United States in 1824. Lafayette was so popular in the United States due to his involvement in the American Revolutionary War that Wilson describes his return as a “media event.”

Here is a taste:

In summer 2015, a wooden frigate named the Hermione sailed from France to the United States. It was recreating one of the voyages that brought the Marquis de Lafayette to fight in the American War of Independence. The new Hermione was a painstaking replica of Lafayette’s ship, built with authentic eighteenth-century methods. Its voyage, however, became a modern multimedia spectacle—with international television coverage, a website, and a busy Twitter account.

Advanced technology aside, something similar happened nearly two hundred years ago. In the summer of 1824, Lafayette himself, now an elderly man, returned to the United States after many years in France. Enormous crowds of Americans, many of whom were too young to remember the Revolution at all, turned out to see the legendary general in person. His tour of U.S. cities also became a national journalistic event; today, we can trace it through thousands of surviving newspaper articles. Exchanging stories through the federal postal system, newspaper editors helped their readers visualize other communities’ celebrations. By doing so, they helped Americans experience the feeling of membership in one nation.

The attention started even before Lafayette sailed from France, and from the start, making sense of a slow and unpredictable information supply was part of the newspapers’ job. For example, in January 1824, when Congress debated a resolution inviting General Lafayette to visit the United States, representatives argued over whether anyone knew for sure that Lafayette would actually want to visit. Congressmen from French-speaking Louisiana claimed to have special information no one else had: they said they had seen letters about the subject from the general himself. Newspapers relayed their information around the country.

The unpredictability continued long after Lafayette accepted Congress’s invitation. Newspapers tracked his movements as well as they could, trying to help their readers prepare. In June 1824, the New York Gazette announced that the general was finally on his way to New York City from the northern French port of Le Havre. Newspapers in New England picked up the story, but they seemed mildly skeptical—probably in part because they hoped the general would honor Boston with his first American stop instead.

Read the entire piece here, including lots of excerpts from 19th century newspapers.

If you are interested in learning more about Lafayette, I found Sarah Vowell’s recent talk at the Free Library of Philadelphia to be very entertaining.