Friday, July 28, 2017

Everything Is Lafayette: The Last General’s American Tour, 1824-25

Dedicated readers of this blog (if indeed there are any) may recall back in November 2014 when I included Lafayette commemorative ceramics in my series on New York scenes on transferware. The featured items depicted the Marquis de Lafayette’s arrival in New York harbor on August 16, 1824, at the beginning of his tour of the United States. I thought it would be fun to return to this topic and take a closer look at Lafayette’s grand tour, and some more of the items made to commemorate it.

Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, had first come to North America in 1777 as a 19-year-old full of enthusiasm for the cause of independence. Now he was in his late sixties and had survived both the American Revolution and the French Revolution and its aftermath (and would experience one more revolution, in July 1830). He was accompanied on this trip by his son, Georges Washington Lafayette, and his secretary, Auguste Levasseur, who would later publish an account of the tour. Originally, Lafayette planned to visit the 13 original states and stay for four months; such was the response that he ended up visiting all 24 states over the course of 13 months.

“Welcome La Fayett” jug by an unknown maker,
in the collection of the Alice T. Miner Museum
President James Monroe had chosen an auspicious moment to invite Lafayette to be “the Nation’s Guest.” The United States was enjoying a period of peace and prosperity, and new roads, canals, and steamboats made travel around the country relatively quick and pleasant. By the 1820s, Americans were becoming ever more aware that the Revolutionary generation was passing away. Lafayette was the only one of George Washington’s major generals still alive in 1824; he was a significant figure in his own right for his military contributions, and as a close friend of Washington he provided a personal link to the great men of the past. As one Lafayette biographer has written of the tour, “It was a mystical experience they would relate to their heirs through generations to come. Lafayette had materialized from a distant age, the last leader and hero at the nation’s defining moment. They knew they and the world would never see his kind again.”

Lafayette gloves in the Alice’s collection
Lafayette and his companions passed through our part of the country in late June 1825. They arrived in Burlington, Vermont, on June 28. There they admired the city’s “beautiful situation” on Lake Champlain, and were greeted by local citizens and the militia. There was a public dinner, and many speeches, after which Lafayette was taken to lay the cornerstone of the new South College building (now known as Old Mill) at the University of Vermont. After a reception at the home of Governor Cornelius Van Ness, Lafayette boarded the steamboat Phoenix, which would take him to Whitehall via Lake Champlain. En route, they passed through (in Levasseur’s words) “that movable field of battle on which Commodore M’Donough, and his fearless mariners, covered themselves with glory, on the 11th of September, 1814.” According to Levasseur, they would have liked to visit Plattsburgh, but were expected to arrive in New York by July 4th, and did not have time. They did make a brief stop in Whitehall before boarding the carriages that would take them to Albany, where Lafayette was greeted by “an arch formed of 200 flags of all nations, by the sound of artillery, and two rows of little girls, who covered him with flowers, the moment he passed before them.”

Memorial ribbon from the Alice T.
Miner Museum collection
The parades held and triumphal arches erected for Lafayette’s visit were ephemeral, but there were more lasting souvenirs. Just at the moment when English ceramic manufacturers were beginning to truly tap into the American market, they had the perfect subject for transferware. Lafayette arriving at Castle Garden, Lafayette visiting the tomb of Washington, and Lafayette’s famous face (both old and young, rather in the manner of Elvis memorabilia) decorated plates, jugs, washbasins, saltshakers, and household items of every description. Bandanas and gloves and ribbons were printed with his image, and countless engravings rolled off printing presses. One Philadelphia newspaper commented, “Everything is Lafayette, whether it be on our heads or under our feet. We wrap our bodies in Lafayette coats during the day, and repose between Lafayette blankets at night.”

Lafayette spent his 68th birthday in Washington with President John Quincy Adams, and departed for France the next day. When he died in 1834, President Andrew Jackson ordered that Lafayette receive the same memorial honors that had been bestowed on Washington in 1799. Both Houses of Congress were draped in black bunting for 30 days, and members wore mourning badges. Congress urged Americans to follow similar mourning practices. Memorial services were performed in his honor all over the United States—and more souvenir items were made.

These items would later become treasured pieces for collectors like Alice Miner and others of her generation. They, too, admired Lafayette, but they also saw these mementos as evidence of the greater patriotism of early 19th century Americans—and they hoped that by preserving and displaying them, they would inspire their fellow citizens to follow that example.


Auguste Levasseur, Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825; Or, Journal of a Voyage to the United States (2 volumes, 1829)

Marian Klamkin, The Return of Lafayette, 1824-25 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975)

Stanley J. Idzerda, Anne C. Loveland, and Marc H. Miller, Lafayette, Hero of Two Worlds: The Art and Pageantry of His Farewell Tour of America, 1824-25 (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1989)

Jhennifer A. Amundson, “Staging a Triumph, Raising a Temple: Philadelphia’s ‘Welcoming Parade’ for Lafayette, 1824,” in David Gobel and Daves Rossell, eds., Commemoration in America: Essays on Monuments, Memorialization, and Memory (Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Press, 2013)

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