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In March of 1825, the citizens of Fayetteville, North Carolina, were honored by a two-day visit from the famous French proponent of liberty and hero of the American Revolutionary War, the Marquis de Lafayette.
In his speech of welcome, Judge Toomer proclaimed, “Never, never can we forget the youthful stranger who, in the darkest hour of adversity, so generously flew to our succor, and so gallantly fought the battle of freedom.” Fayetteville had been named for Lafayette by the North Carolina General Assembly in 1783. It was the very first city in America named for him and the only namesake city that he actually visited. In response to Judge Toomer’s speech, Lafayette said of Fayetteville, “…upon entering the interesting and prosperous town which has done me the great honor to adopt my name, I can at once admire its actual progress and anticipate its future destinies….”
Marie Joseph Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, was born in Auvergne, France, on September 6, 1757. Although an aristocrat, Lafayette became enamored of the American fight for independence at an early age. In 1777, when only 19, he flaunted convention and royal edicts by sailing to America on a ship he purchased and outfitted with his own funds. After six weeks on the high seas, he endured an arduous journey from South Carolina to Philadelphia. There, he presented himself to the Continental Congress and volunteered his services. He was allowed to join the American forces as a major general and became lifelong friends with General George Washington.
Lafayette’s humility, eagerness to learn, enthusiasm for liberty, and courage in battle won him the admiration and friendship of soldiers, officers, and statesmen. His battlefield heroics also earned him the admiration of his countrymen in France. This and his petitions to King Louis XVI helped persuade the French monarch to side with America against England and to send money, troops, and supplies. After Lafayette distinguished himself at the Battle of Brandywine, Washington awarded him with command of the Virginia army. He conducted a brilliant campaign against the army of General Cornwallis, maneuvering him into a corner in Yorktown. There, with the forces of Lafayette, Washington, and Rochambeau on one side, and the French fleet on the other, Cornwallis had no choice but to surrender. Although the Treaty of Paris was not signed until 1783, the victory at Yorktown essentially decided the war in America’s favor.
After his return to France, Lafayette continued his campaign for liberty. His involvement in the French Revolution eventually led to persecution by radicals on both sides. With arrest and execution by guillotine eminent, Lafayette attempted to flee to England. He was caught by the Austrian army in Belgium and imprisoned for five years. He was freed only after his fame brought worldwide pressure for his release. He was eventually repatriated in France and continued to serve as a fierce advocate of equal rights for all men and the abolition of slavery.
In 1824, as America was preparing to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, President James Monroe invited Lafayette to return as the “Guest of the Nation.” He was welcomed in cities like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia by huge crowds, eager to see one of the last surviving heroes of the American Revolution. He also visited many smaller cities and towns on his tour of all 24 states.
Many years before his Grand Tour, Lafayette had been given an engraving of the State House in Fayetteville, North Carolina, by a friend who had just returned from America. Touched by his friend’s story of the very first town in America to be named after him, Lafayette decided to include Fayetteville on his tour. Although there were numerous cities and towns at that time that were named Fayetteville or Lafayette or Fayette, this was the only one of those that he visited. The citizens returned the honor with several banquets and receptions and elaborate military reviews. Especially memorable was his reunion with his one of his bodyguards from Yorktown, Isham Blake. Each site along this trail has a bronze marker that captures the importance of each of the stops during the tour.