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La Fayette as a Lieutenant General, in 1791. Portrait by Joseph-Désiré Court

Lafayette as a Lieutenant General, by Joseph-Désiré Court, 1791

The French and the American Revolutionary War

A Desperate situation
Valley Forge
The Marquis de Lafayette
A hesitant Louis XVI

Lafayette[i] (6 September 1757 – 20 May 1834) arrived in Philadelphia in July 1777. Consequently, he was in the future United States a year after the American Declaration of Independence (14 July 1776) and a year before France’s Treaty of Alliance (1778) with Americans seeking independence from the motherland: Britain. In fact, when La Fayette  arrived in North America, the Founding Fathers needed substantial help to win the American War of Independence, also called the American Revolutionary War. No country was mightier than Britain, so the American dream seemed impossible to achieve. At Valley Forge, “[s]tarvation, disease, and exposure killed nearly 2,500 American soldiers by the end of February 1778.” (See Valley Forge, Wikipedia.)

In other words, when Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette, Marquis de Lafayette[i] left France, both France and the future United States were in a desperate situation. Benjamin Franklin was in Paris seeking financial and military support for the Thirteen Colonies, but Louis XVI (23 August 1754 – 21 January 1793) was hesitant. The Seven Years’ War and Louis XV‘s extravagant and irresponsible reign had drained France. The French could not afford to enter into a war, but the future United States needed reliable allies.

Moreover, the French military was eager to support the Americans. The duc de Choiseuil  (28 June 1719 – 8 May 1785), the Chief Minister of the French King and Foreign Minister of France during the Seven Years’ War, had been deeply humiliated by the Treaty of Paris (1763), and so had French military. Therefore, such men as La Fayette hoped to serve in North America and regain the prestige France had lost in 1763. The French military had regrouped and replenished its supplies, so all it needed was an “opportunity.”

The Treaty of Alliance with France (1778)

At his wit’s end, de guerre lasse, but heartened by the American victory at the Battles of Saratoga, Louis XVI signed the above-mentioned Treaty of Alliance with France, on 6 February 1778, at the Hôtel de Crillon in Pairs, providing George Washington, the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army (the American army)with men, ammunition and other army supplies. Other countries, for instance the Netherlands, also accepted to fight for the American cause.

Lafayette had distinguished himself from the start and had been named major-general. He distinguished himself at the Battle of Brandywine (11 September 1777), a British victory, but not altogether conclusive. He and American troops had also won the “Battle of Barren Hill” (28 May 1778). Lafayette then went to France to ask for greater support, a “6,000-man expeditionary army,” and proved convincing. On his return to America, in April 1780, Lafayette was named commander of the army in Virginia, “forced” Lord Charles Cornwallis to retreat across Virginia and “entrapped” him at Yorktown. He was then joined by a French fleet and several additional Americans, so General Cornwallis surrendered on 19 October 1781. According to Britannica, at this point the British cause was lost.”[ii]

However, France had recognised the independence of the United States after the Battles of Saratoga (19 September and 7 October 1777), three years before the Siege of Yorktown, which ended in 1781. (See Surrender of General Burgoyne, Wikipedia.) When it entered the American War of Independence, France transformed the war into a world war.

John Trumbull

The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis (19 October 1781), by John Trumbull, 1819-1820 (on the left side are the French and on the right, the Americans) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Surrender of General Burgoyne at the Battle of Saratoga, by John Trumbull, 1822

The Surrender of General Burgoyne (7 October 1777) at the Battle of Saratoga, by John Trumbull, 1822 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

George Washington in Paris

After the Siege of YorktownGilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette was a hero. Upon his return to France, in 1782, he was therefore promoted to maréchal de camp (brigadier general). In 1784, he returned to the United States and became a citizen of several states. However, not only did Lafayette possess superior military acumen, but he had grown an exceptional and lasting friendship with George Washington, as he would later with Thomas Jefferson. Lafayette named his son Georges Washington. Moreover, although an aristocrat by birth, he became a Freemason. (See List of Freemasons, Wikipedia.) 

As I have noted in an earlier post, Freemasonry recognized a nobility of the mind. Haydn and Mozart were Freemasons. Viennese aristocracy would not have considered them “aristocrats.” Therefore, in the future United States, beginning with George Washington, the first President of the United States, a large number of American Presidents would be Freemasons. It was an aristocracy based on merit. 

The Enlightenment

Moreover, George Washington was a Protestant, yet a man of virtue and merit. The Age of Enlightenment advocated the separation of Church and State and, by the sametoken, it also promoted virtue without a formal adhesion to a religion: laïcité (secularism). 

George Washington was a good man in an age, the Age of Enlightenment, that advocated the separation of Church and State and, by extension, also promoted virtue per se rather than virtue rooted in a religion. During his stay in France as American Minister, Jefferson, the main author of the American Declaration of Independence, helped La Fayette, its principal author, draft the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (26 August 1789), a document that can be described as a product of the Enlightenment. Again a Protestant was working with a Catholic and vice versa. In fact, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, issued in late August 1789, resembles the American Declaration of Independence (4 July 1776), whose main author was Thomas Jefferson. Both declarations are products of the Enlightenment and John Locke‘s influence. (See Americans in Paris: Thomas Jefferson.)

1) The Enlightenment separated nobility (hereditary) and merit (earned nobility, or nobility in itself). George Washington was not an aristocrat, but he had a noble and superior mind, as did the untitled Thomas Jefferson, the main author of the American Declaration of Independence (4 July 1776). There would be a nobility of the mind.

2) Moreover, the Enlightenment separated virtue and religion. A Protestant could be virtuous and so could a Catholic. Adhesion to a religion was not the standard by which morality and virtue were to be measured. Lafayette discovered virtue in Protestant George Washington, and was therefore motivated to entrench tolerance of non-Catholics in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789). There would also be a nobility of the spirit, regardless of creed.

Article 10 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen reads as follows:

“No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, including his religious views, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law.”  (See Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, Wikipedia.)

The Edict of Versailles (1787)

Furthermore, impressed by George Washington, Lafayette, who had become a Freemason, asked King Louis XVI to revoke the Edict of Fontainebleau, promulgated by Louis XIV on 22 October 1685. The Edict of Fontainebleau had revoked the Edict of Nantes (1598), an edict of religious tolerance between Catholics and French Calvinist Protestants, the Huguenots. The Edict of Nantes had been promulgated by Henri IV, king of Navarre and king of France, who had been a Huguenot but had converted to  Catholicism in order to be king of France. And now, in 1787, following La Fayette’s advice, Louis XVI promulgated the Edict of Versailles. Times had changed.


George Washington in Paris
The Nobility of the spirit
Moral superiority
The Edict of Versailles

So I will conclude by saying, first, that Lafayette

  1. distinguished himself in America, as a soldier; 
  2. that he was the main author of Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen;  
  3. that, immensely impressed by a virtuous and good George Washington, a Protestant, he asked Louis XVI, king of France and Navarre, to promulgate the Edict of Versailles, an edict of tolerance of non-Catholics and Jews. Lafayette was again very convincing. Louis signed the Edict of Versailles on 7 November 1787, and it was registered in the parlement of the Ancien Régime, on 29 January 1788. On the advice of La Fayette, Louis XVI ended the persecution of French Calvinists, the Huguenots.
  4. and that, because he was influenced by George Washington, a good person, he led Lafayette to join Freemasonry, which advocated the recognition of superior talent and merit.

Second, I will suggest

  • that George Washington, a Protestant and a Freemason, can be looked upon as our third American in Paris, brought to the French capital by Lafayette;
  • that his legacy is one of the spirit, or moral superiority;
  • that, because of his friendship with Lafayette, George Washington earned support for the future United States;
  • and that, because George Washington was a Protestant, yet a man whose moral integrity could not be questioned, he led Lafayette to ask Louis XVI to end the persecution of French Protestant Calvinists.

The “alliance” between France and the United States was broken only once. France opposed the War in Iraq. Iraq was and is a sovereign nation and entering a sovereign nation is a violation of International Law, a law rooted, at least in part, in the American Declaration of Independence and in its French counterpart, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which is very ironic. However, the United States’ ties with France have been reaffirmed by President Obama, the current President of the United States of America and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. These ties date back to Treaty of Alliance signed by Louis XVI, King of France, in 1778. In my opinion,  this is an excellent record.


Allow me to add a few words. Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, the author of The Marriage of Figaro (1784), a play transformed into an opera buffa (a comic opera) by  Mozart (1786), recruited soldiers wishing to fight in the American Revolutionary WarPierre Charles L’Enfant, an architect and civil engineer, was recruited by Beaumarchais.

After the war, L’Enfant settled in New York where he was initiated into Freemasonry. In 1791, he was appointed, by George Washington, to design the layout of the future capital of the United States. L’Enfant incorporated Masonic symbols into L’Enfant Plan. One of his supervisors was Thomas Jefferson, who had immersed himself in architecture and designed his home at Monticello, his primary plantation. Hence, my inserting into this post a portrait of Beaumarchais and music from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.

My kindest regards to all of you.

Monticello, Jefferson's home designed by Jefferson

Monticello, Jefferson’s home designed by Jefferson


Portrait de Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, by Jean-Marc Nattier

Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, by Jean-Marc Nattier


Sources and Resources


[i] “Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 19 May. 2014 <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/327692/Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert-du Motier-marquis-de Lafayette

[ii] Ibid.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (27 January 1756 – 5 December 1791
The Marriage of Figaro
Leopold, Wolfgang, and Nannerl. Watercolour by Carmontelle, c. 1763–64

Leopold, Wolfgang, and Nannerl, by Carmontelle, c. 1763–64

© Micheline Walker
19 May 2014