Tuesday, September 11, 2018

A Silk Vest Honoring the Marquis de Lafayette, c1824

Tuesday, September 11, 2018
Susan reporting,

Yesterday marked the 241st anniversary of the Battle of Brandywine, a pivotal confrontation in the American Revolution between General George Washington and his Continental Army and General Sir William Howe, commander of the British troops. I've written posts about the battle several times before (here and here. Aside from Brandywine's significance as the largest land battle of the Revolution, it also marked the debut in the war of a young volunteer from France.

An aristocratic idealist with a military background, Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834) was only nineteen when he met General Washington in August 1777. Already commissioned by the American Congress as a major general, Lafayette was not at first given troops to command, but instead became a member of Washington's staff. At Brandywine, he saw his first experience in the field; he was shot in the leg, yet still was cited by Washington for his "bravery and military ardor." Lafayette went on to play a key role in the war, not only as an officer and close friend to Washington, but also as a diplomat who helped secure the French ships and soldiers that ultimately tipped the scales for an American victory. He was celebrated as one of the most popular heroes of the Revolution, and remains so to this day. (How many of you began singing Guns and Ships in your head at the mere mention of his name?)

Lafayette is included in a wonderful small exhibition currently on display (through July 9, 2019) at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. Through a well-chosen selection of paintings, maps, and artifacts, The American Revolution: A World War explains how the Revolution was only part of a global shift in the balance of power, war, and conquest that marked the 18thc world. As a Frenchman fighting the British with the American forces and Spanish allies, Lafayette is prominently featured.

But it's not only his wartime exploits that are highlighted. Lafayette's triumphant return to America in 1824 is also included. To quote from the exhibition:

"In 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette returned to the United States at the invitation of President James Monroe. Over fourteen months, he visited all twenty-four states....[President Monroe's invitation came as America] approached the 50th anniversary of its independence. He hoped the general's iconic presence would help rekindle the nation's "revolutionary spirit" and commitment to unity, which seemed to be slipping away. The trip was a smashing success, but it did not moderate the divisive 1824 presidential contest between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson."

Americans celebrated Lafayette's visit with all kinds of souvenirs. Much like modern Americans wear t-shirts printed with the names and faces of their heroes, Lafayette's portrait was emblazoned on ribbons, dresses, and gloves, as well as the vest shown here:

"Hosting the Marquis de Lafayette at a New York banquet, Revolutionary War veteran Matthew Clarkson wore this vest covered with the general's image. During his sojourn, Lafayette attended hundreds of banquets, balls, and celebrations."

Though the Marquis was far too well-bred to record his thoughts about his host, I wonder what it must have been like to sit through a banquet across from a man wearing your face and name all over his chest....

Above left and detail right: Vest worn at banquet for Marquis de Lafayette, 1824-1836, National Museum of American History. Photos ©2018 Susan Holloway Scott.
Lower right: Le marquis de La Fayette en capitaine du régiment de Noailles by Louis Léopold Boilly, 1788, Musée national du château de Versailles. Image ©RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource NY.


Regencyresearcher said...

How did they make that fabric for the vest? that is remarkable fabric.
I don't know that students today even learn about Lafayette or the other foreigners who helped us.

timothy said...

From my experiences in high school about half a decade ago, Lafayette does get mentioned but he tends to be the only one and that's only because of his closeness to Washington. Others like Casimir Pulaski are completely ignored.

Anonymous said...

I started singing Guns and Ships, haha. Too true.
That's very interesting that people did that! So interesting. I want one.

Anonymous said...

Anyone with a kid in high school or younger knows that thanks to 'Hamilton', they totally know who Lafayette is. The smart teachers are using the musical in their curriculums, too. I can't think of another show or movie that's made such an impact on kids.

Lucy said...

I can't help noticing that the printed fabric is not an overly flattering portrait. Let's hope Lafayette took it in the spirit in which it was meant!

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