Karen and I got to see Hamilton in London last month – and it was as dazzling as we expected! (It’s also a bargain compared to the usurious after-market prices for tickets in places like New York and Chicago – we had seats in the 16th row for about $75 each, and we even encountered people who found it cheaper to buy an economy airfare to see the London show than to get comparable tickets in the U.S. God bless Ticketmaster UK for their “no scalping” system – I only wish they could teach their American counterparts how to do it!)
Of course, one of the many reasons to love the performance was to see James Pennycooke playing the role of our old friend from the Auvergne, the Marquis de Lafayette. It’s a flamboyant, over-the-top, and (for me, at least) utterly credible representation of the man who, like Alexander Hamilton, was proud to tell the whole world “I am not throwin’ away my shot”.
“Like the Three Musketeers”
In the musical, Lafayette is usually on stage as part of a trio with Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens (from my home state of South Carolina). Ron Chernow’s remarkable biography of Hamilton was the basis for the script; in it, he documents the deep friendship that grew among these three men. He quotes Hamilton’s grandson, who wrote “On the whole there was something about them rather suggestive of the three famous heroes of Dumas.”
Hamilton had a hard early life, as the musical points out in its opening number:
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman,
Dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence,
Impoverished, in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
Lafayette, on the other hand, was born an aristocrat. (If you didn’t know already, you could tell it from his full name: Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette.) When he came to America at the age of 19, Chernow says, he was “a stylish, ebullient young aristocrat inflamed by republican ideals and eager to serve the revolutionary cause.”
But those differences in origins masked a lot of commonality that made for an easier bond between Lafayette and Hamilton – both were orphaned at 13, they could speak a common language (Hamilton’s mother was French, and Alexander was descsribed as "fluent"), and both formed deep lasting friendships with George Washington. Both had a burning desire to see military action on the front lines of the war with Britain. And Thomas Jefferson noted what may have been their most profound shared trait when he complained of Lafayette’s “canine appetite for popularity and fame.”
In any case, their friendship was genuine and enduring. Lafayette called Hamilton “my beloved friend in whose brotherly affection I felt equally proud and happy,” and (with John Laurens) it’s clear he was one of Hamilton’s most important and most favored friends.
Finding Lafayette in the Deep Heart of France
As glitzy and aristocratic as Lafayette appears on stage and in the pages of history, you might be surprised to find that his roots are in the Auvergne, deep in central France. You can visit his family château at Chavaniac, which by any standard, might be considered a little…rustic:.
Sarah Vowell has a great description of the Lafayette family home in her hilarious and very worthwhile book, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States:
"Surfaced in natural rocks instead of cut stone, [Chavaniac] has a rough texture that makes it appear even older than its medieval roots. Visiting the place today provides insight into Lafayette’s later soft spot for the American bumpkins he served with – as well as an understanding of just how imprecise the French word “chateau” is. The rustic gloom of the Château de Chevaniac is a Woody Guthrie song compared to the Liberace concert that is the Château de Versailles."
Lafayette was born into this wilderness setting in 1757. The family’s lands are near some of the most spectacular historical sites in this part of the country, and Lafayette would have experienced them all – the gloomy fortress of the Polignacs, the great medieval pilgrimage sites of Le Puy en Velay, and the enormous Romanesque basilica at Brioude.
Visiting the Lafayette family home
The official website for Chavaniac has a somewhat romanticized idea of how growing up in the deep heart of France might have translated directly into the ideals that drew the young Marquis into the American Revolution:
The wild region known as Velay helped form Lafayette’s character; in this harsh land, sometimes chaotic, where nature seemed to obey no logic or traditional harmony, he acquired a need for independence which was at the origin of all his actions. In this land of pilgrimage, where faith was demonstrated on each mountain top in the form of a shrine or a statue, he found enthusiasm.
While that may be a stretch, it is true that the Château de Chevaniac is an impressive reminder of how far Lafayette was from the glittering courts of Paris as he grew up. Built in the 14th century, the original fortified house burned down in the early 1700s and was rebuilt largely in the form you can see now just before Lafayette was born.
If you go there today, you’ll find the restored rooms in which the Marquis was born and the study in which he worked. But you’ll also find a well-curated story of his whole life, a life that led him improbably to a role as a major-general in Washington’s colonial army at the age of 19, then back to France as a participant in the French revolution and co-author of the Declaration of the Rights of Man (with a little help from Thomas Jefferson).
A reminder of ties with America
There’s also a remarkable second theme to discover at Chavaniac. As Sarah Vowell points out in her book, Lafayette enjoyed a level of popularity in the United States that is almost unequalled at any time in our whole history. Americans (especially in the early 1800s) were amazingly unanimous in their outpouring of affection and support for him, as we demonstrated when he returned to the U.S. as an old man in 1824 for a grand tour as a hero of our Revolution – it provoked a display of adulation something like the arrival of the Beatles in the 1960s.
That affection is evident at Chavaniac. In 1916, even before America entered World War I, a group of Americans organized the French Heroes Lafayette Memorial Fund. They actually bought the Château de Chevaniac from the Lafayette family, at first with the aim of creating jobs for French women and veterans by setting up a museum in memory of the Marquis’s contributions to America. With the war raging on, though, the idea of a museum was put on hold and Lafayette’s family home was instead converted in 1917 into a school for French orphans, then in 1918 into a “preventorium”, a hospital for sick children staffed largely by American care-givers.
In all, according to the Chavaniac website, “25,000 French, Russian, Italian and Polish children: war orphans or children in poor health, were welcomed, cared for and educated at Château de Chavaniac-Lafayette from 1917 to the end of the 1960s.”
A Reminder for the 4th of July
As the Château’s website goes on to say, this remarkable recent history demonstrates “the recognition of the American people and expresse[s] their affection and gratitude toward those who had been so efficiently helped and did more than simply pay an historical debt. Memorial Lafayette, by assuming such a large responsibility with unfailing will, reminds us of the slogan given in 1783 by Washington to his troops: ‘America and France United forever.’”
The current museum was put in place in the 1990s, and ownership of the castle was transferred from the French Heroes Lafayette Memorial Fund back to the government of the Haute-Loire in 2009. As the 4th of July approaches this year, as always, it’s a good time for those of us with an affinity for France and the French to remind ourselves that we likely could not have won our independence without the massive support of France in those earliest days of our Republic. And the site at Chavaniac is a perfect place to experience this reminder!
Have you seen any other tributes to Lafayette in your travels around France? Is there someplace that particularly reminds you of the ties between France and the U.S.? Please tell us about your experience in the comments section below. And please share this post with someone else who’s interested in traveling in France by clicking on the button for your preferred social-media platform(s). Thanks for reading!