On this day in 1777, after offering to serve the United States without pay, the Second Continental Congress passed a resolution allowing French nobleman the Marquis de Lafayette to join American revolutionary forces as a major general.
Barely two years before, when he was only 18, Lafayette professed that his “heart was dedicated” to the American cause of liberty—hence his willingness to fight for the Patriots for free, and to even purchase his own ship to cross the Atlantic.
While Congress was overwhelmed with French volunteers, Lafayette was by far among the most promising. He learned English within a year of his arrival, had won over Benjamin Franklin, and bounded well with George Washington, to whom he was a close advisor.
During the Battle of Brandywine against a superior British force, he was wounded in action but still managed to organize an orderly retreat, for which Washington commended him and recommended he be given command of American troops. He served with distinction in several more battles in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Rhode Island (some of which bear his name) before sailing back home in 1779 to lobby more French support.
Lafayette returned a year later to a hero’s welcome in Boston, having secured thousands of French troops as well as naval forces and supplies. He was given senior positions in the Continental Army, and was so popular among Americans that Washington and Hamilton had him write letters to state officials urging them to send troops.
In 1781, Lafayette played a pivotal role in the decisive Siege of Yorktown, where troops under his command in Virginia blocked forces led by Cornwallis until other American and French forces could position themselves to strike. This victory—which involved almost as many French as Americans—is credited with ending the war.
After the war, Lafayette remained committed to the cause of liberty for the rest of his life. He played a pivotal role in the French Revolution, with Jefferson’s help contributing to the drafting of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, one of the earliest republican and civil rights documents in history. He was opposed to slavery, the murderous excesses of the revolution, and the subsequent autocracy of Napoleon. He was invited by James Madison to visit all 24 states of the Union—to which he still received popular praise and love—and he turned down calls to be the head of France.
Because he was foreign. did not live in the U.S., and fought across all regions out of ideology rather than money, Lafayette was seen as a unifying figure and American icon to the fragmented colonies. His legacy in both sides of the Atlantic earned him the moniker of “The Hero of Two Worlds.”