In his latest column, John Cross ’76 uncovers a great hoax played on the College community and the town of Brunswick surrounding a visit by Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette.
In 1824, nearly a half-century after the beginning of the American Revolution and a quarter-century after the death of George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette accepted the invitation of President James Monroe to tour the United States as an honored guest. As you may have guessed, there were connections to Bowdoin College in Lafayette’s travels.
Lafayette’s story was well known to the American people at the time. A French aristocrat, he spent his own fortune to come to America at age 19 and fight in the American Revolution. He became a close friend of George Washington, who thought of him as an adopted son. Commissioned a major general (without pay) by Congress in 1777, Lafayette was wounded at Brandywine, recruited the Oneida as allies, returned to France to raise support for the American cause, and soon returned to the battlefield. Later in the war, American forces under his command pinned down Cornwallis’s troops at Yorktown, leading to the British surrender.
Back in France, Lafayette became a member of the National Assembly, and with help from his friend Thomas Jefferson, wrote “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” in 1789, a foundational document for the French Revolution. As commander-in-chief of the National Guard in France at the outbreak of the revolution, Lafayette tried to maintain order and still advance the cause of democracy. As radical elements gained control in France, Lafayette attempted to flee to the Dutch Republic; he and his family were captured by Austrian forces, and they were imprisoned for five years. Napoleon Bonaparte eventually secured Lafayette’s release, but the French Revolution had cost the marquis land, fortune, and status in his native land. The invitation for the 1824-25 tour of America included a Congressional appropriation for $200,000 (to reimburse Lafayette for his financial contributions to the American Revolution), land in Florida, and back pay for his service as a general in the Continental Army.
From his arrival on Staten Island on August 15, 1824, until his departure from Washington, DC, on September 7, 1825, Lafayette was in the public eye and the public consciousness. He visited all 24 states, and wherever he went he was met by huge crowds, long lines of local dignitaries, feasts, parades, speeches, and tributes. It was a defining moment for many Americans – they would always remember the day that they saw Lafayette.
Wanting to be part of this historic event, and acting on the news that his travel itinerary might bring him to Maine, Bowdoin’s Governing Boards voted on September 1, 1824, to confer upon Lafayette an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. However, Lafayette’s schedule did not include Brunswick in early September of 1824 – he got as far as Portsmouth, New Hampshire. There he was greeted by cheering crowds, including prominent citizens and war veterans like Benjamin Pierce, who chose to see Lafayette rather than travel to Brunswick for the graduation of his own son, Franklin Pierce of the Class of 1824, the future 14th President of the United States.
Meanwhile, back in Brunswick, word of an honorary degree for Lafayette spread like wildfire; the news that he was unable to attend, however, did not. John Cleaveland of the Class of 1826 (and a cousin of Professor Parker Cleaveland) recognized that when a door closes a window of opportunity often opens. The Reverend Ephraim Peabody  later wrote “…of the reception of Lafayette in Brunswick, a mock reception in which the town’s people were entirely taken in, in which Cleaveland played the part of Lafayette even to the most tender salutation of the ladies… beginning with bells ringing; the circulation of the rumor of his coming; cannon firing; shutting down of the saw-mills; procession formed, headed by such music as could be got; cheering; the flocking of the citizens; the marching down [one side of] Maine St. and up the other; the ladies at the windows and in the yards waving their handkerchiefs, and in an agony of enthusiasm; Cleaveland in old regimentals and with his aid[e] in an open chaise, and actually getting out at one house where a bevy of fair ladies stood at the gate, their eyes dim with excitement and enthusiasm, and kissing them…” There is no other written account of the incident, to my knowledge, so we are left to imagine what happened after the hoax was discovered.
I thank you for the opportunity you have afforded me of a personal acquaintance with you, Gentlemen of that College, where young republicans, the hope of the Country, are instructed in every literary and scientific branch, and above all in the first of all sciences, the science of freedom, equal rights, and self-government.
Lafayette finally reached Maine in June 24, 1825, arriving in Portland to great fanfare. The Brunswick Light Infantry had marched the 26 miles to Portland in uniform to be one of three military escorts present. The crowd of 15,000 included Bowdoin Trustees, Overseers, and students, who heard Stephen Longfellow (the poet’s father), deliver greetings from the city. In presenting the honorary degree, Bowdoin President William Allen called the last surviving general of the Revolutionary War “…an enlightened and unshaken friend of regulated liberty.” Ever gracious, Lafayette responded, “While I much regret not to be able to offer these sentiments at the seat of your so interesting institution, I thank you for the opportunity you have afforded me of a personal acquaintance with you, Gentlemen of that College, where young republicans, the hope of the Country, are instructed in every literary and scientific branch, and above all in the first of all sciences, the science of freedom, equal rights, and self-government…”
After returning to France, his fortunes replenished and his fame renewed, Lafayette retired to his country estate at Château de la Grange-Bléneau, where a constant stream of Americans – both invited and unannounced – found him to be a gracious host, including a young Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1826. Until his death in 1834, Lafayette remained a champion of French-American relations. On August 7, 2002, the United States Congress made Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, an honorary citizen of the United States, more than 175 years after he joined the Bowdoin family.
With Best Wishes,
John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations