Lafayette, America's Hero: The Growth of a Legend

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The legend of Lafayette began to grow about the time of his 1784 goodwill visit to the United States. Identical biographical sketches of Lafayette appeared in several early histories of the Revolutionary War, and similar versions were included in other histories. The core of the sketch was the picture of a young French nobleman, inspired by the ideals of liberty and equality, who came to America at great personal sacrifice and his own expense to take part in the fight for freedom. His story was used to add weight to the rightness of the action of the American patriots, and to stimulate feelings of national pride. After the turn of the century, the story of Lafayette became shorter and more routine. It was dropped from some textbooks, and was greatly abbreviated in others. It seems probable that while Lafayette would not have been forgotten, his place in American history would have been small, perhaps even obscure, if he had not visited America again in 1824. During this last visit, after an absence of forty years, the General received an enthusiastic and overwhelming reception. Interest in Lafayette revived quickly, and accounts of him appeared in newspapers, periodicals and separate books. The importance of his contribution to the foundation of the United States was emphasized; as a hero, he approached the position of America's savior. In addition, his personal characteristics endeared him to the people. In all probability, Americans' lasting esteem for Lafayette was developed as a result of the 1824 visit.