The Marquis de Lafayette exhibit at the Fredericksburg Area Museum will open Friday from 5-7:30 p.m.

New FAM exhibit to give a general impression of Lafayette’s celebrity

by | Feb 29, 2024 | ALLFFP, Arts and Entertainment, History

His countenance covered rings, ribbons, Mason jars and medallions.

When Marquis de Lafayette returned to the United States nearly 50 years after helping the country win its independence from Great Britain, it seemed that everyone wanted a piece of him.  

“Everything is Lafayette, whether it be on our heads or under our feet,” read a contemporary account from Philadelphia’s Saturday Evening Post. “We wrap our bodies in Lafayette coats during the day and are posed between Lafayette blankets at night.” 

Many of those unique souvenirs will be on display Friday night, when the Fredericksburg Area Museum opens its newest gallery exhibit: “Lafayette’s World: Revolutionary Ideals and the Limits of Freedom.” 

“We really wanted to highlight that there’s all this material culture related to his visit because he was a celebrity,” said Gaila Sims, FAM’s curator of African American History and Special Projects. “And,” added Sims, “they had just figured out how to print faces on things.” 

The exhibit coincides with the 200th anniversary of Lafayette’s visit to Fredericksburg in 1824, part of a two-year tour that covered more than 6,000 miles across the U.S. Sims noted that Lafayette was a “living remnant of the war,” due to his young age during the Revolution.

Lafayette joined the Revolutionary cause at 19, defying the French crown in the process, Sims said. Despite an utter lack of military experience, he was appointed as a major general in the Continental Army and helped solidify French investment in the war. 

By the time Lafayette returned to the United States for a final tour, his celebrity had waned abroad. Between his contribution to America’s pivotal victory at Yorktown in 1781 and his comeback, he’d become imprisoned in Austria during the French Revolution. His wife would’ve gone to the guillotine were it not for the intervention of Elizabeth Monroe, the wife of the fifth president of the United States, Sims said.  

“I think this tour was important to him because he felt like his shine had worn off in France, but here in America he was still very much beloved,” she said. 

A detailed record of Lafayette’s November 1824 visit to Fredericksburg, entitled “Reception of General La Fayette” and published by Rufus B. Merchant, Fredericksburg, will be on display as part of the exhibit. 

According to the document, Lafayette was late. He met local officials at the Wilderness Tavern, 15 miles from downtown near the dividing line of Orange and Spotsylvania around 2 p.m. The procession grew steadily as it headed down Hanover toward Caroline Street. 

“Without any previous notice of concert (for the arrival had been expected some hours earlier), the light beamed from window to window as if by magic, until almost a general illumination lighted its march,” the document reads in part. 

While Lafayette is undoubtedly the shining star of the exhibit, he’s far from the only historical figure on display.  

“We’re also thinking a lot about diverse participation in the Revolutionary War,” Sims said. “There’s a lot of other people who helped or fought in the war who don’t always get as much praise as he does.” 

One of the individuals featured is Deborah Samson, a Massachusetts resident who dressed as a man in order to bear arms in the Continental Army. While many Black women supported the Revolution, others used the conflict as cover to escape slavery, Sims said. FAM’s exhibit includes a fugitive ad from Mecklenberg County dating to the era.  

Lafayette himself “was a pretty serious abolitionist,” said Sims. In addition to starting an abolitionist society in his native France, he wrote to several American Founding Fathers in a (somewhat futile) attempt to convince them of the institution’s deleterious effect on democracy. He also operated a plantation in South America that was created to grant enslaved individuals freedom after a period of indentured servitude. 

On March 6, University of Mary Washington professor and Fredericksburg city councilor Will Mackintosh will hold a panel discussion on Baron Von Steuben. Von Steuben “probably wouldn’t have identified as gay, but he’s an important figure in LGBTQ+ history,” Sims said.  

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