The marquis de Lafayette was born September 6, 1757, at the Chateau de Chavaniac (near Le Puy-en-Velay, Auvergne), the only child of Michel Louis Chistophe Roch Gilbert du Motier (sometimes spelled Mottier), marquis de Lafayette, baron Vissac, and Marie Louise Julie de la Rivière (known as Julie). The Lafayette family had a long history of military service; when Lafayette was two years of age, his father was killed by a cannon ball at the battle of Minden. His mother went to live in Paris with her father, while Lafayette remained at Chavaniac to be raised by his paternal grandmother (and godmother), Marie Catherine de Suat de Chavagnac (also spelled Savagna, Chavagna, Chavagnaic) de Lafayette, aided by his aunts, Marguerite Madeleine du Motier (known as Mlle de Chavaniac) and Louise Charlotte de Guerin (known as Mme de Chavaniac). His mother visited for several months each year.
Lafayette was tutored at home until the age of eleven, when his mother and grandmother elected to send him to the Collège du Plessis in Paris. Upon the death of his mother and maternal grandfather in 1770, Lafayette inherited the Chavaniac estate, becoming very wealthy at age thirteen. He also studied military matters and was commissioned a lieutenant in the French Army in 1771. In 1774, he married Marie Adrienne Françoise de Noailles (known as Adrienne). Their first child, Adrienne-Henriette-Catherine-Charlotte, born in 1776, died two years later.
After meeting the Comte de Broglie and the Duke of Gloucester who supported the American colonists in the Revolutionary War, Lafayette became interested in joining the American cause. King Louis XVI officially forbade Lafayette's departure, but Lafayette escaped France through Spain, acquired the ship La Victoire, and left for America in April 1777. His second child, daughter Anastasie Louise Pauline du Motier (known as Anastasie) was born later that year. He traveled to Philadelphia where the Continental Congress appointed him a Major General in the Continental Army but did not give him a command. Benjamin Franklin wrote to George Washington suggesting that he accept Lafayette as an aide-de-camp, hoping it would influence France to send more aid to the Americans. Washington complied and made him a member of his staff. Lafayette participated in the Battle of Brandywine, during which he acquitted himself well and was wounded and for which Washington commended him for his bravery. In 1778, France officially recognized American independence. After the battle of Monmouth Courthouse and French Admiral d'Estaing's removal of the French fleet to Newport, Lafayette requested permission to return to France, in part to work for additional French aid to America. He arrived in February 1779. His son, George Washington Louis Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette (known as George Washington Lafayette), was born December 24, 1779. Successful in his efforts to raise funds and restored to rank in the French Army by Louis XVI, Lafayette returned to America in the spring of 1780. Sent to Virginia to command the American forces, he helped to trap the British army at Yorktown, with the French fleet blockading British ships. Lafayette was instrumental in the subsequent siege of Yorktown, which resulted in Cornwallis's surrender.
Lafayette returned to France late in 1781, to a hero's welcome. In 1782, another daughter, Marie Antoinette Virginie (known as Virginie) du Motier was born. Lafayette began work on trade agreements with the United States, supported religious toleration, and joined the abolitionist movement. In 1784, he returned to America, visiting Washington at Mount Vernon, addressing the Virginia House of Delegates, and receiving an honorary degree from Harvard. On December 28, he was made an honorary citizen by the state of Maryland and later by Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Virginia. Back in France, Lafayette was appointed a member of the Assembly of Notables and became Auvergne's representative in the Estates General, where he drafted the Declaration of the rights of man and of the citizen on July 11, 1789. Two days later rebels stormed the Bastille, and, by the 15th, Lafayette took command of the National Guard, formed under the control of the Assembly to maintain public order. Lafayette opposed the extremism of the Jacobins and supported a constitutional monarchy. For his perceived role in the June 1791 attempted escape of the royal family, he was condemned as a traitor to the Revolution by Robespierre. After the Champs du Mars massacre, in which a number of citizens demanding the King's abdication were shot, public confidence in Lafayette declined further, and he resigned from the National Guard.
Prior to France's declaration of war on Austria in the spring of 1792, Lafayette took command of the French army at Metz. Lack of success by the army and the belief that France could not win the war led Lafayette and other generals to support peace negotiations. This, as well as Lafayette's continuing opposition to the Revolution's extreme radicals, resulted in a decree of accusation of treason against him. Relieved of his command shortly thereafter, Lafayette and a group of supporters attempted to escape to the Dutch Republic and thence to the United States. They were captured by the Austrians, and Lafayette was held prisoner in various locations for the next five years. During the Reign of Terror, Madame Lafayette was arrested and imprisoned for eighteen months before gaining permission to return to Chavaniac under house arrest. She sent their son to America where he resided for some time with George Washington. Madame Lafayette's mother, sister, and grandmother were all guillotined. Madame Lafayette escaped the same fate due in part to the intervention of First Lady-to-be, Elizabeth Monroe. Madame Lafayette eventually obtained permission to join her husband in prison, along with their daughters. Upon Lafayette's release under the 1797 Treaty of Campo Fornio, he remained in exile in Denmark and Holland for two more years, returning to France in 1799. Not wishing to serve in Napoleon's army, the family retired to La Grange, a family property near Paris. Lafayette remained publicly opposed to Napoleon's Life Consulship. Madame Lafayette died in 1807, and Lafayette remained in retirement during Napoleon's reign. In 1815, Lafayette was elected to the Chamber of Representatives during the Hundred Days but again opposed Napoleon's "Actes additionel," as only a token liberalization of the old imperial constitution. After Waterloo and Napoleon's widely known intent to dissolve the Chamber and assume a dictatorship again, Lafayette spoke in the Chamber, urging members to make the Chamber permanent and ask for Napoleon's resignation of the crown. Despite the establishment of a provisional government after Napoleon's resignation, both Chambers of the bicameral legislature were dissolved, and Lafayette again retired to La Grange. In 1818, he was elected to the Chamber of Deputies, serving through 1823, when he was defeated for re-election. In August 1824, he and his son arrived in New York for a tour of America at the invitation of President Monroe and the American people. There Lafayette received a huge and triumphant reception. He visited all twenty-four states, Mount Vernon, and Thomas Jefferson at Monticello and was the first foreign dignitary to address Congress. He also dined at the White House, among many other engagements, remaining in America until September 1825.
The death of Louis XVIII and coronation of Charles X saw many of the gains of the French Revolution reversed. Lafayette, from La Grange, supported and corresponded with those seeking independence in Poland, Belgium, Spain, Italy, and Greece, as well as at home. With domestic discontent on the rise, Lafayette was again elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1828, enraging the right wing. Following a great deal of public outcry against a monarchy, the Chamber was once again dissolved. Charles X's proposals to change inheritance laws and increase censorship were among the causes leading to the July Revolution of 1830. Lafayette, still hoping for a constitutional monarchy, supported offering the throne to Louis Philippe, son of the liberal Duc d'Orléans. Soon disillusioned, Lafayette continued to support those seeking republican forms of government elsewhere and provided aid to the many refugees and emigrés resulting from such efforts.
Lafayette died on May 20, 1834, in Paris. Although the people of Paris wished him to be interred in the Pantheon, Lafayette wished to be buried next to his wife in Picpus cemetery (a burial ground for some of those guillotined during the Reign of Terror, including Mme Lafayette's sister, mother, and grandmother). Lafayette's casket was carried there on the shoulders of Polish freedom fighters, escorted by 3,000 National Guardsmen, as well as ministers and dignitaries. American soil, brought back by Lafayette from his 1824 trip, was placed over his grave.
Lafayette became known as the "Hero of Two Worlds," honored by both France and America. Upon America's entry into the First World War, American troops were sent to march through Paris as a demonstration of America's commitment. They stopped at Lafayette's grave, where Colonel Edward E. Stanton reputedly said, "Lafayette, we are here." After that war, an American flag was placed over Lafayette's grave and ceremonially is replaced each Fourth of July in a Franco-American ceremony. It has flown there continuously, even through the German occupation of Paris in World War II. Still the best known of those Europeans who aided America during the Revolution, in 2002, Lafayette was granted American citizenship by Congress.