Editor’s note: Mark Bushnell is a Vermont journalist and historian. He is the author of “Hidden History of Vermont” and “It Happened in Vermont.”
Early in the morning of June 28, 1825, between 3,000 and 4,000 Vermonters gathered in Windsor to greet a returning hero. They probably didn’t mind the hour. Many of them were farmers from the surrounding area and were used to rising before dawn. Besides, since this visitor had come from so far to see them, getting up early was the least they could do.
At about 7 a.m., they first caught sight of the elegant fringed carriage bearing their guest, Marie-Joseph Paul Roch Yves Gilbert du Motier, better known as the Marquis de Lafayette.
In the 1820s, Lafayette was one of the Revolution’s few surviving heroes. Washington, Franklin, Hamilton and others were dead. Jefferson and Adams were in their 80s and in frail health; indeed, they would die within the year.
In contrast, Lafayette was a comparatively young 67. Born into a wealthy French family and orphaned at 13, he had followed his father’s path into the military. Despite his privileged background, Lafayette had ardently embraced the colonies’ fight for liberty. At the age of 19, he sailed to North America and persuaded Congress to commission him a general in the Continental Army. Though he proved himself a competent, if not entirely gifted, officer, Lafayette was vital to the colonies’ efforts. His loyalty to the cause and his connections in the French government proved instrumental in winning crucial French support that helped turn the tide of the war. Americans loved him.
Lafayette had returned to France, where he led troops in the fight for liberty during his own country’s revolution. But he always vowed he would return and do a tour of the country he had helped create.
Now, nearly a half century after leaving, Lafayette was back. While in Massachusetts, he had been complimented on his impeccable English, which he only started to learn as a teenager sailing to North America. Explaining his fluency, he said, “I am an American citizen who has been absent for a time.”
If possible, Lafayette’s absence had only made American hearts grow fonder. As his carriage rolled into Windsor escorted by Revolutionary War veterans and troops from New Hampshire, people crowded the streets to see him.
Lafayette addressed the crowd from the balcony of John Pettes’ Coffee House, then sat down to breakfast. He was either ravenous from the trip or too polite to mention that he had already eaten breakfast before departing New Hampshire a little more than an hour earlier.
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He had no time to linger in Windsor. Over the next day and a half he had appointments to keep across Vermont. He and his entourage, which now included Vermont veterans and troops, had to move at breakneck speed.
One historian noted that the group averaged 9 miles an hour during the trip, a healthy clip in those days. Organizers had arranged for a fresh team of horses every 10 miles. In all, 64 horses would be used to pull the general’s carriage.
Lafayette and company left Windsor at about 9:30 and reached Woodstock by 11. There, they were greeted by soldiers from local militia units and escorted to the Eagle Tavern, where Lafayette listened to words of welcome and replied with his own speech.
Then, sure that he must be hungry, local dignitaries led Lafayette to the nearby Barker’s Tavern for a luncheon banquet complete with a roasted pig. Singers standing on a balcony provided the entertainment, though the crush of well-wishers apparently drowned them out.
The women of the town, anticipating that their husbands would be too enthusiastic to meet the great man to leave room for their wives to do likewise, arranged their own reception for Lafayette at the White Meeting House. There, in a less frenetic setting, Lafayette walked down an aisle in the room, bowing to the women on either side.
Then he was off again. By 2 p.m., he had reached Royalton, where he was met by the usual Revolutionary War veterans and assorted well-wishers and, again, invited to dine.
From Royalton, he headed to Montpelier, along the way passing through Tunbridge, where he was greeted by a local artillery company decked out in scarlet and blue coats and blue hats topped by white feathers.
The entourage stopped in Barre at 8 p.m. to switch into a formal carriage drawn by a team of six white horses for the ride into Montpelier. Organizers apparently either overestimated the speed the contingent could maintain or underestimated the time each stop would take, or perhaps both.
Lafayette had been expected in Montpelier at 5. He arrived at 9. The delay thinned the crowd. Farmers, unable to put off their chores, had given up and gone home. Still, as the carriage drew into town, candles burned in seemingly every home as a form of greeting.
Lafayette was led to a second-story balcony at the Statehouse from which he watched a lighted parade of troops on the common below. He was so impressed with the performance of a company of 14-year-old soldiers that he made a point to congratulate them.
Inside the Statehouse, Lafayette listened to a speech of welcome and replied with his own speech, before greeting local veterans and a contingent of area women. Then it was time to eat again.
The evening’s banquet was held at a nearby hotel. According to a reporter from the Montpelier Watchman newspaper, everything “was splendid … the evergreens at the windows … the festoons of roses with which the room was hung … and the elegance and abundance of the tables … left the guests nothing to do but to be cheerful and delighted.”
People understood this was a historic moment. Someone set aside a platter from which Lafayette was served at the banquet, a plate he used and a fife from a band that performed for him. The objects were later donated to the Vermont Historical Society.
When the banquet finally ended, after 16 toasts had been offered, Lafayette was led to the Cadwell house, the town’s most elegant home, where he would sleep. Wanting to make the general’s stay as comfortable as possible, Montpelier’s women had redecorated the house. They replaced the all-too-ordinary bed, sofa and china with an elaborate hand-carved bed, a brocaded sofa and elegant pink china.
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The next morning, after addressing the women of Montpelier, the Watchman reported, “The General … left the place amid a waving of handkerchiefs by the ladies and repeated and affectionate adieus by the men.” He was headed to Burlington.
By 2 p.m., Lafayette and his retinue had reached Burlington’s Gould Hotel, outside of which he attended a reception. Greeting him there were 100 Revolutionary War veterans. One of them, a Sgt. Day, stepped forward to show Lafayette the sword the general had given him. Lafayette met another man, a Mr. Gray, whom he had known when the man had been a young servant in Washington’s camp responsible for powdering the general’s hair.
After the reception, Lafayette attended a banquet with 200 others at the hotel. Guests offered toasts to America, to Vermont, to agriculture and commerce, to which Lafayette added his own to Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys.
After the dinner, Lafayette headed up the hill to the University of Vermont, where he laid the cornerstone for a new building, which is now known as the Old Mill. He met the university’s faculty and students before returning to his hotel to rest for that evening’s reception at the stately home of Gov. Cornelius Van Ness.
For the occasion, Lafayette wrote out a two-and-a-half page speech. The draft, which is now part of the Vermont Historical Society’s collections, is in formal, fluent English. In some places, however, you can see where he altered his phrasing or spelling to correct a too-direct translation from the French.
Rising from his chair, he said, “I had eagerly anticipated the Pleasure, in my happy visit through the United States, once more to behold those celebrated (Green) mountains – the very thought of which, recalls to my mind glorious Patriotic and Enduring associations.”
He spoke again of the Green Mountain Boys (“a gallant Band of Patriots”) and Ethan Allen (“their worthy Leader and Prototype”).
In closing, he said, “I thank you for your sympathy in the delight I feel to see the happy citizens of Vermont, enjoying all the blessings of Republican liberty, and among them to recognize many of my Beloved companions in arms.”
Lafayette had another reason to rejoice that night. Vermont was the 24th and final state he planned to visit on his tour through the United States. When he steamed across Lake Champlain at 11 p.m. that night, he had fulfilled his long-delayed promise.