LONDONDERRY —One hundred and ninety-two years ago, anticipating the 50th anniversary of the revolution, President James Monroe invited the the Marquis de Lafayette back to the United States.
The old soldier gladly accepted. He had recently left the French legislature, and it was rumored that the King, Louis XVIII, was having him watched. Having had held steadfast to his ideals of liberty, he was regarded as too radical by some and not radical enough by others.
Lafayette had fought alongside General Washington and was famous for his bravery as well as his ideals. Bringing his son, George Washington de La Fayette, for part of the journey, the marquis visited all 24 of the then-states and was greeted at every city with feasts, speeches, and applause. At Monticello, Lafayette and Jefferson, who hadn’t seen each other since 1789, “burst into tears as they fell into each other’s arms” according to a Jefferson biographer.
Old soldiers who remembered him were glad to share war stories, but even more than that, ordinary people were touched by the Frenchman’s dedication to the American cause. Many well-wishers wanted to touch him; hundreds stood waiting for hours to hear him speak.
In a speech to Congress in December 1824, Lafayette said,
“My obligations to the United States, sir, surpass greatly the services that I have been able to render them ... during nearly a half a century I have continued to receive constant proofs of their affection and of their trust; and, at present, sir, thanks to the precious invitation I received from Congress, I find myself welcomed by a series of emotional receptions of which a single hour would do more than compensate for the works and sufferings of an entire life.”
Lafayette and his entourage traveled over 9,000 miles by stagecoach, boat and horseback, and the journey was chronicled by his secretary Auguste Levasseur. According to Levasseur, they went through this part of New Hampshire at the dizzying speed of 11 miles per hour, despite the hilly terrain. “Relays of horses had been put at our disposal by the inhabitants,” Levasseur wrote.
On June 27, Lafayette stayed at the Tremont House in Claremont, and the following day crossed into Vermont via the Cornish bridge. At the time, the bridge was not covered. Around 11 a.m. he passed through Woodstock on a stagecoach, to spend the night in Montpelier. On June 29 Lafayette laid the cornerstone of a new wing at Burlington College, and departed for Whitehall, New York after midnight.
Almost two centuries later, an exchange student from France, Julien Icher was at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Icher heard that Lafayette’s ship, L’Hermione, had been reconstructed and had sailed to Yorktown.
“I decided to go see it,” said Icher. “At the same time, the American Friends of Lafayette was having its annual meeting in Yorktown.”
Icher went to that meeting as well. Icher has a degree in history, and one in GIS mapping. He became interested in the American life of Lafayette.
“In France Lafayette is more controversial,” said Icher. “Although he wanted more rights for individuals, he also wanted to maintain the monarchy. He was known as someone who delayed, delayed, delayed. He didn’t side with the revolutionaries in France from the beginning.
“It interested me a lot to see the difference in how Lafayette is seen in each country. In America, Lafayette tried to create a free and independent country. That’s why people wanted to touch him, almost as if he were a god, to get his blessing.”
Icher wrote to the French consul in Boston, proposing a project: an interactive map of Lafayette’s tour through the United States.
“I explained my interest in the dynamics of history and he was interested in developing French tourism. Our goals overlapped quite a bit.”
The latest issue of Historic New England contains an article by Icher, introducing the map, which can be found at www.thelafayettetrail.com.
Each of the general’s stops along the trail is listed, including Claremont, and can be found by scrolling down the “stops list” on the left of the map. The map site is sponsored by the American Friends of Lafayette in partnership with the Consulate General of France in Boston, the company Global DMC Partners, and the French Foreign Trade Advisors. Icher met with Governor Chris Sununu last year, and even got the support of French President Emmanuel Macron, who invited him to accompany him to the White House.
“Lafayette is a bridge between our two countries,” said Icher.
In addition to its online presence, Icher is hoping to bring the map to the landscape. He currently lives in Londonderry and is hoping to get road signage in the Granite State, especially in Cornish and Claremont, to create an historical Lafayette trail. His goal is to get the historic trail done by 2024, in time for the bicentennial.