COLUMN: The bicentennial celebration of Major Gen. Marquis de Lafayette’s farewell tour

Published 8:00 am Saturday, March 30, 2024

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Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of bi-weekly articles leading up to the bicentennial celebration.

By Frank and Gloria Womble

The American Friends of Lafayette (AFL) has announced the upcoming Bicentennial celebration of Major General Marquis de Lafayette’s triumphant Farewell Tour to America. In a letter dated Feb. 24, 1824, President James Monroe — himself a veteran — and Congress invited Lafayette to visit the “adopted country of your early youth, which has always preserved the most grateful recollection of your important services.” 

AFL was formed in 1932 at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, by a small group of scholars and collectors. Today, the organization has more than 800 members across the nation. It strives to educate the public about the life and legacy of Lafayette, not only as a hero of the American Revolution but also as a relentless human rights activist.

Throughout 2024 and 2025, AFL will commemorate the Bicentennial of Lafayette’s return to America as the “Guest of the Nation.” Aug. 16, 2024, kicks off the beginning of this monumental occasion. More than 200 events will trace Lafayette’s footsteps on his 13-month, 6,000-mile tour of America during 1824 and 1825. 

Lafayette’s return visit came at a difficult time in U. S. history. In 1824, the United States was in the throes of a very contentious Presidential election. Our country was divided and in turmoil. There were few living veterans from the Revolutionary War, and the “Spirit of ’76” that carried them through the war had faded as the nation expanded westward. President James Monroe was inspired to invite the last living American Major General from the Revolutionary War to return to help celebrate the nation’s upcoming 50th anniversary and reignite patriotism. Upon his return to the United States, Lafayette was welcomed with unprecedented universal affection and gratitude. What began as a simple plan to visit the major cities turned into a triumphal tour of all 24 states when the Southern and Western states clamored for a visit from Lafayette as well.

There will be commemorations in large cities such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston, St. Louis, New Orleans, and Savannah, as well as in the multitude of small towns that still maintain oral and written histories of the day America’s favorite fighting Frenchman visited. AFL’s goal is to educate the public about the critical roles of both Lafayette and France in our war for independence. Six large panels are on display at the Suffolk Visitor Center through mid-March that describe Lafayette’s significant contributions to our nation’s history.

One hundred ninety-nine years ago this week, Suffolk was the first overnight stop on Lafayette’s tour of the Southern and Western states. AFL is partnering with the Suffolk 250 Committee and the Constantia Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, to commemorate the Bicentennial. Here in Suffolk, Lafayette’s return will be celebrated by several events in 2025: A Farewell Tour memorabilia exhibit from Jan. 23 to March 1 at the Suffolk Center for the Cultural Arts, with an opening night reception; a ceremony to welcome Lafayette’s arrival on Feb. 23 at the Suffolk Visitor Center; a banquet on Feb. 25 at the Hilton Garden Inn Riverfront; and a reception on Feb. 26 at the Washington Smith Ordinary in Historic Somerton.

Frank and Gloria Womble are life members of the American Friends of Lafayette. Frank is a retired Army lieutenant colonel. Gloria is the America 250 chair of Constantia Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, in Suffolk.