Home  »  America: I (1761–1837)  »  On the Death of Lafayette

The World’s Famous Orations.
America: I. (1761–1837). 1906.

Sargent S. Prentiss

On the Death of Lafayette

DEATH who knocks with equal hand at the door of the cottage and the palace gate, has been busy at his appointed work. Mourning prevails throughout the land, and the countenances of all are shrouded in the mantle of regret. Far across the wild Atlantic, amid the pleasant vineyards in the sunny land of France, there, too, is mourning; and the weeds of sorrow are alike worn by prince and peasant. Against whom has the monarch of the tomb turned his remorseless dart that such widespread sorrow prevails? Hark, and the agonized voice of Freedom, weeping for her favorite son, will tell you in strains sadder than those with which she “shrieked when Kosciusko fell,” that Lafayette—the gallant and the good—has ceased to live.

The friend and companion of Washington is no more. He who taught the eagle of our country, while yet unfledged, to plume his young wing and mate his talons with the lion’s strength, has taken his flight far beyond the stars, beneath whose influence he fought so well. Lafayette is dead! The gallant ship, whose pennon has so often bravely streamed above the roar of battle and the tempest’s rage, has at length gone slowly down in the still and quiet waters. Well mightest thou, O Death, now recline beneath the laurels thou hast won; for never since, as the grim messenger of Almighty Vengeance, thou earnest into this world, did a more generous heart cease to heave beneath thy chilling touch, and never will thy insatiate dart be hurled against a nobler breast! Who does not feel at the mournful intelligence, as if he had lost something cheering from his own path through life; as if some bright star, at which he had been accustomed frequently and fondly to gaze, had been suddenly extinguished in the firmament?

How came he here? Born to a high name and a rich inheritance, educated at a dissipated and voluptuous court, married to a young and beautiful woman,—how came he to break through the blandishments of love and the temptations of pleasure and thus be found fighting the battles of strangers, far away in the wilds of America? It was because, from his infancy, there had grown up in his bosom a passion more potent than all others: the love of liberty. Upon his heart a spark from the very altar of Freedom had fallen and he watched and cherished it with more than vestal vigilance. This passionate love of liberty, this fire which was thenceforth to glow unquenched and undimmed, impelled him to break asunder the ties both of pleasure and affection. He heard that a gallant people had raised the standard of revolt against oppression and he hastened to join them. It was to him the crusade of Liberty; and like a knight of the Holy Cross, he had enlisted in the ranks of those who had sworn to rescue her altars from the profane touch of the tyrant.

More congenial to him by far were the hardships, the dangers, and the freedom of the American wilds than the ease, the luxury, and the slavery of his native court. He exchanged the voice of love for the savage yell and the hostile shout; the gentle strains of the harp and lute for the trumpet and drum, and the still more terrible music of clashing arms. Nor did he come alone or empty-handed. The people in whose cause he was about to peril his life and his fortune were too poor to afford him even the means of conveyance, and his own court threw every obstacle in the way of the accomplishment of his wishes. Did this dampen his ardor? Did this chill his generous aspiration? No; it added new vigor to each.

Here we can not but pause to contemplate two wonderful men, belonging to the same age and to the same nation: Napoleon and Lafayette. Their names excite no kindred emotions; their fates no kindred sympathies. Napoleon—the child of Destiny—the thunderbolt of war—the victor in a hundred battles—the dispenser of thrones and dominions; he who scaled the Alps and reclined beneath the Pyramids, whose word was fate and whose wish was law. Lafayette—the volunteer of Freedom—the advocate of human rights—the defender of civil liberty—the patriot and the philanthropist—the beloved of the good and the free. Napoleon—the vanquished warrior, ignobly flying from the field of Waterloo, the wild beast, ravaging all Europe in his wrath, hunted down by the banded and affrighted nations and caged far away upon an ocean-girded rock. Lafayette—a watchword by which men excite each other to deeds of worth and noble daring; whose home has become the mecca of freedom, toward which the pilgrims of Liberty turn their eyes from every quarter of the globe. Napoleon was the red and fiery comet, shooting wildly through the realms of space and scattering pestilence and terror among the nations. Lafayette was the pure and brilliant planet, beneath whose grateful beams the mariner directs his bark and the shepherd tends his flocks. Napoleon died and a few old warriors—the scattered relics of Marengo and of Austerlitz—bewailed their chief. Lafayette is dead and the tears of a civilized world attest how deep is the mourning for his loss. Such is, and always will be, the difference of feeling toward a benefactor and a conqueror of the human race.