During eight spectacle-filled days in the spring of 1825, Alabamians welcomed to their soil a Frenchman of international renown. The Marquis de Lafayette was a revered combat veteran of the American Revolution and a man George Washington loved as a son. The young, cash-strapped state spared no expense in expressing its affections for this living symbol of liberty.
For Lafayette, a restless, wealthy, teenaged aristocratic adventurer, America’s war for independence was well timed. Anxious to assist, he purchased a ship, filled it with arms and supplies, and departed for the New World in April 1777, a year before the French government officially entered the conflict. The revolutionaries heralded his arrival. Observers on two continents followed his distinguished service in the Continental Army. At the decisive Battle of Yorktown, Lafayette led American soldiers in hand-to-hand combat against the British. After his return to France, Lafayette frequently played host to visiting dignitaries including John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.
In 1824, four decades after the American Revolution, President James Monroe invited Lafayette to return to America as “the Nation’s Guest.” He suggested Lafayette embark on a tour of the country his heroism made possible. Ensorcelled Americans closely followed his movements throughout the Fall, from Philadelphia and Boston to grass-covered battlefields and Washington’s tomb. Overwhelmed by his reception, Lafayette was in no hurry to depart and extended his American excursion to visit all twenty-four states in the Union.
On December 24, 1824, the Alabama Legislature unanimously requested that Governor Israel Pickens formally invite the Nation’s Guest to the Cotton State. The resolution stated that Lafayette should be “received in such manner as shall best comport with the important services he has rendered the American people.” The legislators authorized full funding of Lafayette’s Alabama tour, paid from the unexpecting, decidedly cash-strapped coffers of the state treasury.
Lafayette’s gracious acceptance launched a flurry of activity. As the itinerary took shape, a patriotic zeal enveloped Alabama officials and citizens. The ideas, and the expenses, grew unabated. Any hopes that Alabamians might host the Nation’s Guest gratis were fleeting. The state treasurer’s records are full of bills for goods and services during Lafayette’s eight-day Alabama sojourn.
The first two days of Lafayette’s trip from the Georgia border to Montgomery followed the Federal Road through Creek Indian territory. Creek emissaries greeted Lafayette at the Chattahoochee’s shore and helped shepherd him through their ancient lands, most of which were soon thereafter surrendered by treaty to the state. To ensure the comfort of the honored travelers during their first two days, wagonloads of furnishings and food were delivered to the rough-and-tumble taverns along the Federal Road to make them more acceptable for a nobleman. The party crossed Line Creek — the border between the Creek land and Alabama — on Saturday, April 2, 1825.
The following day thousands heralded Lafayette’s arrival in Montgomery. There apparently being no suitable musicians in Alabama, the state hired a New Orleans brass band to lead the way. At a public event atop Goat Hill (today the site of Alabama’s State Capitol), Governor Pickens made his welcome. They departed Montgomery by steamboat, already running behind schedule.
After a brief respite at Selma, their floating armada of chartered steamboats continued on to Cahaba, the capital city, for the state’s official welcome ceremony and a series of grand celebrations, including a free public barbeque. “I feel some pride not to be outdone by the Capitol of Georgia,” one state senator wrote to Governor Pickens.
To prepare for Lafayette’s arrival, the state paid builder Philip Flanagan $140 to clean and repaint the exterior of the State House. Printer editor Thomas P. Lumpkin produced 1,000 handbills announcing the festivities. To provide for the nourishment of Lafayette and his entourage during a private dinner, the state contracted with supplier Robert Tavers for quality spirits, including brandy, rum and wine at a cost of $30.50.
No Alabama town’s plans for Lafayette’s visit were more elaborate or expensive than Mobile’s. The citizens of the old port city, which had been founded by the French in 1702, felt a keen connection to the honored guest. Mobilians were originally promised the attention of Lafayette for several days. They planned accordingly. Their large committee required a three-man team of treasurers to keep track of expenditures. Weeks before Lafayette’s Alabama tour commenced, Governor Pickens sent the Mobile committee an advance of $5,000 to prepare. Unfortunately, the travel delays which accumulated as Lafayette made his way through Alabama meant that Mobile’s celebration had to be truncated into but a single day. The cost, of course, remained exorbitantly high, regardless. On Friday, April 8, 1825, the Marquis de Lafayette departed from Mobile Bay aboard the Natchez, a chartered steamboat that sped him on to New Orleans.
No sooner had the boat faded from view, the accounting began at Cahaba. In his address to legislators later that year, Governor Pickens fixed the cost of Lafayette’s visit at $15,715.18. This figure was premature, and quickly grew to more than $17,000. Lafayette’s visit placed the finances of young Alabama in peril. The expenditures accounted for 20% of the annual budget that year. So depleted was the treasury that many of the payments were held over for fairer days, spread out over more than two years. Fully closing the accounts proved a challenging feat for merchants, none more so than Mobile’s Richard Corre, who supplied much of the food and drink for Lafayette’s farewell banquet. It took three years, and a special act of the legislature, to settle his outstanding bill of $604.15.
All told, Lafayette’s visit cost Alabama an estimated $20,000, the equivalent of nearly half a million dollars today. But if there existed anywhere in the state a naysaying newspaper editor or a penny-pinching public servant who felt such extravagance improper for a hero of the American Revolution, they had the good sense to remain silent. It was, after all, a kind of priceless thing, indeed. It was a measure of national pride.