April 12, 2011
Lafayette’s secretary Auguste Levasseur recorded Lafayette’s 1824-1825 visit to the U.S. in a detailed journal that was published in France a few years following their return home (this is the journal Alan Hoffman recently translated). Levasseur depicted the remarkable outpouring of affection for Lafayette. But equally intriguing for some of his readers were the American habits and way of life that his stories revealed.
One experience involved the president of the United States in 1825, John Quincy Adams. Having returned to Washington D.C. at the end of his year-long tour of the U.S., Lafayette mentioned to President Adams that he would like to visit James Monroe, Adams’s predecessor, before departing for France. Adams offered to take Lafayette to see Monroe at his home near the capital and arranged for their small group to travel by carriage (Lafayette’s son, George Washington Lafayette, and Auguste Levasseur accompanied Lafayette throughout his trip). Crossing over the Potomac the two carriages stopped at a tollbooth and Adams paid for the group. As they started off, however, the toll collector ran after them, shouting, “Mr. President! Mr. President!” Apparently the president had given him too little. Adams counted the horses and passengers once more, agreed with the toll collector’s tally, and paid the missing 11 cents.
During their discussion the toll collector recognized Lafayette. He now insisted that, although the president was obligated to pay the usual fee, the “Nation’s Guest” (that is, Lafayette) could not be charged for crossing a bridge. After some more discussion, Adams convinced the collector that on this particular outing Lafayette was traveling as a friend of the president and therefore should pay the toll, the same as everyone else.
For Levasseur and his readers, the entire scene must have been at once astonishing and amusing. Who could have imagined chasing after the French king in this way?