The hero’s welcome

A pen and ink homage to Lafayette, “The Nation’s Guest,” with engraved portrait, ca. 1824, attributed to Thomas Sully.

CHARACTERS famous and obscure helped shape the thoughts and deeds of William Whitehead. Of the famous, none was more universally adored than the French nobleman who took America’s side in the Revolution. Whitehead, though born a half century after him, clearly shared in the popular regard for the Marquis de Lafayette.

When Lafayette set foot on Manhattan island to begin a 6,000-mile “farewell tour,” four eventful decades had passed since his last visit to the United States. His friends Washington, Hamilton and other luminaries belonged now to the ages, and the Marquis anticipated “a generous and quiet welcome” from the country whose liberty he had fought to secure.1 But as “The Nation’s Guest” he had no idea what he was in for. Journeying through all twenty-four states from Maine to Louisiana, he encountered during the next thirteen months not only the inevitable speeches and military displays but musical and poetic performances, triumphal arches, tableaux, pyrotechnics, pageants, balls and homelier offerings in virtually every city, town and village through which he passed.

James Parker chartered a sloop to bring his family to New York where Lafayette would disembark on 16 August 1824, and fourteen-year-old William Whitehead was allowed to go along. Unfortunately they arrived too late to join the welcoming flotilla in the harbor, to witness the landing at the Battery or to follow the triumphal procession up Broadway to City Hall. Still, they met throngs of people enjoying the jubilee well after the day’s scheduled events. Whitehead found old friends and paraded through the mobbed city streets, remaining in New York until morning.2

He made sure, however, that a second chance to see the Hero of Two Worlds did not elude him. Lafayette’s progress across New Jersey included a stop in Woodbridge, four miles north of Perth Amboy. Whitehead set out on foot the morning of 24 September, traversing ground where British and American soldiers had skirmished forty-seven years earlier,3 and he arrived before noon at the crowded village green. Lafayette stepped out of the carriage from Rahway at 1 o’clock, and for the next hour was occupied with a receiving line, speeches and a luncheon.4

Aaron Ogden (1756-1839), oil on canvas, by Asher B. Durand.

Whitehead’s most vivid memory of the event was the spectacle of Colonel Aaron Ogden of Elizabethtown, squeezed into his old uniform and mounted on a sprightly horse. One of Lafayette’s favorite junior officers and a leader in the Order of the Cincinnati, Ogden at age 67 bore the scars of more recent strife: he had lost much of his fortune fighting the long-running “steamboat case” Gibbons v. Ogden. But as marshal for the day he put aside the troubles of the moment to glory in the triumphs of his youth.5 Another veteran officer on hand was General John Heard, a native of Woodbridge whose blue and buff uniform proclaimed his service in the Continental Army.6

It was a day made for old soldiers: a company of them stood in formation to receive the Major General, the number “76” emblazoned on their hats. But it belonged also to the wives, children and grandchildren of these veterans who formed two ranks on either side, an extension of the official receiving line. The Nation’s Guest walked between them, giving and receiving as many greetings as he could. Whitehead’s recollection was that he, too, clasped the hand of Lafayette, and of history.

Copyright © 2017 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] A.A. Parker, Recollections of General Lafayette on his visit to the United States, in 1824 and 1825; with the most remarkable incidents of his life, from his birth to the day of his death (Keene, N.H. 1879) 59.

[2] My narrative of Whitehead’s experiences of the visit of Lafayette draws largely from the memoir entitled “Childhood and Youth of W. A. Whitehead 1810-1830,” of which a transcription is held by the Florida History Department, Monroe County Public Library, Key West, Florida, and by the P. K. Yonge Library of Florida History, George A. Smathers Library, University of Florida. Page 15 of this transcription contains Whitehead’s recollections.

[3] The road from Amboy to Woodbridge passed the scenes of several engagements in March 1777, including the Strawberry Hill skirmish of 28 March.

[4] Frederick Butler, Memoirs of the Marquis de La Fayette, Major-General in the Revolutionary Army of the United States of America, together with his tour through the United States (Wethersfield, Conn. 1825) 356-7.

[5] Two letters attributed to Lafayette commended Ogden for his distinguished service: one addressed to the American consul at Paris and dated 1822, the other directed to the American Secretary of War (possibly James Barbour, who filled that office under John Quincy Adams beginning in 1825). An extract from the first was printed in Niles’ weekly register 23:11 (16 November 1822) 164, and reprinted in The magazine of American history with notes and queries 10:3 (September 1883) 256. The second was cited in Lucius Q. C. Elmer, The constitution and government of the Province and State of New Jersey, with biographical sketches of the governors from 1776 to 1845, and reminiscences of the bench and bar during more than half a century (Collections of the New Jersey Historical Society 7. Newark 1872) 143. I have not managed to locate the original of either letter.

[6] John Heard filled several roles after the Revolution, including Collector of the port of Perth Amboy. His father Nathaniel Heard was well remembered as the officer who in 1776 arrested William Franklin, the last colonial governor. Traces of the Heard homestead were visible in the center of Woodbridge well into the nineteenth century. William A. Whitehead, Contributions to the early history of Perth Amboy and adjoining country (New York 1856) 193 n. 67.

Images:  Lafayette: Marquis de Lafayette Memorabilia Collection (VII.19), David Bishop Skillman Library, Lafayette College. Ogden: Collection of the New-York Historical Society, Object #1878.1.
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