Plaque to be erected in Durham to commemorate General Lafayette


Isabelle Curtis, News Editor

America’s favorite fighting Frenchman is coming to Durham, or he did almost 200 years ago. Marquis de Lafayette was a French aristocrat that served as a general during the Revolutionary War and was recently propelled back into pop culture relevance with Lin Manuel Miranda’s 2015 smash-hit musical Hamilton. Earlier this month, the Durham Historic District unanimously accepted a proposal to install a plaque recognizing General Lafayette’s visit to Durham on June 23, 1825. The visit was part of his 1824-25 tour of the then-24 states. The plaque would be installed on the Town Hall lot, situated to the north of the parking area on Newmarket Road (toward the traffic light). 


The plaque is part of a greater effort to memorialize Lafayette’s 1824-25 tour in time for its bicentennial by a nonprofit, The Lafayette Trial, Inc. The organization has donated 65 markers to date, including 10 others in New Hampshire, and hopes to meet its goal of 125 in time for the celebrations.  


“Lafayette’s faith in the United States as a force of good, uniquely able to elevate the human condition, is a source of inspiration to everyone seeking to contribute to the United States today,” said Julien Icher, founder and president of The Lafayette Trial, Inc.  


Icher further explained that Lafayette provided a “stabilizing presence” for early Americans as the debate over slavery, financial panics and a divisive election threatened their sense of unity.    


“His criticism of the founding father’s approach to slavery, and his advocacy for Native American rights make him a figure able to reconcile modern Americans with the earliest time of their nation,” Icher added.  


Historic District Commission Chair Larry Brickner-Wood expressed a similar sentiment, that while the Historical Commission is excited to commemorate the colonial side of Durham’s history, he also acknowledges the need to highlight the experiences of Indigenous people, enslaved people, indentured servants, and women. The commission plans to continue toward this goal in the future. 


Eliga Gould, University of New Hampshire (UNH) professor of history, explained that Lafayette’s 1824-25 tour was a nostalgic “throwback” for early Americans as the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence was around the corner and the Revolutionary generation had begun to die out. It was also a pseudo homecoming as the general had not been back to the United States for 40 years.   


Layfette’s own visit to Durham was met with a 24-gun salute by an artillery company as he was greeted by the town’s government officials and citizens. He stayed at Kelley’s Hotel, which was located in the vicinity of the Holiday Inn Express.  


It was also common during these celebrations for Lafayette to be shown the latest inventions or social advancements to display the country’s progress, according to Gould.  


“The interesting thing about [Lafayette’s tour] is that it was a moveable celebration. The Lafayette who would have shown up and been celebrated in Durham is going to be different from the Lafayette who shows up and is celebrated in Philadelphia,” said Gould.  


Despite Layfette’s anti-slavery stance, this mentality allowed for him to still be welcomed in the southern states as a war hero. “Here in the United States, he’s simply a hero of the revolution, totally shorn of those politics,” he said. 


Gould thinks Lafayette also serves a similar function today as he can be symbolic of the founding ideals of America, obligation to our foreign allies, or an early voice in the anti-slavery cause.  

“I think the whole idea of national unity has always depended upon the willingness of Americans to let the different parts of our diverse nation have its own version of what it means to be an American. I don’t think there’s ever been one definition, honestly. And I think Lafayette’s tour is a reminder that that’s always been the case,” Gould said.  


The marker will likely be up in late May and feature a dedication with Icher in attendance.  


For more information on Lafayette’s tour, Icher’s web series ‘Follow the Frenchman” can be found here. 


Photo courtesy of Seacoast online.