Life was pretty dicey during the French Revolution for anyone with an aristocratic background, even for the wife of that lover of democracy and liberty, the Marquis de Lafayette.
When James Monroe was named U.S. Minister to France and arrived in Paris, his elegant wife Elizabeth plunged into the social and diplomatic life of the city, but she was shocked to find that Marie Adrienne Françoise de Noailles, Marquise de Lafayette, the wife of the Marquis de Lafayette was being held in prison and could soon face death on the guillotine, the fate which had befell her mother, her sister, and her grandmother.
A diplomatic resolution to the situation seemed unlikely, so one day, leaving her husband behind, Elizabeth Monroe commanded the American Embassy’s carriage to drive her, accompanied only by her servants, to the prison where she asked to see Madame Lafayette. Those who clung to power during these last days of the French Revolution understood that Madame de Lafayette was the wife of a great personal friend of George Washington and many other revolutionary era patriots, and France’s most prominent supporter of American independence, but still….
Elizabeth Monroe’s visit sent as clear a message as could be made unofficially by the U.S. government. Not wishing to offend their ally, the French government acknowledged Elizabeth Monroe’s “unofficial” interest in Adrienne de Lafayette, and released her on January 22, 1795. Without any official provocation, the situation was diffused and France maintained its alliance with the United States.
The French took notice of Elizabeth Monroe. She was bold, a striking beauty, and she possessed a great air of self-confidence. Soon “toute de Paris” was referring to her with affectionate name of “la belle Americaine”.
About this time, the Boston merchant Tom Perkins showed up in Paris. He had sailed to Bordeaux with a cargo of beef and pork hoping to profit from the disruption of agriculture and the danger of famine brought about by the Reign of Terror. He soon fell in with the local American community and dined every Saturday with James and Elizabeth (“one of the finest women I ever knew”) Monroe.
The Monroes introduced Tom to the newly free Adrienne Lafayette (the Marquis was still in prison in Austria). Madame Lafayette wanted desperately to get her thirteen-year-old son George Washington Lafayette out of the country and to the United States where she hoped that the boy’s godfather, President George Washington, would take care of the boy, and Elizabeth Monroe desperately wanted to help her new friend.
Tom Perkins had a ship waiting; he secured the necessary travel documents and conveyed the boy, under the family name of Motier, to Le Havre, where he took passage on board the firm’s boat bound for Boston. When the boy arrived in Boston, Tom’s brother James took the young Lafayette under his wing as part of his family, understanding that he would soon travel south to Mount Vernon to live with his Godfather.
President Washington hesitated at first – evidently nervous that it might affect diplomacy with France. Finally “his heart overcame his doubts” and he sent for the boy in the spring of 1796 and George Washington Lafayette joined his godfather’s familty at Mount Vernon.