Friday, April 8, 2016

Louisa May Alcott's Description of Lafayette's 1825 Visit


I read Louisa May Alcott's book, A Old-Fashioned Girl, for the first time about sixty years ago, and never forgot the following passage.  (It might be one reason I ended up writing my own book about Lafayette's Farewell Tour.) I am putting this into my blog because I suspect this book is seldom read by boys, so half the reading population has never seen it.  (Anyway, it is now in the public domain, so I can do this legally.)  

I vaguely remember reading that this account was likely based on something that actually happened in Alcott's family, although I can't find anything about this online.

In this excerpt, in about 1870 a grandmother is telling her grandchildren and their friend, Polly (the Old-Fashioned Girl herself) about meeting Lafayette when she was a young woman.

* * *

"The time when I saw Lafayette was in 1825, and there were no tipsy counts then. Uncle Hancock (a sweet man, my dears, though some call him mean now-a-days) was dead, and aunt had married Captain Scott.

"It was not at all the thing for her to do; however, that 's neither here nor there. She was living in Federal Street at the time, a most aristocratic street then, children, and we lived close by.

"Old Josiah Quincy was mayor of the city, and he sent aunt word that the Marquis Lafayette wished to pay his respects to her.

"Of course she was delighted, and we all flew about to make ready for him. Aunt was an old lady, but she made a grand toilet, and was as anxious to look well as any girl."

"What did she wear?" asked Fan, with interest.

 "She wore a steel-colored satin, trimmed with black lace, and on her cap was pinned a Lafayette badge of white satin.

"I never shall forget how b-e-a-utifully she looked as she sat in state on the front parlor sophy, right under a great portrait of her first husband; and on either side of her sat Madam Storer and Madam Williams, elegant to behold, in their stiff silks, rich lace, and stately turbans. We don't see such splendid old ladies now-a-days."

"I think we do sometimes," said Polly, slyly.

Grandma shook her head, but it pleased her very much to be admired, for she had been a beauty in her day.

"We girls had dressed the house with flowers; old Mr. Coolidge sent in a clothes-basket full. Joe Joy provided the badges, and aunt got out some of the Revolutionary wine from the old Beacon Street cellar.

 "I wore my green and white palmyrine, my hair bowed high, the beautiful leg-o'-mutton sleeves that were so becoming, and these very gloves.

"Well, by-and-by the General, escorted by the Mayor, drove up. Dear me, I see him now! a little old man in nankeen trousers and vest, a long blue coat and ruffled shirt, leaning on his cane, for he was lame, and smiling and bowing like a true Frenchman.

"As he approached, the three old ladies rose, and courtesied with the utmost dignity. Lafayette bowed first to the Governor's picture, then to the Governor's widow, and kissed her hand.

"That was droll; for on the back of her glove was stamped Lafayette's likeness, and the gallant old gentleman kissed his own face.

"Then some of the young ladies were presented, and, as if to escape any further self-salutations, the marquis kissed the pretty girls on the cheek.

"Yes, my dears, here is just the spot where the dear old man saluted me. I 'm quite as proud of it now as I was then, for he was a brave, good man, and helped us in our trouble.

"He did not stay long, but we were very merry, drinking his health, receiving his
compliments, and enjoying the honor he did us.

"Down in the street there was a crowd, of course, and when he left they wanted to take out the horses and drag him home in triumph. But he didn't wish it; and while that affair was being arranged, we girls had been pelting him with the flowers which we tore from the vases, the walls, and our own topknots, to scatter over him.

"He liked that, and laughed, and waved his hand to us, while we ran, and pelted, and begged him to come again.

"We young folks quite lost our heads that night, and I have n't a very clear idea of how I got home. The last thing I remember was hanging out of the window with a flock of girls, watching the carriage roll away, while the crowd cheered as if they were mad.

"Bless my heart, it seems as if I heard 'em now! 'Hurrah for Lafayette and Mayor Quincy!
Quincy! Hurrah for Madam Hancock and the pretty girls! Hurrah for Col. May!' 'Three cheers for Boston! Now, then! Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!'"

And here the old lady stopped, out of breath, with her cap askew, her spectacles on the end of her nose, and her knitting much the worse for being waved enthusiastically in the air, while she hung over the arm of her chair, shrilly cheering an imaginary Lafayette. The girls clapped their hands, and Tom hurrahed with all his might, saying, when he got his breath, "Lafayette was a regular old trump; I always liked him." 

"My dear! what a disrespectful way to speak of that great man," said grandma, shocked at Young America's irreverence.

 "Well, he was a trump, anyway, so why not call him one?" asked Tom, feeling that the objectionable word was all that could be desired.

Alcott, Louisa May (2009-10-04). An Old-Fashioned Girl, Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.