by Mary Wigge, Research Editor
June 21, 2016
Letters reveal a great deal about the sender and recipient—their relationship, their opinions on particular matters—as well as overall historical context. Condolence letters do that and more. George Washington’s death resulted in a deluge of condolences to Martha, from family members, friends, organizations, acquaintances, and even strangers. Sending their regrets, these letters vary from brief notes to lengthy passages. As a research editor, it’s eye-opening to see the spectrum of emotions conveyed.
I first read these condolence letters in 2014 as research on the papers of Martha Washington. Sitting in Mount Vernon’s special collections room with one of my colleagues, I found myself robotically skimming through one condolence letter to Martha after another. I was unfazed. That may sound insensitive, but most of the letters followed a formulaic pattern: regret for Martha’s loss and hope for a swift recovery. The end. A light touch of sympathy with a dash of suggested solace—there was no effusive heart-pouring nor anguished despair. It was not until Lafayette’s letter that I truly felt loss for the “beloved General” Washington.
My Heart Has for So Long a time and So throughly Been known to You, that I Need Not, Nor indeed Could I Express the feelings Which Over Whelm it—While the world is Mourning, and Mankind weeping Over the irreparable Loss, What Must it Be to You, My dear Madam, the object of His Love, the Companion of His Life, the partner of His Sentiments, the Happy witness to All His private and public virtues? What Must it Be to me, Who from My Youth Have Been Blessed with His paternal Adoption, and Who Ever Have deserved it By the Most filial Affection for Him and for You, Who United in Every thing were particularly So in Your kindness to me?1
Not often does a document strike you, heart and soul. This particular letter struck me with its raw emotion and compassion. It departed from the condolence formula and steered closer to the heart. It also initiated my interest (fascination?) in the Marquis de Lafayette.
And perhaps, unbeknownst at the time, it’s how my journey to a gravesite in Paris began.
To me, Lafayette’s note speaks on a human level without conveying superficiality. It brings to life some of Lafayette’s characteristics—idealistic, earnest, hopeful, imperfect— that I see when I read his letters. His note also demonstrates his close friendship and paternal affection for Washington. Lafayette met Washington in 1777, beginning what would become a close, permanent friendship. He highly regarded and respected Washington, and his message to Martha strongly expresses this deference and love.
When the Martha Washington Papers project began last year, I transcribed the condolence letters and began investigating other common and possible correspondents with Martha, including Lafayette’s wife, Madame Adrienne Lafayette. Thus far, we have not found any correspondence from or to Adrienne. However, she and the Marquis de Lafayette often sent their affections and warm regards via Washington.
Lafayette experienced two revolutions in his lifetime—the American and French Revolutions—with different outcomes in his level of popularity. He became a well-known, admired hero in the newly formed United States, bringing the French army to the colonies’ aid. On the other hand, he was disdained, fled into exile, and later imprisoned during the French Revolution.2 Adrienne and one of her daughters were placed under house arrest and later sent to prison at La Force in Paris.3 She suffered the loss of her grandmother, mother, and sister to the guillotine in 1794; their remains, along with other victims of the guillotine, were buried at Picpus Cemetery.4 Adrienne, who wished to reunite with her executed family members, assigned her burial there. After his death on May 20, 1834, Lafayette joined her.
I had no intention of applying my research to my holiday travel, but things have a way of working out. I traveled to England, then onward to Paris. Never having visited Paris before, I had a typical, tourist to-do list: visit the Louvre, Musee d’Orsay, Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame. At the time, none of it included Lafayette. However, a week before departing, my colleagues asked if I planned to visit Lafayette’s gravesite in eastern Paris. I pushed the idea aside. Would time allow for it? Was it open to the public?
Swayed by Lafayette’s close connection to Washington and Martha, as well as my own curiosity, I decided to visit his resting place. Picpus Cemetery contrasts from other Parisian sites, the most outstanding difference being its lack of crowds. Swarms of tourists flock to the Louvre to photograph detailed images of the Winged Victory and Mona Lisa. But few even know that Lafayette is buried in Picpus.
In truth, I visited Picpus twice. The first time, I walked right past it. It was unnoticeable with its plain entranceway, resembling all the others on the street. On my second (and final) day in Paris, I found it. Adjacent to a convent and across the street from a gas station, the cemetery was open only three days a week from 2:00 to 6:00 p.m. Luckily, I had arrived at 5:45 p.m.—just enough time!
However, no one was there. The gated entrance to the church was open, but the courtyard stood empty. A blue gate, with plaques commemorating Lafayette and General Pershing, separated the churchyard from what looked like the cemetery courtyard. I attempted a few turns of the handle, but the gate wouldn’t budge. Nonetheless, I was still optimistic that I could find the groundskeeper. I entered the small chapel, looking for someone—anyone—for assistance. Waiting, I began reading the engraved wall by the altar. It was inscribed with names of the victims guillotined at Place de la Nation, including Adrienne’s mother, grandmother, and sister. I felt rushed for time, so I exited the eerily empty church and walked back to the courtyard. Still, no one was there.
I slowly resigned myself to the fact that I would not see the gravesite. I stepped out to the main street when from the corner of my eye, I noticed a man—the groundskeeper!—enter the courtyard from his cottage. In terrible French, with a blend of English, I asked to see Lafayette’s grave. Nodding, the gentleman handed me a map of the cemetery and pointed toward the blue gate. I walked back to the gate, and with a tougher shove (and perhaps extra confidence), I opened it and entered the cemetery.
Lafayette’s grave is located in the back right corner of the walled cemetery. Adrienne rests beside him, and an American flag stands over them both. Various commemoratives and small trinkets, not excluding American quarters and pennies, surround their resting place. It’s noticeable that a majority of tokens were gifted from U.S. organizations and American visitors who came and paid their respects. I had spoken to a few Parisians before visiting the gravesite. When I mentioned wishing to see Lafayette’s grave, nearly all of them were surprised—his tomb was more so an American tourist destination, if a tourist site at all. As I stood alone by Lafayette’s tomb, I felt both stunned and fulfilled that from reading a letter preserved in Virginia, I had arrived here.
I’m of the mindset that documentary editors have their favorites. Gems they’ve read, transcribed, annotated, and ultimately memorized by heart. It’s like memorizing your favorite music lyric. Though I’m certain I’ll come across other memorable letters in the future, I doubt any will lead me on a journey like this document has.
All photos taken by Research Editor Mary Wigge.
1. Excerpt from Lafayette to Martha Washington, 28 February 1800.
2. Marquise de Lafayette to GW, 8 Oct. 1792.
3. Laura Auricchio, The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered (New York: Vintage Books, 2014), 274.
4. Ibid., 275 and 306.