By Bryan Hay 

Skillman Library’s Special Collections and Archives has acquired a rare letter written by the Marquis de Lafayette and sent to a retired Continental Army officer he served with during the American Revolution in which he describes America as “the land of genuine freedom.”

Dated May 24, 1824, the letter is significant because it was written just months before Lafayette started his two-year “Grand Tour” of the United States at the invitation of President James Monroe and Congress.

Penned in English on yellowed paper with meticulously steady brown ink strokes, the brief letter introduces Guglielmo Pepe (1783-1855), an Italian general who served with Napoleon, to Marinus Willett (1740-1830). Born in Long Island, Willett served as a colonel with the Continental Army mostly in New York campaigns but fought with Lafayette at the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey in 1778.

The Marquis de Lafayette describes America as “the land of genuine freedom” in May 1824 letter recently acquired by Skillman Library’s Special Collections and Archives.

The Marquis de Lafayette describes America as “the land of genuine freedom” in May 1824 letter recently acquired by Skillman Library’s Special Collections and Archives.

Recently purchased from the Raab Collection in Ardmore, which specializes in researching, buying, and selling documents from prominent historical figures, the letter will be cared for and preserved by the archives and included in its extensive Marquis de Lafayette Collections, which document Lafayette’s life. It includes correspondence and memorabilia from Lafayette’s farewell tour and a valuable trove of letters exchanged between Lafayette and George Washington.

“That this Lafayette letter referencing freedom should now be preserved and safeguarded by the college’s Skillman Library Special Collections & College Archives seems like a perfect match,” the Raab Collection states.

Significantly, the signed letter will be part of an exhibit that will be presented this fall by Lafayette College to commemorate the bicentennial of Lafayette’s final tour of the United States.

“I’m going to be putting together an exhibit to celebrate the farewell tour based on the excellent collection of memorabilia that we have in the archives and was thinking about how to best tell that story,” says Ana Ramírez Luhrs, co-director, Special Collections and College Archives, who found out about the letter from an appraiser with whom she works. “So, I thought, wow, this would be a great way to sort of start the journey with a letter written right before the start of this fabled tour.

Ana Ramírez Luhrs, co-director, Special Collections and College Archives

Ana Ramírez Luhrs, co-director, Special Collections and College Archives

“We have an extraordinary collection of Lafayette letters,” she says. “This one will be a really nice addition to what we have already.”

Rekindling the old spirit of 1776, Lafayette, welcomed to America as the last surviving major general from the American Revolution, visited all 24 states at the time, attending balls and parades in his honor and reuniting with former presidents and comrades from the Continental Army, including Willett. During one of the celebrations in Philadelphia, Lafayette met Easton lawyer James Madison Porter, whose father had served with Lafayette at the Battle of Brandywine. From that encounter, Porter would propose naming a college in the city in Lafayette’s honor.

“There aren’t a lot of Lafayette manuscripts out there. There had only been one out on the market, and this was it,” Luhrs notes. “I said, wait a minute, if there’s actually something we might be able to acquire, this would be really exciting. I’m fairly new to this role, and it was one of the first things I got to acquire. So that’s pretty special.”

In remarkably good condition, with the exception of some vestiges of an adhesive possibly from an earlier attempt at mounting the document, the 7.25-inch by 9.25-inch letter still bears the original creases from the day Lafayette mailed the correspondence to Willett, one of Lafayette’s best friends in the United States.

May 1824 letter sent to Marinus Willett, one of Lafayette’s best friends in the United States.

It reads in full:

“Paris – May 14 1824 – My Dear Sir – I Have the pleasure to introduce to you General Pepe the great Neapolitan patriot who after the disaster of the army under his command had exerted himself for the good cause in the peninsula, and now wishes to visit the land of genuine freedom. Not knowing when he goes, I have a chance to arrive before him as I intend to be with you as soon as I have terminated some family arrangements on this side of the Atlantic. But as friends I thought it better to send these few lines to my friend Gnl Pepe whose acquaintance, I am sure, will be Very Welcome to you. – Most truly and affectionately I am, My dear Sir – Your old brother Soldier and friend – (Signed) Lafayette.”

Lafayette's signature

Lafayette’s signature

On Aug. 21, 1824, the day Lafayette arrived in New York, an article in the Saturday Evening Post reported that he met with Willett “now in his eighty-fifth year, General Van Cortland, General Clarkson, and the other worthies whom we have mentioned … He embraced them all affectionately, and Col. Willet again and again. He knew and remembered them all. It was a re-union of a long-separated family.”

“What caught my eye is how he refers to America as the land of genuine freedom,” Luhrs says. “And then you can just get a sense of this friendship he had with Col. Willett. This letter is a window into a very specific and important time in Lafayette’s life journey. We’re thrilled to have this letter in our collection.”


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  1. Grace Wilson, LLM says:

    I think of France as a free land celebrating “Liberty Equality and Fraternity”, so it is revealing that Lafayette called America “the land of genuine freedom”.

    This is an exciting acquisition for the special collections at Lafayette. As a library nerd, I cannot help but be excited for Lafayette college.

  2. Elena Goti says:

    I wonder what genuine freedom.meant to Lafayette in those days….

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