By Judd Hambrick Special to the Daily Journal
Montgomery, Ala., April 3, 1825: Walter and Eliza Lucas, owners of the Lucas Tavern on the Federal Road at Line Creek, got the surprise of their lives, late yesterday, when the revered Revolutionary War hero, Marquis de Lafayette of France, who is on a grand tour of America as a “Guest of this Nation,” stopped by their humble tavern 15 miles east of here “to dine and spend the night.” Lafayette is due in Montgomery within the next two days.
With Walter being away, Eliza had virtually no time to prepare for such a well-known, heroic visitor, yesterday. But, despite the short notice, reportedly, the Lucas Tavern was “done-up better than it ever had been or likely ever will be again.”
The Lafayette tour arrived at the tavern late in the afternoon. The travelers were rushed for time, totally behind schedule, and bone tired – simply too weary to travel on to Montgomery last night.
Eliza, as everyone in these parts knows, is a wonderful cook, and apparently outdid herself in preparing the meals personally for Lafayette and for some of his huge entourage, estimated in excess of 2,000 people, to include Alabama militiamen, national troops, statesmen, Indians and servants. Everyone even remotely connected to working at the tavern was busier than they can ever remember.
Eliza has indicated she was honored to have such a distinguished guest stay at their humble tavern, but said she would likely breathe a heart-felt sigh of relief when the giant tour moved on to Montgomery.
It is safe to say that no man from any foreign land is so beloved by virtually all Americans as General Lafayette. As a brave young 19-year-old general – the youngest in the Continental Army – under George Washington, Lafayette’s leadership in crucial battles in our war for independence is incalculable, even though he wasn’t even a citizen. But every American who served under him or who even spoke with him, knew how passionately he believed in the cause of freedom for all men – for the cause of America. He gave up his own royal heritage in France and spent his life defending the common man, both in the Revolutionary War in America and in revolutions for freedom throughout Europe. A true noble man.
It had been more than 40 years since Lafayette had set foot on his beloved American soil. Early last year, Congress passed a resolution inviting the 67-year-old general to visit the United States, tour the land and visit with her people. All expenses would be paid by a grateful United States of America. President James Monroe wrote the personal invitation. Lafayette accepted immediately.
Since his arrival in New York Bay in August of last year, with the tearful salutes of men and the tributes of dozens of roaring cannons. amid throngs of admirers, his days and nights have been filled with non-stop celebrations of his life from New York to Boston to Philadelphia to Washington and now into the heartland of our great young nation. His hands are swollen from the tens of thousands of handshakes.
In New York he hugged the aging officers he fought alongside in war, and he also held and kissed children thrust at him by proud parents, like a bright-eyed 6-year-old boy in the gathered crowd – a lad named Walt Whitman. At Mt. Vernon, Va., he paid a tearful tribute to his mentor and friend who had died so long ago, President Washington. At Monticello, he hugged his stooped and haggard 81-year-old friend whom he hardly recognized as the bright intellectual revolutionary from their early years,Thomas Jefferson.
So as General Lafayette moves through the U.S. on his national tour, Walter and Eliza Lucas and their illustrious tavern have been part of a proud minor footnote to major American history that their family will likely remember for generations to come.
Update: That fateful night so long ago, when General Lafayette, Eliza, Walter and the tavern crossed historical paths, is being remembered today by far more than just the Lucas family. It has had historical significance in Alabama for more than nine generations. Today, the Lucas Tavern itself has been moved from its original Line Creek location and is now a major attraction in a wonderful historical village in Montgomery called Old Alabama Town.
But just to illustrate the power and philosophical convictions of General Lafayette, when he visited Thomas Jefferson, mentioned above, on the tour in 1825, he gently lectured his hallowed friend, insisting that Jefferson’s continued ownership of slaves was wrong, and Lafayette chastised him on his unwillingness to speak out as a revered American leader on the subject. “No man could rightfully hold ownership of his brother man,” Lafayette rebuked. Jefferson weakly countered, saying, “slavery should be extinguished” but that the proper time had not yet arrived. That “proper time” would not arrive for another 40 years and millions of wasted lives later.
Incidentally, Lafayette still holds the title of the youngest General in American military history.
It is hard for us today to understand the admiration America had for this French philosophical warrior who fought so hard alongside Americans for American freedom and the American republic. But his extraordinary life makes for fascinating reading.
The Lucas’ moved from Alabama in 1842, settling near Louisville, Miss., in Noxubee County. Eliza died one year later at the age of 52. Walter also died in Noxubee County in 1862. But their night in Alabama history, 186 years ago, still remains an interesting part of all our Southern Memories.