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Lafayette’s 1825 visit: Time for another bicentennial party?

Illustration by Dennis Auth

By Hardy Jackson

Pretty soon our Alabama Bicentennial wing-ding will have run its course and, apart from an approaching football season, Alabamians won’t have much to celebrate.

You would think.

And you would be wrong.

In just a few years we can celebrate the bicentennial of the visit of the Marquis de Lafayette.

Yessir. 

In 1825, the aging hero of the American Revolution made a tour of the nation he helped free from British rule. Included in the grand procession was Alabama.

Yessir, yessir. 

Though we had been a state less than a decade, the Marquis came a-visiting.

Why?

Alabama was on the way to New Orleans, which is where he really wanted to go, him being French and all.

Ignoring the fact that “on the way” was the only reason to come here, the state rolled out the red carpet, as best it could.  Alabama was mostly raw frontier, and its citizens were, for the most part, raw as the land.  

Accompanied by a retinue that included his dog Quiz, Lafayette entered Alabama near Columbus, Georgia, and was greeted by a sign that read:

This road isn’t passable 

Not even Jackassable

So, if you travel

Better bring your own gravel

It proved a fair warning. The road was rough and the group was happy when they got to Montgomery, where they boarded a steamboat for the rest of the trip.

At towns along the river route there was some disagreement as to how Lafayette should be entertained.  The men, especially the politicians, wanted speeches and formal dinners, the women wanted a ball, while the common folk just wanted to “get a peep at the great Frenchman.” The Marquis, who was 68 at the time, apparently just wanted to get to New Orleans. 

But he endured, and when he left the state, everyone declared that Alabama had done herself proud.

So, it should come as no surprise that 100 years later, in 1925, a celebration was held at one of the sites that Lafayette had visited.

Claiborne.

In April, more than 10,000 people from all over southwest Alabama descended on the once-thriving town.

More than 200 school children put on a pageant that included “Indians with feathers and paint,” along with tributes to “Christianity, Community, Music, Art, Drama, Child Welfare, Forest Resources and the Red Cross.”  The United Daughters of the Confederacy played a prominent role as did the American Legion and the Boy Scouts.  In addition to the usual politicians, a “French embassy official” showed up to remind everyone just who they were celebrating.

To guarantee that a large crowd would attend, “a massive meal consisting of 5,000 pounds of barbecue and brunswick stew” enticed those who were not interested in pageants.

As an extra added attraction, Miss Charles Finklea preformed “a solo dance as the ‘Golden Butterfly,’” which may have been the highlight of the afternoon . . . until the barbecue was served.

That done, the cream of local society headed inland to Perdue Hill for a ball at the Masonic Lodge where Lafayette was entertained back in 1825.  

Only then, the Lodge was in Claiborne.

Only then, there was a Claiborne.

That event was one of the last to be held in what would soon be one of the Alabama towns that used to be.  

Perhaps that was fitting.

Harvey H. (Hardy) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist for Alabama Living. He can be reached at hjackson@cableone.net.