George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Frederick William II of Prussia, 15 January 1794

To Frederick William II of Prussia

Philadelphia Jany 15th 1794.


However unusual it may be for your Majesty to receive an address from a person, who, at the very moment of making it, disclaims the exercise of any public function, and acts as a private individual; yet it is believed from your illustrious character, that the Motives, which lead me to the Measure, will serve as an ample apology.1

I cannot longer resist the impulse of friendship, to lay before you, who know so well, how to appreciate its force, my personal and affectionate anxiety for the welfare of M. de la Fayette. Report informs us, that he is under confinement in the dominions of Prussia, and therefore at your disposal.2

At an early period of his life—at a season, and on an occasion, far remote from the time and causes, which have subjected him to his present condition, he pursued his military career, with so much benefit to my country, and honor to himself, that he acquired a most endearing place in my affections.3 A sincere attachment then commenced was strengthened by an intercourse which continued after the return of peace had seperated us until more active and interesting scenes served to interrupt it. Upon the events, which succeeded, I shall be silent; only entreating your Majesty to be persuaded, that as I seperate myself, in this letter, from my official station, to render a tribute to your liberality; so I beg to be understood as intending to observe that delicacy, which becomes every man, whose country has, with perfect sincerity, cherished peace and impartiality towards the whole world.

Permit me then to ask and obtain from your Majesty, a favor, in which the most lively sensibility of my fellow-citizens is engaged—the release of M. de la Fayette on his parole—If his word should not be deemed a sufficient pledge, I shall regret, that your Majesty does not entertain the same conviction of fidility, as a full experience has impressed upon myself. But I can never be persuaded of the possibility of his departing from that innocence of conduct, which is always to be expected from a prisoner of war.

This request, unsolicited by, and unknown to him asks the patronage of your Majesty’s sensibility; and is dictated by a confi dence, that he could not be in the power of any sovereign, who would more delight in indulging a friendship, which cannot acquit itself, without thus endeavouring to deliver him, under your benevolent auspices.4 I pray God to preserve your Majesty in his holy keeping

Go: Washington


1GW sought the approval of the cabinet before writing this letter (Cabinet Opinion, 14 Jan. 1794).

2In January 1794 the Marquis de Lafayette was held by Prussia in the fortress at Neisse in Silesia, but in May he was transferred to Austrian custody and imprisoned at Olmütz, where he remained until set free in 1797.

3Lafayette was the highest-ranking foreign officer in the Continental army during the American Revolution. On his arrival in the United States in 1777 and the beginning of his friendship with GW, see n.1 of GW to Silas Deane, 13 Aug. 1777.

4This letter apparently was sent to Thomas Pinckney, the U.S. minister to Great Britain, who then entrusted it to James Markham Marshall (1764–1848), a Virginia lawyer then living overseas, for delivery to Frederick William II. Upon his return to London, Marshall reported on his efforts in a letter of June 1794 to Pinckney: “I deliverd your letter to Prince Henry of Prussia [1726–1802] on the 28th of April and at the same time declared to him my intention of following implicitly his advice in the business which had been entrusted with me—he appeard highly gratified by the confidence which was placed in him, and express’d himself in terms of the warmest admiration of our President, & friendship for M. de la Fayette. Whilst I remain’d with him he wrote a letter to the King his Nephew—informing him of the letter with which I was charged, and urgin⟨g⟩ a compliance with the request which it contained

“On my departure from Rheinsbg—his Royal highness gave me a letter to the Minister of State on the same subject who immediately inform’d me that nothing could be done for M. de la Fayette, as an agreement had actually taken place by which he was to be deliver’d up to the Austrians and he added that probably the agreement was already executed. he spoke favorably of M. de la Fayette & lamented that it was not in the power of Prussia to comply with the request of his friends[.] As the only chance which remain’d, I endeavor’d to discover if it were possible to prevail on the ministry to favor the escape of Fayette from the fortress where he was confined. [Philipp Karl] Alvensleben [1745–1802] the Minister of State to whom I made the proposal, acknowledged his wish that it could be done but declared to me that it was too late[.] I could not press the subject further but as the Minister had not said that M de la Fayette was actually in the hands of the Austrians, I wrote requesting permission to se⟨e⟩ him before that event took place, intending if my request was grantd to renew my proposal. I enclose you the answer of Alvensleben, my business with him was at an end. I wrote, as I had promis’d, to give Prince Henry an account of my want of success, & to enquire if he could point out any step by which I could yet be of service to M. de la Fayette[.] the answer by the Baron [Karl Friedrich Hieronymus] Münchausen [Münchhausen; 1720–1797] I enclose you, I can not very well understand it, but I clearly perceiv’d that Prince Henry could do nothing for Fayette, and as I did not wish to be obliged to converse with him, on what our government might possibly yet do to procure his enlargement, I declined the invitation to Rheinsburg” (DLC: Pinckney Family Papers). The date of this letter is taken from the first docket; a second docket reads: “Copy forwarded to the Secretary of State 21st June 1794. by Mr Francis Duplicate 27th June 1794.”

Index Entries