My Turn: History lesson: Lafayette’s mysterious sidetrip

  • Portrait of Marquis de La Fayette (1757-1834) by Jean-Baptiste Weyler Portrait of Marquis de La Fayette (1757-1834) by Jean-Baptiste Weyler

Published: 1/13/2022 6:51:37 AM
Modified: 1/13/2022 6:50:45 AM

It is June 1825 and the 66-year-old Gilbert du Motier, aka Marquis de Lafayette, is on his triumphal tour of the United States that he had fought to establish almost 50 years earlier.

As a young aristocrat he had some experience as a soldier, and he soon not only became General Washington’s aide and favorite, but also spent that dreadful winter at Valley Forge, played an active role in crucial battles, and was even wounded once.

Now he had returned in 1824 to participate in the 50th anniversary of the battle at Bunker Hill, but first (accompanied by his own son and an aide, Auguste Levasseur, who would publish his account of this trip) Lafayette would visit all 24 states. At this time he has set out in a coach from Albany, New York, and has made his way to Pittsfield and on June 12 has set off over what would become Route 9. (Sharp-eyed travelers on Route 9 between Pittsfield and Dalton will notice three, but only three, small signs naming it “The Lafayette Trail”).

Arriving on June 15 at the border of Northampton, where he was expected by the town’s dignitaries, is attested to by the brief article that appeared in the Gazette — the only notice of his visit to Northampton.

All very well — that he would pause here and be honored with a parade, reception, and banquet. But a visit to the Round Hill School? A small private school founded in 1823 by two Harvard instructors and unknown to all but a tiny number of Americans. Why would Lafayette take the time and effort to go up that steep hill to that school? A few of the individuals who have written histories of Northampton or the school do refer to this visit, but none explain why.

To provide the reason here requires going into some background history — of all places, to Germany — and to all subjects, gymnastics. The founder of modern gymnastics — with its equipment and regimen — was Friedrich Jahn, who about 1811 and based in Berlin launched what were known as the Turnverein, or “gymnastics associations.” For these, Jahn is credited with inventing the basic gymnastic devices: parallel bars, horse, balance beam, horizontal bar and rings.

Although the Turnverein and their exercises were designed simply to maintain healthy bodies, Jahn himself and these clubs’ participants, being mostly younger males, soon got the reputation for being politically radical or at least opposed to the Prussian government. In fact, in 1819, Jahn was arrested and the gymnasium in Berlin was shut down.

Among the young men who belonged to Jahn’s Berlin’s Turnverein was Karl Beck; after completing his studies at the university there, perhaps fearing his association with the Turnverein would lead to trouble, he chose to settle in Switzerland. There he met another young German gymnast, Karl Follen, who had taken refuge in Switzerland because of his own liberal tendencies. By 1824, Beck and Follen had come to fear that even Switzerland might not be a safe place and they went off to Paris.

At this time, Lafayette was preparing for his trip to the United States, but as a supporter of liberal movements in government he welcomed the young Germans and persuaded them to move to America.

This they did, arriving in December 1824, four months after Lafayette, and heading off at once to Philadelphia. At this point, an American comes into the picture as the “bridge” between Lafayette and the Round Hill School. George Ticknor had visited Lafayette in Paris some years earlier and now welcomed him to America. Ticknor was himself a professor at Harvard and not only knew Cogswell and Bancroft as fellow students in Germany and now as faculty at Harvard, he was a major supporter of their new school.

Learning from Lafayette of these two young Germans, he recommended Beck to the Round Hill School as a Latin instructor and Follen to Harvard as a German instructor. Such was the respect for German education — Beck had a Ph. D., Follen a doctorate in the law — they were hired at once.

And now we are getting close to the visit in question. Follen is immediately hired by Harvard to teach German, while (now Charles) Beck joins the faculty at the Round Hill School early in 1825 He not only starts teaching Latin but introduces German gymnastics to America when he sets up an outdoor gymnastic locale on the school grounds (on what is now Crescent Street).

And that is why Lafayette goes to the trouble of visiting the Round Hill School: to visit Charles Beck.

Beck will stay at the school for only a year and in 1826 will assist Follen in introducing gymnastics at Harvard. He will then join the Harvard faculty and by 1832 is a full professor of Latin there.

Lafayette, by the way, goes on to Boston and on June 17 lays the cornerstone for the Bunker Hill Monument. But for one day in June 1825, Northampton’s Round Hill School rates the modern guidebook’s highest accolade — “worth a diversion.”

John Bowman is a longtime Northampton freelance editor and writer (retired) who over the years has contributed a series of pieces about little-known episodes in the city’s past.

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