As a young nobleman in France, the Marquis de Lafayette was inspired by the nascent rebellion in Britain's American colonies. At the age of 19, the wealthy Marquis sailed to America and obtained a commission as a Major General in the Continental Army. He distinguished himself in battle and was useful in obtaining official support from the French monarchy later in the war. He commanded forces at the decisive Battle of Yorktown in 1781 and returned to France the following year as a "hero of two worlds."

Lafayette remained a beloved figure in the United States, where he enjoyed a greater reputation than even in his home country. In advance of a World's Fair to be held in Paris in 1900, US President William McKinley appointed a commission to manage American participation in the event. One of the key components of the American effort was an equestrian statue of Lafayette, to be unveiled at the Exposition in Paris on July 4, 1900, as a symbol of Franco-American friendship.

The commission engaged in a variety of fundraising efforts, including a commemorative silver dollar coin authorized by Congress. The $1 coin would be sold at a premium price of $2, with the profits benefiting the commission's efforts. A similar initiative - the Columbian half dollar of 1892-1893 - had been utilized to raise funds for the Chicago World's Fair, so there was some precedent. However, this was the only commemorative one dollar silver coin issued by the US Mint until the Los Angeles Olympic commemoratives of 1983.

The Mint's Chief Engraver Charles Barber sought to avoid the chaos experienced with the design of the Columbian half dollar and Isabella quarter some years earlier and designed the Lafayette dollar himself. The obverse bears jugate busts of Washington and Lafayette; the reverse shows the planned design for the equestrian statue of Lafayette. Another fundraising initiative was a collection of pennies in public schools throughout the country; this is the reason for the inscription around the edge of the reverse, "Erected by the youth of the United States in honor of Gen Lafayette."

All 50,026 Lafayette dollars were struck on the exact centennial of Washington's death, December 14, 1899. The coins bear no mint mark; all were struck at Philadelphia. Sales were mixed but especially weak in France, where only 1,800 coins were sold. 14,000 were eventually returned to the US Treasury and melted.

In 1925, a coin enthusiast named George Clapp realized that a Lafayette dollar he had encountered was different from published descriptions. Upon further investigation, it was discovered that there were a number of other varieties due to different dies being used in the striking process. Though it has been reported that the coins were struck on a single machine, some numismatic scholars have speculated that they were, in fact, struck on multiple machines. Regardless, the Lafayette dollars are rarely collected according to these variations. Unlike many other coins, even the rarer variations do not command significantly higher value.

After a chaotic design process, a plaster model of the equestrian statue of Lafayette was unveiled at the Louvre palace as planned on July 4, 1900. The bronze statue was eventually completed in 1908; its design differs significantly from the statue depicted on the reverse of the Lafayette commemorative. The statue was relocated during construction for I. M. Pei's Louvre pyramid in the 1980s and presently resides in a park along the Seine River.