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The Marquis de Lafayette
(1757 - 1834)

Contributed by Linden Salter

The Marquis de Lafayette

Most Americans know Lafayette only as the adolescent French aristocrat who equipped a ship at his own expense to join the cause of the American Revolution and became almost a son to George Washington. While this was certainly the turning point in his life, it completely ignores his other -- even greater -- actions in the rest of his long life. It is very easy to find Lafayette in any encyclopaedia, on-line or otherwise, so here I'll sketch his long career briefly, adding material that doesn't usually get into the encyclopaedias.

Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette (he merged his name to become Lafayette during the French Revolution to diminish the importance of the aristocratic "La"), was born at Chavaniac, Auvergne, on 6 September 1757, to an old family of the provincial nobility: their family motto was "Cur non?" -- Why not? -- which turned out to be very apt for their most famous son. He lost both his parents early: his father was killed by the British at the Battle of Minden when Lafayette was two years old (perhaps accounting for his opposition to the English), and his mother and grandfather died when he was thirteen, leaving him orphaned but extremely rich.

In 1773, he joined the Noailles Dragoons as a protégé of Jean de Noailles, the Duc d'Ayen, and married d'Ayen's daughter, Adrienne de Noailles, on April 11, 1774. It was an arranged marriage: the groom was sixteen and his bride two years younger. However, they had been allowed to get to know each other well beforehand, and both approved of the match, which made them luckier than many of their aristocratic contemporaries.

Adrienne was reputed to be quite pretty: Lafayette, tall, red-headed and gangling, already showed signs of the charm that served him through his life. Adrienne turned out to be a redoubtable woman, who perfectly complemented her husband, managing his finances (something he was incapable of all his life) and, when the need arose later in their lives, a considerable heroine in her own right. It seems that she was in love with him, but that he, at this stage, regarded her with no more than respect and liking.

The nobility were expected to attend the King and Queen: Lafayette was no good at it, disliking the ceremony and being awkward and clumsy (as tall adolescent boys so often are). Queen Marie-Antoinette laughed at him, which may have contributed to the tragedy ahead for both of them. He had a strong family predisposition towards military glory, but France was at peace after a humiliating defeat by the British in the Seven Years' War (known in America as the French and Indian War).

So far there seems little to distinguish Lafayette from hundreds of other young noblemen in France at the time, nor to account for the principles and resolution (or pig-headed obstinacy) that he kept throughout his life. When the American Revolution broke out, there were plenty of others in France with ideals of glory, liberal theories, and a desire to give the British a bloody nose who wanted to join the American side. But Lafayette did it, in the teeth of opposition from his own family, and also in defiance of a ruling from the French government and crown, who wanted to stay out of the conflict, at least officially, and who forbade any French people joining the Revolution. Lafayette bought his own ship, La Victoire, and, with Baron de Kalb, set sail on 20 April 20, 1777, giving little advance notice to his family, his government, or even his pregnant wife about his departure. He was not yet twenty years old.

They landed in North Carolina on June 13, 1777, and by lucky accident happened to meet first a wealthy plantation owner and revolutionary, Major Huger, who welcomed the party. They were lionised in Charleston, and Lafayette, full of adolescent ideals and blindness, wrote to Adrienne three days after his arrival, describing America. It was "one of the most beautiful, best built and most agreeably populated [places] that I have ever seen. American women are very pretty [an eye for pretty women was something else that he never lost]...What delights me most is that all citizens are brothers. There are no poor in America, nor even what we would call peasants." [I think we must assume that Major Huger treated his slaves unusually well, mustn't we?]

He hadn't come all that way just to have a good time, and the party set off for Philadelphia to offer their services. There they had a rude awakening: the Congress was by no means welcoming:, because to appoint these foreign officers would mean that Americans were hindered from promotion. Most of their party went away discouraged. But Lafayette was more determined. He wrote to Congress saying, "After my sacrifices, I have the right to demand two favors. One is to serve at my own expense; the other is to begin my service as a volunteer." His request was granted, and he was appointed as a Major-general -- but in a purely honorary capacity. It was enough for the moment. Then came what was almost certainly the defining moment in Lafayette's life: he met George Washington. Lafayette was impressed by "the majesty of his face and figure," and Washington was friendly and courteous. Lafayette had at last found a father he could love and admire.

There are plenty of on-line sites that describe Lafayette's military activities in America, so I shall not cover them here, but only list a few at the end of this article. He endeared himself to the Americans by his undoubted charm and enthusiasm, his statement, "It is to learn and not to teach that I am here," his refusal to make anything of his aristocratic background, his unswerving loyalty to Washington, his undoubted courage (he was wounded at Brandywine when he helped to rally the troops), his willingness to take the rough life (he endured Valley Forge), and his generosity with his money, which he spent freely on ensuring that the men under his command were properly equipped (always something that makes a leader loved by his troops).

Lafayette's glory made him a hero in France, and undoubtedly contributed to the decision of the King and court to come out officially on the American Revolutionary side. From their point of view, it was one of the all-time biggest mistakes in history, as it drove the already shaky French finances into bankruptcy and returned a generation of French officers and men imbued with the ideals of Liberty: it was a major cause of the French Revolution. Many of the names of those who accompanied Rochambeau's official army would become famous in the French Revolution, including Lauzun/Biron and Axel de Fersen.

The war over, Lafayette returned to France a national hero (something which put Lauzun/Biron's nose out of joint slightly, as he'd been the first hero to arrive back, given the task of carrying the news of the victory of Yorktown to France). He arrived while Paris was celebrating the news of the birth of the King and Queen's first son. Adrienne de La Fayette was obliged to attend the celebration, but Marie Antoinette, who could sometimes see a good chance of favourable publicity when it was thrust under her nose, took Adrienne in her own carriage to meet the hero: Adrienne was so overcome with emotion that she fainted in her husband's arms. He carried her inside to the great acclamation of the crowd.

Lafayette took full advantage of his fame, wealth, and the society he lived in: Talleyrand (the other great survivor) said that only those who had known life before the Revolution could appreciate its pleasures. Lafayette had at least two mistresses: one who had rejected him before as an awkward youth, and the other, Mme de Simiane, whose family were friends of Mary Robinson's in her years in France. Adrienne presumably knew about them, since everyone else in France did, but stuck loyally to her heroic husband. They named their second daughter Virginie, after Virginia, and their only son was christened George Washington de La Fayette.

Their house became one of the two main centres of liberal activity before the French Revolution: the other, the Palais Royal, was owned by the Duke of Orleans, to which Lauzun/Biron was attached. There were differences (which ultimately became tragic) between these two centres, partly social and partly depending on whether America or Britain was the model for reform, with the Orleanists noted for "Anglo-mania." All Americans were welcome at the Lafayettes, including Franklin and his replacement as American Minister to France, Thomas Jefferson. He espoused a variety of liberal causes, such as freedom of worship for Protestants and the abolition of slavery (the Lafayettes bought a large plantation in Cayenne where the slaves were encouraged to work towards their freedom rather than being emancipated at once: typical of Lafayette the reformer -- and of Adrienne the manager, since she did all the administration).

When King Louis XVI, faced with an empty treasury and the need for new taxes which could only be authorised by some form of assembly, summoned the Estates-General in 1789, Lafayette was elected to represent the Nobility of his area (with some difficulty, since the noblemen distrusted his liberal principles). Lafayette presented the "Declaration de droits de l'homme et du citoyen" -- closely modelled on the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution -- to the National Assembly on July 11, 1789. The day after the storming of the Bastille on 14th July, when the French army was in disorder with nobody knowing which side any of them were on, the city of Paris called for the formation of a National Guard. Who was to lead it? Someone pointed to a bust of Lafayette, and said "Him." Nobody objected, and he was chosen by acclamation to be the head of the strongest force in the country.

If Lafayette had wanted power he could have taken it easily on many occasions (indeed, a young officer in training named Napoleon Bonaparte was watching his every move -- and no doubt deploring his failures to take his opportunities). But he didn't. All through his life, Lafayette wanted Liberty, Equality, Public Order -- and applause. He was the most recognisable person in France, mounted on his white horse, trying to keep the peace (not always successfully). He developed an eye for the grand gesture: it was he who designed the blue, white and red tricoleur, combining the red and blue of Paris with the white of the Bourbons.

On the occasion in October 1789 when the women of Paris demonstrated vociferously at Versailles where the King and Queen still lived and bloodshed was imminent, Lafayette and the National Guard brought about some sort of peace and compromise. He walked by himself into the Royal chamber, and one of the courtiers sneered, "Here comes Cromwell." Lafayette instantly replied, "Cromwell would not have come alone." In a typically dramatic gesture, he took Marie Antoinette onto the balcony in the face of a crowd screaming abuse at her and kissed her hand: instantly the abuse ceased.

The Constitutionals, of which he was one of the leaders (his own particular group were called "Fayettists"), wanted a constitutional monarchy on British lines; Lafayette wanted France to implement at once everything American, but he was willing to compromise. In the first years of the Revolution, they implemented an astonishing range of reforms: abolishing feudalism, making everyone equal before the law and the tax-gatherer, developing schemes for universal education, and starting the metric system (perhaps their most long-lasting and unqualified success). Lafayette was everywhere -- though despite his mountain of work he still managed to maintain his relationship with Mme de Simiane.

He and the other Constitutionals were like a pillow between two fighters on the Right and the Left (these terms first came into use then). On the Right, the Royalists regarded the liberal aristocrats as traitors to their class, and Marie-Antoinette especially disliked Lafayette. On the Left, the Jacobins and others wanted far faster reform, and a far wider extension of voting than the Constitutionals were willing to countenance. The Constitutionals were themselves divided: Lafayette's power and his eternal desire for applause irritated many who would generally have agreed with him.

When the King, Queen and Royal Family attempted to flee the country (in a plot masterminded by Axel de Fersen), the position of the liberal aristocrats was shattered: how could you have a constitutional monarchy where the monarch hated the Constitution? A crowd demonstrated noisily calling for a republic on the Champ de Mars on 17 July 1791: with the approval of the mayor, Lafayette called out the National Guard. It ended in blood: the National Guard fired on the demonstrators, killing perhaps fifty of them. It was the end of Lafayette's popularity among ordinary people. (The day after, according to the diary of the American diplomat Gouverneur Morris, he dined with Banastre Tarleton, probably trying to recruit him to join the French army: Ban wisely refused.)

The Constitutionals managed to hang on to power for little over a year. Lafayette retired for a few months, then was appointed one of the three leaders of the armies resisting the Austrian/ Prussian/ French Royalist invasion that intended to restore the King's autocratic power to pre-revolutionary times. He left his army to deliver an attack on the Jacobins, was threatened with arrest, and fled across the enemy lines to the Austrians on 19 August 1792. If firing on the crowd at the Champ de Mars was the most immoral thing he ever did, this was the stupidest. Naively claiming neutrality, he expected the Austrians to give him safe passage to America. Instead they threw him in prison.

He nobly (or stubbornly) refused to reveal anything to the Austrians, but the people of France were not to know that: the defection of this hero fuelled the already raging paranoia and was one cause of the bloody September Massacres and the end of any chance for the liberal constitutionals. France was declared a republic, Louis and then Marie-Antoinette went to the guillotine, together with many of Lafayette's former colleagues.

Adrienne was left in France: Lafayette wrote to her after the event (as usual) hoping that she would join him in what he fondly believed would be the safety of America. While he was kept in prison by the Austrians as a dangerous revolutionary, she was thrown in prison by the Jacobins as the wife of a dangerous reactionary. She survived (though many of her immediate family did not) partly through the efforts of Gouverneur Morris, who pointed out that killing Lafayette's wife would be seriously bad public relations in America who were the nearest the French had to an ally, but mainly through the fall of Robespierre in 1794. In the reaction to the Reign of Terror, she was let free.

She promptly showed her astounding courage and loyalty. She led a campaign to have her husband freed (in which Tarleton joined), and when that had no effect, she sent George Washington Lafayette to his godfather in America, and set off with her daughters to join her husband. Lafayette knew nothing of this; he didn't even know his family was still alive. He was kept in solitary confinement after a foiled escape attempt (involving the son of his old friend Major Huger) until, without warning, his cell door was opened, and in walked his wife and daughters. The guards refused to let them alone, even searching the women for forks which they'd brought in; only in the evening, when their daughters were escorted to a separate cell, could husband and wife be alone. Lafayette at last realised what a wife he had.

They stayed in prison with him until he was released: credit for this must go to Napoleon, who included it in his negotiations with the Austrians after he had defeated them in one of his earlier battles before he took supreme command. However, Napoleon had no wish whatever to see a rival like Lafayette back in France, so the family spent some years in exile. Eventually Adrienne (of course) arranged for his return. Napoleon was furious, but could do little about it: Lafayette's name seemed relatively clean now after what had happened in the Reign of Terror and the corrupt Directory which followed it.

Partly because of Adrienne's desire to lead a quiet life of domesticity for once in their lives, and partly because he might at last have learned some discretion, he kept fairly quiet under Napoleon, though nothing made him change his principles and he was firmly opposed to Napoleon's iron rule. Napoleon in turn regarded him with a mixture of awe and contempt: after failing to recruit him as part of the new ruling class, Napoleon, in a particularly mean-minded act, refused to let Lafayette attend the magnificent ceremony held to mark the death of George Washington, and even George Washington Lafayette saw it only as a member of the crowd.

Lafayette, now a grandfather, devoted himself to experimental agriculture, winning prizes at shows for his sheep, visited by old friends, including Mme de Simiane who was accepted as part of the family. During the short-lived Peace of Amiens between Britain and France in 1802-3, he received a visit from Charles James Fox: I'd love to know whether Tarleton visited too. Jefferson, now President, offered Lafayette the governorship of the newly-acquired province of Louisiana: he refused, telling Jefferson that the cause of Liberty in America had no need of him, but he would not leave France while it was "in the grip of despotism."

Then came the worst blow of all: Adrienne became fatally ill. She had been a devout Catholic all her life, and was troubled by her husband's Deism. One day she asked him about his beliefs, and when he didn't reply, she said, "I know what you are: you're a Fayettist." "I hope you won't think me arrogant," he replied, "but aren't you something of a Fayettist yourself?" "I am," she said; "I'd give my life for that cause." On December 24 1807, with his hand in hers to the last, she died. Lafayette wrote to a friend, "Up to now you have found me stronger than my circumstances: today, the circumstance is stronger than I." She was buried in the Picpus cemetery in Paris, which she had founded: it was where hundreds of victims of the guillotine, including her family, were buried in unmarked graves, and she had organised its purchase and consecration in memory of those dead. Every day for the rest of his life, Lafayette slept with her miniature under his pillow, and insisted on a quarter hour alone with it every morning.

He never re-married (not even Mme de Simiane, who remained a close friend): instead he returned to his other love, politics. When Napoleon's army faced defeat in 1814, Lafayette was in Paris: he was one of those who organised the heroic, but futile, attempt to defend the capital against the Russian army (his wily old colleague Talleyrand, on the other hand, who had served and betrayed every government since before the Revolution and also had plenty more life left) arranged for the invaders to enter the city peacefully).

Distrusted as usual by both the returning Bourbons and the Bonapartists, he nevertheless stuck to his principles. After Waterloo, when the Bourbons were forcibly imposed on the point of foreign bayonets and showed that they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing, Lafayette became once again a focus of liberal dissent. At one point, the Bourbon rulers sent the National Guard into the Assembly to arrest one of Lafayette's liberal colleagues: Lafayette stood up and announced himself as their founder: "Is the National Guard to carry out such a dishonourable order?" he cried, whereupon they withdrew in confusion.

Then, in 1824, came the event which explains why some dozen towns and many more streets and squares in America are called names like Lafayette and Fayetteville: President Monroe invited him to join in the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of Independence. Lafayette accepted. His year-long visit was a triumphal journey: thousands lined every route where he went, some people walking days to catch a glimpse of him; there were countless dinners, receptions, balls, presentations and speeches. He thoroughly enjoyed himself, eagerly greeting his American friends (ie everyone he met, from ex-Presidents to the blacks of New Orleans who had joined in the defence of their city) and obviously sincere when he murmured in his French accent, "Zo 'appy, zo 'appy." His secretary once collapsed under the strain, and his boat sank on the Ohio, but the 70-year-old Lafayette kept on going, visiting Jefferson in Monticello, dining at the new White House, received by Senate and Congress, as admiring as ever of pretty American women, and going alone into Washington's tomb, emerging in tears for the nearest to a father he ever had.

He returned in triumph to France, despite the Bourbons' attempts to quell the enthusiasm. There was still plenty left for him (including pretty women, since he retained his charm and glory into his seventies). For the next few years, he supported with money and hospitality the national movements of Greece and other countries in Europe and South America, admired by Byron and Bolivar, and leading the opposition to the ever-more oppressive Bourbon kings.

This finally erupted in another revolution in 1830. Citizens and students who regarded him as a figure from history found that he was joining them on the barricades. The Bourbon king fled; the country was in an uproar, and Lafayette led his last revolution. The choice was clear to everyone: a republic with Lafayette at its head, or a constitutional monarchy under Louis-Philippe, son of the Duke of Orleans who had been his old rival forty years before. (The story goes that Talleyrand, observing the events outside the window of his palatial house in Paris, murmured, "Ah, we're winning." When asked who "we" were, he replied "I'll tell you tomorrow.")

Lafayette, perhaps feeling his age, or perhaps remembering that the most inglorious period in his life was when he had power, made the decision which everyone followed. In a typical Lafayette grand gesture, he led Louis-Philippe onto the balcony of City Hall where the crowd were shouting. He placed the tricoleur -- the flag he designed which had not been allowed to fly since the restoration of the Bourbons -- into Louis-Philippe's hand, and embraced him. Lafayette at last had his constitutional monarch: a citizen-king who wore a crown and sang the Marseillaise.

Louis-Philippe's reign was not wonderful: though he was better than his predecessors, he was no longer the young soldier who'd fought bravely with the French Revolutionary Army while Lafayette was in an Austrian prison. But Lafayette didn't live long enough to see its disappointing end. On May 20 1834, after typically neglecting a cold, he died. He was buried in Picpus cemetery, with earth from America sprinkled over his grave, at rest at last with Adrienne.


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