The freedom fighter Marquis de Lafayette changed history. He helped defeat the British at Yorktown, winning American independence. In France, he helped topple two kings and an emperor. Jean-Antoine Houdon, the great eighteenth-century sculptor who created busts of many great heroes, dubbed Lafayette “the apostle and defender of liberty in the two worlds.”
Cornell University historian Stanley Idzerda remarked, “Lafayette knew only one cause during his long lifetime: human liberty. As a young man he risked his life in war and revolution for that cause. In middle age, living under the barely concealed dictatorship of Napoleon, a regime he detested, he recalled how he had been wounded, denounced, condemned to death, despised, imprisoned, beggared, and exiled—all in the service of human liberty. Poor, powerless, and with no prospects at that time, Lafayette asked, ‘How have I loved liberty? With the enthusiasm of religion, with the rapture of love, with the conviction of geometry: that is how I have always loved liberty.’”
Lafayette was the principal author of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. “There exist certain natural rights inherent in every society of which not only one nation but all the nations together could not justly deprive an individual,” he insisted. He maintained these rights aren’t “subject to the condition of nationality,” and they include “freedom of conscience and opinions, judicial guarantees, the right to come and go.” He promoted free trade. He fought for religious toleration and freedom of the press. When the French government harassed immigrants, he sheltered many in his own house. He spent a lot of his own money to help free slaves in French colonies.
He did more than anybody else to link friends of liberty everywhere. He was in touch with Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Andrew Jackson, and James Fenimore Cooper, among other Americans. He was a friend of Pierre Samuel Du Pont de Nemours, Germaine de Stael, Benjamin Constant, and Horace Say in France. He corresponded with Charles James Fox in Britain and Simón Bolvar, who helped secure the independence of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. Lafayette encouraged Italian liberals, Spanish constitutionalists, and Greek and Polish freedom fighters.
Lafayette stood out in a crowd. He was tall and bony with green eyes. “Pale, lanky, red-haired, with a pointed nose and receding forehead,” added biographer Vincent Cronin, “he looked less like an officer than a wading bird. Nor was he a shining courtier, being slow to speak and awkward.”
From the beginning, though, Lafayette impressed people. His cousin, the Marquis de Bouille recalled, “I found the young La Fayette remarkably well informed for his age, astonishingly forward in reason and reasoning, and extraordinary for his reflections, his wisdom, his moderation, his cool head and his discernment.”
Washington saluted Lafayette’s abilities as a strategist and commander: “He possesses uncommon military talents, is of quick and sound judgment, persevering, and enterprizing without rashness, and besides these, he is of a very conciliating temper and perfectly sober, which are qualities that rarely combine in the same person.”
Jefferson, representing American interests in Paris, offered this candid assessment to Madison: “The Marquis de La Fayette is a most valuable auxiliary to me. His zeal is unbounded, & his weight with those in power, great. His education having been merely military, commerce was an unknown field to him. But his good sense enabling him to comprehend perfectly whatever is explained to him, his agency has been very efficacious. He has a great deal of sound genius, and is well remarked by the King, & rising in popularity. He has nothing against him, but the suspicion of republican principles. I think he will one day be of the ministry. His foible is, a canine appetite for popularity and fame; but he will get above this.” Jefferson told Lafayette: “according to the ideas of our country, we do not permit ourselves to speak even truths, when they may have the air of flattery. I content myself, therefore, with saying once and for all, that I love you, your wife and children.”
The respected Lafayette scholar Louis Gottschalk wrote that “For most of the last fifty years of his long life, he was the outstanding champion in Europe of freedom—freedom for all men, everywhere.”
Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier was born September 6, 1757, in Chateau de Chavaniac, Auvergne, in south-central France. His father was Michel Louis Christophe Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette, Colonel of the French Grenadiers. He descended from a long line of warrior-aristocrats, one of whom fought with Joan of Arc against the English. Lafayette’s mother was Marie-Louise-Julie de la Riviere, whose family had money.
Lafayette’s tutors stressed Catholic doctrine and the battlefield exploits of his ancestors, but he did acquire some proficiency in the classics. “I was very good in Latin,” he recalled. “I wasn’t made to take Greek, which annoyed me. I spent four years at the College [de Plessis]. My essays were quite outstanding.” One of his early heroes was Vercingétorix, who had defended Gaul against Julius Caesar.
When he was two, his father was killed by a British cannon ball at the battle of Minden (about 40 miles west of Hannover, Germany) during the Seven Years War, and he became the Marquis de La Fayette (as he spelled it before the French Revolution). His mother pulled strings to find a place at Versailles, where the king held court. She died in April 1770, and his grandfather, the Marquis de la Riviere, died soon afterward, leaving Lafayette an inheritance which assured him of a sizeable annual income of around 120,000 livres.
At 15, he met 14-year-old Marie Adrienne Francoise de Noailles (known as Adrienne) and fell in love. The wealth and power of the Noailles family were rivaled only by the royal house of Bourbon. They married about a year later, on April 11, 1774. According to biographer André Maurois, she had “large, brooding eyes and an air of alert intelligence.” Her aunt the Comtesse de Tesse, remarked that Adrienne rooted her views in “the Catechism and the Rights of Man.”
Lafayette became impatient with positions in the Noailles cavalry, and he didn’t see a future for himself at the royal court. He heard insurgent Americans were looking for French recruits, so he called on Silas Deane, a Connecticut merchant who was representing the Continental Congress. He wanted to volunteer at his own expense. He told Deane: “it is when danger threatens that I wish to share your fortune.”
Lafayette bought a little two-gun merchant ship named La Victoire and set sail for America on April 20, 1777. It was an anxious voyage, because the ship would have been easy prey for a faster, better-armed British privateer. But Lafayette was lucky, and after 54 days at sea, he arrived at the Bay of Georgetown, South Carolina. He sailed on to Charleston. He spent a month traveling to Philadelphia, mostly on horseback.
The Americans gave him the brush-off because previous French volunteers had proven to be a troublesome lot. But General George Washington was in desperate straits. There were only about 11,000 men in his army, they were poorly equipped, and they were being chased by British General William Howe. Moreover, Benjamin Franklin, whom Lafayette had met in Paris, sent letters asking Washington to serve as a “discreet friend” to Lafayette, “to advise him if necessary with a friendly affection.” Franklin was confident that a generous reception for Lafayette would make the French more willing to help America.
Lafayette and Washington
Lafayette first met Washington during a dinner at Philadelphia’s City Tavern, July 31, 1777. He welcomed Lafayette as the American forces began moving to evade an attack by British General Charles Cornwallis. They were overrun at Brandywine, Pennsylvania, and Lafayette was wounded in the leg. Then Washington’s forces suffered serious losses fighting British General William Howe around Philadelphia.
Lafayette shared the hardships at Valley Forge in 1777-1778. “It is here,” he explained to his wife, “that the American army will spend the winter in little huts which are scarcely more cheerful than a cell. . . . Everything tells me to leave, but honor bids me stay, and really, when you understand in detail the circumstances I am in, which the army is in, as is my friend who commands it, and the whole American cause, you will forgive me, my dear heart, you will even pardon me, and I dare almost say that you will congratulate me.”
Washington’s enemies tried to lure Lafayette into schemes that would undermine Washington’s command, but Lafayette asserted his loyalty. He wrote Washington: “I am bound to your destiny, I shall follow it and will serve you with my sword and with all my faculties.” Washington replied: “I am well aware that you are quite incapable of entertaining plans whose success depends upon lies and that your spirit is too high to stoop to seek a reputation by ignoble means and by intrigue.” He became Washington’s information officer.
On May 18, 1778, Washington directed Lafayette to lead a force up between the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers and disrupt British communications with Philadelphia. He displayed tactical genius by cleverly ambushing several British detachments, then maneuvering his men back through British lines. The British pulled their soldiers out of Philadelphia and headed for New York, and Washington asked Lafayette to pursue them and inflict as much damage as possible. Working with General Charles Lee, who turned out to be incompetent, Lafayette was nearly routed by the British at Monmouth, New Jersey.
He decided to see how he could help the cause by returning to France and leading French forces against the British. He bid farewell to Washington, boarded L’Alliance in Boston, and sailed on January 11, 1779, bearing a letter from Washington to Benjamin Franklin. At Lafayette’s suggestion France would send ships and soldiers to America. Of course, Lafayette would have loved to command the force, but he was only 22, and there were others with considerable seniority.
Lafayette versus the British
Lafayette proved himself extraordinarily resourceful at harassing the British—and escaping from them. One engagement with about 2,500 British soldiers at Petersburg, Virginia, was marked by the death of General William Phillips—the same man who, as an artillery officer 22 years before, had ordered the cannon fire that blew Lafayette’s father to bits.
Traitor General Benedict Arnold took over Phillips’s command, and he was to be joined by General Charles Cornwallis, marching up from South Carolina, and by General Henry Clinton, coming down from New York.
Cornwallis’s primary mission was to cut off the South from the North, destroy its arsenals, and, if possible, capture Lafayette, who had built up a force of about 3,500, including a 40-man cavalry and six artillery pieces—about half the total force led by Cornwallis. Lafayette retreated as Cornwallis advanced. He was careful to avoid being outflanked by always staying on higher ground north and west of Cornwallis. His men found myriad ways to cross the rivers of tidewater Virginia and harass Cornwallis from positions that were hard to assault.
Cornwallis approached Fredericksburg, then withdrew toward Williamsburg, and Lafayette followed. Hundreds of “Mad Anthony” Wayne’s Pennsylvanians met Lafayette at the banks of the North Anna River. He was joined by General Daniel Morgan’s riflemen and by skilled horsemen from Virginia and Maryland. Lafayette’s forces grew almost as large as those of Cornwallis. The British commander dispatched troops to destroy Lafayette’s military supplies stored at Albemarle Old Court House, but Lafayette led his forces through backwoods trails and thwarted the British.
On May 31, 1781, Washington wrote Lafayette saying that at last he and Rochambeau agreed to attack Clinton in New York. This, Washington believed, would force the British to withdraw forces from Virginia. Washington told Lafayette he could head north if he still wished, providing he could find a capable leader for his forces. The British intercepted Washington’s message, and Clinton concluded that he was more vulnerable than Cornwallis. He ordered Cornwallis to establish a defensive position and send some of his forces to New York. Lafayette followed Cornwallis every step of the way, often through night maneuvers that eluded British detection. Two of his subordinates subsequently marched into a British trap, and a reported 139 Americans were killed, and Lafayette spurred his horse through the gunfire to rally his troops. It was a defeat, but Cornwallis withdrew as he dispatched forces to New York, and he planned on leaving Virginia for Charleston. Lafayette regained Williamsburg.
His forces dwindled to about 1,500 as men went home and tended their fields, but he kept tabs on Cornwallis. Lafayette feared he would miss the most important action. He wrote Washington asking for an assignment in New York. Meanwhile, Clinton ordered Cornwallis to maintain a presence on the Chesapeake Bay—a staging area for attacks on Philadelphia—by occupying Yorktown.
On July 31, Washington ordered Lafayette to rebuild his forces as fast as possible and make the cavalry strong. He knew what that meant: keep Cornwallis bottled up on the peninsula where Yorktown stood. A subsequent dispatch confirmed that Admiral Francois-Joseph-Paul, Comte de Grasse, was sailing to Yorktown from French possessions in the Caribbean. And Washington and Rochambeau were on the way!
Lafayette amassed provisions. He beefed up his intelligence about British maneuvers. He repositioned his forces. He begged Virginia governor Thomas Nelson for help: “We have not 2000 militia fit to bring into the field. We are destitute of ammunition, and the army living from hand to mouth and unable to follow the enemy. So that on the arrival of the Spanish, French and American forces, I may be reduced to the cruel necessity to announce that I have not, that it was not in my power to stop the enemy.”
On August 30, Admiral de Grasse’s fleet—six frigates and 28 battleships, with 15,000 sailors and 3,100 marines on board—reached Yorktown. These ships could prevent Cornwallis from escaping by water, and they could help bring American and French soldiers to the scene more quickly. Soon Lafayette commanded over 5,500 regular troops, and there were another 3,000 militiamen. Cornwallis’s 8,800 English, Hessian, and provincial troops were outnumbered by the time Washington and Rochambeau arrived on September 9.
“Through his own good luck and the bad judgment of Generals Clinton and Cornwallis had won for him much of his success,” wrote historian Louis Gottschalk, “less perseverance or more rashness might easily have led to the annihilation of the force which he had commanded. If Cornwallis now faced the prospect of surrender, it was in large part because Lafayette had persisted where others might have given up or had been cautious where others, yielding to an alluring temptation, might have proved too bold.”
The siege of Yorktown began on October 6, 1781. Lafayette was in the thick of the action, leading the capture of British positions. Cornwallis was almost out of food and ammunition, and about a quarter of his men were ill. He surrendered at noon, October 19. British soldiers marched between lines of American and French soldiers as a band played a melody called “The World Turned Upside Down.” When the British tried to slight the Americans by looking only at the French, Lafayette ordered his drum-major to start playing “Yankee Doodle” as the British handed over their weapons and returned to Yorktown under militia guard. Historian Gottschalk observed: “No other person (except perhaps De Grasse) had contributed so much or so directly to the capture of one of England’s finest armies as had the young general fresh from the ‘Society’ of Paris.”
Continuing Efforts for Liberty
Back in France, after the war, Lafayette suggested that he and Washington launch a joint venture against slavery: “permit me to propose a plan to you which might become greatly beneficial to the Black Part of Mankind. Let us unite in purchasing a small estate where we may try the experiment to free the Negroes, and use them only as tenants—such an example as yours might render it a general practice, and if we succeed in America, I will cheerfully devote a part of my time to render the method fascionable [sic] in the West Indias. If it be a wild scheme, I had rather be mad that way, than to be thought wise on the other track.” Washington replied that he would welcome such an opportunity.
Lafayette arrived in New York on August 4, 1784. Two weeks later, he was at Mount Vernon at Washington’s invitation. He spent 11 days there, then visited other American friends and by November he was back with Washington. They traveled together to Annapolis. They bid farewell on December 1. Washington wrote Lafayette, “I felt all that love, respect and attachment for you, with which length of years, close connexion and your merits have inspired me. I often asked myself, as our carriages distended, whether that was the last sight I should have of you. And tho’ I wished to say no, my fears answered yes.” Lafayette and Washington never saw each other again.
Lafayette worked tirelessly for liberty. He promoted freer trade between France and the United States. “There now exist in this kingdom many obstacles to trade which I hope, by little and little, will be eradicated. . . . I think my present duty is, and it ever shall be my rule, to do that in which I hope to serve the United States.”
Lafayette became a charter member of the Society of the Friends of the Blacks. He was an honorary member of the New York Manumission Society and the British Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. In 1785, Lafayette and his wife spent 125,000 livres to buy two plantations in Cayenne, French Guiana. These came with 48 black slaves who were subsequently emancipated and given some land with which to start providing their own livelihood. The aim was to show how emancipation could be handled successfully.
Revolution in France
The slavery issue was soon overtaken by revolution. The French government had incurred enormous debts during the Seven Years War with Britain, and the situation worsened when the government gave substantial aid to the American struggle against Britain. Half the annual budget went to serve the debt, another quarter was spent on the armed forces, and the royal court at Versailles was a costly drain.
The weak-willed Louis XVI had caved in to special interests, dismissing his finance minister, Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, who, during his brief tenure (1774-1776), had cut government spending, abolished monopolies, abolished internal trade restrictions, and abolished forced labor. For a while, Turgot’s successor, Jacques Necker, had covered soaring deficits with borrowing, but this had about reached its limit, and government spending cuts couldn’t be delayed any further. Thousands of people, long dependent on government checks, were desperate. Moreover, inefficient, high-cost producers shut down as consumers gained the choice of spending their money on less expensive goods from Britain and elsewhere. Unemployment in Paris soared to an estimated 50 percent.
Louis XVI intensified demands that the Parlement of Paris approve new taxes. They countered that approval must come from the Estates-General, an assembly of clergy, nobles, and taxpayers (known as the “Third Estate”), which hadn’t met in a century and a half. The nobles who dominated the parliament figured they would dominate a new Estates-General, which is what Louis XVI was afraid of.
In 1787, the king nominated 143 lawyers, judges, and other influential people to the Assembly of Notables, and Lafayette was among them. Although this Assembly could only advise the king, Lafayette hoped that it might persuade the king to limit his absolute power. When that failed, he became a vocal member of the opposition. He constantly spoke out against taxation—and in favor of liberty. After Louis XVI insisted on new taxes, Lafayette declared: “The oriental despotism of the regime enfuriates me.” Lafayette called for a national assembly.
On July 5, 1788, Louis XVI agreed that the following May he would summon the Estates-General. Representatives would have to be elected and an agenda drawn up. Clergy, nobles, and taxpayers had met and voted separately, which meant that the tax-exempt clergy and nobles would always outweigh the Third Estate. This included taxpaying lawyers, bankers, merchants, artisans, and peasants who didn’t want to be forever dominated. The king acceded to demands that the Third Estate have as many representatives as clergy and nobles combined.
The Estates-General convened at Versailles in May 1789. The 47 representatives of the Third Estate declared themselves to be a National Assembly and boycotted the proceedings, demanding that clergy, nobles, and commoners deliberate together and vote individually. Nobles insisted that the king close the hall where the Third Estate met. He did, they continued their deliberations on an indoor tennis court, and Lafayette was there. They swore what became known as the Oath of the Tennis Court on June 20, 1789, to remain in session until they had drafted a constitution for France.
On July 14, 1789, Lafayette was having lunch with the Duke d’Orléans, a rival of Louis XVI, when he heard the distant sound of cannon. He found out that the Bastille, a medieval prison, had been seized by some 800 angry people. Almost a hundred attackers were killed, and the 49-year-old administrator of the Bastille was beheaded by a cook with a butcher’s knife. The Bastille held only seven prisoners at the time, but it had come to symbolize the corrupt regime. Its fall to commoners launched the French Revolution.
A disgruntled lawyer named Maximilien Robespierre described it with what would become his bywords, “punish,” “terror,” and “victim.” He was a leader of the Jacobins, who got their name because they began meeting in a hall which once belonged to Jacobin monks. Generally well-to-do, the Jacobins promoted egalitarian doctrines with force and violence.
The Declaration of Rights
Lafayette believed if anything good was to be accomplished, the aims of the revolution must be spelled out in a way that would win the hearts of people. Accordingly, for months he had been drafting what became the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Lafayette was inspired by the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and his draft reflected his view that the primary threat to liberty was royal absolutism. He affirmed the right of the individual to “assure his property, liberty, honor, and his life.” He advocated separation of powers, limited taxation, and freedom of speech. He carefully specified how the constitution could be revised. In January 1789 he gave this draft to Jefferson, who praised it and sent along a copy to James Madison, then contemplating a Bill of Rights for America.
As the National Assembly debated the Declaration between July 11 and August 26, more members became convinced the primary threat to liberty was mob violence rather than royal absolutism, and they insisted on somewhat more conservative language. The final draft stressed obedience to law. It was more specific on freedom of thought. It specified freedom of religion. It emphasized the importance of secure private property. It didn’t say anything about amending the constitution. Despite these differences, the final version was based more on Lafayette’s draft than any other—almost all of his first five paragraphs were incorporated into the final version. While less eloquent than the immortal opening lines of the American Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, adopted on August 27, offered a more fully developed vision of liberty.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen appeared in thousands of broadsheets, pamphlets, and books. It was read in public places.
As for specific constitutional arrangements, Lafayette believed that a separation of powers was essential. He favored a bicameral legislature with a Chamber of Representatives, a lower house (short terms) that could initiate legislation, and the Senate, an upper house (six-year terms) that could exercise a “suspensive” veto on legislation, preventing enactment for perhaps a year. Similarly, he thought that legislative power should be subject to check by a king with a suspensive veto, preventing enactment through two elections—unless overridden by a two-thirds vote in the Chamber of Representatives.
But there was a bitter split in the National Assembly over checks and balances. Lafayette asked his friend Jefferson to host a dinner for eight National Assembly leaders, but despite the Virginian’s benevolent influence, the split remained as deep as ever. On September 10, the Assembly voted 490 to 89 for a legislature with a single chamber. It supported a suspensive veto for the king, giving Lafayette a partial victory.
Citizen militias formed throughout France, and they came together as the National Guard, which served the National Assembly. Lafayette was appointed commander of the Paris National Guard. “The National Assembly,” he declared, “recognizes with pleasure that all France owes the Constitution which is going to ensure her happiness to the great efforts for public liberty just made by the Parisians.” Soldiers throughout Paris swore allegiance to Lafayette, which seemed to give him more power than the king. Lafayette used his power mainly to save people from being murdered by mobs.
In the National Assembly, Lafayette was pushing for reforms. He introduced a measure for abolishing aristocratic privileges, and it passed on August 4. He proposed major reforms of criminal justice—accused persons must be provided with legal counsel, they must have access to all documents in their case, they must be able to confront witnesses, and trials must be public.
During the night of June 20, 1791, Louis XVI secretly made his “flight to Varennes,” near the Belgian frontier, an attempt at rallying royalists and, if necessary, joining the Austrian army mobilized against the Revolution. Lafayette awakened his house guest, Rights of Man author Thomas Paine, and exclaimed: “The birds have flown away!” Outraged, since he had assured people that the king agreed to stay put, he signed the first order in French history for the arrest of a king, and he brought the humiliated royal family back to Paris.
On September 14, 1791, Louis XVI abandoned royal absolutism as he signed the Constitution.
This wasn’t good enough for fanatics who were gaining more influence every day. Mob violence became endemic. Lafayette was branded an enemy of the nation who must be guillotined. On August 17, 1792, he was dismissed from the National Guard, an almost certain prelude to execution. Lafayette headed for the Belgian border, on his way to Holland. By fleeing the country, according to a 1792 decree, he forfeited all his properties.
Lafayette was detained in Rochefort, Belgium, which was controlled by the Austrian Emperor Francois II. Although Austria welcomed French royalist émigrés, Lafayette was considered a dangerous revolutionary. He was sent off to Wesel in western Germany, where he was placed in solitary confinement in a dark, damp, moldy, rat-infested dungeon. After about a year, the Prussian government agreed to serve as jailer for enemies of Austria, and Lafayette was transferred east to a fortress at Magdeburg, about 75 miles from Berlin—another dungeon. By January 1794, he had been transferred further east, a 12-day journey through bitter-cold weather to yet another dungeon at Neisse, near the Polish frontier.
The Prussians decided that Austria should jail its own enemies, and in the spring, Lafayette was transferred to Olmutz, Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic). Lafayette was stripped of virtually all possessions except a few books, including, ironically, a copy of Thomas Paine’s radical Common Sense.
He wrote a friend that “Liberty is the constant subject of my solitary meditations. . . . It is what one of my friends once called my ‘holy madness.’ And whether some miracle releases me from here, or whether I testify upon the scaffold, ‘liberty, equality’ will be my final words. Here, I can fight against the tyrants only for my soul and my body.” He expressed concern “that the Blacks who cultivate it [his estate in Cayenne] still keep their liberty.”
Meanwhile, during the Reign of Terror in 1793 and 1794, when Robespierre ordered some 60 executions a day, 40,000 altogether, Adrienne Lafayette’s mother, grandmother, and sister had been guillotined, and Adrienne had been imprisoned in Brioude and Paris. She was released thanks, in part, to efforts by American diplomat James Monroe, who had also helped free Thomas Paine from a French prison. Adrienne arranged for 14-year-old George Washington Lafayette to find a safe haven in America. He bore her letter to George Washington that said “I send you my son.”
Adrienne worked singlemindedly to see Lafayette. As Lafayette descendant and scholar Réné de Chambrun explained, “Lafayette had not spoken to a human being and had been completely isolated from the outside world for nearly one year, when suddenly, on October 15, 1795, the door of his narrow cell was thrown open.” In came Lafayette’s wife and two daughters. It was the most “dramatic instant of his life.”
Prison conditions took their toll on Adrienne. She developed fevers, her arms became swollen, and there were open sores on her legs. When she asked to visit a physician in Vienna, she was told that if she left she could never return. She stayed, and her health worsened.
George Washington wrote a confidential letter to Francois II, pleading for their freedom and offering the United States as a sanctuary. In the British parliament, Charles James Fox and Richard Brinsley Sheridan championed Lafayette.
The October 17, 1797, Treaty of Campo-Formio stipulated, among other things, that Lafayette and his wife would be released. They went to Holstein, a province of Denmark that wasn’t likely to become embroiled in war between France and England. On Christmas Day 1798, George Washington wrote his last letter to Lafayette, expressing relief that his friend was free.
Finally in November 1799, Napoleon agreed they could return. Most of their properties had been confiscated and sold during the French Revolution. They were left with La Grange, an abandoned fifteenth-century castle about 35 miles east of Paris. Jefferson pleaded with Lafayette to make America his home. But Lafayette was convinced that if he left France, Napoleon would never let him return.
Réné le Chambrun emphasized that “Madame Lafayette’s greatest concern was to find the hidden ditch where the beheaded bodies of her grandmother, mother, and sister Louise lay with the other victims of the Terror. With her sister . . . they one day found the dreaded hole. They were too poor to buy the surrounding land, so they raised a subscription among the victims’ kin. They built a chapel on the site of the one the Revolution had destroyed at Picpus.”
Despite all he had suffered, Lafayette remained defiant. In 1802, Napoleon wanted to be named a consul for life, but Lafayette expressed his opposition. “The French people have too well known their rights to have forgotten them,” he declared.
In 1807, Adrienne suffered the same painful symptoms she had in prison. By October, she developed a fever and went into a delerium. Her family gathered around. On Christmas Eve, she put her arm around Lafayette’s neck and whispered, “Je suis toute a vous” (“I am all yours”). She groped for his fingers, squeezed them, and was gone.
Lafayette, Réné le Chambrun explained, “seldom left La Grange, where he led a farmer’s life.” He improved fertilization techniques. He introduced American corn to France. He planted apple and pear orchards, and he did a good business selling cider. He introduced new breeds of cattle, hogs, and sheep. He did well enough that he paid off debts and achieved some financial security.
Every day he arose at five in the morning, Chambrun reported, and “remained in bed for two hours writing friends of liberty all over the world: Poles, Hungarians, Greeks, Spaniards and Portuguese, North and South Americans . . . and, alone on his knees, holding in his hand a small portrait of Adrienne and a lock of her hair, he would spend a quarter of an hour in meditative devotion.”
Lafayette’s Return to Public Life
After Napoleon’s downfall in 1814, Lafayette returned to public life. He visited Germaine de Stael, who, after a decade of exile, had revived her influential liberal salon. He protested as Napoleon’s successor, Louis XVIII, affirmed the divine right of kings and issued one decree after another. He lashed out at aristocrats scrambling back into power.
When Napoleon attempted his comeback, claiming a conversion to liberalism, the supposedly nave Lafayette declared, “I see no sign of his doing so.” The intellectual Benjamin Constant, who had bet on Napoleon’s conversion to liberal principles, told Lafayette: “You are my conscience!” Constant persuaded Lafayette to seek election for the Chamber of Deputies. He became a deputy from the department of Seine-et-Marne.
Defeated at Waterloo, Napoleon demanded dictatorial power. Lafayette rose in the Chamber of Deputies. “When for the first time in long years,” he declared, “I raise a voice that the old friends of liberty will still recognize, I feel called upon, Messieurs, to speak to you of the dangers confronting the nation, which you alone, just now, have the power to save. . . . This is the moment for us to rally round the old tricolour standard, the standard of ’89, the standard of liberty, of equality and public order; it is that alone which we have to defend against pretensions abroad and assaults at home.” He proposed five resolutions that, among other things, asserted the supremacy of parliamentary government.
Napoleon, still the most feared military commander in Europe, was furious. Lafayette urged his fellow deputies to join him in telling the Emperor that “after all that has happened, his abdication has become necessary to save the nation.” Napoleon abdicated.
Lafayette withdrew from politics, but he remained an inspiration to friends of liberty everywhere. When fanatical royalists began to terrorize much of France, friends encouraged Lafayette to seek office again. In 1818, he was elected to the Chamber of Deputies from Sarthe. He started a group called Friends of the Liberty of the Press, and he pleaded for toleration. He urged that people “return to the national, constitutional and peaceable path—the path of good will. We have so many public and personal interests to conserve, so many common sorrows to deplore, so many private qualities to recognize in one another, when they are not denatured by the partisan spirit.”
In 1823, Lafayette accepted President James Monroe’s invitation for a farewell tour of America. He declined Monroe’s offer to send a warship for him and instead traveled aboard the ordinary packet ship Cadmus. He arrived on August 15, 1824, and was greeted by some 30,000 people. An estimated 50,000 cheered Lafayette as he rode a wagon drawn by four white horses to New York’s City Hall. People threw flowers at him. Mothers brought their children for his blessing. Some 6,000 people attended a ball in his honor. He began a 13-month tour through all 24 states.
“I see you are to visit York-Town,” Jefferson wrote Lafayette in Boston, “my spirit will be there with you; but I am too enfeebled by old age to make the journey. . . . Our village of Charlottesville insists upon receiving you, and would have claimed you as its guest, if in the neighborhood of Monticello you could be anybody’s guest but mine . . . God bless and keep you; may He permit me to see you again and to embrace you.”
Lafayette commended Americans for what they had accomplished: “In the United States the sovereignty of the people, reacquired by a glorious and spotless Revolution, universally acknowledged, guaranteed not only by a constitution . . . but by legal procedures which are always within the scope of the public will. It is also exercised by free, general, and frequent elections. . . . Ten million people, without a monarchy, without a court, without an aristocracy, without trade-guilds, without unnecessary or unpopular taxes, without a state police, a constabulary, or any disorder, have acquired the highest degree of freedom, security, prosperity, and happiness, which human civilization could have imagined.”
At Bunker Hill, Massachusetts, the orator Daniel Webster declared: “Heaven saw fit to ordain, that the electric spark of liberty should be conducted through you, from the New World to the Old.” Lafayette entered Philadelphia, escorted by four wagons carrying about 160 Revolutionary War veterans. He stopped at the Brandywine battlefield where he had been wounded. He returned to Yorktown, which was still in ruins. Big crowds welcomed him everywhere—for instance, 10,000 in Newburgh (New York), 50,000 in Baltimore, and 70,000 in Boston. He was cheered in Richmond, Columbia, Charleston, Savannah, Augusta, Montgomery, Mobile, New Orleans, Natchez, St. Louis, Nashville, Lexington, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Albany. He appeared at Catholic churches, Protestant churches, and Masonic lodge gatherings. He attended receptions open to everybody, and he publicly welcomed blacks and Indians who came. Lafayette descended to the vault of George Washington’s tomb at Mount Vernon. There was a reception at the University of Virginia. He saw John Adams in Quincy, Massachusetts, and James Madison in Montpelier, Virginia.
And Lafayette reached Monticello. “The Marquis got out of his barouche and limped as fast as he could toward the house,” explained biographer Brand Whitlock. “Between the white columns of the portico appeared a tall, spare figure of a man stooped with age, wearing the swallow-tailcoat, the long waistcoat and the high stock of another epoch; he had cut off his queue, and his thin white locks hung about his hollow temples and lean cheeks; he tottered down the steps, and came towards him.
“‘Ah, Jefferson!’ cried Lafayette.
“The two old men broke into a shuffling run.
“‘Ah, Lafayette!’ cried Jefferson.
“No need for eloquence now! They burst into tears and fell into each other’s arms.”
Sometime later, Lafayette’s secretary Auguste Levasseur described an awesome sight in Charlottesville: “the Nation’s Guest, seated at the patriotic banquet between Jefferson and Madison.” On September 7, Lafayette went down the Potomac River on the steamboat Mount Vernon, boarded the frigate Brandywine, and sailed back to France.
Lafayette began spending winter months at 6 rue d’Anjou, Paris, and there held Tuesday evening receptions that attracted liberals from America and Europe. The American author James Fenimore Cooper reported that the gatherings “are exceedingly well attended.” Benjamin Constant and Alexander von Humboldt attended, as did members of the Chamber of Deputies. Historian Lloyd Kramer noted that “Lafayette’s soirees in Paris, like his long conversations with guests at La Grange, thus facilitated contact between different generations in much the same way as they contributed to new connections between politicians and writers or between his French friends and foreigners.”
Meanwhile, in 1824, Charles X had become king of France and reasserted the power of church and throne. The Roman Catholic Church regained control over French schools, and anyone convicted of committing a sacrilege in a church building could be put to death. In 1830, the Chamber of Deputies voted “no confidence” in the ministry, the king called for new elections, and voters supported the king’s outspoken opponents. On July 26, 1830, the king issued four decrees that dissolved the new Chamber of Deputies, suppressed freedom of the press, restricted the voting franchise of merchants and bankers and announced new elections based on the restricted franchise.
The day after the decrees were announced, Paris erupted in revolt. People barricaded the streets July 27, 28, and 29. The army refused to shoot at the rebels. Some wanted a democratic republic, while others wanted stronger constitutional limitations on the monarchy, and still others were mainly concerned about job security.
The 73-year-old Lafayette declared that the regime of Charles X was politically finished and that it was time for a new government. “Make a revolution,” he urged. “Without it, we shall have made nothing but a riot.” As in 1789, he was asked to head the National Guard, and he accepted, but he declined suggestions that he become president of a French republic. While Paris seemed to favor a republic, most people in the provinces feared violent upheaval and wanted a constitutional monarchy. Lafayette concluded that “what the French people need today is a popular throne surrounded by republican institutions, but altogether republican.” He believed the top priority for liberty was to preserve the authority of the Chamber of Deputies.
He proposed that the Duke d’Orléans become king. The duke was related to the Bourbon dynasty, had been in the republican army during the French Revolution, and he agreed to observe constitutional limitations on royal power. Accordingly, the Chamber of Deputies offered him the throne on August 7, and he became Louis-Philippe, “the bourgeois king.” He proved to be an adroit public relations man—displaying the revolutionary tricolor flag, calling himself “king of the French” (rather than king of France), dressing in austere dark suits instead of opulent robes. Louis-Philippe made the Chamber of Peers an elected rather than hereditary body, and the voting franchise was doubled to include about 200,000 business people who possessed some property.
Lafayette defended individuals jailed for political offenses. He opposed capital punishment. He denounced slavery. He supported insurgents in Belgium. He was a champion of Polish freedom, and—defying government restrictions on refugees—he hid Polish patriots like Antoine Ostrowski and Joachim Lelewell at his La Grange estate.
In early February 1834, Lafayette reported pain and fatigue, perhaps triggered by prolonged exposure to bitter cold air. He had pneumonia. His children stayed with him. At about 4 o’clock in the morning, May 20, 1834, Lafayette pressed to his lips a medallion with a picture of Adrienne and took his last breath. He was 77. The funeral service was at the Church of the Assumption, Paris. Tens of thousands of people turned out to see 3,000 National Guards accompany Lafayette’s coffin to the humble Picpus cemetery, where he would join Adrienne and so many guillotined victims of the French Revolution. Lafayette was laid to rest in American soil he had brought back on the Brandywine.
Lafayette was idolized during the nineteenth century, especially in the United States. His portrait seemed to be everywhere—American Friends of Lafayette has over a thousand historic portraits of him. Dozens of American towns, counties, and schools were named after him. “Pronounce him one of the first men of his age,” John Quincy Adams proclaimed in his tribute, “and you have not done him justice.”
But most twentieth-century historians—especially French—debunked Lafayette as a vain, immature, mediocre, doctrinaire simpleton. Many conservatives, including his descendants, viewed him as a traitor to his class. Lafayette’s grandson inherited La Grange, and he married a British woman—a Tory. She consigned Lafayette’s books, papers, and other personal possessions to the third-floor attic of the northwest tower, a space which Lafayette had called the “Couloir des Polonais” (“hiding place of free Poles”). The next two generations maintained the Tory ambiance of the place.
Happily, there has come a renewed appreciation for Lafayette. Réné le Chambrun, descended from Lafayette’s daughter Virginie, acquired La Grange in 1955 and explored the northwest tower attic. He and his wife discovered a treasure of letters and mementoes.
Historian Lloyd Kramer recalled the revelation he experienced when he helped edit Cornell University’s vast collection of Lafayette letters, gathered from Lafayette’s birthplace at the Chateau de Chavaniac: “I soon came to realize the historical value of reading ‘primary sources’ and to believe that Lafayette’s life had been far more varied and complex than the ironic, historical narratives suggested.”
Even a tart-tongued biographer like Olivier Bernier acknowledged that “whatever his limitations, it is to Lafayette’s glory that the one idea he seized on was that of liberty. Nothing can replace the right to speak, think, organize, and govern freely: from this all benefits derive. With his vanity, his obstinacy, his self-satisfaction, his thirst for popularity, Lafayette never lost sight of that all-desirable principle. For that, he deserved the gratitude of his contemporaries and the esteem of later generations. In a world where liberty is in very short supply, there are worse heroes than a man who never stopped worshipping freedom.” So the one thing Lafayette’s critics concede is the most important of all. He still stands tall as the great hero of two worlds.