essays

Jul 4, 2000

Generous Heart: Marquis de Lafayette

A hero of the American Revolution, Lafayette was also a champion of liberty in his native France.

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 18th 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 a tireless champion of natural rights, 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 Simon Bolivar who helped secure the independence of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Lafayette encouraged Italian liberals, Spanish constitutionalists, Greek and Polish freedom fighters. 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.”

Lafayette certainly 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.” 

Yet Washington saluted Lafayette’s abilities as a strategist and commander: “He possesses uncommon military talents, is of quick and sound judgment, persevering, and enterprising 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 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.”

Marie Joseph Paul Yvres Roche Gilbert du Motier was born September 6, 1757 in Chateau de Chavaniac, Auvergne, south-central France. His father was Michel Louis Christophe Roche 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. La Fayette’s mother was Marie-Louise-Julie de la Riviere whose family had money.

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). One of his early heroes was Vercingetorix who had defended Gaul against Julius Caesar. His mother died in April 1770, and his grandfather, the marquis de la Riviere, died soon afterward, leaving La Fayette an inheritance which assured him of an annual income around 120,000 livres which was huge.

At 15, he met 14-year-old Marie Adrienne Francoise de Noailles (known as Adrienne) and fell in love. They married about a year later, on April 11, 1774. According to biographer Andre Maurois, she had “large, brooding eyes and an air of alert intelligence.”

La Fayette heard insurgent Americans were looking for French recruits, and he sailed for America on April 20, 1777. He met General George Washington during a dinner at Philadelphia’s City Tavern, July 31st. Washington had only about 11,000 men in his army, they were poorly equipped, and they were being pursued by the British. La Fayette joined American forces as they evaded an attack by British General Charles Cornwallis. They were overrun at Brandywine, Pennsylvania, and La Fayette was wounded in the leg. La Fayette shared the hardships at Valley Forge in 1777-1778. He became Washington’s information officer. 

He decided to try soliciting French assistance for the Americans, sailing from Boston in January 1779. King Louis VIII authorized a mission headed by Jean Baptiste Donatien, Comte de Rochambeau, a veteran of the Seven Years War. On March 11th the following year, La Fayette sailed back to America on the Hermione, to bring news that six French battle ships and 6,000 soldiers were coming.

Washington asked La Fayette to take about 2,000 men to Virginia, so they could limit damage by the British and keep and eye on them. La Fayette borrowed money from Baltimore merchants so he could make sure all his men had shoes and clothing. La Fayette proved himself adept at harassing and escaping from the British. 

In June 1781, General Clinton, British General Charles Cornwallis was ordered to establish a defensive position in Virginia and send some of his forces to New York. La Fayette monitored Cornwallis’ movements as he occupied the Yorktown peninsula facing Chesapeake Bay, a potential staging area for attacks on Philadelphia. On July 31st, Washington, who was camped at West Point, New York, ordered La Fayette to build his forces as fast as possible, so he could keep Cornwallis bottled up at Yorktown. 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!

On August 30th, Admiral de Grasse’s fleet — six frigates and 28 battle ships, with 15,000 sailors and 3,100 marines on board — reached Yorktown. These ships prevented Cornwallis from escaping by water, and they helped bring more American and French soldiers to the scene quickly. Soon La Fayette commanded over 5,500 regular troops, and there were another 3,000 militia men. Cornwallis’ 8,800 British, Hessian and provincial troops were outnumbered by the time Washington and Rochambeau arrived on September 9th. “If Cornwallis now faced the prospect of surrender,” wrote historian Louis Gottschalk, “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 6th, and La Fayette helped lead the capture of British positions. Cornwallis surrendered October 19, 1781. 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.”

Washington urged La Fayette to “come with Madame la Fayette and view me in my domestic walks…no man could receive you in them with more friendship and affection than I should do.”  La Fayette visited Washington for 11 days in August 1784. After they said their final farewells, they never saw each other again.

La Fayette worked tirelessly for liberty. He promoted freer trade between France and the United States. He 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, La Fayette and his wife spent 125,000 livres to buy two plantations in Cayenne, French Guiana. The La Fayettes liberated the 48 black slaves who worked there and gave them some land with which to start providing their own livelihood. The aim was to show how emancipation could be handled successfully.

The slavery issue was soon overtaken by revolution. The French government had incurred enormous debts during the Seven Years War with Britain (1756-1763), and the situation worsened when the government gave substantial aid to the American struggle against Britain. To get new taxes, Louis XVI agreed to summon 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. Lafayette called for a truly national assembly, and Louis XVI finally agreed. Representatives were elected, and the Estates General convened at Versailles in May 1789.

By this time, to make clear the proper aims of policy, La Fayette had drafted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. He was inspired by the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and his draft reflected his view that the primary threat to liberty was royal absolutism. 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. The National Assembly began debating the Declaration on July 11. Three days later, the Bastille, a medieval prison, was seized by some eight hundred angry people, and the French Revolution was underway. Members of the National Assembly became convinced the primary threat to liberty was mob violence, and they insisted that the Declaration be modified. The final version offered a more fully-developed vision of liberty than the American Declaration of Independence. As for specific constitutional arrangements, Lafayette believed there should be a separation of powers, but he was defeated when the National Assembly voted 490 to 89 for a legislature with a single chamber. In a gesture to republican ideals, he dropped the aristocratic spelling of his last name and changed it to Lafayette.

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. Lafayette saved people from being murdered by mobs. He rescued the king and queen from angry mobs at Versailles and escorted the royal family to 16th century Tuilleries Palace, Paris. During the night of June 20, 1791, Louis XVI secretly made his “flight to Varennes,” near the Belgian frontier, an attempt at rallying royalists. 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 would stay put, Lafayette signed the first order in French history for the arrest of a king, and the royal family was brought back to Paris.

Fanatical Jacobins wanted blood, and they gained more of a following every day. Named after the hall where they first met, which had belonged to Jacobin monks, they were egalitarian admirers of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Among them were Paul Marat, Jacques Rene Hebert, Pierre Brissot and Maximilien Robespierre. They thought Lafayette should be executed as a traitor.

He headed for the Belgian border, on his way to Holland. He was detained in Rochefort, Belgium which was controlled by the Austrian emperor Francois II. Considered a dangerous revolutionary, Lafayette was sent to one dark, damp, moldy, rat-infested dungeon after another in Wesel (western Germany), Magdeburg (about 75 miles from Berlin), Om Meosse (near the Polish frontier) and Olmutz (now part of the Czech Republic). He endured swarms of mosquitoes, the stench of open sewers and the bitter cold of winter. Lafayette was stripped of virtually all possessions except a few books, including a copy of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. He wrote a friend: “Liberty is the constant subject of my solitary meditations…It is what one of my friends once called my ‘holy madness.’”

Meanwhile, during the Reign of Terror in 1793 and 1794, when Robespierre ordered some 60 executions a day, Adrienne Lafayette’s mother, grandmother and sister were guillotined, and Adrienne was imprisoned in Paris. She was eventually released thanks, in part, to efforts by American diplomat James Monroe who had also helped free Thomas Paine from a French prison. She arranged for 14-year-old George Washington Lafayette to find a safe haven in America. He brought her letter to George Washington, saying “I send you my son.”  

Austrian emperor Francois II let her and daughters Anastasie and Virginie join him in prison. As Lafayette descendant and scholar Rene 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. Into the dim room entered a woman and two children. This was the most dramatic instant of his life.”

Lafayette’s friends including George Washington, the influential French woman Germaine de Stael and the Englishman Charles James Fox tried to get them out of prison. Finally, after Napoleon’s armies swept east into Austrian territory in 1797, they were released. They went to Holstein, a province of Denmark which wasn’t likely to become embroiled in war.

Most of Lafayette’s properties had been confiscated and sold during the French Revolution. The family was left with La Grange, an abandoned 15th century castle about 35 miles east of Paris. They cleaned out a few rooms where they might live. President Thomas Jefferson had the government reimburse Lafayette for some of the supplies he had bought his soldiers during the American Revolution, and this made it possible to fix the roof. Jefferson pleaded with Lafayette to make America his home, offering land from the Louisiana Purchase.

In October 1807, Adrienne developed a fever and went into a delirium. 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 wrote Jefferson, “Who better than you can sympathize for the loss of a beloved wife?”

Rene le Chambrun reported that everyday at La Grange, Lafayette arose at five in the morning 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.”   

Although Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in 1815, he was still the most feared military commander in Europe, and he tried to hold onto his power. Lafayette, who had been elected to the new Chamber of Deputies, expressed outrage that Napoleon’s wars had cost the lives of 3 million Frenchmen, and he demanded that Napoleon abdicate. Napoleon was soon exiled in the South Atlantic, but fanatical royalists took over and assassinated many opponents. Lafayette started a group called Friends of the Liberty of the Press, and he pleaded for toleration.

In 1823, Lafayette accepted President James Monroe’s invitation for a farewell tour of America. He arrived in New York 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.

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…In France, on the contrary, there are no longer any municipal or administrative elections nor any other popular elections, no freedom of the press, no jury…nor any representation of the heart of the people.” 

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, still in ruins. He was welcomed by 10,000 people in Newburgh (New York), 50,000 in Baltimore, 70,000 in Boston – big crowds everywhere. He was cheered in Richmond, Columbia, Charleston, Savannah, Augusta, Montgomery, Mobile, New Orleans, Nanchez, 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 7th, 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 which 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 Catholic church regained control over French schools, and anyone convicted of committing a sacrilege in a church building could be put to death. On July 26, 1830, the king issued decrees which dissolved the Chamber of Deputies, suppressed freedom of the press and restricted the voting franchise. Paris erupted in revolt. “Make a revolution,” the 73-year-old Lafayette urged. “Without it, we shall have made nothing but a riot.”  He played a key role deposing Charles X and picking his successor Louis Philippe, a monarch subject to a constitution which provided some protection for individual liberty.      

Lafayette continued to be a champion of liberty. He defended individuals jailed for political offenses. He opposed capital punishment. He denounced slavery. He supported insurgents in Belgium. He supported Polish freedom, and — defying French laws 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 4:00 in the morning, May 20, 1834, Lafayette pressed to his lips a medallion with a picture of Adrienne, and he took his last breath. He was 77. The funeral service was at the church of l’Assumption, Paris. Tens of thousands of people turned out to see 3,000 thousand 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 19th century, especially in the United States. His portrait seemed to be everywhere — American Friends of Lafayette has over a thousand historic portraits of Lafayette. 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.”

Lafayette’s grandson inherited La Grange, and he married a British woman — a Tory – who 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”). Most 20th century historians belittled Lafayette as a vain, doctrinaire simpleton.

Happily, there has come a renewed appreciation for Lafayette. Rene 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 trove, surviving thanks to the absence of humidity or vermin. Lafayette’s 3,000-volume library was there, as were some 25,000 letters to people like Jefferson, Washington and Madison. The only book drawing on this material is a 1961 biography of Adrienne by le Chambrun’s friend Andre Maurois. In recent years, the papers were microfilmed on 64 reels, and these went to the Library of Congress.

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. Reading and discussing Lafayette’s mail with my fellow editors gradually made me wonder how the simple mediocrity who appeared in modern history books could be the same man whom his contemporaries sought out in a wide variety of political, personal, and revolutionary crises from the 1770s to the 1830s.”

Even a tart-tongued biographer like Oliver 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 is still the great hero of two worlds.

Reprinted from The Triumph of Liberty by Jim Powell.