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Most adult Americans are familiar with the famous phrase “ Lafayette, we are here,” attributed to U.S. General John J. Pershing when the first American troops landed in France in 1917 to fight alongside French forces during World War I.
The Marquis de Lafayette (spelled La Fayette in France) was not the first but certainly the most famous of the French officers who crossed the Atlantic in the other direction to fight beside American forces in the War of Independence from Great Britain.
You are going to hear a lot more about him in the months to come because this year marks the 250th anniversary of his birth on September 6, 1757.
The French navy already has sent its frigate La Fayette, named after the Marquis, on a visit to New Orleans and multiple museum exhibitions and commemorative celebrations already have been held or are in the offing in both France and the United States, particularly in places like Lafayette College in Easton, PA, or the city of Lafayette in Louisiana.
In fact, Lafayette’s American adventure was only a small part of a tempestuous career which put him at odds in his own country not only with King Louis XVI before the French revolution of 1789 but later on with French Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte and three more French kings who succeeded him.
First and only son of a noble military family, Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, lost his father when he was only two years old and his mother 11 years later. By the age of 13, he was an immensely wealthy orphan whose imagination was fired early on by the democratic ideals of the revolution in America.
Married at the age of 17 to Adrienne, the daughter of the Duc d’Ayen, an immensely powerful member of King Louis XVI’s court, he served briefly in the King’s army as an officer of Grenadiers.
However, intrigued by the independence battle of the American colonists, he left the army and embarked in 1777 for America, defying in the process orders from both his father-in-law and from the King himself not to leave France.
In America, he was accepted into the colonial army, gained a reputation as a brilliant and devoted officer, quickly became a favorite of General George Washington and served with him both at Valley Forge and later during his victory over the British at Yorktown in 1781.
The young Frenchman’s close relationship with Washington, who, in a sense became his foster father, was to last for his entire lifetime and help him to become a hero-figure both in his native France and in the newly independent United States.
Dispatched by Washington to garner more French support for the American cause, he returned to France temporarily in 1779.
Because both the King and Lafayette’s father-in- law, the Duke d’Ayen, found it hard to punish him severely for having deliberately disobeyed them by sailing secretly away to join the American colonial rebellion in 1777, the solution was an order by the King forbidding Lafayette to leave his residence for a symbolic period of 10 days.
That tap on the wrist still left him free to hold court in his own home receiving friends and acquaintances and renewing contacts.
Quickly re-establishing a formidable presence in French society his home became a familiar rendezvous for prestigious Americans in France in that period including Benjamin Franklin; John Adams, Thomas Jefferson; Thomas Paine and Gouverneur Morris.
During this time he indefatigably promoted the interests of what became, in effect, his foster country and was instrumental in getting the King to dispatch 6,000 French troops to Washington’s assistance.
Returning to America in 1780 in time to serve again with Washington in the victory at Yorktown he then went back to France and was in attendance when the treaty consecrating the independence of the United States was signed in Paris in 1783.
A year later, when George Washington was unable to accept Lafayette’s invitation to visit France, the Marquis kept contact anyway by returning to America to visit his spiritual father.
The trip, for the young Frenchman who had been named an “Honorary Citizen” of the U.S. with the residual rank of Major General in the American army, was a triumphal one and he was greeted enthusiastically as a hero in cities, like Baltimore, Albany and Philadelphia that figured in his War of Independence career. He was received several times by the Continental Congress and spent a dozen days with the family of George Washington in Mount Vernon.
Returning to Europe in late 1784 and often hailed as the “Hero of Two Worlds,” he travelled throughout much of the continent in the same triumphal manner, was received by the Austrian emperor Joseph II in Vienna and recieved (but turned down) a similar invitation from Czarina Catherine II to visit her in Saint-Petersbourg, Russia.
Everywhere he went he spoke out frequently against all brands of autocracy and for the kind of democratic principles he so admired in the United States.
But the approach of the French revolution and immense problems for Lafayette was near.
By 1788, the France of Louis XVI was becoming increasingly restless with the idea of unchallenged monarchical rule, and by 1789 it was in total turmoil with unrest and revolt in much of the country and the King increasingly at odds with a recalcitrant parliament refusing to follow his orders.
When a wave of frustrated citizens stormed and occupied the Bastille prison in Paris on July 14, 1789, an event that became the symbolic trigger of the French revolution, the eventual fate of the King, still ensconced in his palace in Versailles, became a prime concern to those, particularly the noble class, who still remained loyal to him.
Among them, Lafayette proved to be the man of the moment. He was a noble himself but also was a soldier of renown whose fidelity to democratic ideals gave him wide popularity with the masses.
He thus was chosen, with the rank of Chief General, to head a newly formed national guard whose mission was to protect the King and retain national order during this time of national tumult.
That assignment earned him enemies on all sides.
His advocacy of increased democracy put him at odds on one hand with the King’s fervently royalist supporters. But his belief that even in a newly democratic post-revolutionary government the King should remain as a constitutional monarch simultaneously earned him the enmity of the nation’s increasingly powerful revolutionary forces.
King Louis XVI himself, although stripped of much of his power, was still on the throne and, partly to escape Lafayette’s constant surveillance, he promoted him to the rank of General and assigned him in 1791 to command French forces in Eastern France engaged in a war with Austria and Prussia.
Taken prisoner in 1792, the Marquis spent five years in captivity before pressure by France’s new leader, Napoléon Bonaparte, and a personal plea to the Austrian rulers by George Washington (then still President of the United States), helped earn him release in 1797.
Bonaparte was well aware of Lafayette’s troublesome idealist agitator tendencies and initially refused to allow him to return to his native country. After two years in exile in Germany and Holland, however, he entered France clandestinely in 1799. Initially furious, Napoléon reluctantly allowed him to stay providing that he remained quiet and removed from politics.
Of course he didn’t.
He soon ran for and won a seat in parliament where he systematically criticized any of Napoléon’s actions that he considered insufficiently democratic while constantly refusing the latter’s attempts to win his allegiance. He turned down an offer of a Senate seat, the presidency of his native Haute-Loire region of France, induction into France’s prestigious Legion of Honor and even an offer to make him France’s ambassador to the United States.
That would have gotten him out of Napoléon’s hair, but Lafayette refused it on the grounds that he already was an honorary American citizen and couldn’t be an ambassador to his own country.
After Napoléon in 1802 had himself appointed to office for life, Lafayette decided that he never could convince the French leader to be more democratic.
He retired to his family chateau, La Grange, in eastern France and, as his hero Washington had done after leaving the U.S. presidency, he became a gentleman farmer.
That was not to last. In April, 1814, with his armies in disarray and enemy troops at the gates of Paris, Napoléon abdicated and began the long road to imprisonment and exile on the island of Elba.
Within hours after Napoléon renounced power, the French senate proclaimed the French Bourbon family monarchy restored and recognized Louis XVI’s brother, Louis-Stanislas-Xavier as their new King, an office he assumed less than a month later under the title of Louis XVIII.
Received politely by the new King but shunned and vilified by the nobles of his court who still considered Lafayette a virtual revolutionary, the Marquis remained in retirement during Louis XVIII’s initial reign, one which was to endure, however, for scarcely a year.
By March, 1815, Napoléon was back in power having escaped from Elba, landed near Marseilles, rallied still sentimentally loyal soldiers from the French armies he had so often led to victory, marched on Paris and driven Louis XVIII from the throne.
That also was not to last essentially because of Napoléon’s defeat by the English armies at Waterloo the following June but also, in good measure because of the efforts of Lafayette.
Remaining deeply suspicious of Napoléon’s autocratic tendencies despite the Emperor’s attempts after his return to bolster his democratic image, Lafayette agreed, after much urging by his friends, to re-enter public life as an elected vice-president of the National Assembly.
From that public post he continued constantly, however, to voice his criticism of the Emperor’s autocratic rule.
Napoléon remained convinced even after Waterloo that his armies could still fight on elsewhere. When he tried to salvage his reign by menacing to suspend the French parliament and assume unlimited dictatorial powers, however, Lafayette led the movement to block his path.
The Marquis quickly submitted and had the National Assembly pass a motion declaring that the independence of the country was in jeopardy, that dissolution of the Assembly would be an act of high treason and that anyone attempting it would be treated and judged as a traitor to the nation.
This was clearly aimed directly at Napoléon who, realizing that in the long run he would lose a contest with the parliament, agreed on June 22, 1815 to step down to allow Louix XVIII to return to the throne.
In a gesture to help the Emperor save face, Lafayette went with a group of parliamentarians to meet with Napoléon, bid him goodbye and thank him for his services but, knowing full well who had led the movement to force him from office, the Emperor declined in that meeting to exchange a word with Lafayette.
To no one’s surprise, the Marquis’ relations with Louis XVIII, now restored to office, differed little from those he had had with Napoléon. Coming out of retirement a second time to win a seat in the National Assembly, he constantly criticized the King’s incursions on democratic principles and even gave his blessing behind the scenes to an ill-considered and badly handled attempt to overthrow the monarchy.
When it collapsed in 1823, with widespread suspicion but no official confirmation that Lafayette had backed it, he once again retired to La Grange and, the following year, returned to his American roots with another visit to the United States.
When he and his son, fittingly named George Washington La Fayette, debarked in the port of New York in 1824 to begin a triumphal tour of some 132 different cities they were welcomed by a throng of some 30,000 Americans, cannon salutes and ships flying ceremonial flags
His itinerary included memorial visits to Washington’s home and grave in Mount Vernon, the battlefields of Yorktown and a tour down the Mississippi to New Orleans.
The trip had special significance for Lafayette because Thomas Jefferson once had offered to make him governor of the Louisiana Territories when they were purchased from France in 1803, an offer he declined at the time.
That voyage was followed by a meeting in Washington with President John Quincy Adams and a stay with Jefferson at the latter’s home in Monticello along with two other former presidents; James Madison and James Monroe.
When finally, on September 7, 1824, the day after his 68th birthday, Lafayette embarked for his return to France, he carried with him a container of soil from Brandywine, the field in Pennsylvania where he had first distinguished himself in battle. Its destiny: to cover his coffin when finally he would be laid to rest ten years later in 1834, in Picpus cemetery on the outskirts of Paris.
That day was still far away, however, and Lafayette was far from ceasing his constant battle for increased democracy in France, this time with Charles X, France’s new King who had replaced Louis XVIII in September, 1824.
Lafayette knew the new King well, but Charles X also knew Lafayette well and his tendency to agitate and criticize any royal action that did not meet his ideas of true democracy.
From 1827 the Marquis had a new platform from which to do that because he had recovered the national deputy status he had lost during still another trip to America to visit Thomas Jefferson in 1825.
From his new deputy’s post he became, in essence, the leader of parliamentary opposition to Charles X’s programs, agitating for massive budget increases in education expenses and simultaneous cuts in what he considered a bloated civil service and flagrantly inflated expenses of the royal household.
When popular unrest with his policies increasing, Charles X, as Napoleon had done before him, attempted to salvage his reign by a turn toward autocracy, suspending freedom of the press and ordering the dissolution of the recently elected National Assembly.
Those measures triggered a popular uprising that forced him from the throne and the appointment once again of Lafayette, now 73 but still immensely popular with the masses, as head of a national guard quickly formed to restore order until a successor to the King could be found.
With tumult all around, Lafayette emerged as the virtual mediator for the nation in the search for a new regime. Although he probably could have won election easily, the Marquis turned down significant urging that he himself proclaim a republic and declare himself candidate to be its first president.
In post-revolutionary but still tumultuous France, however, the switch from a Bourbon family royal dynasty to a purely American-style democracy was not something that could be done hastily.
Convinced that a constitutional monarchy still was the best model for the nation at the moment and after receiving assurances from the Duke d’Orleans that he would put more democratic measures in place if he became king Lafayette on July 31, 1830 publicly announced his crucial backing of the Duke.
That backing was instrumental in winning over the restless public’s support and on August 9 the Duke ascended the throne with the title of King Louis Philippe. But, as usual in Lafayette’s career, that backing didn’t last long.
The new King recognized the key role the Marquis had played in making him monarch, but didn’t want to have him around constantly lecturing and criticizing. Lafayette, on the other hand, just as quickly realized that, despite all the assurances he had obtained to the contrary, Louis Philippe wasn’t anywhere near as democratically inclined as the Marquis had hoped.
It took virtually no time at all before Lafayette, once again elected as a deputy, was back as usual, stirring up opposition from his parliamentary bench, demanding that the King abolish the country’s slave trade, diminish the size of the royal staff and lift the restriction on members of Napoléon’s family to live in France.
He went on to campaign for France to take a principled stand for a panoply of causes he considered just, such as independence from British rule for Ireland, an end to hereditary seats in the parliament and extension of voting rights to all French citizens.
In June, 1832, shocked by what he called a “counter-revolutionary” action by Louis Philippe’s government in brutally putting down public demonstrations at a cost of 800 lives, Lafayette resigned from all government offices he held, including the post of mayor of his local community, because they stemmed from a regime he believed had gone back on its democratic promises.
He continued to speak out, to protest and criticize at public gatherings however until eventually, in failing health and advancing age, he passed away on March 20, 1834.
France gave him an honorable but low-key funeral, laying him to rest in Picpus cemetery next to the grave of his deceased wife, Adrienne, but mobilized three thousand soldiers to keep the public at bay.
His adopted country did better. Then President Andrew Jackson ordered, as had been done for George Washington, a nation-wide 30-day mourning period, flags to be flown at half mast by all the country’s military ships and ground units and black crepe to be fixed on the national capitol building for the duration of the congressional session.
In Picpus, as he had hoped, his casket was covered with the soil of Brandywine that he had brought back from America and an American flag was erected next to his grave. It is tended by the American embassy in Paris, which holds a memorial service on the site each 4th of July.
Left respectfully in place even by Hitler’s armies during the Nazi occupation of Paris during World War II, it flies there to this day.