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Lafayette’s Two Revolutions

July 2024
45min read

Washington was his idol, but he could not apply his American ideals to a France sliding into the Terror

The Marquis de Lafayette
The Marquis de Lafayette

Lafayette, at the head of a group of young French nobles, first landed on American soil amid the live oaks hung with Spanish moss on the swampy shores of the little port of Georgetown in the southern Carolinas, in the early summer of 1777. He came in his own private brig, chartered from a Spaniard. He had slipped out of France with a lettre de cachet at his heels amid a welter of bureaucratic intrigue that had all Versailles in an uproar.  In the two seasick months at sea he had managed to elude the British cruisers specially detailed to intercept him. Immediately he rode north posthaste to place himself under Washington’s command.

The members of the Continental Congress, cool at first to the young Marquis, were eventually carried away by his titles and his wealth and his personal charm, and by the fact that he offered to serve as a volunteer without pay. He had not quite reached his twentieth birthday when they commissioned him a major general in the Continental Army. Washington took him into his personal family.

Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier came of a minor though wealthy branch of the great De la Fayette family. His lather was killed at Minden when he was two. Both his mother and the grandfather who was his guardian died when he was eleven. He was brought up by elderly and intelligent aunts at the family’s remote stone keep of Chavaniac in the mountains of Auvergne. When he was sixteen a marriage was arranged for him with a girl of the De Noailles family, as powerful in Eighteenth-Century France as the De la Fayettes were supposed to have been two centuries before. By 1776 he was a captain in the Royal Guards. Talk was already stirring at court that it might be to the advantage of the Bourbon cause to encourage the revolt of the English colonists in America. Young Lafayette took fire at the idea.

Vergennes, Louis XVI’s foreign minister, secretly encouraged him in his plans.

Though the Marquis was thought of at first by the embattled colonials as being more ornamental than useful to the American forces, he surprised everybody by his cool bravery during the hapless action on the Brandywine, by the skill with which he disengaged the body of troops under his command at Barren Hill, and by his energy at Monmouth.

Washington and Lafayette at Valley Forge.
Washington and Lafayette at Valley Forge.

When news reached Washington’s headquarters that England had declared war on the French, Lafayette, who by this time spoke fluent though baroque English, offered to return to Versailles to explain the needs of the Americans. At court he found himself already a hero. No more talk of lettres de cachet. Vergennes was delighted with him.

Back in America he was greeted by General Washington with warm affection and placed in command of the troops Washington was sending down from Head of Elk to cheer up the hard-pressed Virginians, grievously harassed by the traitor Arnold’s raids along the James and threatened by a large force marching up from the Carolinas under Cornwallis, whom they were beginning to call the Hannibal of America. Washington meanwhile would attend to what he considered the more important business of keeping Sir Henry Clinton bottled up on the island of New York.

It was only the presence of Washington’s favorite Frenchman that kept the Virginians from complete despair that summer before Yorktown. The Marquis by this time was 23. He was gay. He was wild with enthusiasm lor the American cause. His manners were cordial. With the easy selfconfidence that came from his noble upbringing he allowed himself to treat men of all ranks with equal affability. Wherever he appeared men and women fell in love with him. Where Von Steuben, whom Washington had sent down to teach the Virginians soldiering according to the school of the great Frederick, was middleaged and quarrel-some and peevish in emergencies, Lafayette bubbled over with candor and high spirits.

The campaign was the lark of his life. As summer advanced, by cleverly hanging on Cornwallis’ flank without risking a general engagement, by playing hide-and-seek across the broad creeks and estuaries and through the winding forest paths, the Marquis managed to turn Cornwallis’ triumphal march through ruined tidewater farmlands into something that looked very much like a retreat. Washington kept writing his young friend encouraging letters. Already he had sent the redoubtable Anthony Wayne and his Pennsylvania line down to reinforce him.

In spite of the uncertainty over the outcome of the naval battle between the French and British fleets oft the Capes, the march on Yorktown was assuming a triumphal air. From every battlefront eager young officers were hurrying into tidewater Virginia to be in at the kill.

Surrounded by the camps of the allied armies, deserted Williamsburg came back to life. Officers were quartered at the college. Uniformed throngs packed the inns. Anthony Wayne, who had been wounded in the leg by a triggerhappy sentry, was hobbling about the outskirts on a cane, with a fresh plume on his three-cornered hat. Von Steuben, laid low by gout and by mortification over the sound drubbing the British had given him on the upper James, dragged himself out of bed to be present. Volunteers were trooping into the ranks of the Virginia militia. The French, with their bent for the pomp and drama of war, were beginning to endow the coming siege with the fashionable air of the great military events of the grand siècle in Europe.

For the French nobility the victory at Yorktown meant almost as much as it did for the Americans. A new generation had wiped out the defeats their elders had suffered in Germany, at Louisburg, on the heights at Quebec. Lafayette never forgot that his lather had been killed by a British musketball at Minden. For this new generation, too, there was more in Yorktown than the mere pleasure of revenge against perfidious Albion. From the rural gravity of Washington’s behavior, from the talk of men’s rights and duties and of individual freedom which was commonplace with their American allies, they had been taking on a whole new set of hopes and aspirations for themselves and for mankind.

Mesmer’s Chief Apothecary

Arriving back in Versailles breathless from Cornwallis’ surrender, Lafayette brought a fresh breeze of victory into the stale antechambers of the Bourbon regime. The King stayed away from his hunting long enough to drape the ribbon of the order of St. Louis round his neck. The marshals of France celebrated his homecoming with a dinner. He found himself upgraded in the army, over the heads of many older men, who took it far from kindly, to the rank of maréchal de camp. Already a major general in the American Army, this fresh promotion made him a general officer in the Army of His Most Christian Majesty before he had reached the age of majority for a French nobleman. The envious began to dub him scornfully le Vassington français.

As soon as he was 25 he celebrated his freedom from the dictates of the family council by buying himself a great town house in Paris in the rue de Bourbon, in the fashionable upper end of the faubourg St. Germain. There he took up family life à l’américaine.

Like so many other French officers he was deeply impressed by the tenderness and confidence between husband and wife he had seen in the families of men like Washington and Henry Knox. Before his bolt for freedom to America he had played with the idea of setting up one of Marie Antoinette’s ladies in waiting, a young woman of certain intellectual pretensions named Aglaé de Hunolstein, as his mistress. Alter a good deal of heartburning and declamation he broke off his somewhat desultory affair and settled down to being the affectionate husband of his sweet homekeeping Adrienne de Noailles and the father of his children. There was a girl named Anastasie, and a boy for whom Washington stood godfather through a proxy and whom Lafayette named for the American commander in chief he liked to think of as his own adopted father. Another child was soon on the way whom he named Virginie after the theater of his military exploits. He felt himself on the threshold of a great career and wanted to conduct it in a way he felt his American friends would approve.

The success of the American rebellion made Lafayette the leader of a new generation growing up in France impatient of the stagnation and corruption of the Bourbon regime. No man in Europe had greater prospects. He had a gift for impressing other men with the brilliance of his coming destiny. He was enormously rich. The income that poured in from the diligence of intendants and hommes d’affaires, without his lifting a finger, amounted to considerably more than the equivalent of a hundred thousand dollars a year.

The minister for foreign affairs was his special protector. When he first reached home Vergennes encouraged Lafayette to hope he might lead a fresh expedition to conquer the West Indies and to help the American allies wrest Canada from the British. Rodney’s victory over a French fleet in the West Indies put an end to that project. Vergennes was now more interested in patching up a peace than in outfitting new and costly armies.

The Marquis was incapable of idleness. He didn’t waste his time with the hectic gambling and the interminable love affairs in which most of his contemporaries in the court circle frittered away their nights. He had learned from Washington to be an early riser. He was always ready to leap on a horse or throw himself into his carriage to be off at a gallop on some noble enterprise.

Socially he was the lion of the hour. The belles in powdered coilfures who crowded around him were all un peu philosophes. Diderot, Rousseau, Voltaire, had made science as fashionable as they had good works. The Lafayettes’ Monday dinners, where they affectionately entertained American diplomats and their wives and American merchants seeking concessions from the ministries at Versailles, became fashionable with the philosophic set. Dr. Franklin, the philosophe par excellence, could occasionally be induced to appear there.

When mesmerism swept the Paris drawingrooms Lafayette, at the cost of a hundred gold louis, enrolled himsell as one of the Viennese doctor’s pupils. It was Franklin himself who pricked that balloon. When he was asked to head a commission to consider Mesmer’s claims of miraculous cures through animal magnetism, although Lafayette tried to tell him that Mesmer’s vital fluid was just another form of his own electricity, he brought in a skeptical report. A story was circulated in the antechambers at Versailles that the King, who for all his sluggish behavior showed occasional flashes of humor, had cornered the Marquis and asked him, teasingly: “What will Washington think when he hears you have become Mesmer’s chief apothecary?”

A Canine Appetite for Popularity

After the free and easy life of the American countryside Lafayette found he had lost his taste for Paris drawingrooms and the mummery and frustrations of the court.

His heart was set on revisiting the land of his great achievements. He was delayed by fruitless efforts to get some official glamour thrown about his journey, but at last in the spring of 1784 he was able to announce to Washington: “Yes my dear General before the month of June is over you will see a vessel coming up the Pottomack, and out of the vessel will your friend jump with a panting heart and all the feelings of perfect happiness.”

Landing in New York, the Marquis set out eagerly for Virginia. Wherever he stopped to rest his horses he was greeted by the hugs and handclasps of old comrades-in-arms, by salutes from the militia and the ringing of churchbells and candles in the windows at night and toasts at public dinners in the taverns. The words liberty, republicanism, independence, and glory rang in his ears from every welcoming address. In Baltimore a society of Irish exiles celebrated his services to the cause of oppressed humanity. At Mount Vernon he threw himself into the arms of his adoptive father.


When the two generals showed themselves to an indulgent public at a welcoming dinner in an Alexandria hostelry, some of the company claimed—so Lafayette confided in a friend—that he and Washington had gotten a little tipsy together.

Washington and Lafayette at Mount Vernon.

He had wanted his old commander in chief to accompany him on his triumphant tour, but Washington instead invited him to come along on a hard crosscountry ride he was planning over the mountains and out to the Ohio to visit his western lands. The Marquis, who was familiar enough with American geography to know that there would be no public demonstrations along those shaggy and sparsely settled trails, pleaded other engagements.

Back in Philadelphia he fell in with James Madison, who invited him on a trip which was more to his taste. Madison had been stimulated by Jefferson to interest himself in Indian languages. He was on his way to a great Indian powwow convoked at Fort Schuyler. The little Virginian immediately saw that Lafayette would be a trump in the hands of the Amercan commissioners. Many of the Indians still regretted the fatherly French rule. Lafayette’s name had spread to their tepees, where he was known as Kayewlaah.

The trip appealed to all the Marquis’s romantic aspirations. The long ride through upper New York State gave Madison an opportunity to talk the Marquis into offering to use his good offices with the Bourbons of Spain to convince them that they should open the navigation of the Mississippi to the American settlers. This was the matter which Madison wrote Jefferson was uppermost in his own thoughts at the time. The sly Madison noted with some amusement that the newfangled cloak of gummed taffeta which Lafayette wore to protect him from the rain, had been wrapped, when his baggage was packed, in newspapers that still stuck to it, so that his companions could read snatches of Parisian news off his back as they rode. It was a dismal ride through the rain-soaked forest. Lafayette delighted everybody by his carelessness of civilized comforts and by his ingratiating manner with the savages.

Lafayette immediately, to the dismay of Guy Carleton’s agents on the scene, became the leading figure in the complicated negotiations for a peaceful withdrawal by the Indians from frontier lands inside the state boundaries. Beside a crackling campfire in the cold October night, in declamatory French worthy of Chateaubriand, he addressed a group of chiefs of the Six Nations while the tobacco smoldered in the peace pipes.

Madison wrote Jefferson, who was just settling into his diplomatic post in Paris, that part of the Marquis’s pleasure in the dramatic scene was the thought that it “would form a bright column in the gazettes of Europe.” “The time I have lately passed with the M. has given me a pretty thorough insight into his character,” he added. “With great natural frankness of temper, he unites much address; with very considerable talents a strong thirst of praise and popularity.…”

Lafayette’s American tour revived the celebrations of the peace. In Hartford the whole town turned out to do him honor at Bull’s Tavern. As far out as Watertown he was greeted by a delegation of Continental officers to escort him into Boston. Amid cannonading from the forts and from French warships in the harbor he was regaled with a banquet at Faneuil Hall on the Yorktown anniversary. He was made a citizen of three states and freeman of a number of cities. Even his best friends pointed out that some of the compliments he received did not come unasked. When the enthusiasm of welcome seemed to slacken he made no bones about suggesting fresh celebrations. For the crowds of Americans who cheered him on his prancing stallion he was the living symbol of the French assistance that had won the war for independence.

The French frigate Nymphe carried him back to Virginia to take formal farewell of George Washington. Washington was so moved that he rode with him all the way to Annapolis when he left. Back at Mount Vernon he wrote the Marquis a letter which for him was emotional: thinking of the love and affection he felt for Lafayette, he said he had asked himself, as their carriages drove out of town on different roads, whether that was the last sight he would ever have of him. “And though I wished to say no my Fears answered yes. I called to mind the Days of my Youth, and found they had long since fled to return no more; that I was now descending the Hill I had been 52 years climbing, and that though I was blessed with a good constitution, I was of a shortlived family and might soon expect to be entombed in the dreary Mansions of my Fathers. These things darkened the Shades and gave a Gloom to the Picture, consequently to my Prospect of seeing you again; but I will not repine, I have had my Day.”

Back in France Lafayette found that these fresh American triumphs had indeed formed “a bright column in the gazettes of Europe.” Jefferson saw to it that the fulsome accounts in the American gazettes which Madison regularly forwarded him of the Marquis’s triumphant progress should come to the attention of the European editors. As Lafayette settled back into his routine on the rue de Bourbon with Adrienne and the children whom he somewhat ostentatiously loved, he set to weaving about himself the legend of the American Cincinnatus. He was the adopted son and disciple of the great liberator.

“In everything I do,” he wrote back to Washington at Mount Vernon, “I first consider what your opinion would be had I an opportunity to consult it.” To add a touch of authentic American color to the domestic scene, an Oneida halfbreed he had met at Fort Schuyler and an Onondaga Indian boy he had induced to follow him to Europe attended him in costume. In full Iroquois regalia they ran errands for him. At the evening parties of the philosophic set they demonstrated the wardances of the noble savages.

American Principles Transplanted Into Europe

Since the wars and rebellions he had hoped might offer him a military command persistently hung fire, the Marquis was forced temporarily to shelve his ambition to be the first general in Europe. Instead he went to work diligently to provoke reforms at home.

For some time he had been involved with the old liberal functionary Malesherbes in a quiet effort to put through some measure of religious toleration. In the factious atmosphere of the Versailles bureaucracy any effort for reform had to be carried on through backstairs negotiations. Lafayette threw himself into the intrigue to lift the ban of outlawry off the necks of the Huguenots to such a degree that Washington, whom he kept posted on every detail, wrote him a guarded warning: “It is part of the military art to reconnoitre and feel your way before you engage too deeply.”

Lafayette and Jefferson were becoming fast friends. They had first met somewhere near Richmond when Jefferson was a governor without a government during the scurry and confusion of the British raids along the James River. On his return from his American triumph it was Lafayette’s heavy duty to bring Jefferson the news of the death of his baby girl Lucy Elizabeth. Immediately Lafayette, with the openhanded candor that was so engaging, put himself at the service of the new American minister. Jefferson’s prime business in that capacity was to induce Versailles to relax the restrictions on American trade and shipping which were part of the general inhibition of commerce brought about by the mercantilist practices of the French officials. Lafayette knew every back door to every office; he knew where liberal policies could find a hearing and he knew where they could not. He became indispensable to the reticent redhaired American minister.

Lafayette was 28. Jefferson was 41. Perpetually in search of a father, Lafayette had been missing Washington’s paternal advice. Jefferson liked nothing better than to tutor young men in the art of statebuilding. What started as a hospitable gesture on Lafayette’s part became a firm collaboration. From trying to pry loose the trammels the bureaucracy had fastened about the American trade, the two men found themselves plotting to free the French from the whole complex of the vested interests of the old regime.

Lafayette found the American minister in a mood to discover everything that could be discovered about the people of France. Jefferson had moved the legation to an airy and beautiful mansion out at the end of the Champs Élysées where he could enjoy the freshness of trees and the smell of country gardens. At the same time he could see from his windows at the nearby barrier the oppression of the Farmers-General whose agents took toll of every poor countrywoman who carried a basket of eggs into the city for sale.

The abolition of slavery was one of the great causes that stirred Jefferson throughout the early part of his life. Lafayette was giving more than lip service to this cause. He was spending 125,000 livres to buy a plantation in the remote French colony of Cayenne which he intended to settle with emancipated slaves. It was not for show that he kept a framed copy of the Declaration of Independence on the wall of his study. He viewed this gesture as a mere beginning. When people asked him why the empty frame beside the American declaration he would answer that it was waiting for a charter of liberties for the people of France.

Lafayette particularly needed Jefferson’s advice since Vergennes had appointed him to a committee to report ways and means to increase French trade with America. Through Jefferson’s critical eye and through the day-to-day work with him in trying to blast a passage through the privileges and monopolies of the Farmers-General, Lafayette began to understand how the dead hand of the past throttled every effort to adjust the creaking machine of absolute monarchy to the needs of the French people. Jefferson wrote Madison enthusiastically of Lafayette’s quick understanding of every problem that was explained to him. The Marquis managed to obtain concessions for the American whale-oil industry that earned the Marquis the present of a 500-pound cheese made up specially for him out of the milk of their own cows by the grateful whalers of Nantucket.

In France, as in America, 1787 proved to be a landmark year. A few months before some fifty Americans met in the Philadelphia State House to write a national constitution, Lafayette found himself engaging in the ceremony of the opening of an assembly of notables in the Hall of Fugitive Pleasures at Versailles under the presidency of the Bourbon princes. He was determined to take his part in the debates in a way that Jefferson and Washington would approve. Although the fluid society of the American frontier had little in common with the stratified society of France, the immediate causes that brought the two assemblies together were the same: ruined finances and restraint of trade. Versailles was bankrupt. The Assembly of Notables was called to find fresh ways of raising money.


Jefferson, who was present at the opening sessions, saw in the Assembly of Notables an opportunity for a gradual reform of Bourbon autocracy into something like the constitutional monarchy of England. He was seizing on the opportunity afforded him by the success of his negotiations, in which Lafayette had been so helpful, to take a vacation. After three years under the leaden Parisian sky he felt starved for sunlight.

He set off alone in late February in a hired chaise for the south of France, determined for once to escape the diplomatic protocol that cut him off from ordinary people wherever he went. Before he left he hurriedly scribbled a note to Lafayette, outlining a plan of reform for the Notables. He saw in the regime’s fiscal crisis an opportunity for the reformers to seize hold of the power of the purse which had been the foundation of the dominance of the British Parliament.

Much as he loved Lafayette, Jefferson continually dreaded the result, when Lafayette should be called to take a hand in the rebuilding of France, of his ignorance of the lives and motives of the ordinary run of unprivileged men. How could a man govern a nation when all he knew of the people whose affairs he would be trying to manage was the deputations that met him with band music and drums and pretty speeches round the decorated tables of a vin d’honneur wherever he moved in princely state through his feudal domains in Brittany or Auvergne?

“Your head my dear friend,” Jefferson wrote him from Nice, “is full of Notable things.… I am constantly roving about to see what I have never seen before & shall never see again.… I have often wished for you. I think you have not made this journey, it is a pleasure you have to come & an improvement to be added to the many you have already made, it will be a great comfort to you to know from your own inspection, the condition of all the provinces of your own country, & will be interesting to them at some future day to be known to you. this is perhaps the only moment in your life when you can acquire that knoledge and to do it most effectively you must be absolutely incognito.

“You must ferret the people out of their hovels as I have done, look into their kettles, eat their bread, loll on their beds in the pretense of resting yourself, but in fact to find if they are soft, you will feel a sublime pleasure in the course of this investigation & a sublimer one hereafter, when you shall be able to apply your knoledge to the softening of their beds, or the throwing a morsel of meat into their kettle of vegetables.”

Lafayette distinguished himself among the Notables by a courageous speech exposing graft in the management of the royal estates. This speech caused the downfall and the flight to England of the finance minister, Calonne. It caused Lafayette to be marked down as a dangerous man among the conservatives at court. It earned him the eternal hatred of Marie Antoinette who was fond of Calonne.

From then on a courtier’s career, promotion in the army, service in the ministry, were closed to him. His protector, Vergennes, had died that same spring. Lafayette had come into the open as a dedicated reformer, one of the men who, from their enthusiasm for American institutions and from the fact that many of them were young nobles who had served in the American war, were becoming known as les américains.

From that day on Lafayette looked not to the court but to the nation, that novel entity in a French noble’s thoughts, for personal promotion. He looked forward with immense optimism to the growing wave of reform. “Liberal ideas are cantering about from one end of the kingdom to the other,” he scribbled light-heartedly to Washington. “The ideas of liberty have been since the American revolution spreading very fast. The combustible materials have been kindled by the Assembly of Notables.”

Combustible materials indeed. The nation was taking an interest in its destiny with a vengeance. “All tongues in Paris have been let loose,” Jefferson wrote John Adams in London, “& never was a license in speaking against the government exercised in London more freely or more universally.… The queen, going to the theatre at Versailles with Mme. de Polignac, was received with a general hiss, the king, long in the habit of drowning his cares in wine, plunges deeper & deeper, the queen cries but sins on.”

A new scandal, following the famous affair of the diamond necklace, which had first besmirched the character of Marie Antoinette with the French people, was again showing up the venality and incompetence of the Austrian party at court.

Of the Making of Constitutions

While Americans on both sides of the Atlantic avidly followed the debates on the ratification of their new constitution in the state assemblies, in France the gilded coach of the Bourbon regime rumbled on towards disaster.

Ministries rose and fell.

Necker, who, in spite of his earlier ill success with the finances of Versailles, was still the richest man in Europe, and whose virtues as a financier were loudly publicized through his wife’s salon and through the trumpetings of his intellectual daughter, soon to be famous among the drawingrooms of Europe as Mme de Staël, was called back to make one more try with his magic arts. He alighted from his traveling carriage shaking his head. “I see a great wave advancing,” he was reported as saying. “Will it swallow me up?”

The Notables were summoned back to the Hall of Fugitive Pleasures. The provincial assemblies were already clamoring for a meeting of the States-General. The press and the pamphleteers who, in the general relaxation of government had lost their fear of the police, echoed their cry.

The States-General had not met since 1614 when they put in a final feeble appearance during the tumultuous years while Richelieu was consolidating the monarchy into a great bureaucratic machine centered at Versailles. Suddenly the name became magic. Lafayette from among the Notables signed a demand for the States-General. Necker could think of nothing better than to back him up. His Most Christian Majesty liked the idea. It appealed to the antiquarian tastes of some of his enlightened courtiers. It was like the revival of a very old play. A great deal of archaeological research went into reconstructing the costumes and finding the old prompt books.

While all France waited for the opening performance debate raged over the methods of voting. In the old days nobles, clergy, and commons had voted as corporate bodies. Now individualism was the mode. Each vote must be counted individually. Already the prospective members of the commons, the Third Estate, were demanding that, as they furnished the taxes, their votes should be counted twice.

His Most Christian Majesty, who trusted in the Third Estate to squeeze funds out of the church and the nobility, was not averse to this arrangement. Thereby King Louis became a great liberal.

Les américains were determined to use the States-General to produce a constitution. A constitution was their cure for all evils. When the entrenched interests blocked the work of the American committee, Lafayette and his brother-in-law De Noailles formed a club to debate on constitutional topics known as the Club of the Thirty. It was in the Club of the Thirty that Talleyrand, the clubfooted, babyfaced Bishop of Autun, made his first appearance as a reformer on the public stage. In the salons they became known as the conspiracy of wellintentioned men.

Lafayette and his friends were continually applying to Jefferson for news of the progress of statebuilding in America. America was supplying them with the models they needed. By mid-July in 1788 Jefferson was able to assure them that the new government was complete. Soon he was able to add that New Hampshire and Virginia had ratified and that elections for President and Vice President and for the House and Senate were proceeding in an orderly way. By November he could translate for them passages from The Federalist which he declared was “the best commentary on the principles of government ever written.”

As events in France speeded their pace, Lafayette’s American friends loaded him with advice. Washington’s letters were full of guarded warnings. Festina lente had been George Mason’s motto for the Philadelphia convention. Jefferson had right along been urging on the Marquis some sort of adaptation of the British limited monarchy. Despotism was bankrupt. Parliament’s control over taxation was the foundation of individual liberty under the British constitution. If the French people could get hold of the purse strings they could buy from Versailles whatever dose of liberty they felt the country could absorb.

Gouverneur Morris had lately arrived in Europe on a complication of missions. Washington had made him his informal representative to the Court of St. James. He was representing the great financier Robert Morris in an effort to rebuild his monopoly of the sale of American tobacco to the Farmers-General which Jefferson and Lafayette had been busy undermining. He was trying to organize a consortium of European bankers to trade in U.S. government securities. He had lands to sell and speculations of his own to promote.

Gouverneur was in Europe for the first time. He was plunging with eager curiosity into the swirling life of the disintegrating regime. He was already deep in a love affair with the bright, passionate, browneyed Adèle de Flahaut. Mme de Flahaut, a young woman of literary gifts who was to develop into a novelist of some talent, lived in the Louvre with an elderly and complacent husband. Her formal lover and the father of her son was Talleyrand. She was a much courted lady. Vigée-Lebrun, the portrait painter, said she had “the wittiest eyes in the world.” She still, it turned out, had room for another lame man in her heart.

She and Gouverneur Morris talked and walked together in the pleached avenues of the royal gardens. She took him to see the paintings. They admired the statuary. It was the beginning of a long relationship that filled Gouverneur’s life with a great deal of pleasure and a great deal of pain.

At the same time he was keeping Washington informed of every turn of affairs. Late in April of 1789 he wrote the General that their friend Lafayette was “returned from his political campaign in Auvergne crowned with Success.… He played the Orator with as much Éclat as he ever acted the Soldier and is at this Moment as much envied and hated as his Heart could wish.” Gouverneur was not yet a cynic about the French Revolution: “I say that we have an Interest in the Liberty of France. The Leaders here are our Friends. Many of them have imbibed their Principles in America and all have been fired by our Example.”

The dinnertable of the Lafayettes on the rue de Bourbon was the center of reform. While the wellintentioned conspirators debated their high hopes, men not so wellintentioned were airing their woes at streetcorners and in the taverns of the working class districts. They too had heard about the bill of rights. Man’s first right was the right to eat. While the salons of the Enlightenment argued fine points of procedure the working people starved.

The winter of 1788–89 turned out unusually cold. Laborers were laid off. There was nothing new about starvation in France but this winter the French were no longer willing to starve quietly. There were riots in the provinces.

In Paris, while the carpenters and the upholsterers were at work preparing the Hall of Fugitive Pleasures for the coming meeting of the estates, a riot was touched off by the rumor of a wagecut by a paper manufacturer. The press and the paper business were booming as the flood of publications on political subjects swelled to a Niagara. The working people were beginning to ask why their wages should not be enough to keep their children from hunger. They had not been educated in the methods of selfgovernment. The only way they knew to express their feelings was to sack the manufacturer’s house and to burn his factory. Troops were called in. In the course of the scrimmage the unruly learned that the square pavingstones of the streets of Paris could be put to good use: barricades.

The convocation of the States-General on a fine May day in 1789 at Versailles turned out to be a brilliant affair. Jefferson wrote it only lacked lamps and chandeliers to be an opera. Gouverneur wrote Mrs. Robert Morris in Philadelphia a detailed account of the occasion: “When the King … had taken his Seat he put on his Hat, a round Beaver ornamented with white Plumes, the Part in front turned up with a large Diamond Button in the Center.”


The King read a short speech and was cheered. M. Necker read a very long speech and was cheered. Nobody cheered the Queen. Had he been a Frenchman he would have cheered her, wrote Gouverneur:

“The King rises to depart. The Hall resounds with a long loud Vive le Roi! He passes the Queen who rises to follow him. At this Moment someone imbued with the Milk of human Kindness originates a faint Vive la Reine. She makes a humble Curtsey and presents the Sinking of the high Austrian Spirit.… Here drops the Curtain on the first great Act of this Drama in which Bourbon gives Freedom. His Courtiers seem to feel what he seems to be insensible of, the Pang of Greatness going off.”

Lafayette, with his tall sloping forehead and his horsetoothed smile, made a fine figure all draped in cloth of gold over the sable robes of the nobility. In spite of his fine vestments the day of the great show was for him a day of torment and indecision. He had explained his predicament to his friends. “His principles,” Jefferson wrote Washington, “you know are clearly with the people, but having been elected for the Noblesse of Auvergne they have laid him under express instructions to vote for the decision by orders & not persons. This would ruin him with the tiers état.”

There was no equivocation about Jefferson’s advice to his young friend. He wrote the Marquis the next morning that he must join the tiers état: “This appears to me the moment to take at once that honest & manly stand with them which your own principles dictate.”

Lafayette still hesitated. Everybody gave him advice. Gouverneur, who had known him since Valley Forge, told him bluntly to resign and be done with it. As the days slipped by and as the temper of the factions rose, some of his friends of the club des trente felt he had gone over to the enemy.

Lafayette’s head swam with conflicting advice. In America Washington had always been there to make his decisions for him. Still full of doubts as to whether or not he ought to resign his seat, he went to work to put the committee to phrase a declaration of rights for the French people in touch with the American minister. No better adviser than Jefferson; Lafayette fell eagerly into the happy posture of errand boy between his committee and the author of the great Declaration of Independence.

Jefferson promptly sat down at his desk to draw up a suggested charter: annual assemblies; the States-General alone to levy taxes, to make laws with the royal consent; no arrests without legal warrant; subordination of the military to the civil authority; abolition of all special privileges.

The King must offer this charter in person to the estates and to the nation; the States-General must grant him funds for the year in return, and then promptly dissolve and go home. “You will carry back to your constituents more good than was ever effected before without violence,” Jefferson wrote Lafayette’s friend and fellow committee member, the Protestant Rabaut Saint-Étienne, whose position in a responsible post was a sign of how far the revolution had already gone, “and you will stop exactly at the point where violence would otherwise begin.”

The last thought in the minds of the impatient men gathered at Versailles was to go home. Lafayette had hardly time to ride clattering out over the cobbles from Paris with Jefferson’s charter in his pocket before events took the very turn towards violence Jefferson dreaded. Already, while Jefferson sat at his desk drafting his minimum charter for them in his clear, nervous handwriting, the Third Estate had constituted themselves a National Assembly. Let the nobles and the clergy join them if they would.

One morning in June they found the doors barred to them when they arrived at the Hall of Fugitive Pleasures. From within came the sound of hammering as the carpenters and upholsterers prepared a new décor for a royal session.

Overnight, the liberal King had listened to the advice of the faction grouped around Marie Antoinette and the Bourbon princes. Poor Louis had no head for politics. He liked hunting and eating and tinkering with clocks. He would have made a good mechanic; but he could not remember his political decisions from one day to the next. When he had to make a decision he drank.

Necker was rumored to be packing his trunks. The Bourbon was to qualify the freedom he gave. From that moment on there was no more question of gaining time or ripening the public mind. The Americans overseas had written themselves a constitution. Now the deputies of the National Assembly stormed into the covered tennis court at Versailles and swore never to go home until they had drafted a constitution for the French.

That Fourth of July Jefferson entertained the American colony at the legation. As he was daily awaiting his leave of absence, it was thought of as his farewell dinner. The Lafayettes were the guests of honor. It was an enthusiastic gathering. The ratification of the Constitution and Washington’s inauguration as the first President filled the heads of every American businessman with dreams of El Dorado. The credit of the new nation was rising daily with the bankers of Europe. Liberty paid. Every American dreamed of making himself a fortune. Every American wanted to see liberty spread over the world. Every American felt he could advise the French about how to conduct their revolution.

Gouverneur took the Marquis aside after dinner: “I urge him to preserve if possible some constitutional Authority to the Body of Nobles as the only means of preserving any Liberty for the People.” An aristocratic and money interest like the British gentry, to counter-balance demagoguery from below and despotism from the executive, had been Morris’ political hobby all through the long debates in Philadelphia.

While Gouverneur stumped on his pegleg from banker’s office to banker’s office, in pursuit of his own speculations and of financial combinations to bolster his friend’s and namesake’s declining credit, what he saw of men and events was convincing him that the phrasemaking at Versailles was about to end in bloody disaster.

“Our American Example has done them good,” he wrote, “but like all Novelties Liberty runs away with their Discretion if they have any. They want an American Constitution with the Exception of a King instead of a President, without reflecting that they have not American citizens to support that Constitution.”

In his enthusiasm for a declaration of rights Lafayette forgot the technicalities of his position as an Auvergnat noble. He was now taking a leading part in the work of the National Assembly. The evening of that same July 4 he scribbled a hurried note from Versailles asking Jefferson for another copy of his proposed charter. Things were happening fast, he explained. “It is very hard to navigate on such a whirling.” On July 11 he moved the adoption of the completed text of the Declaration of the Rights of Man in the National Assembly.

That same night the Bourbon princes met in the Queen’s boudoir to plan a counterresolution.

From two deputies of the noblesse whom he met at his club Gouverneur heard the story: “The Queen, Count d’Artois and Dutchess de Polignac had been all Day tampering with two Regiments who were made almost drunk and every Officer was presented to the King, who was induced to give Promises, Money &c.a &c.a.… Their Music came and played under her Majesty’s Window. In the mean time the Maréchal de Broglio was tampering in Person with the Artillery. The Plan was to reduce Paris by Famine and to take two hundred Members of the National Assembly Prisoners.”

The King forgot his liberalism. The Declaration of Rights gave him a fright. He was always ready to listen to advice. This time it was the advice of his brothers. Necker was dismissed. Troops were marched into Paris.

Gouverneur Morris and Jefferson, drawn together as reasonable Americans in this time of crazy passions out of control, both saw the Swiss guard deploying their cannon on the Champs Élysées. A cavalry charge. Pavingstones were thrown. The troops joined the people.

At Versailles Lafayette was president of the Assembly, but the Assembly had no control of the streets. Armorers’ shops were pillaged. The attack on the prisons began. On July 13 Morris stumped about with a twig of green leaves in his hat in honor of the Third Estate. “It is somewhat whimsical,” he wrote in his diary, “that this Day of Violence and Tumult is the only one in which I have dared to walk the Streets but as no carriages are abroad but the fiacres I do not hazard being crushed and I apprehend nothing from the Populace.”

The next day the populace stormed the Bastille.

A liberal duke forced his way into the King’s bedchamber in the middle of the night and convinced him that his only safety lay with the National Assembly. Louis turned reformer again.

The Bourbon princes fled.

Messengers were sent off to recall Necker, already prudently posting towards the Swiss border. The Bishop of Autun was requested to prepare a speech for the King. Lafayette was appointed to command the National Guard.

Not even Gouverneur could restrain his enthusiasm. When Americans met on the street they congratulated each other on the great blow struck for freedom. A retired Continental colonel called to say how happy he was to be in Paris at this great moment. “So am I,” Gouverneur noted in his diary, “consider as I do the Capture of the Bastille to be an instance of great intrepidity.”

The night after the fall of the Bastille Gouverneur ate supper at his club in the Palais Royale with his friends the deputies. “The Claret being better than I have tasted in France I gave them as a Toast the Liberty of the French Nation and then the City of Paris.… This has been a Fine Day.”

Lafayette’s first official act was to order the Bastille’s demolition. They were installing a revolutionary municipality at the Hôtel de Ville. Necker was on his way back to resume his magic arts at Versailles.

It was announced that the liberal King would show himself to his faithful subjects. Lafayette led the way on a white horse. He had acquired his adopted father’s taste for white horses. Cockades in the city’s red and blue colors were on every hat.

Three days later Gouverneur paid a call on Lafayette at the Hôtel de Ville to get a permit to visit the famous prison and found him “exhausted by a Variety of Attentions.” That afternoon he dined with the great man and La Rochefoucauld in the rue de Bourbon. In his pocket Gouverneur brought a plan for organizing the National Guard. Like every other American in Paris, he wanted to make practical suggestions. A citizen militia fitted in with a Hudson River landowner’s notions of what ought to be.


Lafayette confided to him “that he has had the utmost Power his Heart could wish and is grown tired of it. That he has commanded absolutely a hundred thousand Men, has marched his Sovereign about the Streets as he pleased, prescribed the Degree of Applause which he should receive, and should have detained him Prisoner had he thought proper.”

Gouverneur dryly added in his diary that he was not impressed by Lafayette’s echo of Washington’s perpetual wish to return to private life. “He deceives himself or wishes to deceive me: a little of both perhaps.”

Lafayette spent the summer hurrying between his headquarters in the Hôtel de Ville and the Court and Assembly at Versailles. The deputies were working hard to keep ahead of events. Everyone was in a hurry. He would have to do without Jefferson’s advice; the American minister was returning home. While his daughters packed their trunks Jefferson prepared careful notes on the American jury system for the committee which was writing the French constitution. The jury system, he explained, was the cornerstone of selfgovernment.

Gouverneur meanwhile drafted his own set of suggestions for a constitution. His conviction of the usefulness of an aristocracy was putting him in the bad books of the liberals, but the ferocity of the Paris mob was giving them pause. After a visit to Lafayette’s aunt and Jefferson’s dear friend, Mme de Tessé, he noted, “I find that the high Democrats begin to cool a little and I think that by degrees they will feel, tho they would not understand, Reason.”

For all his aristocratic theories, Gouverneur was essentially a tenderhearted man. Stumping in and out of his carriage on sordid errands of business and pleasure that took him to all parts of the city, he saw things his revolutionary friends did not see.

“After Dinner walk a little under the Arcade of the Palais Royal waiting for my Carriage.” The arcade of the Palais Royale was the paradeground for the filles de joie of those days. Undoubtedly he was casting a probing eye about him. What he saw made him forget the bulbs and curves of the little ladies of Paris.

“In this period the Head and Body of Mr. de Foulon was introduced in Triumph. The Head on a Pike, the Body dragged naked on the Earth. Afterwards this horrible Exhibition is carried thro the different Streets. His Crime to have accepted a Place in the Ministry. This mutilated Form of an old Man of Seventy Five is shown to Bertier, his Son in Law, the Intendant of Paris, and afterwards he is also put to Death and cut to Pieces, the Populace carrying about the mangled Fragments with a Savage Joy. Gracious God what a People!”

While Lafayette at Versailles was trying to behave as Washington would have behaved in “the whirling” of the National Assembly, throughout France the country people were taking the law in their own hands, dividing up feudal lands, burning manors and chateaux, and taking particular care that the title deeds should not escape the flames. In the Assembly the night of August 4 Adrienne’s brother, the Vicomte de Noailles, and Lafayette’s bosom friend De Lameth moved the abolition of titles and feudal privileges. The young nobles who had fought in America rose to back them up.

The old regime was tumbling. In heady phrases the Assembly put the seal of its approval on each separate act of demolition. France was without a government.

Bread and Liberty

The first result of the crash of the Versailles bureaucracy was the stalling of the economic machinery. Nobody got paid. The cost of living soared. In Paris there was no bread.

“For some days since,” Jefferson wrote Jay at the end of August, “the people have beseiged the doors of the bakers, scrambled with one another for bread, collected in squads all over the city & need only some slight incident to lead them to excesses which may end in nobody can tell what.”

Early in September Lafayette scribbled a hasty note to Jefferson begging him “for Liberty’s sake” to arrange a dinner for himself and a group of deputies at the American legation. They wanted his advice. They wanted a neutral spot where they could quietly talk over plans for a coalition with common aims tightly enough linked to drive a workable constitution through the Assembly. There was no time to be lost. Lafayette and his friends must furnish France with constitutional government before the fabric of society entirely broke down.

Thirty years later when he was writing his autobiography in his old age Jefferson still remembered vividly “the coolness and candour” of these men’s arguments, their “logical reasoning and chaste eloquence.” They decided for a limited monarchy with a single legislative chamber, for a “suspensive” veto by the king on all laws passed.

Lafayette proudly declared that as head of the National Guard he would see to it that whatever constitution they established would have the force of law. His adopted country had written a constitution; he would see to it that his native land had one too.

A few days later, after Jefferson and his daughters had left for Le Havre, Gouverneur dined at the Lafayettes’. He took the Marquis aside afterwards to urge “that he must immediately discipline the Troops and make himself obeyed, that this Nation is used to be governed … on the subject of Discipline.” He shrewdly added in his diary, “his Countenance shews the Self Accuser for he has given the Command to Officers who know nothing of their Business.” He went on to talk about the great pressing need of the moment: “I mention to him the Subject of Subsistance.”

Instead of immediate practical plans for feeding the city all Gouverneur could get out of Lafayette was an invitation to meet with a new committee that would be sitting on the subject during the next week.

Before next week came the people of Paris had taken the question of subsistence into their own hands. While Jefferson was at Le Havre waiting for a storm to subside he received an excited letter from young Short whom he had left in charge of the legation: “the scarcity of bread continuing on Sunday evening the 4th inst. crowds assembled as on former occasions in the Palais Royale … on monday morning a number of women assembled at the place de Grève and took possession of the hotel de ville—there they found some old arms etc.—the Mrqs. de la Fayette, informed of this circumstance, went to the hotel de ville, recovered possession of it & endeavored though in vain to recover also the place de Grève—the women to the number of 5 or 6 thousand marched off to Versailles … the people & soldiers joined in insisting that the Mrqs de la fayette should march with them to Versailles—he … was forced to yeild & about half after 5 set off at the head of his troops—the women had arrived at Versailles crying du pain du pain.”

The crowd broke into the palace. Members of the King’s personal bodyguard were chased through the corridors and shot down. The Queen had to run in her nightgown to take refuge in the King’s chamber. The cry was that the King must come to Paris. Next day Louis agreed and Lafayette, somewhat shamefaced, led a second parade into the city. They brought the Queen and the royal children along. “We have the baker and the baker’s wife and the little baker,” was the chant of the crowds returning in triumph. The royal family remained under arrest in the Tuileries. The pang of greatness passing off.

Versailles overnight became a museum. The Assembly followed the King to Paris and set to work in the riding school of the Tuileries to elaborate a constitution according to the sketch Lafayette and his friends had drawn up at Jefferson’s dinnertable. They hoped this constitution would combine the best features of European monarchy with the best features of American republicanism.

When the huge walls of the Bastille were torn down stone by stone Lafayette saved the great key of the main gate to send to his adopted father in America.

“How often, my beloved General,” he found time to write to Mount Vernon from the midst of the debates on royal veto, “have I wanted your wise advices and friendly support.” “As everything has been destroied, and not much new building is yet above ground, there is much room for critics and calumnies,” he added in the letter he entrusted to Tom Paine to forward to Washington from England along with the key. “And after I have confessed all that, my dear General, I will tell you with the same candour that we have made an admirable, and almost incredible destruction of all abuses, prejudices, etc. … Give me leave, my dear General, to present you with a picture of the Bastille just as it looked a few days after I ordered its demolition, with the main key of that fortress of despotism—it is a tribute which I owe as a son to my adoptive father, as an aide de camp to my General, as a Missionary of Liberty to its Patriarch.”

The Festival of the Federations

“This Country is as near to Anarchy,” Gouverneur wrote Washington later in the summer, “as Society can approach without Dissolution. There are some able Men in the national Assembly, yet the best Heads among them would not be injured by Experience.… They have all that romantic Spirit and all those romantic ideas of Government, which happily for America, we were cured of before it was too late.”

Administration stagnated as the constitution advanced clause by clause. The King was still a prisoner. “If this reigning prince were not the small beer character that he is, there can be but little Doubt that watching Events and making a tolerable Use of them he would regain his Authority, but what will you have from a Creature who situated as he is eats, drinks and sleeps well, and laughs and is as merry a Grig as Lives?”

The King was governed in everything by the Assembly. The Assembly was made up of disgruntled aristocrats, of middleclass people whom Gouverneur described as “really friends of good government”; and “of what are called here the Enragés, that is the Madmen … of that Class which in America is known as pettifogging Lawyers, together with a Host of Curates.… This 1st Party is in close Alliance with the Populace here.… They have already unhinged every Thing.… The middle Party who mean well, have unfortunately acquired their Ideas of Government from Books and are admirable Fellows upon Paper; but as it happens somewhat unfortunately that the Men who live in the World are very different from those who dwell in the Heads of Philosophers, it is not to be wondered at if the Systems taken out of Books are fit for Nothing but to be put into Books again.”

Gouverneur and his Adèle of the brown velvet eyes moved in the circle of the constitution makers. At one point he noted in his diary that Adèle had proposed to him, half jokingly, that the two of them should rule France by manipulating the Queen through the Queen’s physician who was a devotee of Adèle’s. The regime Adèle was going to prescribe for Marie Antoinette was a man every night and a Mass every morning. “Enfin,” she told Gouverneur, “mon Ami, vous et moi nous gouvernerons la France.” “It is an. odd combination,” wrote Gouverneur, “but the Kingdom is actually in much worse Hands.”

Ever since the convening of the States-General Necker had been dodging the problems of national bankruptcy (in the Assembly it was only Mirabeau who had the courage to pronounce the dreadful word: banqueroute) and inflation. When he could borrow no more he had proposed a patriotic capital levy, which being voluntary had been to say the least unproductive. Now he was attempting to raise a fund from the sale of lands confiscated from the Church and the Crown.

Since there was no way of immediately realizing the ten or twelve millions of pounds they were supposed to be worth, Necker was selling anticipations of this hoped-for revenue which he called assignats. Gouverneur Morris hardly needed to point out to George Washington that this maneuver would reduce the value of the lands, if it did not make them altogether unsalable. Consequently the value of the assignats must go tumbling too.

Necker, as Gouverneur put it, was “ineptious.” The King was impotent; the ministers were do-nothings. It was the gaudy Mirabeau’s oratory that ruled the Assembly; any decision that was reached resulted from Mirabeau’s connivings. Gouverneur despised him. Mirabeau was a venal scoundrel: “His understanding is I believe impaired by the Perversion of his Heart.” One of Mirabeau’s compelling motives was jealousy of Lafayette.

“Our friend Lafayette … acts now a splendid but dangerous Part,” he told Washington in another letter. “Unluckily he has given in to Measures as to the Constitution which he does not heartily approve, and he heartily approves many Things which Experience will demonstrate to be injurious. He left America, you know, when his Education was but half finished … he did not learn to be a Government Maker.”

He admitted that Lafayette riding his white horse at the head of the National Guard was still giving France the illusion of leadership. Men compared his tall, austere figure in buff and blue with the swarthy, debauched form of Mirabeau in his rich dress covered with buckles and frills. Lafayette was lavishing his fortune on the cause: Mirabeau was making money out of it.

Lafayette, if he did not quite observe the monogamy of the Americans, condescended just enough to the charms of the ladies to prove that he was made of flesh and blood; Mirabeau’s sordid amours were notorious. For the liberals of all Europe the ci-devant Marquis was the paladin without fear and without reproach who had ridden out to slay the dragon of tyranny. Wherever he showed himself the crowds cheered.

Lafayette’s popularity reached its climax in the great Festival of the Federations held on the Champs de Mars on the first anniversary of the taking of the Bastille. The Constituent Assembly had completed its work. Lafayette had contrived a confederation of the men of the National Guard from all over France. It was the guardsmen who were to assure the stability of the new regime. Every unit sent its representatives to Paris to swear allegiance to the constitution. The channel packets were crowded with English radicals and reforming Whigs hastening to take part in the triumph of enlightened liberty. Revolutionists from every European nation pressed into Paris. Tom Paine arrived in time to carry an American flag in the parade.

The constitution was read to an enormous concourse of guardsmen from all the departments of France and from all the sections of Paris, drawn up in a hollow square on the immense paradeground. The French constituted themselves a federated nation with a constitutional king at their head. The King swore to support this constitution. Assisted by 400 priests with red, white, and blue sashes thrown over their white vestments the Bishop of Autun performed High Mass on the towering altar of the fatherland. He blessed the banners of the 83 departments.

Lafayette read out the oath: “We swear to be forever faithful to the Nation, to the Law and to the King, to protect persons and property, and the circulation of grain within the kingdom; the collecting of public contributions under any form; to remain united to all Frenchmen by the indissoluble bonds of Fraternity.”

To Liberty and Equality, Fraternity was added.

With tears streaming down their faces the guardsmen shouted: “Je le jure!” Cannon roared. There were discharges of musketry. At dusk fireworks filled the sky.

Some of the English complained about the poor marching order of the troops, but stocky, bushy-haired young William Short, Jefferson’s secretary whom he had left in charge of the legation, who had been mingling with the crowds all night, wrote Gouverneur Morris: “the spectacle of that day was really sublime & magnificent—the most perfect order and harmony reigned as well then, as at the illuminations & bals of the Sunday following—but the streets & Palais Royale presented every evening during the course of the week such collections of people in uniform, returning after numerous dinners and parading with the women they had picked up in their way, as excited reflections of a disagreeable nature to those who wished to see a patriot & sober legislator in every federé.… Instead of this the Palais Royale had the air of the general rendezvous for the votaries of Mars, Bacchus & Venus.”

Short was writing from the chateau of the enlightened La Rochefoucauld, where he had been adopted into the family to the point of falling desperately in love with the Duke’s lovely young wife Rosalie. “The marquis de la fayette seemed to have taken full possession of the federés—his popular manners pleased them beyond measure & of course they approved his principles—When I left Paris he was adored by them—that moment may be regarded as the zenith of his influence—he made no use of it.”


“I saw your friends at the P. Royal the day before I left Paris,” Short added, “you are their Magnus Apollo in whatever relates to Politics & Government & Revolutions—they quote you frequently to prove that the constitution can never march, notwithstanding the new song of ça ira, ça ira.”

“It will work, it will work,” sung to an old tune that Marie Antoinette had made popular at her fêtes at the Petit Trianon, turned out to be the popular refrain of the whole festival.

“Ça ira, ça ira, les aristocrates à la lanterne,

Ça ira, ça ira, les aristocrates on les pendra,” the guardsmen and their girlfriends sang as they marched with torches over the cobbles of the deep stone streets.

It worked so badly that before three months were out Monsieur Necker was once more, and for the last time, packing his bags to seek the seclusion of his Swiss lake. The wave that engulfed him was a wave of assignats.

A Litter of Revolutions

The constitution which Lafayette had charged with such great hopes was no sooner sworn to than the Assembly started picking it to pieces again. Everybody had a notion of how to improve it. Lafayette stood almost alone in its defense.

Mirabeau’s death left him again the most popular man in France. When Louis bolted from the Tuileries disguised as a footman and fled north to join the emigration, it was Lafayette who ordered his recapture. The King was found eating his usual copious dinner at Varennes. When the royal family was brought back to the Tuileries, Lafayette could think of nothing but his precious constitution. He was hurt that the King did not take kindly to his advice. Gouverneur Morris lost patience with him entirely. “Unfortunately,” he reported to Washington, “both for himself and his country he has not the talents which this situation requires.”

The Fourth of July after the royal family’s return to their imprisonment, Gouverneur Morris dined with Short and a group of Americans at the legation. The guest of honor as usual was Lafayette, who, Gouverneur wrote, had come near being hanged for letting the King escape from the Tuileries. Paine was among them. He had come over from London to write an article for a republican newspaper which he and Condorcet helped found. His advice to the French was to treat the King’s attempt to escape as an abdication. You will be better off without him: set up a republic. The Paris streets were placarded with his manifesto. He had been threatened with arrest by the monarchists in the Assembly. Gouverneur by this time loathed Paine. “Payne is here,” he noted in his diary, “inflated to the eyes and big with a litter of revolutions.”

Able operators had discovered that immense things could be accomplished by skillful use of the armed mob. One bloody explosion followed another. In the abandoned convents and in the gardens of the Palais Royale orators called for blood in the name of Condorcet’s trinity of liberty, equality, and reason. Treasons and aristocratic plots became the morning fare of the newspapers. To be a revolutionary meant to demand the death of traitors. The great phrases from the Rights of Man hovered like birds of prey over the Paris streets.

Lafayette set himself desperately to stem the torrent. He spent all the money he could raise from his estates to bolster his political party. He threatened and complained. He sought military appointments and resigned them. He retired for a while to his chateau in Auvergne, but the attraction of the whirlpool of Paris was too great. Always he saw himself like Washington as the patriot general of a citizen army.

When the Declaration of Pilnitz seemed to threaten an émigré invasion backed by the despots of Germany, the Assembly appointed Lafayette to command one of the northern armies. He threw himself in his carriage and drove off at top speed to Metz. “I will send you an exact return of my Army when it is finally arranged,” he wrote Washington, “for I always consider myself, my dear General, as one of your lieutenants on a detached command.”

The Constituent Assembly gave place to the Legislative Assembly. The seating of the new deputies in their redecorated hall suddenly became significant. On the right were Lafayette’s constitutionalists, on the left the new shrill voices that hailed from the Gironde, from the Jacobins, from the Cordeliers, from the municipality of Paris. The madmen crowded in the extreme top benches of the left; they became known as the Mountain.

The map of France was reorganized. The decimal system was established. Monopolies were forbidden. The Farmers-General were herded into jail. War was abolished by decree. Old abuses and old vested interests were legislated away, but the strife and hatred between factions made orderly government impossible. Ambitions flared on every streetcorner. Ministry followed ministry. The armies of the Coalition of Kings were advancing from the north. Fear of retribution by the triumphant reaction filled the streets of Paris with madness. Behind every shuttered window men saw an avenging aristocrat.

The Assembly where Lafayette’s constitutional party still had a thin majority was helpless before the ambitious men who had learned the dangerous science of evoking the mob. Only war to the death would save the nation. In April the Assembly declared war on Austria. In June the mob, goaded by news of defeats of the national armies, attacked the Tuileries. The Bourbon princes had instigated the coalition. The royal family was a nest of traitors.

The Bourbon did not lack courage. Louis calmly walked out on a balcony wearing a liberty cap on his head and carrying a glass of wine in his hand, and stood looking stolidly down on the waving pikes and the red caps. This time his fumbling quiet demeanor quelled the insurrection.

“The Constitution,” Gouverneur Morris, who had just got news of his appointment as American minister to France, noted in his diary, “has this Day I think given its last groan.”

The moment Lafayette heard the news of this fresh uprising, forgetting his military command he set off posthaste for Paris. He was forever flinging himself into his traveling carriage. When he arrived at the town house of La Rochefoucauld his old friend was astonished at his state of frenzy.

Lafayette appeared at the bar of the Assembly and by a passionate speech staved off a vote of censure. He tried to call out the National Guard to support the constitution. He would protect the person of the King and the liberty of the citizens.

The time had come for the Washington of France to show himself on his white horse. The National Guard was to gather on the Champs Élysées and to discipline the Parisians. Only a hundred men showed up. While the Assembly was pronouncing the nation in danger, Lafayette was already in his carriage again driving off to rejoin his army. His supporters were still strong enough in the Assembly to reject a motion for his impeachment.

By August 10, 1792, the extremists were ready for their coup d’état. They were better prepared this time. The mob stormed the Tuileries again. The King told his Swiss guards not to fire. The Swiss were massacred almost to a man.

In a safe in the royal study documents were found to incriminate half the moderates in France; among them, letters of Lafayette’s, who had been trying to arrange a fresh flight of the King, this time to Compiègne.

A provisional government was set up with Danton as minister of justice. The jails were filled with liberals and monarchists. The hour of the republic had come. The King was deposed and confined in the Temple. Commissioners were sent off to the armies to announce the new regime that would complete the revolution. Lafayette took three of them in custody and mustered his troops on the famous plain of Sedan. When he objured his soldiers to defend the King and the constitution, murmurings and mutterings were the only reply. On a sudden impulse he threw up his career as the Washington of France and rode off into the gathering dusk.

About twenty of his staff officers followed him. “Je me suis abandonné a mon sort,” he wrote. The little troupe rode vaguely northward in search of neutral soil. There was no more neutral soil in Europe. Near a Belgian village they stumbled on an Austrian detachment. When the officer in charge arrested him, Lafayette haughtily announced that since he had resigned from the French service he was an American citizen. He demanded to be taken to the American legation at The Hague.

Instead he was hustled off to a dungeon in Magdeburg. First the Austrians, then the Prussians kept him imprisoned. Through the years of close confinement at Olmütz, through prison walls he was to hear muffled echoes of the tragedy of liberalism in France: the massacre of his friends in the Paris prisons in September; the Convention; the trial of the King, the timely invention of the guillotine by a humanitarian Paris physician whose aim was to abolish inhuman punishments; the carnival of blood presided over by Robespierre, that meticulous provincial notary who was such a fanatic for the rights of man that he could find no man good enough to enjoy them.

“In a word,” as Lafayette wrote in a letter smuggled out of his dungeon, “natural liberty, civil liberty, religious liberty, political liberty stifled in blood.”

Lafayette had, as he wrote, abandoned himself to his destiny that late summer afternoon on the plain of Sedan. His destiny was to prove a strange one. It was the rising Bonaparte, who had brutally seized the opportunities Washington’s disciple was too scrupulous to take advantage of, who was eventually to secure his release. For three decades thereafter Lafayette was occasionally to reappear at critical moments in French history, a dignified but ineffectual ghost out of a vanished generation that had gone to its doom in an effort to apply Anglo-Saxon methods to Continental politics.


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