1902 Encyclopedia > Marquis de la Fayette

Marquis de la Fayette
French soldier, statesman, and liberal leader; supporter of American Revolution
(1757-1834)




MARIE JEAN PAUL ROCH YVES GILBERT MOTIER, MARQUIS DE LA FAYETTE (1757-1834), was born at the chateau of Chavagniac in Auvergne, France, September 6, 1757. Left an orphan with a princely fortune at the tender age of thirteen, he married at sixteen a daughter of the Due d'Ayen and granddaughter of the Due de Noailles, then one of the most influential families in the kingdom. In selecting a career, the choice of a young man of his rank in France at that time was practically limited to the court or the camp. He chose to follow the career of his father, and entered the Guards.

La Fayette was nineteen years of age and a captain of dragoons when the English colonies in America proclaimed their independence. " At the first news of this quarrel," he afterwards wrote in his memoirs, " my heart was enrolled in it." The count de Broglie, whom he consulted, discour-aged his zeal for the cause of liberty. " I have seen your uncle die in the wars of Italy; I witnessed your father's death at the battle of Minden; and I will not be accessory to the ruin of the only remaining branch of the family." Finding his purpose unchangeable, however, the count presented the young enthusiast to the Baron de Kalb, who was also seeking service in America, and through Deane, an American agent in Paris, an arrangement was concluded, December 7,1776, by which La Fayette was to enter the American service as major-general. At this critical moment the news arrived of a series of grave disasters to the American arms, includ-ing the evacuation of New York. La Fayette's friends again advised him to abandon his purpose. Even the American envoys, Franklin and Lee, wTho had superseded Deane the very day after the contract was signed, and who did not feel authorized to confirm his engagements, deemed it their duty to withhold any further encouragement of the plans of the marquis, and the king himself forbade his leav-ing. So far from being discouraged by these difficulties La Fayette proceeded to purchase a ship on his own account, and to invite such of his friends as were willing to share his fortunes. The British ambassador at Versailles remonstrated, and at his instance orders were issued to seize the ship then fitting out at Bordeaux, and La Fayette him-self was arrested. But the ship was sent from Bordeaux to the neighbouring port of Pasajes in Spain, La Fayette escaped from the custody of his guards in disguise, and before a second lettre de cachet could reach him he was afloat with eleven chosen companions. Though two British cruisers had been sent in pursuit of him, he effected a safe landing near Georgetown in South Carolina, after a tedious voyage of nearly two months, and hastened to Philadelphia, then the seat of government of the colonies.

When this lad of nineteen, with the command oi only what little English he had been able to pick up on his voyage, presented himself to the Congress of the Bevolu-tion, then sitting in Philadelphia, with Deane's authority to demand a commission of the highest rank after the commander-in-chief, it is not surprising that his reception seemed to him a little chilly, Nor did he then know all the disadvantages under which he presented himself. Deane's contracts were so numerous, and for officers of such high rank, that it was quite impossible for Congress to ratify them without injustice to Americans who had become entitled by their service to promotion. La Fayette appreciated the situation as soon as it was explained to him, and immediately addressed a note to the president of Congress, in which he expressed his desire to be permitted to serve in the American army upon two conditions,—that he should receive no pay, and that he should act as a volunteer. These terms were so different from those made by other foreigners, they had been attended with such substantial sacrifices, and they promised such substantial indirect advantages, that Congress had no hesitation in passing a resolution, on the 31st of July 1777 "that his services be accepted, and that, in consideration of his zeal, illustrious family, and connexions, he have the rank and commission of major-general of the United States." Next day La Fayette met Washington, who invited him to make the quarters of the commander-in-chief his own, and to consider himself at all times as one of his family. This invitation, as useful as it was nattering to the young officer, was joyfully accepted, and thus commenced a friendship which only death terminated. La Fayette was now anxious to have active employment, but it appeared that Congress intended his appointment as purely honorary, and the question of giving him a command was left entirely to Washington's discretion. At the time La Fayette went into camp the British commander was trying to secure possession of Philadelphia and the line of the Hudson from the Canadian frontier to New York, which, if accomplished, might prove fatal to the American cause. By the capture of Burgoyne at Saratoga, on the 17th of October 1777, that portion of the scheme was effectually spoiled. In the southern campaign the British arms were more for-tunate. The fall of Philadelphia was one of the immediate ; results of the battle of Brandy wine on the 11th of Sep- I tember. This was the first battle in which La Fayette was ' engaged, and in an attempt to rally his troops in their retreat he had the good fortune to receive a musket ball in his leg. We say good fortune, for it doubtless secured him what of all things in the world he most desired, the command of a division—the immediate result of a com-munication from Washington to Congress of November 1, 1777, in which among other things he said :—

"The Marquis de la Fayette is extremely solicitous of having a command equal to his rank. I do not know in what light Congress will view the matter, but it appears to me, from a consideration of his illustrious and important connexions, the attachment which he has manifested for our cause, and the consequences which his return in disgust might produce, that it will be advisable to gratify his wishes, and the more so as several gentlemen from France who came over under some assurances have gone back disappointed in their expectations. His conduct with respect to them stands in a favourable point of view,—having interested himself to remove their uneasiness and urged the impropriety of their making any unfavour-able representations upon their arrival at home. Besides, he is sensible, discreet in his manners, has made great proficiency in our language, and from the disposition he discovered at the battle of Brandywine possesses a large share of bravery and military ardour."

The recommendation of Washington was conclusive, and La Fayette's happiness was now complete. Barely twenty years of age, he found himself invested with a most honour-able rank, purchased by his blood in fighting at once to secure the independence of a strange people and to punish the enemies of his own. He had justified the boyish rash-ness which his friends deplored and his sovereign resented, and had already acquired a place in history.

Of La Fayette's military career in the United States there is not much to be said. Though the commander of a division, he never had the command of many troops, and whatever military talents he possessed were not of the kind which appeared to conspicuous advantage on the theatre to which his wealth and family influence rather than his soldierly gifts had called him. He fought at the battle of Monmouth in 1778, and received from Congress a formal recognition of his services in the field, and of his probably more valuable exertions in healing dissensions between the French and native officers. His retreat from Barren Hill was also commended as masterly.

The treaty of commerce and defensive alliance, signed by the insurgents and France on the 6th of February 1778, was promptly followed by a declaration of war by England against the latter, and La Fayette felt it to be his duty to ask leave to revisit France and consult his king as to the farther direction of his services. This leave was readily granted; it was not difficult for Washington to replace the major-general, but it was impossible to find another equally competent, influential, and devoted champion of the American cause near the court of Louis XVI. In fact, he went on a mission rather than a visit. He embarked in January 1779, and on the 4th of March following Franklin wrote to the president of Congress : " The Marquis de la Fayette, who during his stay in France has been extremely zealous on all occasions, returns again to fight for it. He is infinitely esteemed and beloved here, and I am persuaded will do everything in his power to merit a continuance of the same affection from America."





La Fayette was absent from America about six months, and his return was the occasion of a complimentary resolu-tion of Congress. From this time until October 1781 he was charged with the defence of Virginia, in which Washington gave him the credit of doing all that was possible with the forces at his disposal; and he showed his zeal by borrowing money from the bankers in Balti-more on his own account to provide his soldiers with necessaries. The battle of Yorktown, in which La Fayette bore an honourable if not a distinguished part, was the last serious trouble of the war, and terminated his military career in the United States. He immediately sought and obtained leave to return to France, where it was supposed he might be useful in the negotiations looking to a general peace, of which prospects had begun to dawn. He was also much occupied in the preparations for a combined French and Spanish expedition against some of the British West India Islands, of which he had been appointed chief of staff, and a formidable fleet had already assembled at Cadiz, when, on the 30th of November 1782, the preli-minary treaties of peace between the several belligerents put an end to the war. To La Fayette was accorded the grateful privilege of first communicating this welcome intelligence to Congress. He returned to his native land one of the heroes of a noble conflict, and fortified with the most flattering testimonials from his commander-in-chief and from the Government he had served, which were crowned by a notification from the French minister of war that he should have the same rank in the army of his sovereign that he had held in America, his commission to date from the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown. He visited the United States again in 1784, to gratify his curiosity as well as his affections, and while he remained—some five months—was the guest of the nation, and received every mark of public and private consideration which his hosts supposed would be acceptable.

La Fayette did not appear again in public life until 1787, when he took his seat in the Assembly of Notables. From this time till near the close of the Revolution he was a conspicuous figure in the history of France, and almost the only one who, at no stage of that cycle of horrors, seems to have lost his reason or his humanity.

When the States-General, convened after the Assembly of Notables had proved wholly unequal to its task, met at Versailles in May 1789 the throne was occupied by a shadow. The royal authority was gone. France was already, though few if any, and least of all the sovereign, suspected it, in full revolution. On the 11th of July 1789 La Fayette presented to the National Assembly, into which the States-General had been fused, a declaration of rights, modelled on Jefferson's Declaration of Inde-pendence in 1776. The struggle between the expiring monarchy and popular sovereignty was already big with the horrors of the French Bevolution. The palace and the assembly were guarded by troops ; a national guard was organized, which soon embraced the whole kingdom, and numbered over three millions of men, the command of which was confided to La Fayette. For the succeeding three years, until the end of the constitutional monarchy in 1792, his history is largely the history of France. His life was beset with inconceivable responsibility and perils, for he was ever the minister of humanity and order among a frenzied people who had come to regard order and humanity as phases of treason. He rescued the queen from the murderous hands of the populace on the 5th and Gth of October 1789, not to speak of multitudes of humbler victims who had been devoted to death. He risked his life in many unsuccessful attempts to rescue others. He was obliged to witness the butchery of Foulon, and the reeking heart of Berthier torn from his lifeless body and held up in triumph before him. Disgusted with enormities which he was powerless to prevent and could not counte-nance, he resigned his commission; but so impossible was it to replace him that he was induced to resume it. In the Constituent Assembly, of which he was a member, his influence was always felt in favour of Republican principles, for the abolition of arbitrary imprisonment, for religious tolerance, for popular representation, for the establishment of trial by jury, for the gradual emancipation of slaves, for the freedom of the press, for the abolition of titles of uobility, and the suppression of privileged orders. When the Constitution was proclaimed, on the 14th of July 1790, the first anniversary of the destruction of the Bastille, he again and definitively resigned his command, and retired to private life. Shortly after his resignation he was invited by the friends of liberty with order to stand for the office of mayor of Paris. By a strange madness the remnants of the royal party supported his competitor Pethion, the most rancorous of Jacobins, and were for the royal family but too fatally successful.

The royalist party, and certain members of the royal family who had taken refuge in frontier states, were already intriguing with the Austrian Government to march an army into France and restore absolutism, while the king, after an unsuccessful attempt to escape from France, was reduced to the humiliating necessity of declaring war against Austria and her allies. Three armies of 50,000 each were levied. Of one of these the command was given to La Fayette. But it was with sad misgivings that the general left his country retreat to take this command. As he passed through Paris the president of the Assembly said to him in full session that " the nation would oppose to its enemies the constitution and La Fayette "; but what was to be expected of a war conducted by a king in secret league with the nation's enemies, or of a legislature con-spiring to destroy the king and constitution to which they had only just sworn allegiance and support 1 La Fayette's loyalty to his king, to his constitution, and to his country seemed only to strengthen as the situation grew desperate. Four days before the outrages which occurred at the Tuileries on the 16th June 1792 he publicly denounced the Jacobin Club, and called upon the Assembly to sup-press them. Henceforth he became the special object of Jacobin rage. On the 8th of August a motion was made to have him arrested, and tried as an enemy of his country. Though the motion was defeated by 446 votes against 224, scarce two days elapsed before the palace was stormed, and the king and queen were sent to the prison from which they passed to the scaffold.

With the destruction of the constitution, the monarchy, and the Government, La Fayette's occupation as the priest of liberty, humanity, and order was gone. He would have marched to Paris to defend the constitution, but his troops were too generally infected with the sentiments which triumphed in the disorders of the 10th of August. He was compelled to take refuge in the neutral territory of Liege, where he was taken by the Austrians and held as a prisoner of state for five years, first in Prussian and after-wards in Austrian prisons, in spite of the intercession of America and the pleadings of his wife. Napoleon, however, who called him a " noodle," stipulated for his release, 19th September 1797. He was not allowed to return ta France by the Directory ; when he did, it was to vote against the life consulate of Napoleon, as he, later on, voted against the imperial title. Many years of his life were then spent in retirement at the castle of La Grange. He was called from it to become vice-president of the Assembly, under Louis XVIII., before the battle of Waterloo. He afterwards sat for Meaux and became a frequent speaker upon foreign politics and military economy. But his early influence was gone, except in America, to which he returned in 1824, to be overwhelmed with popular applause and to be voted the sum of $200,000 and a township of land. During the Revolution of 1830 he again took command of the National Guard and pursued the same line of conduct, with equal want of success, as in the first Revolution. In 1834 he made his last speech, —on political refugees. He died at Paris, May 20, 1834.

Few men have owed more of their success and usefulness in the world to their family rank than La Fayette, and still fewer have abused it less. He never achieved distinction in the field, and his political career proved him to be incapable of ruling a great national movement; but he had strong convictions which always impelled him to study the interests of humanity, and a pertinacity in maintaining them, which, in all the marvellous vicissitudes of his singu-larly eventful life, secured him a very unusual measure of public respect. No citizen of a foreign country has ever had so many and such warm admirers in America, nor does any statesman in France appear to have ever possessed uninterruptedly for so many years so large a measure of popular influence and respect. He had what Jefferson called a " canine appetite " for popularity and fame, but in him the appetite only seemed to make him more anxious to merit the fame which he enjoyed. He was brave even to rashness ; his life was one of constant personal peril, and yet he never shrank from any danger or responsibility if he saw the way open to spare life or suffering, to protect the defenceless, to sustain the law and preserve order.

See Mémoires historiques et pièces autlientiques sur M. de La, Fayette pour servir a l'histoire des révolutions, Paris, l'an second de la liberté française; La Fayette et la Révolution de 1830, histoire des choses et des hommes de Juillet, by B. Sarrans, Paris, 1832 ; Mémoires et Manuscrits de La Fayette, published by his family, 6 vols., Paris, 1837-38; and numerous eulogies and monographs in French and English. (J. BI.)






The author of the above article was the Hon. John Bigelow, New York.



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