Lord Acton wrote that Lafayette taught his compatriots the American “theory of revolution, not their theory of government – their cutting, not their sewing.” Gouverneur Morris told George Washington that Lafayette “left America, you know, when his education was but half-finished. What he learnt there he knows well, but he did not learn to be a government maker.” What did these two astute political observers mean?
When he sailed to America in 1776, violating a direct order from his king, the nineteen-year-old Marquis de Lafayette ( Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert Du Montier Lafayette) was handsome, charismatic and extraordinarily wealthy. To the wife he left behind he explained, “The happiness of America is intimately connected with the happiness of all mankind; she is destined to become the safe and venerable asylum of virtue, of honesty, of tolerance, and of peaceful liberty.”
Lafayette’s bravery at the Battle of Brandywine made him a favorite of Washington. In an army where men still tended to think of themselves as residents of separate states rather than of a new nation, Lafayette became one of the few figures admired from New Hampshire all the way to Georgia: “Our Marquis,” they called him. Benjamin Franklin gave Lafayette credit for persuading the French king to sign a treaty of alliance with the United States. The ammunition and troops that arrived because of that treaty were a definitive factor in the American victory. When Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown in 1781, Lafayette stood in a well-earned position at Washington’s side.
Back home in France, a hero to nobles and bourgeois alike, Lafayette eagerly set out to introduce American-style liberty to his native land. In July 1789 he proposed to the National Assembly the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens, co-authored with his friend Thomas Jefferson.
But when the Declaration was approved two months later, it had been substantially altered. Jefferson was strongly influenced by Locke, who emphasized individual rights. In France the favored political philosopher was Rousseau, who argued that the state is the agent of the General Will, and has the right and obligation to override individual rights if the public good demands it. (Hamilton wrote a letter to Lafayette on 10/6/1789 that begins, “I have seen with a mixture of Pleasure and apprehension the Progress of the events which have lately taken Place in your Country …” Well worth reading, here.)
Without Locke’s ideas as groundwork, a government on the American model was impossible. Lafayette knew how to lead an army to displace the old regime, but didn’t know the principles necessary to set up a new, improved government. Hence, writing to Washington in March 1792, Lafayette admitted that the French constitution was not as good as the American one, but optimistically predicted that it would succeed nevertheless.
Although warlike preparations are going on, it is very doubtful whether our neighbours will attempt to stifle so very catching a thing as liberty. The danger for us lies in our state of anarchy . . . That liberty and equality will be preserved in France, there is no doubt; in case there were, you well know that I would not, if they fall, survive them. But you may be assured, that we shall emerge from this unpleasant situation, either by an honorable defence, or by internal improvements. . . . The success of our revolution cannot be questioned. – Letter of Lafayette to George Washington, 3/15/1792
Even as Lafayette wrote, events were spinning out of control. Demagogues roused the Paris mobs. Heads rolled. Extremists in the National Assembly overthrew the monarchy, imprisoned the royal family and charged thirty-five-year-old Lafayette with treason. He fled France – only to be imprisoned as soon as he crossed the border to Belgium. Lafayette had offended his fellow revolutionaries, but he had horrified European monarchs, whose thrones were tottering in the shockwaves of France’s Revolution.
When he finally returned to France after five years in prison, Lafayette was so weak he could barely walk. Yet he never gave up. When Jefferson offered him the governorship of the newly purchased Louisiana Territory in 1803, Lafayette sighed that he could not leave while he had “even the smallest hope” of bringing liberty to France.
In 1824, President Monroe invited Lafayette to return to the United States for the celebration of America’s 50th anniversary. Lafayette visited every one of the 24 states, and was greeted enthusiastically from North Carolina to Maine and Missouri as one of the last surviving heroes of the American Revolution. He lived until 1834.
- The first time I heard of Lafayette was as the handsome and heroic leader of a band of patriots in The Young Rebels. Alas, the show was up against Lassie and The Wonderful World of Disney; it had only a half-season run, 1970-1971.
- More on Lafayette’s imprisonment at Olmutz is here. In 1794, Angelica Schuyler Church and her husband John Barker Church paid a physician and his assistant to help Lafayette escape from Olmutz. Unfortunately, Lafayette was recaptured.
- The essay above is from Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide, with illustrations from the Guides Who Know Monuments of Manahttan app. Both are about the Marquis de Lafayette in Union Square, sculpted by Bartholdi (of Statue of Liberty fame).
- A Bartholdi sculpture of Lafayette meeting George Washington stands at Morningside Avenue and 114th Street. On this one, see the New York City Parks Dept. page here, and a Daily Beast article here,
- And for good measure: the Green in Morristown, NJ (near where Washington had winter headquarters 1779-80) has a sculpture of Washington, Lafayette, and, yes, Hamilton – with space for you for join their circle. Isn’t it grand to know topnotch lifesize bronze sculptures are still being created? This is the work of StudioEIS; all photos are (c) Dianne L. Durante 2007.
- I’ve occasionally added comments based on these blog posts to the Genius.com pages on the Hamilton Musical. Follow me @DianneDurante.
- This is the fifth in a series of posts on Hamilton: An American Musical. Other posts are available via the tag cloud at lower right. The ongoing “index” to these posts is my Kindle book, Alexander Hamilton: A Brief Biography. Bottom line: these are unofficial musings, and you do not need them to enjoy the musical or the soundtrack.
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