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Marquis de Lafayette

Marquis de Lafayette

Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834), French general, statesman, and hero of the American Revolution, served France by endeavoring to smooth the transition from the Old Regime to the new order created by the French Revolution.

The Marquis de Lafayette was born on Sept. 6, 1757, to the Motier family—better known by their noble title of La Fayette (the spelling "Lafayette" is an Americanism which only pedants would now attempt to correct)—at their château of Chavagniac in the province of Auvergne. After 3 years of study in the Collège du Plessis, a distinguished secondary school in Paris, he joined the French army in 1771. Stringent military reforms 5 years later forced his retirement from active service when he was only 18 years old.

In 1773 Lafayette married Adrienne de Noailles (1759-1807), daughter of the Duc d'Ayen, and entered the court life at Versailles. He had not yet shown any serious interest in the turbulent political events and debates of the early reign of Louis XVI, but he was not willing to settle down to the life of pampered luxury permitted by his great wealth. After the outbreak of the American Revolution, he decided to put his arms and his training at the service of the infant country in rebellion against France's historic enemy, England. It was as yet more a soldier's splendid gesture, however, than an act of political commitment.

American Revolution

Refused the King's permission to go to America, Lafayette sailed anyway, after buying and equipping a ship with his own money. On June 13, 1777, he landed in North Carolina. The Continental Congress had given the distinguished volunteer an honorary commission as a major general, but his actual duties were as aide-de-camp to Gen. Washington, to whom he brought personal and political devotion, eagerness and ability in the performance of military duties, and the assurance that the American rebels were not alone in their cause. After performing well in battles against the British in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, he was given command of a division of American troops. The next year he tried to persuade Washington to carry the war into Canada, but his plan was not adopted. Instead he was sent back to France with the mission of obtaining greater French support for the Americans.

Upon landing in his homeland early in 1779, Lafayette was arrested for having disobeyed the royal command in going to America. But political necessities soon overrode considerations of military discipline, and he was called to Versailles by the King, who wanted a firsthand report on how things stood in the new United States of America. Although not all his proposals for aid to the Americans were accepted, Lafayette did return to America in April 1780 in command of French auxiliary forces. In 1781 he was given command of the defense of Virginia with the rank of major general. His maneuverings eventually drew Charles Cornwallis, the English commander, into the trap at Yorktown, where he was blockaded by the American forces and by French troops brought by a French fleet under Adm. de Grasse. Cornwallis's surrender on October 19 brought the American war of independence to its military conclusion and was the culmination of Lafayette's career as a soldier.

Return to France

When Lafayette returned to France in 1782, it was as a hero, "Washington's friend," and he was made a brigadier general in the French army.

In America Lafayette had developed a commitment to the principles of the Enlightenment. During the years of the final crisis of the Old Regime, the soldier became a political leader of the movement against absolutism. In 1787-1788 he served as a member of the Assembly of Notables and then, in 1789, took a seat in the Estates General as deputy of the nobility of the district of Riom. Lafayette was influential in the first months of the Revolution, which followed the meeting of the Estates General. The world-famous Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was adopted at his initiative, and his military fame and political reputation combined to win for him, on the day after the Bastille fell (July 14), the command of the Parisian national guard, the force of citizen-soldiers created to defend the new regime.

Lafayette's political acumen was now tested to the utmost, for, like so many of the Enlightenment thinkers, he favored a parliamentary monarchy like England's but one based on a formal written constitution like that just adopted in America. However, he had to cope with radical mob violence that was directed even at the King's person. His efforts to hold the Revolution to a moderate course proved more and more unavailing; his popularity was dissipated; and his command to his troops to fire on a mob in July 1791 led to his retirement in September from command of the national guard.

However, the onset of war against Austria and Prussia in 1792 brought Lafayette's return to military life as the commander of the Army of the Ardennes. He invaded the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium) and then withdrew for lack of support. By August, fearful of the revenge of the Jacobins because he had come to Paris to complain to the Legislative Assembly of the attack upon the royal family in the Tuileries (July 20), and finding no support among his troops, he crossed over into Austria with a few fellow officers. He was treated as a prisoner of war until 1797, when the victorious Napoleon obtained his release from jail but did not permit him to return to France. He had become so politically innocuous, however, that when he did go back to France in 1799 without permission, he was given a military pension as a retired general and allowed to live quietly on his country estate at Lagrange.

Last Years

Although he withheld his support from the imperial regime, Lafayette abstained from overt political activity until after the first abdication of Napoleon, in 1814; he was elected to the Legislative Chamber and was the first to demand the Emperor's final and permanent abdication. The definitive restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1815 after the Hundred Days brought his return to a position as a leader in the liberal opposition to Louis XVIII and Charles X. From 1818 to 1824 he sat in the Chamber of Deputies as a member of opposition.

In 1824 Lafayette was invited by the government of the United States to visit America as its guest, and his triumphal tour of the country lasted 15 months. Congress gave him a gift of $200,000 and a sizable tract of land, and Lafayette returned to France in 1825 to great acclaim as the "hero of two worlds."

Lafayette did not regain political prominence until the outbreak of revolution in 1830, when he became the symbol of moderate republicanism. Named to command the reestablished national guard, he was half persuaded and half tricked into endorsing Louis Philippe as a constitutional king. It was his last important political act, for he was dismissed in 1831, and he then returned to opposition.

When Lafayette died in Paris on May 20, 1834, he had few followers left. Although Lafayette had played a part in the creation of new regimes in two countries, his generosity of purpose was not matched by political astuteness, and he was more carried along by events than he was their maker. He was perhaps most influential as a living symbol—of friendship between France and America, and of the men of goodwill who wanted a new and better world but could not accept terror and dictatorship as the ways to bring it into being.

Further Reading

Sound modern studies of Lafayette are Brand Whitlock, La Fayette (2 vols., 1929); W. E. Woodward, Lafayette (1938); and David G. Loth, The People's General: The Personal Story of Lafayette (1951). The definitive studies are by the most distinguished modern historian of Lafayette, Louis R. Gottschalk: Lafayette Comes to America (1935); Lafayette Joins the American Army (1937); Lafayette and the Close of the American Revolution (1942); Lafayette between the American and French Revolutions (1950); and, with Margaret Maddox, Lafayette in the French Revolution through the October Days (1969). □

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Lafayette, Marquis de

Marquis de Lafayette

Born: September 6, 1757
Auvergne, France
Died: May 20, 1834
Paris, France

French general

The Marquis de Lafayette was a French general who played important roles in two revolutions in France and volunteered his time and money to help the American cause during the Revo lutionary War (177583).

Early life

Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette was born on September 6, 1757, in the province of Auvergne, France. His father was killed while fighting against the British in the Seven Years' War (175663). His mother and grandfather died when he was thirteen, leaving him a wealthy orphan. After studying in the Collège du Plessis in Paris, France, Lafayette joined the French army in 1771. In 1773 he married Adrienne de Noailles. However, he was not ready to settle down to the life of a wealthy man. After the outbreak of the American Revolution, he volunteered to help the new country in its fight against France's historic enemy, England.

American Revolution

King Louis XVI (17541793) refused to allow Lafayette to go to America, but Lafayette sailed anyway, after buying a ship with his own money. In June 1777 he landed in North Carolina. The Continental Congress had given him a commission as a major general, but his actual duties were as assistant to General George Washington (17321799). He assisted in battles against the British in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and eventually was sent back to France in an attempt to obtain greater French support for the Americans.

Upon returning to his homeland in 1779, Lafayette was arrested for having disobeyed the king, but all was soon forgiven. Although not all his proposals for aid to the Americans were approved, Lafayette returned to America in 1780 in command of French forces that were sent to help. In 1781 he was given command of the defense of Virginia with the rank of major general. He drew English commander Charles Cornwallis (17381805) into a trap at Yorktown, Virginia; Cornwallis was blockaded by the American forces and by French troops under Admiral de Grasse. Cornwallis's surrender was the high point of Lafayette's military career.

Return to France

When Lafayette returned to the French army in 1782, he was considered a hero. He became a leader in the movement against the French monarchy (absolute rule by a single person). In 1789 he took a seat in the Estates General, the French legislature. The adoption of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (loosely based on the Declaration of Independence) was his idea, and he was given the command of the Parisian National Guard, a force of citizen-soldiers created to defend the new constitutional monarchy. Lafayette favored a moderate course (a gradual rate of change) for the Revolution but found that many others were not so willing to wait. His popularity declined, and his command to his troops to fire on a mob in 1791 led to his dismissal as command of the guard.

However, the beginning of war against Austria and Prussia in 1792 returned Lafayette to military life as commander of the army of the Ardennes. In August he crossed over into Austria with a few fellow officers. He was captured and held as a prisoner of war until 1797, when Napoleon Bonaparte (17691821) obtained his release from jail but did not permit him to return to France. Lafayette had become so politically powerless that when he did return in 1799 without permission, he was given a military pension and allowed to live quietly in Lagrange, France.

Last years

When Napoleon stepped down as emperor in 1814, Lafayette was elected to the Legislative Chamber and demanded that Napoleon be kept out permanently. The return to power of the monarchy in 1815 after the Hundred Days (Napoleon's brief second reign) returned Lafayette to a position as a leader of the opposition to Kings Louis XVIII and Charles X. In 1824 Lafayette vis ited America as a guest of the government on a tour that lasted fifteen months. Congress rewarded him for his efforts during the American Revolution with money and land. When he returned to France in 1825, he was known as the "hero of two worlds."

Lafayette did not regain political prominence until revolution broke out again in 1830. Named to command the reestablished National Guard, he supported the naming of Louis Philippe as a constitutional monarch. He was dismissed from the guard the following year and became a critic of the new king. When Lafayette died in Paris on May 20, 1834, he had few followers left. His biggest influence was as a living symbolof friendship between France and America, and of the men who wanted a better world but could not accept terror and cruelty as the ways to bring it into being.

For More Information

Gottschalk, Louis R. Lafayette Comes to America. Chicago.: University of Chicago Press, 1935.

Grote, JoAnn A. Lafayette: French Freedom Fighter. Philadelphia, PA: Chelsea House Publishers, 2001.

Kramer, Lloyd S. Lafayette in Two Worlds. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Maddox, Margaret. Lafayette in the French Revolution through the October Days. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.

Woodward, W. E. Lafayette. New York; Toronto: Farrar and Rinehart, Inc., 1938.

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Lafayette, Marquis de

Lafayette, Marquis de (1757–1834), French statesman and Revolutionary War general.The marquis de Lafayette was the most influential Frenchman in the early American republic. The prospect of military advancement and an affinity for republican principles drew the young cavalry captain to join the Continental army during the Revolutionary War. Americans appreciated his powerful court connections, unwavering enthusiasm for their cause, and offer to serve without pay. Despite Congress's growing irritation with troublesome foreign adventurers, the nineteen‐year‐old nobleman acquired, on 31 July 1777, a major general's commission in the army, albeit without pay or a command.

Lafayette's notable services, first at the Battle of Brandywine in September 1777, eventually won him his own troops. In 1778, Congress designated him to head the proposed invasion of Canada, a plan eventually canceled; then George Washington gave him a division to strike the British near Monmounth, an assignment that Charles Lee ultimately claimed on the basis of higher rank. Lafayette finally led six light infantry battalions in 1780 and a Light Corps in 1781, moving to the Southern Department, where his troops help confine Charles Cornwallis's army to the Virginia coast and set up the decisive siege of Yorktown.

Lafayette remained a supporter of the United States during the French Revolution, despite considerable risk to himself and his family. In 1824–25, he returned to the United States for a triumphal tour that symbolized the passing of the revolutionary generation.
[See also Revolutionary War: Military and Diplomatic Course; Yorktown, Battle of.]

Bibliography

Louis Gottschalk , Lafayette Joins the American Army, 1937.
Louis Gottschalk , Lafayette and the Close of the American Revolution, 1942.
Stanley J. Idzerda, ed., Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution: Selected Letters and Papers, 1776–1790, 1977–.

J. Mark Thompson

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