I believe I’ve mentioned a time or two that the Marquis de Lafayette is my favorite hero from the American Revolution. He came to America against the express wishes of his King. France was secretly supporting the American cause, but Louis XVI had no wish to stir up hostilities with England – yet.
Unlike many of his French compatriots, he wasn’t a mercenary either. America’s shores were teaming with fortune hunters and men with no other options but to sell their military services. The Marquis was one of the wealthiest men in France. If anything, there was more potential for risk than reward for a man in his position. He even offered to serve without pay when the Continental Congress refused, at first, to offer him a commission saying that they were tired of “French glory seekers.”
|Lafayette is wounded at Brandywine|
Source: Wikimedia Commons
This image is in the public domain
in the US
In le Chevalier, Mont Trignon rides to
see his good friend, the Marquis, after he
is shot in the leg in Brandywine.
The Marquis plays a slightly larger than cameo role in Le Chevalier, and I allude to this in this exchange with the heroine, Alexandra Turner.
“What will you do if they don’t offer you a regiment to command?” she asked, trying to take her mind off her discomfort.
“Pay for one myself, I suppose,” the marquis responded, with an airy wave of his lace-covered wrist.
“Oh,” Alex replied, not knowing what else to say.
It had never occurred to her one man might have enough money to outfit and pay his own regiment. Moreover, he was not an American. Why would he risk his fortune and his life for a cause not his own?
Had she, perhaps, encountered a nobleman who deserved to be called noble?
As Alex observes, the Marquis is not an American, nor does he ever return permanently to the US – although Connecticut does offer the entire Lafayette family citizenship during the French Revolution. Interestingly, in 1784, Maryland declares Lafayette and his progeny to be “natural born citizens” under the Articles of Confederation. (Thankfully that document is no longer in effect!) Jefferson later asks him if he is interested in becoming Governor of the Louisiana purchase, and he’s declared an Honorary Citizen of the United States in 2002.
After the war, he returns to France where his life gets really complicated.
One the one hand, he has sworn his loyalty to the Royal Family and is head of the National Guard. On the other hand, he’s in favor of reform in the form of a constitutional monarchy similar to Britain’s. A series of blunders, which seem uncharacteristic for the younger Lafayette, get him designated as a traitor and enemy of the people by Robespierre – something you definitely do not want to be at this time in France.
I do wonder how many of his "blunders" were really his doing vs propoganda from his detractors. As François-René de Chateaubriand said after his death:
In this year of 1834, Monsieur de Lafayette died. I may already have done him an injustice in speaking of him; I may have represented him as a kind of fool, with twin faces and twin reputations; a hero on the other side of the Atlantic, a clown on this. It has taken more than forty years to recognize qualities in Monsieur de Lafayette which one insisted on denying him. At the rostrum he expressed himself fluently and with the air of a man of breeding. No stain attaches to his life; he was affable, obliging and generous.
Original Source: Chateaubriand, Bk XLII: Chap3: Sec1
But back to the 1790s when Lafayette was still very much alive. It’s important to know that France has also declared war on Austria. I’m not a French historian so I don’t know the details. I always thought it was a bizarre thing to do when your country is falling apart, but Wikipedia presents this War of the Coalition as war started by an alliance of European monarchies to control revolutionary France. Perhaps the king was still in denial and decided to push back.
Eventually, Lafayette has had enough of France. I’m guessing the writing is on the wall and he knows he must either leave or end up on the guillotine. He plans to escape through Britain to America, but is arrested by the Austrians and imprisoned until the end of the war. Although the Americans did try to help him escape, he ends up getting lost and recaptured.
In one of the most romantic acts I can think of, his wife, Adrienne, obtains US passports for the family. However, instead of going to America herself, she sends their son George Washington Lafayette (guess who he was named after?) to America while she goes to Austria. There, she convinces the Austrian King to allow her to share her husband’s prison cell.
In the end, Lafayette and his wife manage to live through the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, although their sanctuary is an Austrian prison. Lafayette returns to France, but refuses to support Bonaparte, preferring to resign his commission and retire to the countryside.
He does make one more trip back to the United States in 1824 where he’s given a hero’s welcome. When he dies, he is buried next to his wife in Paris, but his son sprinkles soil from Bunker Hill on his grave. Even today, an American flag flies over his grave and every July 4th there is a quite moving Changing of the Flag ceremony.