Lafayette's Career and Historical Significance
Lloyd Kramer, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
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Lafayette in the French Revolution

Lafayette’s useful and symbolic role as the best European friend of America later gave him an equally significant role as a prominent symbol of American national ideas in France. He strongly supported a campaign to abolish slavery in the French colonies (going beyond most of his American friends on this issue), favored civil rights for Jews, and also joined a political movement that gained new civil rights for French Protestants. Lafayette was thus politically prepared to become an influential leader in France’s revolutionary attempt to promote the “rights of man” and establish a new constitutional government. Chosen to represent the nobility at the meeting of the Estates General in 1789, he quickly joined the representatives of the non-noble Third Estate after they proclaimed themselves to be the “National Assembly” and the sovereign legislative body of the French nation. Lafayette's political objectives in this revolutionary upheaval always focused on two themes—liberty and order—both of which he sought to promote through the institutions of the rapidly evolving new regime. He introduced his conception of liberty into the proceedings of the National Assembly on 11 July 1789, when he put forward his proposal for a French declaration of the “rights of man." This declaration, modeled on earlier statements of "rights" in American state constitutions and in the new American Bill of Rights, launched a debate that led finally (27 August 1789) to the Assembly's adoption of a much revised "Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen." Amid all the turmoil and subsequent revolutionary violence, this document remained the most famous and influential statement of the French Revolution’s central ideas. Lafayette's desire to establish the political principles of human rights and liberty was closely connected to his concern about the dangers of social disorder and violence, which could ultimately threaten political or personal freedom. He therefore strongly endorsed the creation of a new National Guard after the Parisian crowd's violent assault on the Bastille prison (14 July 1789). The National Assembly voted to make Lafayette the Guard's first commander, thus giving him a major military and political role in the following two years of revolutionary change. He sought to protect the deliberations of the National Assembly and the security of the royal family as well as public order on the streets of Paris, but both the royalists and the emerging republicans gradually turned against him. Favoring a moderate constitutional monarchy, Lafayette was condemned by royalists for tolerating unruly crowds and by revolutionaries for protecting nobles, arresting radicals, and supporting King Louis XVI. He resigned from his command of the National Guard in the fall of 1791 and withdrew to his ancestral home in Auvergne. This brief retirement lasted only until he was appointed to command an army in the months before France declared war on Prussia and Austria in April 1792; and he later commanded another French army after the war began. As the Jacobins and other radical republicans rose to power in the following summer, however, Lafayette lost all political support and fled the country. He tried to reach Holland in order to find passage to America, but he was captured by the Austrian army and imprisoned for five years. Although his release was eventually negotiated in a treaty with the Austrian government, Lafayette could not return to France until Napoleon Bonaparte seized political power at the end of 1799. Most Americans had interpreted Lafayette’s early leadership of the French National Guard as evidence that France wanted to adopt American principles of freedom and legal equality. The French rejection of Lafayette in 1792 thus provided new reasons for Americans to believe they had a unique national mission; Lafayette’s fate in the French Revolution, in short, convinced many Americans that only the United States truly understood and defended the commitment to freedom and order that Lafayette had carried home from the New World.

Lafayette’s Nineteenth-Century Political Career

Lafayette rejected Napoleon’s authoritarian policies and viewed Jeffersonian America as the main refuge of liberty in the modern world. After 1800 he gradually settled into the quiet life of a gentleman farmer at a family château called La Grange in the countryside southeast of Paris. Lafayette refused to cooperate with Napoleon’s authoritarian regime or to participate in public affairs, so his political activities during this period took the form of private correspondence with liberal critics of the Napoleonic empire. He sought to sustain a liberal political alternative to the French imperial system by praising the American Revolution, the new American Republic, and the ideals of the early French Revolution. The Bourbon Restoration in 1815 and the creation of a new Chamber of Deputies gave Lafayette the opportunity to regain a public role in French political culture. Elected to the Chamber in 1818, he worked closely with other liberals such as Benjamin Constant to defend freedom of the press, an independent judiciary, electoral reforms, and the political rights of liberal movements throughout Europe. The French police kept Lafayette under permanent surveillance, in part because he often hosted foreign radicals at La Grange and in part because he corresponded with secret, anti-government groups within France itself. He also developed close friendships with a diverse group of women writers and political activists, firmly supporting the controversial books and political actions of liberal women such as Germaine de Staël, the Scottish-born abolitionist Fanny Wright, the Irish novelist Lady Morgan, and the Italian nationalist Christina Belgiojoso. His international political correspondence during the 1820s provided ideological support for liberal national movements in Latin America, Spain, and Greece. He compared such political struggles to the earlier American war for national independence, and he remained optimistic about the eventual triumph of liberal nationalism and constitutional reforms in most European societies.

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