Everybody please join me in wishing a happy birthday to everybody's favorite fighting frenchman--LAFAYETTE!--and enjoy this guest blog written by my dear friend Dr. Macs Smith.
I was recently speaking to a friend who is an historian of music. He’s researching the American tours of European composers and his research had unexpectedly led him to Lafayette. The reason, he said, was that for Americans in the late 1800s there were few reference points for what a French man was and what French culture represented. Whereas the English, Irish, Germans, and Italians had sent generations of peasants, petits-bourgeois, and entrepreneurs to America, France’s poorer émigrés had gone to Canada. For most Americans then, the reference point for French culture was not the average man, but the marquis. It was a wealthy and impetuous teenager who turned up at Congress’s door uninvited offering to serve for free if they would just point him in the direction of the front lines. In my view, for Americans trying to understand French society, Lafayette is simultaneously the best and worst place to start. On the surface he could not have been more out of step with his time. And yet, his many contradictions make him an almost perfect condensation of a nation on the precipice of changes fundamental enough to justify starting the calendar over from Year 1.
Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette, was born September 6, 1757, at his family’s estate in Chavaniac, in Auvergne. His family was one of the oldest and noblest in France. A month before his second birthday his father would be killed by a British cannonball at the Battle of Minden. His mother would die before he turned 13. The death of his uncle would give him the family title and estate and an income roughly equal in modern currency to a million dollars a year. He was commissioned an officer in the musketeers at 13. A year later he was one of France’s most eligible bachelors and talks began for him to marry Adrienne de Noailles, 12 years old and herself a member of one of the few families who could condescend to the Lafayettes. (Adrienne’s parents felt she was too young at the time, so they delayed the wedding as long as possible. A year later they couldn’t keep the teenagers off each other any longer.)
The young Lafayette was, in other words, unimpeachably aristocratic. He had a name, title, fortune, an officer’s commission, and was expected to join the thick ranks of courtiers at Versailles. But rather than acquiesce to that fate, Lafayette violated the king’s personal orders, making himself persona non grata in France for two years, to go fight a war in defense of the idea that all man are equal. His decision to illegally embark for America at the age of 19 was certainly motivated in part by a desire to win fame and glory on his own terms, away from palace intrigues, but it was also because Lafayette and his wife were awe-inspiringly principled. Adrienne was a devout Catholic (she never managed to convert her husband) who learned from her mother that artifice and frippery were sins and that the aristocracy were shepherds of the less fortunate. Adrienne and her husband gave amply to charity – so much so that rioting peasants in the French Revolution left their estate virtually untouched even as they ransacked the neighboring ones. They bought a slave plantation in Cayenne together and founded a school on it so that the slaves could all be educated and freed. Throughout their lives, he and his wife hosted dissidents of all varieties at their house. They nicknamed their attic the Polish corridor for all the freedom fighters from around Europe who took refuge there. Many of their peers saw the Lafayettes as unfathomably liberal.
Things ended well for Lafayette, but first they ended very badly. During the French Revolution he was proscribed, imprisoned, and exiled from France while many members of his family and Adrienne’s were murdered by the Terrorists. While he is today called The Hero of Two Worlds, in 1794 he was definitely only considered a hero in one. Part of the reason Lafayette was subjected to so much violence is because he did not fit neatly into any of the existing political camps. He was an early opponent of the Jacobins, the radical club led by Robespierre and Danton, whom he saw as anarchists with no respect for the rule of law. As commander of the Paris National Guard, Lafayette considered it his duty to defend the life of the king. When he ordered his men to fire into a crowd of angry anti-monarchist protestors on the Champ de Mars in 1791, he was branded a royalist and enemy of the people. Indeed, he defended his aristocratic and even royalist friends throughout the ensuing years and insisted on remaining in touch with them, even after they’d been blacklisted for emigrating to England or Germany. And yet royalists considered Lafayette, with his devotion to the abolition of the aristocracy and his belief in constitutional republicanism, one of the biggest threats on the continent. When he was finally forced to abandon his post and flee France, where he would have certainly been guillotined, he was immediately arrested by Prussian and Austrian troops. He would spend five years in jail without charges. When he asked the Austrian emperor why he was being detained, he was told simply that he was too dangerous to be on the loose.
In summary, Lafayette was too liberal for the ancien régime, too aristocratic for the nouveau. He was, you could say, a centrist at a time in history when centrism was the only unforgivable sin. But this linear evaluation of Lafayette’s politics and his life is deeply unsatisfying to me. It brings us no closer to understanding his contradictions or those of his time. It leaves us just as mystified by the man as his rivals in 1793 were.
There is far too little space here to adequately summarize France at the turn of the 19th century. There is perhaps not enough space to do so anywhere. The French Revolution is, I believe, on some level unrepresentable. Setting aside Jules Michelet’s titanic Histoire de la révolution française, which is an historical, if stylized, text, the revolution is the setting for almost no major works of French literature. Hugo’s Quatrevingt-Treize is the most prominent, but Hugo, Balzac and Barbey d’Aurevilly all set their revolution novels in the Breton counter-revolution known as the Chouannerie. In his book, Hugo writes of the National Assembly, in a phrase that could be an epigraph for the last decades of the 18th century in France, “Nothing could be more shapeless or more sublime.”
And this is my point. It is impossible to capture the French revolution linearly or with any other schema. Because while it was conceived as an epistemic break in national history worthy of meriting, as I already mentioned, a new Year 1 (1792), despite the efforts of the Terrorists, the ancien régime never went away. While on the one hand the French people marked a definitive break with the past by executing the man who had theretofore been understood as the avatar of God on earth, and while the Revolution did call forth an entirely new symbolic language to conceptualize what it meant to be a nation and a people, on the other hand the Revolution would end with a reinstated monarchy. In Lafayette’s lifetime France would experience seven changes in government system – from the monarchy to the 1st Republic, the Consulate, the 1st Empire, the Restoration of Louis XVIII, the Hundred Days, the fall of Napoléon, and the 1830 July Revolution (during which Lafayette was offered the crown and declined). While in America royalists could be scrubbed from history, in France the government swung between incompatible ideologies and systems under which incompatible individuals and ideals were forced to coexist.
It’s in this respect that Lafayette is an apt starting point for understanding revolutionary France. He was a microcosm of the shapeless and sublime process taking place in his country. He was simultaneously an 18th-century aristocratic libertine who took a mistress, hobnobbed with the queen, and wore his marquisate with pride, and a 19th-century family man devoted to his wife’s health and happiness, an attentive father who wanted his daughters to be his best friends, and a believer in the equality of men who subtly changed the orthography of his name from the aristocratic de la Fayette to the slightly more prosaic Lafayette. He was simultaneously the doyen of European freedom fighters who used aristocracy as a slur and invited radicals of every stripe to dinner and a believer in the inviolability of the king and the sanctity of the oaths he had taken to him, who did not see title as a crime unto itself and refused to cut ties with friends whose politics he had gone to war against. Lafayette’s contemporaries found him dangerously inscrutable. In my view that’s what makes him a good place to start for studying a period in history that, as Hugo said, from every angle appears shapeless and sublime.