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The Marquis de Lafayette and the French Revolution

The Marquis de Lafayette led moderate forces in the French Revolution.

The Marquis de Lafayette helped the American revolutionaries earn their freedom from the British Empire. Likewise, he emerged an early leader during the French Revolution. Lafayette led the moderate faction and helped craft the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. However, the revolution took a radical turn and Lafayette fell out of favor. Later, the old revolutionary opposed Napoleon and turned down an offer to become dictator. Lafayette remained committed to the natural rights of man throughout regardless of the situation.

The United States Congress bestowed American citizenship upon Lafayette. He shed blood in the American Revolution, led men in battle, and helped defeat the British. Originally, the Frenchman wanted vengeance against Britain for his father’s death and wished to see action. Over time, the American Revolution indoctrinated the young French noble. He became an advocate for natural and human rights.

Lafayette returned to France full of subversive ideas. France’s fiscal crisis led the King to call an Estates General for the first time since 1614. Lafayette was elected to represent the Second Estate, or nobility. The clergy was the First Estate and commoners represented the third. The gathering broke down when the Third Estate demanded that each representative cast votes as opposed to the estates voting as a block. They feared being outvoted 2-1 by the clergy and nobility. They broke away with some sympathetic nobles and priests and formed the National Assembly.

King Louis XVI attempted to block the National Assembly, but they were undeterred. Officials locked the meeting hall and the assembly marched to a nearby tennis court and swore to write a new constitution. Lafayette joined the National Assembly ten days later. Lafayette heavily influenced the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen created by the body. He consulted with Thomas Jefferson and borrowed from America to craft the document. Essentially, Lafayette wrote the document which defined the universal rights of citizens. Human rights were natural rights. These rights were universal and applied at all times. People were born with rights as opposed to being granted them by a government or monarch.

Lafayette became the National Assembly’s vice president on July 13, 1789. A mob stormed the Bastille the following day. The event marked the beginning of the end for the ancien regime. The assembly moved quickly and installed Lafayette as commander of the National Guard. However, he could not control the force. The revolution’s shock waves overruled his authority. At one point, the guard followed a mob of hungry women to the King’s palace at Versailles. Lafayette had no choice but to follow. He ultimately became responsible for the royal family’s security.

The revolution grew more radical as the calendar turned to 1790. Lafayette no longer preached natural rights. Instead, he hoped to preserve order, fight chaos, and prevent progressive forces from overwhelming the liberal revolution. Lafayette wanted to save the revolution from itself. However, the National Guard only followed orders they wished to follow. Lafayette could not control them by 1791.

Louis XVI and his family attempted to flee France on June 20, 1791. They rightly feared for their safety and hoped to gain asylum in Austria. However, they were recognized and arrested in Varennes. Many blamed Lafayette and the radicals branded him a traitor. France’s greatest advocate for natural rights had been transformed into a monarchist by the Jacobin radicals. Lafayette’s authority and popularity plummeted.

His popularity continued to decline as the year wore on. Mob justice began to take root in Paris. Crowds began hanging people based on rumor. The authorities assigned Lafayette the task of enforcing martial law. A violent crowd began hurling stones at the National Guard. Lafayette ordered his men to fire in the air, but the mob’s intensity increased. As a result, he ordered his men to fire into the crowd. The radicals dubbed the event the “Champs de Mars Massacre.” No one knows the exact number of dead, but it might have been as high as fifty.

Lafayette decided the best way to right the revolution and quell the violence was through the political process. As a result, he ran for the mayor of Paris.The far left and far right both plastered the candidate with criticism. His opponents savaged him for the King’s flight to Varennes and the “massacre.” He lost the election in a landslide.

European powers watched the unrest warily. France was spinning out of control. In April 1792, France declared war on Austria. Lafayette commanded French forces at the outset. However, the war progressed poorly for the revolutionaries. The general recommended France sue for peace. Later, he argued that the radical parties needed to be reined in. As a result, he suggested they be forcibly shut down. At the same time, he negotiated with foreign powers to end the war. Rumors circulated that Lafayette planned a coup. At the same time, he proposed a constitutional monarchy, which royalists refused to accept.

As Lafayette made his proposal, radicals overthrew the government and offered Lafayette a post. He refused and decided to flee the country. He argued against the legitimacy of the new government and was declared a traitor. Lafayette fled France for America, but was intercepted. Eventually, he landed in a Prussian prison. American officials attempted to secure his release. President Washington wrote on Lafayette’s behalf, but he remained imprisoned until Napoleon Bonaparte seized power and restored order.

Napoleon worried about Lafayette’s intentions, but the former general promised to live a quiet life and stay out of the way. He opposed Napoleon’s regime, but remained silent on major issues. Meanwhile, President Thomas Jefferson offered him a governorship in the Louisiana Territory, but Lafayette refused. Around this time, his wife died from complications from her time in prison. The old American ally returned to action in 1815 when elected to the Chamber of Representatives. He supported Napoleon’s abdication and finally spoke out against the former emperor.

Napoleon's demise did not end France's problems. Lafayette had one more revolution in him. In 1830, the old man emerged from retirement to stare down another king. France’s King Charles X grew more despotic and the people prepared for another revolution. Lafayette helped form a committee to serve as an interim government after the king’s ouster. They offered him absolute power, but the old revolutionary declined. Charles’ cousin Louis-Philippe was invited to form a government. Lafayette helped France become a constitutional monarchy rather than another dictatorship. He died in 1834.

The Marquis de Lafayette brought his political and military lessons to France. He aided the American rebels in their revolution and then led France in the early days of hers. Radicals overthrew the revolution and turned it into a bloodbath. Lafayette fled, but later returned to help overthrow a despotic monarch in 1830. In the end, he remained true to his republican roots. He opposed the progressive radicals and reactionary monarchs to the end.

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