Dangerously Amiable

Nathan Perl-Rosenthal

  • The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered by Laura Auricchio
    Vintage, 432 pp, £11.99, August 2015, ISBN 978 0 307 38745 5

Crossing the Atlantic in the age of sail was an ordeal not lightly undertaken. Storms and seasickness were inevitable – passengers often had to be carried ashore. Rival nations’ warships patrolled the main sailing routes, adding the danger of capture to the perils of the sea. But for most travellers, the worst part was the tedium. Despite this, many American and French political figures made multiple Atlantic crossings in the late 18th century. Benjamin Franklin, the first US ambassador to France, made four return trips. Thomas Paine made five. And Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette, made eight, six of them in as many years, starting in 1777, as he became involved in first the American Revolutionary War and then the French Revolution.

Lafayette is currently appearing as ‘America’s favourite fighting Frenchman’ in the Broadway musical Hamilton:

Oui, oui, mon ami, je m’appelle Lafayette
the Lancelot of the revolutionary set
I came from afar just to say ‘Bonsoir’
Tell the king ‘casse-toi’. Who’s the best?
C’est moi.

He cuts the British off at Yorktown, then leaves for France to ‘bring freedom to my people if I’m given a chance’.

Lafayette was born in Auvergne in 1757, into a junior branch of an ancient noble family. His early education on the ramshackle estate was haphazard, but then a series of deaths in the family gave him a marquisate and control of a vast fortune before he turned 14. He moved to Paris and soon after became engaged to Adrienne de Noailles, the daughter of a prominent family at court. The adolescent marquis now found himself at the centre of attention, which he enjoyed, and under the watchful supervision of his future in-laws, which he did not. He lodged with the Noailles in Paris, where he had no home of his own, and his rough edges and excitable manner did not sit well with them.

The only thing Lafayette and his in-laws could agree on was that the marquis needed a suitable military commission. The Noailles used their influence at court to secure one, but just after Lafayette assumed his post military reforms forced him into a dead-end assignment in the reserves. When news of American independence arrived in France later that summer, he saw an opportunity to escape his career doldrums. He wasn’t the only one. The Connecticut revolutionary Silas Deane, whom Congress had dispatched to France to secure aid for the rebellion, was besieged by French officers who wanted to go to America. What set Lafayette apart was not his military prowess but his wealth: he bought a large ship, filled it with supplies, and sent it to America. Deane offered him a commission as a general in the American army and Lafayette set sail for the United States in 1777, against the wishes of the Noailles, narrowly escaping France ahead of royal warrants for his arrest on grounds of filial disobedience.

In America, Lafayette attached himself to George Washington, who appreciated the young man’s companionship, bravery and money. Though Lafayette was a general in name, his role in the army initially had little to do with actual fighting. When the signing of a Franco-American alliance in 1778 brought thousands of French soldiers and sailors to the United States, he established himself as an intermediary. Americans – especially New Englanders – were intensely suspicious of the French, while the French officers regarded their American counterparts as amateurish if not incompetent. Prickly relations between commanders and violence among the soldiers, resulting in several murders, threatened to destroy the alliance. The ‘dangerously amiable’ marquis, with his high rank and familiarity with both sides, was the ideal go-between.

Lafayette returned to France a celebrity in 1781. On both sides of the Atlantic, he was hailed as a symbol of liberty and a tribune of republican revolution. With the blessings of the new American Congress, he became an informal advocate of US involvement in France, working to encourage trade and expand ties between the two countries. Thomas Jefferson, American minister in Paris in the late 1780s, described Lafayette’s assistance with the French government as ‘infinitely’ valuable. All the same, there was something incongruous about his new role. He was an effective advocate for the US, after all, because he was a pillar of the Ancien Régime, a highborn and immensely wealthy nobleman. The Americans were not inclined to second-guess their good fortune, however, glad to have the help of an insider. But there were doubts about how to square his aristocratic pedigree with his republican principles. Abigail Adams warned her friends to beware of building a republican government that relied too much on ‘military characters’ such as the marquis.

Domestic politics soon forced Lafayette’s attention away from the US. By the mid-1780s, the French government was staggering under the weight of debt (much of it incurred fighting the American war). To resolve the fiscal crisis, the Crown needed the consent of one of the kingdom’s representative bodies, and so Louis XVI called an Assembly of Notables, of which Lafayette was a member. It claimed not to have the necessary authority, and so in 1788, the king summoned the Estates General, a body that had not met for nearly two hundred years. Lafayette, with some difficulty, secured election as a representative and was present at the opening ceremonies in spring 1789. Within weeks, the Estates General declared itself the National Assembly, empowered to speak for the people, and demanded the establishment of a written constitution and extensive political reforms. The French Revolution was underway.

Lafayette, who had no aptitude for oratory or parliamentary politics, became commander of the Paris National Guard. He parlayed this position into another role as intermediary, this time between the revolutionary Assembly, the people of Paris and the increasingly fearful monarchs. The two high points of his revolutionary career, in October 1789 and July 1790, saw him bridging divides between powerful factions. In October, he persuaded the royal family to return to Paris from Versailles in response to protesters who’d marched on the palace; the following year, he triumphantly presented the king to the people at the Festival of the Federation held on the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille.

Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, thought the American and French Revolutions were sister movements with a shared ‘spirit’ and that he was living in an ‘age of revolution’ undergirded by shared ideas and common principles. Lafayette agreed, rarely missing an opportunity in his correspondence and public pronouncements to observe that the French were embracing ‘liberty’ just ‘as it was in America’. This idea has had a long afterlife in the public imagination, partly because it was retold by popular historians such as Claude Manceron, whose unfinished five-volume history of the French Revolution cast the American Revolution as the first act of the political drama. Yet the view that the American and French Revolutions were cut from the same cloth was a minority opinion almost everywhere, and became increasingly unpopular as the 1790s wore on. It was recognised from the start that ‘liberty’ did not mean quite the same thing to French patriots as it had to the American rebels. To free their nation, French revolutionaries were attempting to sweep away a highly complex socio-political regime that had no real analogue in North America. And virtually every American patriot leader understood the principle of ‘liberty’ to be compatible with the institution of slavery. The agronomist Arthur Young, a sympathetic observer of both revolutions, wrote in 1796 that they had ‘scarcely any thing in common’ except their rhetoric about freedom.

By the middle of the 1790s, hardly any French political figures had anything good to say about the American Revolution or its principles, and the feeling was mirrored on the other side of the ocean. John Adams told James Madison in 1798 that ‘there was not a single principle the same in the American and French Revolutions.’ Even Jefferson, one of the great American admirers of France, had lost his enthusiasm for its revolution. Many influential modern interpreters of the revolutions have opposed a ‘political’ or ‘conservative’ American Revolution to a ‘social’ or ‘radical’ French Revolution. Lafayette’s fate after 1790 has become a minor bone of contention in this long-running debate. By the summer of 1791, barely a year after his star turn in the Festival of the Federation, the hero of the American Revolution was losing his lustre in France. The following year, when radicals consolidated their control of the Assembly, they issued a warrant for his arrest. But he refused to return to Paris and instead wrote a lengthy self-justification asserting his patriotism and loyalty to the revolution, then crossed the frontier into Austrian territory. The Assembly rewarded him with the label of émigré and ordered the confiscation of his property. Jailed by the Austrians, he found himself an unwanted man without a country.

By the time he returned to France in 1799 Napoleon was on the rise and unwilling to brook a rival for power. So in a deal brokered by his wife, Adrienne, Lafayette agreed to leave politics and retire to his country estate, close enough to Paris to follow the news but not close enough to exert any real influence. For years, his fame declined as his enforced retirement lengthened. Spurned by republicans as a traitor and feared by Bonapartists as a competitor, Lafayette was erased from official celebrations of the revolution.

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The collapse of Lafayette’s role in the French Revolution, and the contrast with the success he had enjoyed in America, has long interested scholars. Laura Auricchio writes that this seeming paradox was what first drew her to the subject. A common explanation is that Lafayette’s social background made him better suited to succeed in the United States than in revolutionary France. His genteel manner and the fortune he commanded were welcomed by the ‘conservative’ Americans but aroused suspicion and resistance among the more ‘radical’ French revolutionaries. Auricchio wisely rejects this explanation, which scarcely rises above the level of caricature. The real puzzle, she suggests, is not why he failed in France but how he managed to become so deeply entangled in two revolutions in the first place. The Atlantic, as Lafayette knew better than almost anyone, was a barrier to more than the movement of people. It also slowed the transmission of ideas and political practices, making it possible for very different polities and political cultures to develop on either side. Auricchio sees pre-revolutionary America and France as profoundly different places, socially, economically and politically.

She sketches an appealing cultural explanation for Lafayette’s ability to bridge the Atlantic revolutions, showing, as few other scholars have, the degree to which France and America shared a common elite culture in this era. Forms of dress and address, symbols of power, even ideas about the proper comportment of the body, were very similar in all the European societies around the Atlantic. Naturally, elite culture came in more or less elaborate forms, and with greater or lesser sophistication, but these were variations on a theme. Lafayette, familiar with the court at Versailles, was fluent in this shared idiom by the time he arrived in America.

Far from hampering his career as a revolutionary, Lafayette’s aristocratic, martial air was exactly what made him such an able political broker, one of a handful of revolutionary figures who could mediate among warring factions and smooth over transatlantic differences. Even though he knew little about North American politics when he arrived, he could present himself as a gentleman to the American elites in control of Congress, the army and much else. Men like Washington were happy to give him authority in part because he looked and sounded like someone who ought to have it. The same qualities served him well in the early years of the French Revolution. His manner and his military bearing gave him the aura of a man born to lead. Once the revolution turned decisively against such expressions of superiority, he fell from grace. But he was far from alone – and his gentility helped shield him from the worse fates that befell many other heroes of the early revolution.

Lafayette’s portraits, many of which are reproduced in The Marquis, testify to the political power latent in the shared transatlantic culture. The images range from the heroic to the pornographic, yet in almost every one before 1800, Lafayette is depicted with a sword (including the print showing him in flagrante with Marie Antoinette). The consistency with which a weapon appears in these portraits is remarkable: even Napoleon and Washington were often shown without swords. And its purpose could not be clearer. A sword was a marker of martial virtue and gentility. By always having one at his side in the cheap prints that created his public image, Lafayette presented himself as a quintessential gentleman. It was a character as readily legible to American provincials in Pennsylvania as to courtiers in European palaces.

Lafayette crossed the Atlantic for the last time in 1825, nearly fifty years after his first passage. With almost all the other leading participants in the American revolutionary war long dead, Congress had invited the ex-general to take part in the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of American independence. The crossing was quicker and easier than it had been in the 1770s. The nation that greeted him when he landed had been entirely transformed. But Lafayette had lost none of his charm. During a tour that took him across most of the United States, crowds, parades, celebratory dinners and honour guards welcomed him wherever he went. He returned to France in late 1825 laden with gifts – among them several ceremonial swords.

Even then, in his final years, Lafayette was not quite done with his career as a political broker. In 1830, Paris revolted against the increasingly autocratic Bourbon monarchs who had been restored after Napoleon’s fall. The king fled and his cousin Louis-Philippe put himself forward as a liberal alternative for the throne. Lafayette, sensing at last a return to some semblance of the Revolution he had embraced in 1789, lent his support to the pretender. In late July, he once more presented a king to the people of Paris. An engraving made to commemorate the occasion shows an impossibly youthful Lafayette, body turned towards the new king, proclaiming him ‘the king we need … the best Republic’. And there at the marquis’s waist, set off sharply by the edge of the frame, hangs the unmistakable outline of a sword’s pommel.