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Lafayette’s Two Revolutions
Washington was his idol, but he could not apply his American ideals to a France sliding into the Terror
December 1956 | Volume 8, Issue 1
Early in September Lafayette scribbled a hasty note to Jefferson begging him “for Liberty’s sake” to arrange a dinner for himself and a group of deputies at the American legation. They wanted his advice. They wanted a neutral spot where they could quietly talk over plans for a coalition with common aims tightly enough linked to drive a workable constitution through the Assembly. There was no time to be lost. Lafayette and his friends must furnish France with constitutional government before the fabric of society entirely broke down.
Thirty years later when he was writing his autobiography in his old age Jefferson still remembered vividly “the coolness and candour” of these men’s arguments, their “logical reasoning and chaste eloquence.” They decided for a limited monarchy with a single legislative chamber, for a “suspensive” veto by the king on all laws passed.
Lafayette proudly declared that as head of the National Guard he would see to it that whatever constitution they established would have the force of law. His adopted country had written a constitution; he would see to it that his native land had one too.
A few days later, after Jefferson and his daughters had left for Le Havre, Gouverneur dined at the Lafayettes’. He took the Marquis aside afterwards to urge “that he must immediately discipline the Troops and make himself obeyed, that this Nation is used to be governed … on the subject of Discipline.” He shrewdly added in his diary, “his Countenance shews the Self Accuser for he has given the Command to Officers who know nothing of their Business.” He went on to talk about the great pressing need of the moment: “I mention to him the Subject of Subsistance.”
Instead of immediate practical plans for feeding the city all Gouverneur could get out of Lafayette was an invitation to meet with a new committee that would be sitting on the subject during the next week.
Before next week came the people of Paris had taken the question of subsistence into their own hands. While Jefferson was at Le Havre waiting for a storm to subside he received an excited letter from young Short whom he had left in charge of the legation: “the scarcity of bread continuing on Sunday evening the 4th inst. crowds assembled as on former occasions in the Palais Royale … on monday morning a number of women assembled at the place de Grève and took possession of the hotel de ville—there they found some old arms etc.—the Mrqs. de la Fayette, informed of this circumstance, went to the hotel de ville, recovered possession of it & endeavored though in vain to recover also the place de Grève—the women to the number of 5 or 6 thousand marched off to Versailles … the people & soldiers joined in insisting that the Mrqs de la fayette should march with them to Versailles—he … was forced to yeild & about half after 5 set off at the head of his troops—the women had arrived at Versailles crying du pain du pain.”
The crowd broke into the palace. Members of the King’s personal bodyguard were chased through the corridors and shot down. The Queen had to run in her nightgown to take refuge in the King’s chamber. The cry was that the King must come to Paris. Next day Louis agreed and Lafayette, somewhat shamefaced, led a second parade into the city. They brought the Queen and the royal children along. “We have the baker and the baker’s wife and the little baker,” was the chant of the crowds returning in triumph. The royal family remained under arrest in the Tuileries. The pang of greatness passing off.
Versailles overnight became a museum. The Assembly followed the King to Paris and set to work in the riding school of the Tuileries to elaborate a constitution according to the sketch Lafayette and his friends had drawn up at Jefferson’s dinnertable. They hoped this constitution would combine the best features of European monarchy with the best features of American republicanism.
When the huge walls of the Bastille were torn down stone by stone Lafayette saved the great key of the main gate to send to his adopted father in America.
“How often, my beloved General,” he found time to write to Mount Vernon from the midst of the debates on royal veto, “have I wanted your wise advices and friendly support.” “As everything has been destroied, and not much new building is yet above ground, there is much room for critics and calumnies,” he added in the letter he entrusted to Tom Paine to forward to Washington from England along with the key. “And after I have confessed all that, my dear General, I will tell you with the same candour that we have made an admirable, and almost incredible destruction of all abuses, prejudices, etc. … Give me leave, my dear General, to present you with a picture of the Bastille just as it looked a few days after I ordered its demolition, with the main key of that fortress of despotism—it is a tribute which I owe as a son to my adoptive father, as an aide de camp to my General, as a Missionary of Liberty to its Patriarch.”
“This Country is as near to Anarchy,” Gouverneur wrote Washington later in the summer, “as Society can approach without Dissolution. There are some able Men in the national Assembly, yet the best Heads among them would not be injured by Experience.… They have all that romantic Spirit and all those romantic ideas of Government, which happily for America, we were cured of before it was too late.”
Administration stagnated as the constitution advanced clause by clause. The King was still a prisoner. “If this reigning prince were not the small beer character that he is, there can be but little Doubt that watching Events and making a tolerable Use of them he would regain his Authority, but what will you have from a Creature who situated as he is eats, drinks and sleeps well, and laughs and is as merry a Grig as Lives?”