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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
The King was governed in everything by the Assembly. The Assembly was made up of disgruntled aristocrats, of middleclass people whom Gouverneur described as “really friends of good government”; and “of what are called here the Enragés, that is the Madmen … of that Class which in America is known as pettifogging Lawyers, together with a Host of Curates.… This 1st Party is in close Alliance with the Populace here.… They have already unhinged every Thing.… The middle Party who mean well, have unfortunately acquired their Ideas of Government from Books and are admirable Fellows upon Paper; but as it happens somewhat unfortunately that the Men who live in the World are very different from those who dwell in the Heads of Philosophers, it is not to be wondered at if the Systems taken out of Books are fit for Nothing but to be put into Books again.”
Gouverneur and his Adèle of the brown velvet eyes moved in the circle of the constitution makers. At one point he noted in his diary that Adèle had proposed to him, half jokingly, that the two of them should rule France by manipulating the Queen through the Queen’s physician who was a devotee of Adèle’s. The regime Adèle was going to prescribe for Marie Antoinette was a man every night and a Mass every morning. “Enfin,” she told Gouverneur, “mon Ami, vous et moi nous gouvernerons la France.” “It is an. odd combination,” wrote Gouverneur, “but the Kingdom is actually in much worse Hands.”
Ever since the convening of the States-General Necker had been dodging the problems of national bankruptcy (in the Assembly it was only Mirabeau who had the courage to pronounce the dreadful word: banqueroute) and inflation. When he could borrow no more he had proposed a patriotic capital levy, which being voluntary had been to say the least unproductive. Now he was attempting to raise a fund from the sale of lands confiscated from the Church and the Crown.
Since there was no way of immediately realizing the ten or twelve millions of pounds they were supposed to be worth, Necker was selling anticipations of this hoped-for revenue which he called assignats. Gouverneur Morris hardly needed to point out to George Washington that this maneuver would reduce the value of the lands, if it did not make them altogether unsalable. Consequently the value of the assignats must go tumbling too.
Necker, as Gouverneur put it, was “ineptious.” The King was impotent; the ministers were do-nothings. It was the gaudy Mirabeau’s oratory that ruled the Assembly; any decision that was reached resulted from Mirabeau’s connivings. Gouverneur despised him. Mirabeau was a venal scoundrel: “His understanding is I believe impaired by the Perversion of his Heart.” One of Mirabeau’s compelling motives was jealousy of Lafayette.
“Our friend Lafayette … acts now a splendid but dangerous Part,” he told Washington in another letter. “Unluckily he has given in to Measures as to the Constitution which he does not heartily approve, and he heartily approves many Things which Experience will demonstrate to be injurious. He left America, you know, when his Education was but half finished … he did not learn to be a Government Maker.”
He admitted that Lafayette riding his white horse at the head of the National Guard was still giving France the illusion of leadership. Men compared his tall, austere figure in buff and blue with the swarthy, debauched form of Mirabeau in his rich dress covered with buckles and frills. Lafayette was lavishing his fortune on the cause: Mirabeau was making money out of it.
Lafayette, if he did not quite observe the monogamy of the Americans, condescended just enough to the charms of the ladies to prove that he was made of flesh and blood; Mirabeau’s sordid amours were notorious. For the liberals of all Europe the ci-devant Marquis was the paladin without fear and without reproach who had ridden out to slay the dragon of tyranny. Wherever he showed himself the crowds cheered.
Lafayette’s popularity reached its climax in the great Festival of the Federations held on the Champs de Mars on the first anniversary of the taking of the Bastille. The Constituent Assembly had completed its work. Lafayette had contrived a confederation of the men of the National Guard from all over France. It was the guardsmen who were to assure the stability of the new regime. Every unit sent its representatives to Paris to swear allegiance to the constitution. The channel packets were crowded with English radicals and reforming Whigs hastening to take part in the triumph of enlightened liberty. Revolutionists from every European nation pressed into Paris. Tom Paine arrived in time to carry an American flag in the parade.
The constitution was read to an enormous concourse of guardsmen from all the departments of France and from all the sections of Paris, drawn up in a hollow square on the immense paradeground. The French constituted themselves a federated nation with a constitutional king at their head. The King swore to support this constitution. Assisted by 400 priests with red, white, and blue sashes thrown over their white vestments the Bishop of Autun performed High Mass on the towering altar of the fatherland. He blessed the banners of the 83 departments.
Lafayette read out the oath: “We swear to be forever faithful to the Nation, to the Law and to the King, to protect persons and property, and the circulation of grain within the kingdom; the collecting of public contributions under any form; to remain united to all Frenchmen by the indissoluble bonds of Fraternity.”
To Liberty and Equality, Fraternity was added.