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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
With tears streaming down their faces the guardsmen shouted: “Je le jure!” Cannon roared. There were discharges of musketry. At dusk fireworks filled the sky.
Some of the English complained about the poor marching order of the troops, but stocky, bushy-haired young William Short, Jefferson’s secretary whom he had left in charge of the legation, who had been mingling with the crowds all night, wrote Gouverneur Morris: “the spectacle of that day was really sublime & magnificent—the most perfect order and harmony reigned as well then, as at the illuminations & bals of the Sunday following—but the streets & Palais Royale presented every evening during the course of the week such collections of people in uniform, returning after numerous dinners and parading with the women they had picked up in their way, as excited reflections of a disagreeable nature to those who wished to see a patriot & sober legislator in every federé.… Instead of this the Palais Royale had the air of the general rendezvous for the votaries of Mars, Bacchus & Venus.”
Short was writing from the chateau of the enlightened La Rochefoucauld, where he had been adopted into the family to the point of falling desperately in love with the Duke’s lovely young wife Rosalie. “The marquis de la fayette seemed to have taken full possession of the federés—his popular manners pleased them beyond measure & of course they approved his principles—When I left Paris he was adored by them—that moment may be regarded as the zenith of his influence—he made no use of it.”
“I saw your friends at the P. Royal the day before I left Paris,” Short added, “you are their Magnus Apollo in whatever relates to Politics & Government & Revolutions—they quote you frequently to prove that the constitution can never march, notwithstanding the new song of ça ira, ça ira.”
“It will work, it will work,” sung to an old tune that Marie Antoinette had made popular at her fêtes at the Petit Trianon, turned out to be the popular refrain of the whole festival.
“Ça ira, ça ira, les aristocrates à la lanterne,
Ça ira, ça ira, les aristocrates on les pendra,” the guardsmen and their girlfriends sang as they marched with torches over the cobbles of the deep stone streets.
It worked so badly that before three months were out Monsieur Necker was once more, and for the last time, packing his bags to seek the seclusion of his Swiss lake. The wave that engulfed him was a wave of assignats.
The constitution which Lafayette had charged with such great hopes was no sooner sworn to than the Assembly started picking it to pieces again. Everybody had a notion of how to improve it. Lafayette stood almost alone in its defense.
Mirabeau’s death left him again the most popular man in France. When Louis bolted from the Tuileries disguised as a footman and fled north to join the emigration, it was Lafayette who ordered his recapture. The King was found eating his usual copious dinner at Varennes. When the royal family was brought back to the Tuileries, Lafayette could think of nothing but his precious constitution. He was hurt that the King did not take kindly to his advice. Gouverneur Morris lost patience with him entirely. “Unfortunately,” he reported to Washington, “both for himself and his country he has not the talents which this situation requires.”
The Fourth of July after the royal family’s return to their imprisonment, Gouverneur Morris dined with Short and a group of Americans at the legation. The guest of honor as usual was Lafayette, who, Gouverneur wrote, had come near being hanged for letting the King escape from the Tuileries. Paine was among them. He had come over from London to write an article for a republican newspaper which he and Condorcet helped found. His advice to the French was to treat the King’s attempt to escape as an abdication. You will be better off without him: set up a republic. The Paris streets were placarded with his manifesto. He had been threatened with arrest by the monarchists in the Assembly. Gouverneur by this time loathed Paine. “Payne is here,” he noted in his diary, “inflated to the eyes and big with a litter of revolutions.”
Able operators had discovered that immense things could be accomplished by skillful use of the armed mob. One bloody explosion followed another. In the abandoned convents and in the gardens of the Palais Royale orators called for blood in the name of Condorcet’s trinity of liberty, equality, and reason. Treasons and aristocratic plots became the morning fare of the newspapers. To be a revolutionary meant to demand the death of traitors. The great phrases from the Rights of Man hovered like birds of prey over the Paris streets.
Lafayette set himself desperately to stem the torrent. He spent all the money he could raise from his estates to bolster his political party. He threatened and complained. He sought military appointments and resigned them. He retired for a while to his chateau in Auvergne, but the attraction of the whirlpool of Paris was too great. Always he saw himself like Washington as the patriot general of a citizen army.
When the Declaration of Pilnitz seemed to threaten an émigré invasion backed by the despots of Germany, the Assembly appointed Lafayette to command one of the northern armies. He threw himself in his carriage and drove off at top speed to Metz. “I will send you an exact return of my Army when it is finally arranged,” he wrote Washington, “for I always consider myself, my dear General, as one of your lieutenants on a detached command.”