- Historic Sites
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 Constituent Assembly gave place to the Legislative Assembly. The seating of the new deputies in their redecorated hall suddenly became significant. On the right were Lafayette’s constitutionalists, on the left the new shrill voices that hailed from the Gironde, from the Jacobins, from the Cordeliers, from the municipality of Paris. The madmen crowded in the extreme top benches of the left; they became known as the Mountain.
The map of France was reorganized. The decimal system was established. Monopolies were forbidden. The Farmers-General were herded into jail. War was abolished by decree. Old abuses and old vested interests were legislated away, but the strife and hatred between factions made orderly government impossible. Ambitions flared on every streetcorner. Ministry followed ministry. The armies of the Coalition of Kings were advancing from the north. Fear of retribution by the triumphant reaction filled the streets of Paris with madness. Behind every shuttered window men saw an avenging aristocrat.
The Assembly where Lafayette’s constitutional party still had a thin majority was helpless before the ambitious men who had learned the dangerous science of evoking the mob. Only war to the death would save the nation. In April the Assembly declared war on Austria. In June the mob, goaded by news of defeats of the national armies, attacked the Tuileries. The Bourbon princes had instigated the coalition. The royal family was a nest of traitors.
The Bourbon did not lack courage. Louis calmly walked out on a balcony wearing a liberty cap on his head and carrying a glass of wine in his hand, and stood looking stolidly down on the waving pikes and the red caps. This time his fumbling quiet demeanor quelled the insurrection.
“The Constitution,” Gouverneur Morris, who had just got news of his appointment as American minister to France, noted in his diary, “has this Day I think given its last groan.”
The moment Lafayette heard the news of this fresh uprising, forgetting his military command he set off posthaste for Paris. He was forever flinging himself into his traveling carriage. When he arrived at the town house of La Rochefoucauld his old friend was astonished at his state of frenzy.
Lafayette appeared at the bar of the Assembly and by a passionate speech staved off a vote of censure. He tried to call out the National Guard to support the constitution. He would protect the person of the King and the liberty of the citizens.
The time had come for the Washington of France to show himself on his white horse. The National Guard was to gather on the Champs Élysées and to discipline the Parisians. Only a hundred men showed up. While the Assembly was pronouncing the nation in danger, Lafayette was already in his carriage again driving off to rejoin his army. His supporters were still strong enough in the Assembly to reject a motion for his impeachment.
By August 10, 1792, the extremists were ready for their coup d’état. They were better prepared this time. The mob stormed the Tuileries again. The King told his Swiss guards not to fire. The Swiss were massacred almost to a man.
In a safe in the royal study documents were found to incriminate half the moderates in France; among them, letters of Lafayette’s, who had been trying to arrange a fresh flight of the King, this time to Compiègne.
A provisional government was set up with Danton as minister of justice. The jails were filled with liberals and monarchists. The hour of the republic had come. The King was deposed and confined in the Temple. Commissioners were sent off to the armies to announce the new regime that would complete the revolution. Lafayette took three of them in custody and mustered his troops on the famous plain of Sedan. When he objured his soldiers to defend the King and the constitution, murmurings and mutterings were the only reply. On a sudden impulse he threw up his career as the Washington of France and rode off into the gathering dusk.
About twenty of his staff officers followed him. “Je me suis abandonné a mon sort,” he wrote. The little troupe rode vaguely northward in search of neutral soil. There was no more neutral soil in Europe. Near a Belgian village they stumbled on an Austrian detachment. When the officer in charge arrested him, Lafayette haughtily announced that since he had resigned from the French service he was an American citizen. He demanded to be taken to the American legation at The Hague.
Instead he was hustled off to a dungeon in Magdeburg. First the Austrians, then the Prussians kept him imprisoned. Through the years of close confinement at Olmütz, through prison walls he was to hear muffled echoes of the tragedy of liberalism in France: the massacre of his friends in the Paris prisons in September; the Convention; the trial of the King, the timely invention of the guillotine by a humanitarian Paris physician whose aim was to abolish inhuman punishments; the carnival of blood presided over by Robespierre, that meticulous provincial notary who was such a fanatic for the rights of man that he could find no man good enough to enjoy them.
“In a word,” as Lafayette wrote in a letter smuggled out of his dungeon, “natural liberty, civil liberty, religious liberty, political liberty stifled in blood.”