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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
For the French nobility the victory at Yorktown meant almost as much as it did for the Americans. A new generation had wiped out the defeats their elders had suffered in Germany, at Louisburg, on the heights at Quebec. Lafayette never forgot that his lather had been killed by a British musketball at Minden. For this new generation, too, there was more in Yorktown than the mere pleasure of revenge against perfidious Albion. From the rural gravity of Washington’s behavior, from the talk of men’s rights and duties and of individual freedom which was commonplace with their American allies, they had been taking on a whole new set of hopes and aspirations for themselves and for mankind.
Arriving back in Versailles breathless from Cornwallis’ surrender, Lafayette brought a fresh breeze of victory into the stale antechambers of the Bourbon regime. The King stayed away from his hunting long enough to drape the ribbon of the order of St. Louis round his neck. The marshals of France celebrated his homecoming with a dinner. He found himself upgraded in the army, over the heads of many older men, who took it far from kindly, to the rank of maréchal de camp. Already a major general in the American Army, this fresh promotion made him a general officer in the Army of His Most Christian Majesty before he had reached the age of majority for a French nobleman. The envious began to dub him scornfully le Vassington français.
As soon as he was 25 he celebrated his freedom from the dictates of the family council by buying himself a great town house in Paris in the rue de Bourbon, in the fashionable upper end of the faubourg St. Germain. There he took up family life à l’américaine.
Like so many other French officers he was deeply impressed by the tenderness and confidence between husband and wife he had seen in the families of men like Washington and Henry Knox. Before his bolt for freedom to America he had played with the idea of setting up one of Marie Antoinette’s ladies in waiting, a young woman of certain intellectual pretensions named Aglaé de Hunolstein, as his mistress. Alter a good deal of heartburning and declamation he broke off his somewhat desultory affair and settled down to being the affectionate husband of his sweet homekeeping Adrienne de Noailles and the father of his children. There was a girl named Anastasie, and a boy for whom Washington stood godfather through a proxy and whom Lafayette named for the American commander in chief he liked to think of as his own adopted father. Another child was soon on the way whom he named Virginie after the theater of his military exploits. He felt himself on the threshold of a great career and wanted to conduct it in a way he felt his American friends would approve.
The success of the American rebellion made Lafayette the leader of a new generation growing up in France impatient of the stagnation and corruption of the Bourbon regime. No man in Europe had greater prospects. He had a gift for impressing other men with the brilliance of his coming destiny. He was enormously rich. The income that poured in from the diligence of intendants and hommes d’affaires, without his lifting a finger, amounted to considerably more than the equivalent of a hundred thousand dollars a year.
The minister for foreign affairs was his special protector. When he first reached home Vergennes encouraged Lafayette to hope he might lead a fresh expedition to conquer the West Indies and to help the American allies wrest Canada from the British. Rodney’s victory over a French fleet in the West Indies put an end to that project. Vergennes was now more interested in patching up a peace than in outfitting new and costly armies.
The Marquis was incapable of idleness. He didn’t waste his time with the hectic gambling and the interminable love affairs in which most of his contemporaries in the court circle frittered away their nights. He had learned from Washington to be an early riser. He was always ready to leap on a horse or throw himself into his carriage to be off at a gallop on some noble enterprise.
Socially he was the lion of the hour. The belles in powdered coilfures who crowded around him were all un peu philosophes. Diderot, Rousseau, Voltaire, had made science as fashionable as they had good works. The Lafayettes’ Monday dinners, where they affectionately entertained American diplomats and their wives and American merchants seeking concessions from the ministries at Versailles, became fashionable with the philosophic set. Dr. Franklin, the philosophe par excellence, could occasionally be induced to appear there.
When mesmerism swept the Paris drawingrooms Lafayette, at the cost of a hundred gold louis, enrolled himsell as one of the Viennese doctor’s pupils. It was Franklin himself who pricked that balloon. When he was asked to head a commission to consider Mesmer’s claims of miraculous cures through animal magnetism, although Lafayette tried to tell him that Mesmer’s vital fluid was just another form of his own electricity, he brought in a skeptical report. A story was circulated in the antechambers at Versailles that the King, who for all his sluggish behavior showed occasional flashes of humor, had cornered the Marquis and asked him, teasingly: “What will Washington think when he hears you have become Mesmer’s chief apothecary?”
After the free and easy life of the American countryside Lafayette found he had lost his taste for Paris drawingrooms and the mummery and frustrations of the court.