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
Back in France Lafayette found that these fresh American triumphs had indeed formed “a bright column in the gazettes of Europe.” Jefferson saw to it that the fulsome accounts in the American gazettes which Madison regularly forwarded him of the Marquis’s triumphant progress should come to the attention of the European editors. As Lafayette settled back into his routine on the rue de Bourbon with Adrienne and the children whom he somewhat ostentatiously loved, he set to weaving about himself the legend of the American Cincinnatus. He was the adopted son and disciple of the great liberator.
“In everything I do,” he wrote back to Washington at Mount Vernon, “I first consider what your opinion would be had I an opportunity to consult it.” To add a touch of authentic American color to the domestic scene, an Oneida halfbreed he had met at Fort Schuyler and an Onondaga Indian boy he had induced to follow him to Europe attended him in costume. In full Iroquois regalia they ran errands for him. At the evening parties of the philosophic set they demonstrated the wardances of the noble savages.
Since the wars and rebellions he had hoped might offer him a military command persistently hung fire, the Marquis was forced temporarily to shelve his ambition to be the first general in Europe. Instead he went to work diligently to provoke reforms at home.
For some time he had been involved with the old liberal functionary Malesherbes in a quiet effort to put through some measure of religious toleration. In the factious atmosphere of the Versailles bureaucracy any effort for reform had to be carried on through backstairs negotiations. Lafayette threw himself into the intrigue to lift the ban of outlawry off the necks of the Huguenots to such a degree that Washington, whom he kept posted on every detail, wrote him a guarded warning: “It is part of the military art to reconnoitre and feel your way before you engage too deeply.”
Lafayette and Jefferson were becoming fast friends. They had first met somewhere near Richmond when Jefferson was a governor without a government during the scurry and confusion of the British raids along the James River. On his return from his American triumph it was Lafayette’s heavy duty to bring Jefferson the news of the death of his baby girl Lucy Elizabeth. Immediately Lafayette, with the openhanded candor that was so engaging, put himself at the service of the new American minister. Jefferson’s prime business in that capacity was to induce Versailles to relax the restrictions on American trade and shipping which were part of the general inhibition of commerce brought about by the mercantilist practices of the French officials. Lafayette knew every back door to every office; he knew where liberal policies could find a hearing and he knew where they could not. He became indispensable to the reticent redhaired American minister.
Lafayette was 28. Jefferson was 41. Perpetually in search of a father, Lafayette had been missing Washington’s paternal advice. Jefferson liked nothing better than to tutor young men in the art of statebuilding. What started as a hospitable gesture on Lafayette’s part became a firm collaboration. From trying to pry loose the trammels the bureaucracy had fastened about the American trade, the two men found themselves plotting to free the French from the whole complex of the vested interests of the old regime.
Lafayette found the American minister in a mood to discover everything that could be discovered about the people of France. Jefferson had moved the legation to an airy and beautiful mansion out at the end of the Champs Élysées where he could enjoy the freshness of trees and the smell of country gardens. At the same time he could see from his windows at the nearby barrier the oppression of the Farmers-General whose agents took toll of every poor countrywoman who carried a basket of eggs into the city for sale.
The abolition of slavery was one of the great causes that stirred Jefferson throughout the early part of his life. Lafayette was giving more than lip service to this cause. He was spending 125,000 livres to buy a plantation in the remote French colony of Cayenne which he intended to settle with emancipated slaves. It was not for show that he kept a framed copy of the Declaration of Independence on the wall of his study. He viewed this gesture as a mere beginning. When people asked him why the empty frame beside the American declaration he would answer that it was waiting for a charter of liberties for the people of France.
Lafayette particularly needed Jefferson’s advice since Vergennes had appointed him to a committee to report ways and means to increase French trade with America. Through Jefferson’s critical eye and through the day-to-day work with him in trying to blast a passage through the privileges and monopolies of the Farmers-General, Lafayette began to understand how the dead hand of the past throttled every effort to adjust the creaking machine of absolute monarchy to the needs of the French people. Jefferson wrote Madison enthusiastically of Lafayette’s quick understanding of every problem that was explained to him. The Marquis managed to obtain concessions for the American whale-oil industry that earned the Marquis the present of a 500-pound cheese made up specially for him out of the milk of their own cows by the grateful whalers of Nantucket.