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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
In France, as in America, 1787 proved to be a landmark year. A few months before some fifty Americans met in the Philadelphia State House to write a national constitution, Lafayette found himself engaging in the ceremony of the opening of an assembly of notables in the Hall of Fugitive Pleasures at Versailles under the presidency of the Bourbon princes. He was determined to take his part in the debates in a way that Jefferson and Washington would approve. Although the fluid society of the American frontier had little in common with the stratified society of France, the immediate causes that brought the two assemblies together were the same: ruined finances and restraint of trade. Versailles was bankrupt. The Assembly of Notables was called to find fresh ways of raising money.
Jefferson, who was present at the opening sessions, saw in the Assembly of Notables an opportunity for a gradual reform of Bourbon autocracy into something like the constitutional monarchy of England. He was seizing on the opportunity afforded him by the success of his negotiations, in which Lafayette had been so helpful, to take a vacation. After three years under the leaden Parisian sky he felt starved for sunlight.
He set off alone in late February in a hired chaise for the south of France, determined for once to escape the diplomatic protocol that cut him off from ordinary people wherever he went. Before he left he hurriedly scribbled a note to Lafayette, outlining a plan of reform for the Notables. He saw in the regime’s fiscal crisis an opportunity for the reformers to seize hold of the power of the purse which had been the foundation of the dominance of the British Parliament.
Much as he loved Lafayette, Jefferson continually dreaded the result, when Lafayette should be called to take a hand in the rebuilding of France, of his ignorance of the lives and motives of the ordinary run of unprivileged men. How could a man govern a nation when all he knew of the people whose affairs he would be trying to manage was the deputations that met him with band music and drums and pretty speeches round the decorated tables of a vin d’honneur wherever he moved in princely state through his feudal domains in Brittany or Auvergne?
“Your head my dear friend,” Jefferson wrote him from Nice, “is full of Notable things.… I am constantly roving about to see what I have never seen before & shall never see again.… I have often wished for you. I think you have not made this journey, it is a pleasure you have to come & an improvement to be added to the many you have already made, it will be a great comfort to you to know from your own inspection, the condition of all the provinces of your own country, & will be interesting to them at some future day to be known to you. this is perhaps the only moment in your life when you can acquire that knoledge and to do it most effectively you must be absolutely incognito.
“You must ferret the people out of their hovels as I have done, look into their kettles, eat their bread, loll on their beds in the pretense of resting yourself, but in fact to find if they are soft, you will feel a sublime pleasure in the course of this investigation & a sublimer one hereafter, when you shall be able to apply your knoledge to the softening of their beds, or the throwing a morsel of meat into their kettle of vegetables.”
Lafayette distinguished himself among the Notables by a courageous speech exposing graft in the management of the royal estates. This speech caused the downfall and the flight to England of the finance minister, Calonne. It caused Lafayette to be marked down as a dangerous man among the conservatives at court. It earned him the eternal hatred of Marie Antoinette who was fond of Calonne.
From then on a courtier’s career, promotion in the army, service in the ministry, were closed to him. His protector, Vergennes, had died that same spring. Lafayette had come into the open as a dedicated reformer, one of the men who, from their enthusiasm for American institutions and from the fact that many of them were young nobles who had served in the American war, were becoming known as les américains.
From that day on Lafayette looked not to the court but to the nation, that novel entity in a French noble’s thoughts, for personal promotion. He looked forward with immense optimism to the growing wave of reform. “Liberal ideas are cantering about from one end of the kingdom to the other,” he scribbled light-heartedly to Washington. “The ideas of liberty have been since the American revolution spreading very fast. The combustible materials have been kindled by the Assembly of Notables.”
Combustible materials indeed. The nation was taking an interest in its destiny with a vengeance. “All tongues in Paris have been let loose,” Jefferson wrote John Adams in London, “& never was a license in speaking against the government exercised in London more freely or more universally.… The queen, going to the theatre at Versailles with Mme. de Polignac, was received with a general hiss, the king, long in the habit of drowning his cares in wine, plunges deeper & deeper, the queen cries but sins on.”
A new scandal, following the famous affair of the diamond necklace, which had first besmirched the character of Marie Antoinette with the French people, was again showing up the venality and incompetence of the Austrian party at court.