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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
While Americans on both sides of the Atlantic avidly followed the debates on the ratification of their new constitution in the state assemblies, in France the gilded coach of the Bourbon regime rumbled on towards disaster.
Ministries rose and fell.
Necker, who, in spite of his earlier ill success with the finances of Versailles, was still the richest man in Europe, and whose virtues as a financier were loudly publicized through his wife’s salon and through the trumpetings of his intellectual daughter, soon to be famous among the drawingrooms of Europe as Mme de Staël, was called back to make one more try with his magic arts. He alighted from his traveling carriage shaking his head. “I see a great wave advancing,” he was reported as saying. “Will it swallow me up?”
The Notables were summoned back to the Hall of Fugitive Pleasures. The provincial assemblies were already clamoring for a meeting of the States-General. The press and the pamphleteers who, in the general relaxation of government had lost their fear of the police, echoed their cry.
The States-General had not met since 1614 when they put in a final feeble appearance during the tumultuous years while Richelieu was consolidating the monarchy into a great bureaucratic machine centered at Versailles. Suddenly the name became magic. Lafayette from among the Notables signed a demand for the States-General. Necker could think of nothing better than to back him up. His Most Christian Majesty liked the idea. It appealed to the antiquarian tastes of some of his enlightened courtiers. It was like the revival of a very old play. A great deal of archaeological research went into reconstructing the costumes and finding the old prompt books.
While all France waited for the opening performance debate raged over the methods of voting. In the old days nobles, clergy, and commons had voted as corporate bodies. Now individualism was the mode. Each vote must be counted individually. Already the prospective members of the commons, the Third Estate, were demanding that, as they furnished the taxes, their votes should be counted twice.
His Most Christian Majesty, who trusted in the Third Estate to squeeze funds out of the church and the nobility, was not averse to this arrangement. Thereby King Louis became a great liberal.
Les américains were determined to use the States-General to produce a constitution. A constitution was their cure for all evils. When the entrenched interests blocked the work of the American committee, Lafayette and his brother-in-law De Noailles formed a club to debate on constitutional topics known as the Club of the Thirty. It was in the Club of the Thirty that Talleyrand, the clubfooted, babyfaced Bishop of Autun, made his first appearance as a reformer on the public stage. In the salons they became known as the conspiracy of wellintentioned men.
Lafayette and his friends were continually applying to Jefferson for news of the progress of statebuilding in America. America was supplying them with the models they needed. By mid-July in 1788 Jefferson was able to assure them that the new government was complete. Soon he was able to add that New Hampshire and Virginia had ratified and that elections for President and Vice President and for the House and Senate were proceeding in an orderly way. By November he could translate for them passages from The Federalist which he declared was “the best commentary on the principles of government ever written.”
As events in France speeded their pace, Lafayette’s American friends loaded him with advice. Washington’s letters were full of guarded warnings. Festina lente had been George Mason’s motto for the Philadelphia convention. Jefferson had right along been urging on the Marquis some sort of adaptation of the British limited monarchy. Despotism was bankrupt. Parliament’s control over taxation was the foundation of individual liberty under the British constitution. If the French people could get hold of the purse strings they could buy from Versailles whatever dose of liberty they felt the country could absorb.
Gouverneur Morris had lately arrived in Europe on a complication of missions. Washington had made him his informal representative to the Court of St. James. He was representing the great financier Robert Morris in an effort to rebuild his monopoly of the sale of American tobacco to the Farmers-General which Jefferson and Lafayette had been busy undermining. He was trying to organize a consortium of European bankers to trade in U.S. government securities. He had lands to sell and speculations of his own to promote.
Gouverneur was in Europe for the first time. He was plunging with eager curiosity into the swirling life of the disintegrating regime. He was already deep in a love affair with the bright, passionate, browneyed Adèle de Flahaut. Mme de Flahaut, a young woman of literary gifts who was to develop into a novelist of some talent, lived in the Louvre with an elderly and complacent husband. Her formal lover and the father of her son was Talleyrand. She was a much courted lady. Vigée-Lebrun, the portrait painter, said she had “the wittiest eyes in the world.” She still, it turned out, had room for another lame man in her heart.
She and Gouverneur Morris talked and walked together in the pleached avenues of the royal gardens. She took him to see the paintings. They admired the statuary. It was the beginning of a long relationship that filled Gouverneur’s life with a great deal of pleasure and a great deal of pain.