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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
At the same time he was keeping Washington informed of every turn of affairs. Late in April of 1789 he wrote the General that their friend Lafayette was “returned from his political campaign in Auvergne crowned with Success.… He played the Orator with as much Éclat as he ever acted the Soldier and is at this Moment as much envied and hated as his Heart could wish.” Gouverneur was not yet a cynic about the French Revolution: “I say that we have an Interest in the Liberty of France. The Leaders here are our Friends. Many of them have imbibed their Principles in America and all have been fired by our Example.”
The dinnertable of the Lafayettes on the rue de Bourbon was the center of reform. While the wellintentioned conspirators debated their high hopes, men not so wellintentioned were airing their woes at streetcorners and in the taverns of the working class districts. They too had heard about the bill of rights. Man’s first right was the right to eat. While the salons of the Enlightenment argued fine points of procedure the working people starved.
The winter of 1788–89 turned out unusually cold. Laborers were laid off. There was nothing new about starvation in France but this winter the French were no longer willing to starve quietly. There were riots in the provinces.
In Paris, while the carpenters and the upholsterers were at work preparing the Hall of Fugitive Pleasures for the coming meeting of the estates, a riot was touched off by the rumor of a wagecut by a paper manufacturer. The press and the paper business were booming as the flood of publications on political subjects swelled to a Niagara. The working people were beginning to ask why their wages should not be enough to keep their children from hunger. They had not been educated in the methods of selfgovernment. The only way they knew to express their feelings was to sack the manufacturer’s house and to burn his factory. Troops were called in. In the course of the scrimmage the unruly learned that the square pavingstones of the streets of Paris could be put to good use: barricades.
The convocation of the States-General on a fine May day in 1789 at Versailles turned out to be a brilliant affair. Jefferson wrote it only lacked lamps and chandeliers to be an opera. Gouverneur wrote Mrs. Robert Morris in Philadelphia a detailed account of the occasion: “When the King … had taken his Seat he put on his Hat, a round Beaver ornamented with white Plumes, the Part in front turned up with a large Diamond Button in the Center.”
The King read a short speech and was cheered. M. Necker read a very long speech and was cheered. Nobody cheered the Queen. Had he been a Frenchman he would have cheered her, wrote Gouverneur:
“The King rises to depart. The Hall resounds with a long loud Vive le Roi! He passes the Queen who rises to follow him. At this Moment someone imbued with the Milk of human Kindness originates a faint Vive la Reine. She makes a humble Curtsey and presents the Sinking of the high Austrian Spirit.… Here drops the Curtain on the first great Act of this Drama in which Bourbon gives Freedom. His Courtiers seem to feel what he seems to be insensible of, the Pang of Greatness going off.”
Lafayette, with his tall sloping forehead and his horsetoothed smile, made a fine figure all draped in cloth of gold over the sable robes of the nobility. In spite of his fine vestments the day of the great show was for him a day of torment and indecision. He had explained his predicament to his friends. “His principles,” Jefferson wrote Washington, “you know are clearly with the people, but having been elected for the Noblesse of Auvergne they have laid him under express instructions to vote for the decision by orders & not persons. This would ruin him with the tiers état.”
There was no equivocation about Jefferson’s advice to his young friend. He wrote the Marquis the next morning that he must join the tiers état: “This appears to me the moment to take at once that honest & manly stand with them which your own principles dictate.”
Lafayette still hesitated. Everybody gave him advice. Gouverneur, who had known him since Valley Forge, told him bluntly to resign and be done with it. As the days slipped by and as the temper of the factions rose, some of his friends of the club des trente felt he had gone over to the enemy.
Lafayette’s head swam with conflicting advice. In America Washington had always been there to make his decisions for him. Still full of doubts as to whether or not he ought to resign his seat, he went to work to put the committee to phrase a declaration of rights for the French people in touch with the American minister. No better adviser than Jefferson; Lafayette fell eagerly into the happy posture of errand boy between his committee and the author of the great Declaration of Independence.
Jefferson promptly sat down at his desk to draw up a suggested charter: annual assemblies; the States-General alone to levy taxes, to make laws with the royal consent; no arrests without legal warrant; subordination of the military to the civil authority; abolition of all special privileges.
The King must offer this charter in person to the estates and to the nation; the States-General must grant him funds for the year in return, and then promptly dissolve and go home. “You will carry back to your constituents more good than was ever effected before without violence,” Jefferson wrote Lafayette’s friend and fellow committee member, the Protestant Rabaut Saint-Étienne, whose position in a responsible post was a sign of how far the revolution had already gone, “and you will stop exactly at the point where violence would otherwise begin.”