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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
The last thought in the minds of the impatient men gathered at Versailles was to go home. Lafayette had hardly time to ride clattering out over the cobbles from Paris with Jefferson’s charter in his pocket before events took the very turn towards violence Jefferson dreaded. Already, while Jefferson sat at his desk drafting his minimum charter for them in his clear, nervous handwriting, the Third Estate had constituted themselves a National Assembly. Let the nobles and the clergy join them if they would.
One morning in June they found the doors barred to them when they arrived at the Hall of Fugitive Pleasures. From within came the sound of hammering as the carpenters and upholsterers prepared a new décor for a royal session.
Overnight, the liberal King had listened to the advice of the faction grouped around Marie Antoinette and the Bourbon princes. Poor Louis had no head for politics. He liked hunting and eating and tinkering with clocks. He would have made a good mechanic; but he could not remember his political decisions from one day to the next. When he had to make a decision he drank.
Necker was rumored to be packing his trunks. The Bourbon was to qualify the freedom he gave. From that moment on there was no more question of gaining time or ripening the public mind. The Americans overseas had written themselves a constitution. Now the deputies of the National Assembly stormed into the covered tennis court at Versailles and swore never to go home until they had drafted a constitution for the French.
That Fourth of July Jefferson entertained the American colony at the legation. As he was daily awaiting his leave of absence, it was thought of as his farewell dinner. The Lafayettes were the guests of honor. It was an enthusiastic gathering. The ratification of the Constitution and Washington’s inauguration as the first President filled the heads of every American businessman with dreams of El Dorado. The credit of the new nation was rising daily with the bankers of Europe. Liberty paid. Every American dreamed of making himself a fortune. Every American wanted to see liberty spread over the world. Every American felt he could advise the French about how to conduct their revolution.
Gouverneur took the Marquis aside after dinner: “I urge him to preserve if possible some constitutional Authority to the Body of Nobles as the only means of preserving any Liberty for the People.” An aristocratic and money interest like the British gentry, to counter-balance demagoguery from below and despotism from the executive, had been Morris’ political hobby all through the long debates in Philadelphia.
While Gouverneur stumped on his pegleg from banker’s office to banker’s office, in pursuit of his own speculations and of financial combinations to bolster his friend’s and namesake’s declining credit, what he saw of men and events was convincing him that the phrasemaking at Versailles was about to end in bloody disaster.
“Our American Example has done them good,” he wrote, “but like all Novelties Liberty runs away with their Discretion if they have any. They want an American Constitution with the Exception of a King instead of a President, without reflecting that they have not American citizens to support that Constitution.”
In his enthusiasm for a declaration of rights Lafayette forgot the technicalities of his position as an Auvergnat noble. He was now taking a leading part in the work of the National Assembly. The evening of that same July 4 he scribbled a hurried note from Versailles asking Jefferson for another copy of his proposed charter. Things were happening fast, he explained. “It is very hard to navigate on such a whirling.” On July 11 he moved the adoption of the completed text of the Declaration of the Rights of Man in the National Assembly.
That same night the Bourbon princes met in the Queen’s boudoir to plan a counterresolution.
From two deputies of the noblesse whom he met at his club Gouverneur heard the story: “The Queen, Count d’Artois and Dutchess de Polignac had been all Day tampering with two Regiments who were made almost drunk and every Officer was presented to the King, who was induced to give Promises, Money &c.a &c.a.… Their Music came and played under her Majesty’s Window. In the mean time the Maréchal de Broglio was tampering in Person with the Artillery. The Plan was to reduce Paris by Famine and to take two hundred Members of the National Assembly Prisoners.”
The King forgot his liberalism. The Declaration of Rights gave him a fright. He was always ready to listen to advice. This time it was the advice of his brothers. Necker was dismissed. Troops were marched into Paris.
Gouverneur Morris and Jefferson, drawn together as reasonable Americans in this time of crazy passions out of control, both saw the Swiss guard deploying their cannon on the Champs Élysées. A cavalry charge. Pavingstones were thrown. The troops joined the people.
At Versailles Lafayette was president of the Assembly, but the Assembly had no control of the streets. Armorers’ shops were pillaged. The attack on the prisons began. On July 13 Morris stumped about with a twig of green leaves in his hat in honor of the Third Estate. “It is somewhat whimsical,” he wrote in his diary, “that this Day of Violence and Tumult is the only one in which I have dared to walk the Streets but as no carriages are abroad but the fiacres I do not hazard being crushed and I apprehend nothing from the Populace.”
The next day the populace stormed the Bastille.
A liberal duke forced his way into the King’s bedchamber in the middle of the night and convinced him that his only safety lay with the National Assembly. Louis turned reformer again.
The Bourbon princes fled.