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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
Messengers were sent off to recall Necker, already prudently posting towards the Swiss border. The Bishop of Autun was requested to prepare a speech for the King. Lafayette was appointed to command the National Guard.
Not even Gouverneur could restrain his enthusiasm. When Americans met on the street they congratulated each other on the great blow struck for freedom. A retired Continental colonel called to say how happy he was to be in Paris at this great moment. “So am I,” Gouverneur noted in his diary, “consider as I do the Capture of the Bastille to be an instance of great intrepidity.”
The night after the fall of the Bastille Gouverneur ate supper at his club in the Palais Royale with his friends the deputies. “The Claret being better than I have tasted in France I gave them as a Toast the Liberty of the French Nation and then the City of Paris.… This has been a Fine Day.”
Lafayette’s first official act was to order the Bastille’s demolition. They were installing a revolutionary municipality at the Hôtel de Ville. Necker was on his way back to resume his magic arts at Versailles.
It was announced that the liberal King would show himself to his faithful subjects. Lafayette led the way on a white horse. He had acquired his adopted father’s taste for white horses. Cockades in the city’s red and blue colors were on every hat.
Three days later Gouverneur paid a call on Lafayette at the Hôtel de Ville to get a permit to visit the famous prison and found him “exhausted by a Variety of Attentions.” That afternoon he dined with the great man and La Rochefoucauld in the rue de Bourbon. In his pocket Gouverneur brought a plan for organizing the National Guard. Like every other American in Paris, he wanted to make practical suggestions. A citizen militia fitted in with a Hudson River landowner’s notions of what ought to be.
Lafayette confided to him “that he has had the utmost Power his Heart could wish and is grown tired of it. That he has commanded absolutely a hundred thousand Men, has marched his Sovereign about the Streets as he pleased, prescribed the Degree of Applause which he should receive, and should have detained him Prisoner had he thought proper.”
Gouverneur dryly added in his diary that he was not impressed by Lafayette’s echo of Washington’s perpetual wish to return to private life. “He deceives himself or wishes to deceive me: a little of both perhaps.”
Lafayette spent the summer hurrying between his headquarters in the Hôtel de Ville and the Court and Assembly at Versailles. The deputies were working hard to keep ahead of events. Everyone was in a hurry. He would have to do without Jefferson’s advice; the American minister was returning home. While his daughters packed their trunks Jefferson prepared careful notes on the American jury system for the committee which was writing the French constitution. The jury system, he explained, was the cornerstone of selfgovernment.
Gouverneur meanwhile drafted his own set of suggestions for a constitution. His conviction of the usefulness of an aristocracy was putting him in the bad books of the liberals, but the ferocity of the Paris mob was giving them pause. After a visit to Lafayette’s aunt and Jefferson’s dear friend, Mme de Tessé, he noted, “I find that the high Democrats begin to cool a little and I think that by degrees they will feel, tho they would not understand, Reason.”
For all his aristocratic theories, Gouverneur was essentially a tenderhearted man. Stumping in and out of his carriage on sordid errands of business and pleasure that took him to all parts of the city, he saw things his revolutionary friends did not see.
“After Dinner walk a little under the Arcade of the Palais Royal waiting for my Carriage.” The arcade of the Palais Royale was the paradeground for the filles de joie of those days. Undoubtedly he was casting a probing eye about him. What he saw made him forget the bulbs and curves of the little ladies of Paris.
“In this period the Head and Body of Mr. de Foulon was introduced in Triumph. The Head on a Pike, the Body dragged naked on the Earth. Afterwards this horrible Exhibition is carried thro the different Streets. His Crime to have accepted a Place in the Ministry. This mutilated Form of an old Man of Seventy Five is shown to Bertier, his Son in Law, the Intendant of Paris, and afterwards he is also put to Death and cut to Pieces, the Populace carrying about the mangled Fragments with a Savage Joy. Gracious God what a People!”
While Lafayette at Versailles was trying to behave as Washington would have behaved in “the whirling” of the National Assembly, throughout France the country people were taking the law in their own hands, dividing up feudal lands, burning manors and chateaux, and taking particular care that the title deeds should not escape the flames. In the Assembly the night of August 4 Adrienne’s brother, the Vicomte de Noailles, and Lafayette’s bosom friend De Lameth moved the abolition of titles and feudal privileges. The young nobles who had fought in America rose to back them up.
The old regime was tumbling. In heady phrases the Assembly put the seal of its approval on each separate act of demolition. France was without a government.
The first result of the crash of the Versailles bureaucracy was the stalling of the economic machinery. Nobody got paid. The cost of living soared. In Paris there was no bread.
“For some days since,” Jefferson wrote Jay at the end of August, “the people have beseiged the doors of the bakers, scrambled with one another for bread, collected in squads all over the city & need only some slight incident to lead them to excesses which may end in nobody can tell what.”