Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834), French general, statesman, and hero of the American Revolution, served France by endeavoring to smooth the transition from the Old Regime to the new order created by the French Revolution.
The Marquis de Lafayette was born on Sept. 6, 1757, to the Motier family—better known by their noble title of La Fayette (the spelling "Lafayette" is an Americanism which only pedants would now attempt to correct)—at their château of Chavagniac in the province of Auvergne. After 3 years of study in the Collège du Plessis, a distinguished secondary school in Paris, he joined the French army in 1771. Stringent military reforms 5 years later forced his retirement from active service when he was only 18 years old.
In 1773 Lafayette married Adrienne de Noailles (1759-1807), daughter of the Duc d'Ayen, and entered the court life at Versailles. He had not yet shown any serious interest in the turbulent political events and debates of the early reign of Louis XVI, but he was not willing to settle down to the life of pampered luxury permitted by his great wealth. After the outbreak of the American Revolution, he decided to put his arms and his training at the service of the infant country in rebellion against France's historic enemy, England. It was as yet more a soldier's splendid gesture, however, than an act of political commitment.
Refused the King's permission to go to America, Lafayette sailed anyway, after buying and equipping a ship with his own money. On June 13, 1777, he landed in North Carolina. The Continental Congress had given the distinguished volunteer an honorary commission as a major general, but his actual duties were as aide-de-camp to Gen. Washington, to whom he brought personal and political devotion, eagerness and ability in the performance of military duties, and the assurance that the American rebels were not alone in their cause. After performing well in battles against the British in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, he was given command of a division of American troops. The next year he tried to persuade Washington to carry the war into Canada, but his plan was not adopted. Instead he was sent back to France with the mission of obtaining greater French support for the Americans.
Upon landing in his homeland early in 1779, Lafayette was arrested for having disobeyed the royal command in going to America. But political necessities soon overrode considerations of military discipline, and he was called to Versailles by the King, who wanted a firsthand report on how things stood in the new United States of America. Although not all his proposals for aid to the Americans were accepted, Lafayette did return to America in April 1780 in command of French auxiliary forces. In 1781 he was given command of the defense of Virginia with the rank of major general. His maneuverings eventually drew Charles Cornwallis, the English commander, into the trap at Yorktown, where he was blockaded by the American forces and by French troops brought by a French fleet under Adm. de Grasse. Cornwallis's surrender on October 19 brought the American war of independence to its military conclusion and was the culmination of Lafayette's career as a soldier.
Return to France
When Lafayette returned to France in 1782, it was as a hero, "Washington's friend," and he was made a brigadier general in the French army.
In America Lafayette had developed a commitment to the principles of the Enlightenment. During the years of the final crisis of the Old Regime, the soldier became a political leader of the movement against absolutism. In 1787-1788 he served as a member of the Assembly of Notables and then, in 1789, took a seat in the Estates General as deputy of the nobility of the district of Riom. Lafayette was influential in the first months of the Revolution, which followed the meeting of the Estates General. The world-famous Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was adopted at his initiative, and his military fame and political reputation combined to win for him, on the day after the Bastille fell (July 14), the command of the Parisian national guard, the force of citizen-soldiers created to defend the new regime.
Lafayette's political acumen was now tested to the utmost, for, like so many of the Enlightenment thinkers, he favored a parliamentary monarchy like England's but one based on a formal written constitution like that just adopted in America. However, he had to cope with radical mob violence that was directed even at the King's person. His efforts to hold the Revolution to a moderate course proved more and more unavailing; his popularity was dissipated; and his command to his troops to fire on a mob in July 1791 led to his retirement in September from command of the national guard.
However, the onset of war against Austria and Prussia in 1792 brought Lafayette's return to military life as the commander of the Army of the Ardennes. He invaded the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium) and then withdrew for lack of support. By August, fearful of the revenge of the Jacobins because he had come to Paris to complain to the Legislative Assembly of the attack upon the royal family in the Tuileries (July 20), and finding no support among his troops, he crossed over into Austria with a few fellow officers. He was treated as a prisoner of war until 1797, when the victorious Napoleon obtained his release from jail but did not permit him to return to France. He had become so politically innocuous, however, that when he did go back to France in 1799 without permission, he was given a military pension as a retired general and allowed to live quietly on his country estate at Lagrange.
Although he withheld his support from the imperial regime, Lafayette abstained from overt political activity until after the first abdication of Napoleon, in 1814; he was elected to the Legislative Chamber and was the first to demand the Emperor's final and permanent abdication. The definitive restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1815 after the Hundred Days brought his return to a position as a leader in the liberal opposition to Louis XVIII and Charles X. From 1818 to 1824 he sat in the Chamber of Deputies as a member of opposition.
In 1824 Lafayette was invited by the government of the United States to visit America as its guest, and his triumphal tour of the country lasted 15 months. Congress gave him a gift of $200,000 and a sizable tract of land, and Lafayette returned to France in 1825 to great acclaim as the "hero of two worlds."
Lafayette did not regain political prominence until the outbreak of revolution in 1830, when he became the symbol of moderate republicanism. Named to command the reestablished national guard, he was half persuaded and half tricked into endorsing Louis Philippe as a constitutional king. It was his last important political act, for he was dismissed in 1831, and he then returned to opposition.
When Lafayette died in Paris on May 20, 1834, he had few followers left. Although Lafayette had played a part in the creation of new regimes in two countries, his generosity of purpose was not matched by political astuteness, and he was more carried along by events than he was their maker. He was perhaps most influential as a living symbol—of friendship between France and America, and of the men of goodwill who wanted a new and better world but could not accept terror and dictatorship as the ways to bring it into being.
Further Reading on Marquis de Lafayette
Sound modern studies of Lafayette are Brand Whitlock, La Fayette (2 vols., 1929); W. E. Woodward, Lafayette (1938); and David G. Loth, The People's General: The Personal Story of Lafayette (1951). The definitive studies are by the most distinguished modern historian of Lafayette, Louis R. Gottschalk: Lafayette Comes to America (1935); Lafayette Joins the American Army (1937); Lafayette and the Close of the American Revolution (1942); Lafayette between the American and French Revolutions (1950); and, with Margaret Maddox, Lafayette in the French Revolution through the October Days (1969).