A Brief History
On July 17, 1791, hero of the American Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette, Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier (you can see why he is usually just called “Lafayette”) led the French National Guard against a riotous mob of around 10,000 angry French revolutionaries, gunning down about 50 of the rebels in the action. (The mob had started throwing stones and then shooting at the soldiers.)
Lafayette returned to France a hero after aiding George Washington and the Americans in defeating the British during the American Revolution, only to find France torn between loyal followers of the monarchy and disaffected, angry revolutionaries that wanted to oust the King and install a democracy. A sincere patriot, Lafayette was appointed head of the newly formed National Guard, a force not quite army and not quite police, perhaps somewhat similar to our own National Guard.
Lafayette made the classic mistake of trying to straddle the fence between loyalists and revolutionaries, and was thus seen by both sides as an enemy. Still, the Marquis managed to re-enroll in the French Army after resigning from the National Guard and was given a command of an army as a Lieutenant General in 1792. Unfortunately for the Marquis, many of his men were radical revolutionaries while he was considerably more moderate, leading to his men revolting against their officers. Lafayette was given another command, but revolutionary fervor had enveloped France and Lafayette became a prisoner of the Revolution later in 1792 when King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette were executed.
Lafayette’s convoluted political odyssey continued when Napoleon Bonaparte restored the Marquis’ citizenship in 1800 and offered him a position as emissary to the United States (Lafayette refused), while also returning some of Lafayette’s seized properties. Napoleon also attempted to honor the Marquis with the Legion of Honor, which was also refused, as Lafayette would not cooperate with Napoleon’s government, which the Marquis deemed “undemocratic.” President Thomas Jefferson of the United States offered Lafayette governorship of the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase in 1804, but Lafayette turned down this offer as well. When Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, Lafayette attempted to arrange passage to the US for the former Emperor, but his plans were foiled and Bonaparte ended up on St. Helena.
With Napoleon in exile, the French monarchy was restored and Lafayette engaged in a series of conspiracies against the throne that basically went nowhere. He publicly spoke out against the monarchy until he died in 1834, when he was given a military funeral (a ruse by the King to keep public participation out of the ceremony. Of course, Americans held Lafayette in the highest regard, and former President John Q. Adams delivered a stirring eulogy.
The Marquis de Lafayette was gone, but definitely not forgotten, for his circuitous path to lasting fame has left him a hero in France (though not universally) and in the United States. Recognizing the tremendous debt owed to this great man by the United States, when General JJ Pershing reached France with the American Expeditionary Force in World War I, the General firmly stated, “Lafayette, we are here.” Even the famous flying squadron of American volunteers flying for France was known as the Lafayette Escadrille (squadron) in honor of the Marquis. In the US today you can find numerous places, streets, and the like named in honor of Lafayette. Question for students (and subscribers): You may pick up on the fact we think Lafayette was a great man, but feel free to tell us your opinion of him in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Andress, David. Massacre at the Champ De Mars: Popular Dissent and Political Culture in the French Revolution (Royal Historical Society Studies in History New) (Paperback) – Common. The Boydell Press, 2013.