Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Lafayette, hero or villain?


Going back to two previous subjects, let's take a moment to discuss the Marquis de Lafayette, whom many in America see as a patriotic hero, and whom royalists in France and abroad largely loathe. He's been mentioned by Olympe in her diary at least twice, and this is because during the American War of Independence he was a notable figure both in America and in France. Furthermore, he was from Riom, which was the largest city in Auvergne, so she has reason to feel a certain pride. He was a man who, despite some aristrocratic breeding, helped to set the wheels of the French Revolution in motion, and yet after the Flight to Varennes of the French Royal Family was forced himself to flee.
To begin with, he was born on September 6th, 1757, and named Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier. His father was the Marquis de La Fayette, and there is some argument as to whether the name was spelled La Fayette, LaFayette, or Lafayette, and even those who bore the name seem to have been indifferent to standardizing it. When he was two years old his father died, and when he was three his mother died, leaving him in the care of his maternal grandmother.
Educated in Paris at a special school for aristocratic boys, and later at the Versailles Military Academy, after which in 1771 he was commissioned as a second Lieutenant. In 1774 he married Marie Adrienne Francoise de Noailles, the daughter of the Duc de Noailles; an advantageous match for both as she was well-titled and he was well-monied. Their marriage came with the rank of captain and a commission in his father's Dragoons. He was soon sent to Italy, but determined to go to Spain and thence to America to fight for the cause of Liberty. Let's revisit that statement. The King and his father-in-law ordered him to go to Italy, and most specifically not to go to America, under pain of imprisonment, and yet he bought a ship (since none were prepared to take him) and left his (then pregnant) wife, and went to America anyhow. He finally arrived in South Carolina in June 1777.
Initially the Continental Congress did not want him, but using his money once again, he offered to serve without pay, at which point they could find no reason to refuse and commissioned him as a Major-General, but declined to give him a regiment, prompting him to consider returning to France. George Washington, however, on the advice of Benjamin Franklin who was hoping to use him to garner more support from the French, persuaded him that he would be very valued.
In 1779 Lafayette returned to France, and was promptly placed under house arrest for his earlier disregard for orders. This only lasted for two weeks, however, and he was largely considered a hero in his home country. This time with the King's blessing, he was restored to his position in the Dragoons and returned to America to fight under George Washington in 1781. After the end of the war he returned to France and was showered with honors and new ranks and even went so far as to name his daughter after Marie-Antoinette (on the recommendation of Thomas Jefferson).
In 1786 Louis XVI appointed Lafayette to the Assembly of Notables, but contrary to his expectations Lafayette argued against an increase in taxation to resolve the financial crisis, and instead called for a decrease in spending and an assembly that better represented all the classes of society. When the king called the Estates General the following year Lafayette was elected to represent the nobility of Riom, in Auvergne. When some members of the Assembly declared themselves a new group, the National Assembly, Lafayette joined them. July 13th of 1789 he was elected Vice President of the assembly, and the next day the Bastille was stormed, which was the beginning of the end for the French Monarchy.
As the situation of the royal family went from bad to worse, resulting in their imprisonment in the Tuileries Palace in Paris, Lafayette in his newest position as head of the National Guard succeeded in disarming the nobles who had gathered there to protect the king and his family. Shortly thereafter they attempted to flee to safety, but only succeed in going as far as Varennes. Brought back and further curtailed, the king was subject to far greater animosity from the mob than he had been previously.
Having been in charge of the family's "safety" Lafayette was viewed by many influential revolutionaries as culpable for their near-escape, especially with his aristocratic background, as the mood turned increasingly bloodthirsty. Forced to resign his command, he returned to Auvergne and was eventually forced to flee for his life as he was branded a traitor by the more radical elements of the French government. Imprisoned by Austria, he was finally released in 1797 at the behest of Napoleon, but woud not return to France until 1799.
He died on the 20th of May 1834 from complications following pneumonia. Lauded in America and shown full funerary honors, he was given a military funeral in France with mixed reactions. He had inspired men, fought for liberty, and helped, perhaps unintentionally, to topple a monarchy. Was he guilty of helping the royal family try to escape their fate, as the Revolutionaries believed? Was he guilty of helping to bring them and the aristocracy as a whole to the guillotine? Or was he simply a man with lofty ideals who found his truest legacy in the heart of another country?
I leave it to you to decide.


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