Marie–Joseph–Paul–Yves–Roch–Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette

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Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette


French statesman and military officer


Noble Birth. Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette, was born on 6 September 1757 into a prestigious noble family: he was the son of Michel Roche Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette, colonel of the grenadiers, and Marie Louise, daughter of Joseph Yves Hyacinthe, marquis de la Riviere. In 1768 he attended the College of Louis-le-Grand, and in 1770 he inherited an immense fortune when both his mother and grandfather died. He became a page to the queen, Marie Leczinska, in 1771. Through her influence he received a lieutenant’s commission to the Royal Musketeers. On 11 April 1774 he married Anastasie Adrienne de Noailles, second daughter of the duke d’Ayen. Rejoined the circle of courtiers around King Louis XVI but soon became consumed with the desire to win military glory. An enthusiastic devotion to liberty and the rights of man was then emerging among Frenchmen from all social classes. Many young officers were eager to go to America, some because of a well-reasoned interest in the cause at stake there and others from a love of romantic adventure or a desire to strike a blow at the English in revenge for the disasters of the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763).

American Revolution. In July 1777 Lafayette left France for America to seek glory in the fledgling American Revolution. The charming and charismatic Lafayette struck up a lasting friendship with the American commander in chief, General George Washington, who gave him the rank of major general. Lafayette fought with distinction at the Battle of Brandywine in Pennsylvania (September 1777) and conducted a masterly rearguard action during the retreat following the Battle of Barren Hill (May 1778). In 1779 Lafayette returned to France to help persuade the government of Louis XVI to send an expeditionary force to aid the colonists against England. By the next year Lafayette’s efforts had succeeded; he returned to the colonies and was immediately put in command of an army in Virginia. He aggressively pursued the English commander Lord Charles Cornwallis, outflanked him, and forced the British general to retreat to the Virginia coast, where he became trapped at Yorktown in the summer of 1781. A sizable French fleet cut off Cornwallis’s seaborne supplies, and the timely arrival of several more colonial armies sealed Cornwallis’s doom. He surrendered on 19 October. Lafayette returned to France a hero in 1782 and was promoted to the rank of brigadier general. His return to America in 1784 was widely celebrated; several states in the newly formed United States of America made him an honorary citizen.

French Revolution. From 1784 to 1789 Lafayette, powerfully influenced by his experiences in America, became a leader of the liberal aristocrats. He advocated religious tolerance and the abolition of slavery and was elected as a representative of the nobility to the Estates General (May 1789). Lafayette supported the bourgeois deputies in their bid for increased representation at the Estates and in their creation of the National Assembly. He helped pen the Declaration of the Rights of Man and was elected commander of the newly formed National Guard. Lafayette, however, was no radical: he believed that a constitutional monarchy on the English model was the most appropriate government for France. When a crowd of radical revolutionaries stormed Versailles on 6 October 1789, Lafayette ordered his troops to rescue the king and queen. Lafayette’s popularity was at its apex through 1790—he supported the National Assembly’s policies, especially the transference of political power from the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie, but worried that too broad a franchise would encourage the lower classes to attack property rights (the Great Fear only added to his misgivings). On 17 July 1791 a mob gathered on the Champ de Mars in Paris and demanded the abdication of the king—Lafayette, fearing for the monarch’s safety, ordered the National Guard to open fire. The resulting bloodshed wrecked Lafayette’s high standing with the revolutionaries, who were becoming increasingly radical, and forced him to resign his command. At the outset of the war against Austria in 1792 Lafayette was given the command of an army. From his camp he wrote to the National Assembly and denounced the dangerously radical policies of the Jacobins. Lafayette plotted to march on Paris with his army and suppress the radical democrats who were rapidly moving France away from a constitutional government. Before the plan was completed, news arrived of the imprisonment of the king. Lafayette refused to obey the orders of the assembly and arrested the commissioners it sent to his camp. The assembly removed him from command and appointed Charles-François du Pèrier Dumouriez in his place (19 August). Since Lafayette’s soldiers were in sympathy with the radicals, he fled to Belgium. He was taken prisoner by the Austrians and spent nearly four years in the dungeon at Ohnutz, where he was starved and tortured. In the United States many felt sympathy for him. Washington appealed to Emperor Francis I that Lafayette be allowed to come to the United States on parole. He was finally set free on 23 September 1797 after Napoleon’s victorious campaign against Austria. After a sojourn in Holland he returned to France (March 1800) and retired to his castle of La Grange. Napoleon sought his loyalty by offering him positions in the government, including the position of minister to the United States, but Lafayette declined these offers. He also declined President Jefferson’s offer of the governorship of Louisiana. During Napoleon’s rule Lafayette remained at La Grange. His wife died there on 24 December 1807.

Later Years. After years of seclusion he was elected to the chamber of deputies (1818–1824) where he espoused moderately liberal policies: he opposed censorship of the press and restrictions on private property. In 1824 Lafayette was invited by Congress and President James Monroe to visit the United States. He arrived 15 August 1824 in New York and visited each of the twenty-four states. Everywhere he went he received tokens of enthusiastic reverence and affection. In consideration of his services in the Revolutionary War, Congress voted him a grant of $200,000 and twenty-four thousand acres of land. In the July Revolution of 1830 in France he became commander of the National Guard and was instrumental in overthrowing the conservative King Charles X and in placing Louis Philippe on the throne: Lafayette still hoped to give France a constitutional monarchy. He remained a member of the chamber of deputies until his death. He left one son, George Washington, and two daughters, Anastasie and Virginie. Among all the eminent Frenchmen of the revolutionary period he was perhaps the only one with nothing to be ashamed of in his career. His character was so thoroughly imbued with American ideas of constitutional liberty that he found it difficult to identify with any of the violent movements originating in the French Revolution of 1789.


Peter Buckman, Lafayette: A Biography (New York: Paddington, 1977).

Lloyd Kramer, Lafayette in Two Worlds: Public Cultures and Personal Identities in an Age of Revolutions (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996).

Sylvia Neely, Lafayette and the Liberal Ideal, 1814-1824: Politics and Conspiracy in an Age of Reaction (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991).

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Marie–Joseph–Paul–Yves–Roch–Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette

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