Lafayette, untiring champion of Liberty
To avoid the cost of a translation, this conference is not exactly the one given to the Circle on May 24, 2008, but one given in English at Warsaw on June 29th, 2008
by Jacques de Guenin .
During a long life interspersed with numerous stays in the United States, I have been increasingly puzzled by the difference in appreciation of Lafayette in France and America). In the U.S., affection bordering on adulation, and admiration that extends even to what he had accomplished in France. In France, a certain pride for his contribution to the American war of independence, but a certain discredit for his role in the Revolutions of 1789 and 1848.
To illustrate this difference, I am going to give you two quotations.
The first is from the great George Washington himself : “Lafayette has exceptional military talents, with a quick and secure judgment. He is enterprising and persevering, without imprudence, with in addition a conciliatory and perfectly sober disposition, qualities that are rarely gathered in a single individual.”
The second is from the French Encyclopedia Universalis : “His mind lacks depth and his character lacks resolution”.
Puzzled by this paradox, I ended up digging into the life of Lafayette, and I came to the conclusion that most French historians are unfair to him. But more importantly, I discovered that he was one of us, i.e. a true classical liberal. I also discovered that he had an intense relationship with Poland. These are the two reasons why I am giving this talk today. My aim is to have him added to our classical liberal/libertarian Hall of Fame.
Gilbert Motier, marquis of La Fayette, had inherited his title at the age of two, when his father, an officer, was killed during the Seven Years’ War. He had been raised by his mother, his grandmother and his aunts in the Castle of Chavaniac, in the centre of France. He enjoyed great freedom, running across the country with the little peasants, strengthening his body, acquiring a sense of Liberty, a special acquaintance with nature and a total absence of prejudice.
He lost his mother when he was 13 and his grandfather a few months later. The latter left him an immense fortune. At 15, he joined the army to be trained as an officer. At 16, he married Adrienne de Noailles, a girl from another wealthy family who was 15. The marriage was arranged by the bride’s father, the duke of Ayen, but it turned out to be a very happy marriage.
At 18, while he was in garrison in Metz, he learned about the extraordinary events that were taking place in America. It was 1776. The 13 colonies of the English Crown had refused to pay taxes that they had not voted, which had generated repression from the crown. In 1776, each colony formed a State and adopted a constitution. In June, Virginia adopted a declaration of rights inspired by the philosophy of the great English liberal John Locke. The Congress followed that example and asked 5 persons, including Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, to write a draft for a Declaration of Independence, which was adopted straight away. This declaration is a hymn to liberalism. I cannot help quoting its two most famous paragraphs :
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just power from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it.”
On the 4th of July, Congress proclaimed the independence of the United States.
This news inflamed the young Lafayette. During his leaves, and in his correspondence, he communicated to his young wife his enthusiasm for the liberation of peoples as was happening in America. He obtained leave from the army with the active complicity of his general, the Duke of Broglie. He bought a small vessel and sailed to America with a little group of gentlemen whom he had convinced. The king tried to stop him. Not that Louis XVI was hostile to the American cause, but he did not want to break the peace treaty signed with England a few years earlier at the end of the so called Seven Years’ War. He had his own prudent policy vis-à-vis the insurgents, and he was nervous about the uncontrolled agitation of this young marquis.
However La Fayette managed to escape the king’s agents and sailed for America on April 20, 1777. He landed in South Inlet, near Charleston. From there, his little troop set off for Philadelphia on horseback, where they arrived on July 27.
The Congress had been favorably informed about La Fayette by a letter from Benjamin Franklin, at the time representative of the Congress to France, and even more so by the fact that the young man insisted on enlisting without pay, assuming his own costs. They appointed him Major General, with the understanding that he would stay beside George Washington as aide de camp, but would not participate in combats.
La Fayette, then not quite 19 years old, met with George Washington, then 45, on the 1st of August 1777. The sympathy between the two men was instantaneous and was to last throughout their lives. Washington did not have a son, and Lafayette did not have a father. He became a sort of adopted son of Washington, as testified by their correspondence. In the United States, where a book on La Fayette appears almost every year, the last one is titled “Adopted Son”, with a subtitle saying “Washington, Lafayette, and the Friendship that saved the revolution”.
Among the foreign officers who came to the aid of the insurgents, there were two Poles who became friends with Lafayette : Count Casimir Pulaski, and Tadeusz Kosciusco. The latter had been an instructor in the Polish army, and was then trained in France as an engineer. He was used as a military engineer by the American Army, which lacked this kind of skill, and contributed to the quality of their fortifications. He went back to Poland in 1784 where he contributed to the elaboration of the Polish Constitution. We shall mention him again later in this story.
In early September, Philadelphia was threatened. An English army was coming down from Canada, while other troops were disembarked from an English fleet in Chesapeake Bay. Between the two, forces lead by General Cornwallis were actively fighting the American army. La Fayette had obtained permission to go along with the division of General Sullivan as an observer. But when the division was on the verge of being surrounded, he gathered the men fleeing in all directions with extraordinary energy, exposing himself with a total contempt for danger. He was wounded in the leg. He fell from his horse, but asked to be put back into the saddle and went on gathering his soldiers until the time when he had to be evacuated as the hemorrhage was becoming alarming. Washington had to send him to the nearest hospital.
Pulaski was among the heroes of that battle. The Americans were very short of cavalry. Lafayette suggested to Washington to use Pulaski to create and train a cavalry brigade, which he did so well that he was nicknamed the Father of American Cavalry. Unfortunately, he was to die in a later battle, in 1779.
At the head of a disparate and ill equipped army of 11 000 men against a more numerous and better trained English army, Washington could not avoid evacuating Philadelphia and gathered his men at Valley Forge. The winter was rigorous. The men were short of just about everything : rifles, food, clothes, shoes. They had to build huts. General La Fayette shared the hardships of his subordinates. He compelled recognition by his soberness, his contempt for comfort, his generosity – using his own money to alleviate some of the hardships – and his enthusiasm for the cause.
At the end of the winter, some of the generals, hostile to Washington, tried to lure La Fayette into schemes that would undermine Washington’s command, but La Fayette asserted his loyalty, which further strengthened the link between the two men.
On May 18, 1778, Washington directed La Fayette to lead a force between the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers and thus disrupt British communications with Philadelphia. He displayed tactical genius by cleverly ambushing several British detachments, then maneuvering his men back through British lines. The British finally pulled their soldiers out of Philadelphia and headed for New York. Washington asked La Fayette to pursue them and inflict as much damage as possible.
On January 11 1779, he was sent to France with a letter to Benjamin Franklin. He arrived on February 6th, the anniversary of the Franco American treaty that had been signed a year before. He had to convince the king to send ships and troops to his new allies. The king gave him a symbolic punishment for having disobeyed his orders, and then an assignment back in the French army. But Lafayette spent most of his time harassing the king’s ministers to convince them to send resources to America in order to help the revolution. Finally, the king yielded and decided to send 6000 men under General de Rochambeau and a war fleet of 30 ships under Admiral de Grasse.
La Fayette was sent back to America on March 9 as an American general under Washington in order to prepare the reception of the French force, which he did with self sacrificing dedication. Washington then sent him to Virginia in order to keep the English forces under General Charles Cornwallis, preventing them from joining general Clinton’s forces in New York, where the latter were fighting against Washington and Rochambeau.
Cornwallis’ own mission was to cut off the South from the North, destroy the arsenals, and if possible capture La Fayette who had about half his force. But exhibiting tactical genius, Lafayette harassed the British and escaped from them. He retreated as Cornwallis advanced. He was careful not to be outflanked by always staying on higher ground. His men found ways to cross the rivers of Virginia and harass Cornwallis from positions that were hard to assault. On the way, he was joined by local insurgent forces and new recruits, so that his forces grew almost as large as those of Cornwallis. However his forces dwindled in the spring as volunteers had to go back home to tend their fields. Two of his subordinates marched into a British trap, 139 Americans were killed, and La Fayette had to spur his horse through the gunfire to rally his troops. It was a defeat, but Cornwallis withdrew, as he was asked to send some forces to New York to help Clinton. For the record, one engagement in Virginia was marked by the death of General Phillips, the man who, 22 years earlier, as an artillery officer, had ordered the cannon fire that killed Lafayette’s father.
On July 31, Washington ordered La Fayette to rebuild his forces and keep Cornwallis bottled up in Yorktown, to where Admiral de Grasse was sailing, while himself and Rochambeau came down from New York.
La Fayette amassed provisions, increased his intelligence about the British and begged Virginia’s governor for help. A month later, on August 30, de Grasse reached Yorktown with six frigates and 28 battleships, 15 000 sailors and 3 100 marines. Soon La Fayette commanded 5 500 regular troops and 3 000 militiamen against the 8 800 soldiers of Cornwallis. They were even for a few days, but Washington and Rochambeau arrived in Yorktown on September 9, and Cornwallis was then outnumbered.
The siege of Yorktown began on October 6, 1781. La Fayette was in the thick of the action, leading the capture of British positions. Cornwallis was almost out of food and ammunition, and about a quarter of his men were ill. He surrendered at noon, on October 19.
It was time for La Fayette to go back to his family. As an American officer, he had to ask Congress to let him go back to serve the king of France. He received the Cincinnati medal and was made a citizen of honor of the United States. A frigate was left at his disposal. After an emotional parting with George Washington, he left Boston amidst a storm of applause on December 23, 1781, about 5 years after he had landed in America for the first time.
Up to 1790, he received at home all Americans staying in Paris, such as Franklin, Jefferson, Paine, as well as European liberals such as Condorcet, Germaine de Staël, Benjamin Constant, Horace Say. He promoted free trade. He pleaded the cause of protestants to the king. He corresponded with Bolivar, the liberator of several South American states. He encouraged the Italian liberals, the Spanish constitutionalists, the Greek and Polish freedom fighters. He spent a lot of money to help free slaves in French colonies.
He tried to interest George Washington in the emancipation of slaves and invited him to come to France. But the latter convinced him (La Fayette) to visit him in America instead. Landing in New York on August 4, 1784, he went to Mount Vernon 15 days later, and he spent 11 days there with Washington. He then visited some friends. On the way, he met enthusiastic crowds, and was invited to all sorts of parties and celebrations. By November, he was back with Washington. They traveled together to Annapolis. They bid farewell on December 1st.
Back in France, he played a decisive role in the preparation of the Revolution – which, I recall, was initially peaceful and liberal. He wrote the first draft of the declaration of human rights, and promoted the abolition of privileges. He was appointed commander of the new, popular, National Guard. His popularity was at its peak. As a vice president of the Assembly, he obtained from it the separation of powers, under the form of a constitutional monarchy. But from mid 91, the Revolution sank into a totalitarian phase, the paroxysm of which would be the ominous “Terror”, and his troubles were to start.
At the head of the Eastern Army, facing Prussians and Austrians who wanted to reestablish monarchy, he briefly left the army to go to the National Assembly to try and moderate those who wanted to execute the king, but he was accused of desertion and condemned to death. He escaped narrowly, only to fall into the hands of the Austrians, who considered him a dangerous revolutionary and imprisoned him. He stayed in various Austrian and Prussian prisons for 5 years in appalling conditions. He lost all his possessions. His wife narrowly escaped the Guillotine and also lost her possessions. Showing extraordinary devotion, courage, and perseverance, she managed to join him in his prison with their two daughters.
He was freed by Napoleon in 1797 but maintained in exile for two years in Belgium. Back in France, he settled in an old château that his wife had been able to recover, the castle of La Grange, to the south-east of Paris. He led the life of a gentleman farmer, fairly active and entrepreneurial, while regaining some influence on the political scene, which he used to fight tirelessly against Napoleon’s violation of liberties, then against that of the monarchy that followed. He continued to worry about violations of liberty outside France, in particular in Poland. He received Kosciusko many times in his château
In 1823, when he was 66, La Fayette accepted president James Monroe’s invitation for a farewell tour of America. He declined Monroe’s offer to send a warship for him and instead traveled aboard an ordinary commercial ship. He arrived on August 15, 1824 and was greeted by some 30 000 people. An estimated 50 000 cheered La Fayette as he rode a carriage drawn by four white horses to New York City Hall. People threw flowers to him. Mothers brought their children for his blessing. Some 6 000 people attended a ball in his honor. He began a 13 month tour through all 24 states.
La Fayette commended Americans for what they had accomplished : “in the United States, he said, the sovereignty of the people was achieved by a glorious and spotless revolution, universally acknowledged, guaranteed not only by a constitution… but by legal procedures which are always within the scope of the public will. It is also exercised by free, general, and frequent elections…Ten million people, without a monarchy, without a court, without an aristocracy, without trade guilds, without unnecessary or unpopular taxes, without a State Police, a constabulary or any disorder have achieved the highest degree of freedom, security, prosperity, and happiness, which human civilization could have imagined”.
At Bunker Hill, Massachusetts, one of his glorious victories, the orator Daniel Webster declared : “heaven saw fit to ordain, that the electric spark of Liberty should be conducted through you from the new world to the old”. La Fayette entered Philadelphia escorted by four wagons carrying about 160 revolutionary veterans. He stopped at the Brandywine battlefield where he had been wounded. He returned to Yorktown, which was still in ruins. Big crowds welcomed him everywhere, about 50 000 in Baltimore and 70 000 in Boston. He was cheered in Charleston, Mobile, New Orleans, Saint-Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburg, Buffalo, to name only a few of the 132 towns which greeted him. He appeared at Catholic Churches, Protestant Churches and Masonic Lodge gatherings. He attended receptions open to everybody and he publicly welcomed the Blacks and Indians who came. La Fayette descended to the vault of George Washington’s tomb at Mount Vernon. He met three former presidents : Jefferson, Adams, and Madison.
He was received in Congress, an honor which is normally reserved for heads of state.
On September 7 he went down the Potomac river on the steamboat Mount Vernon, boarded the frigate Brandywine, and sailed back to France, bringing with him a load of American soil destined to be mixed with French earth on his tomb.
A few years later, during the 1830 revolution, he was one of the actors of the abdication of Charles X. He was still extraordinarily popular, and many wanted him to turn the country into a republic and become its president. But he thought that France was not ripe for a republic. The French had not yet forgotten the disorders, the famines and the terror associated with the first republic. He thought that a constitutional monarchy would fit the situation better, and he obtained assurances from Louis-Philippe that he would create a liberal democracy, which he did initially. But power corrupts and Louis-Philippe cut back liberties little by little, and Lafayette was soon vocal again in Parliament to defend them.
On 29 November 1830, an uprising broke out in Warsaw. Poland, you may remember was a kingdom integrated in the Russian Empire, whose autocracy the Poles did not like. Weakened by internal dissensions, the movement was not supported by the European powers, France included, although public opinion in France was very favorable to it. On 8 September1831, Russian troops took Warsaw. Numerous Poles went into exile, mostly in France.
In parliament, Lafayette asked for a French military intervention. He created a “Central committee of assistance to Poland”, in which he enlisted intellectuals, journalists and politicians. The committee gathered money and sent to Poland volunteers, officers and more than 60 doctors and surgeons, of which 6 were to die there. Lafayette wrote to the French Prime minister, to the English minister of Foreign affairs and to the king of Sweden to obtain their intervention. In the Assembly, he made a resounding speech starting with the sentence “The whole of France is Polish”. In May 1832, he had 139 deputies sign a petition asking the Russian government to grant more liberties to the Poles.
He welcomed in his home a number of Polish exiles. There is still, on the second floor of his château, a corridor called the Polish corridor, in memory of the Polish exiles who resided there.
Lafayette died on May 20, 1834. In the United States, the Congress decided on a period of mourning of 30 days. The president, John Quincy Adams, pronounced a funeral oration in front of all the nation dignitaries. 60 000 copies were distributed. In France, Louis-Philippe made no public pronouncement. Instead, he ordered a military funeral with the intent of keeping the public away. There were no speeches. But there were Polish officers to carry the coffin in the Church of the Assumption where the funeral took place. This church later became the Church of the Poles in Paris.
Today, he is buried in the cemetery of Picpus, near his wife, under an American flag that the ambassador of the United States renews each year on the 4th of July, Independence Day.
In the States, a mountain, seven counties, 40 towns or villages, several schools and colleges, as well as innumerable streets bear the name of Lafayette. His statue is present in several towns, including the one in Lafayette square, just behind the White House in Washington. The association of the American friends of Lafayette, of which I am a member, is still very active. One of the latest nuclear submarines of the US Navy was named after Lafayette. There is no other example in History of such gratitude for a foreigner.
I would like my country similarly to acknowledge the great liberal who was the originator of the first constitution, of the separation of powers, of the declaration of man’s rights, of the abolition of privileges, of freedom of expression, religious freedom and universal suffrage.
Six months before his death, Lafayette wrote “no obstacle, no disappointment, no grief diverts me nor slows me in the pursuit of the single objective of my life : happiness for everyone and freedom everywhere”. This sentence summarizes his whole life.
And as we are in Poland, I am pleased to end this talk with a quotation from the great Polish poet Adam Micskiewicz : “Lafayette had been the last statesman in Europe in whom existed the spirit of sacrifice, a remnant of Christian spirit”.
Marxist’s insist that we rewrite history- Imagine American schools teaching this to our students.