Today is the 250th birthday of the Marquis de Lafayette, whose name is on more than four hundred U.S. cities, towns, counties, parks, squares, and streets, not to mention floor tiles, radios, a line of window shades, at least one meteorite, and an excellent college in Pennsylvania. A Google search for "Lafayette" returns more than twenty-nine million hits. America is a place where everybody knows his name but seems to have forgotten who he was. When he died, John Stuart Mill wondered if there would ever be another conjunction of character and circumstance that would allow anyone to live so large a life. It deserves to be remembered.
The first part of his story is familiar: Heir to a huge fortune and a centuries-old military lineage, he bought his own ship to bring him to America, where he became a major-general in the Continental Army at the age of 19. Injured at Brandywine, he proved to be intrepid in battle, was well loved by his men and fellow officers, and led the army that cornered Cornwallis at Yorktown, where the American Revolution was won.
He brought home to France his passion for the American idea of government by and for a sovereign people and joined it to the prerevolutionary reform movement in Paris. He wrote the first draft of France's Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. As the leader of the "moderate" first years of the French Revolution, 1789 to 1791, he rose to become more powerful than Louis XVI, in part because (like his hero Washington) he resisted the greater powers and honors that kept being pushed on him -- a self-aggrandizing cycle which, let there be no doubt, he very much enjoyed.
That was typical of an eighteenth-century officer, for whom "glory," "honor" and "fame" were roughly synonymous. In other ways he was not typical at all. He loved his wife, Adrienne, which in his set suggested a certain lack of imagination. He did have two affairs -- one to impress his friends, the other to talk politics -- but Adrienne was the love of his life. The young Abigail Adams wrote in her diary that he doted on his children as well, "the more remarkable in a country where the least trait of such a disposition is scarce known."
He was effervescent and innocently gregarious at a time when the salons of Paris prized the sharp quip. When he had not heard from a friend for a while, he wrote, "I haven't heard from you for millions of centuries!" On his return to America, he wrote Washington a letter that began: "Here I am!"
Highly intuitive, with an uncanny feel for the mood of audiences and crowds, he was a master of the beau geste. Named commandant-general of the Paris National Guard on July 15, 1789, he needed something to identify his troops and so invented the tricolor cockade, placing a strip of Bourbon white between the colors of Paris, blue and red.
That October, the Paris mob, armed with muskets, pikes, and pitchforks, marched to Versailles to bring the king and queen back to Paris by any means necessary, and at one point they called for Marie-Antoinette to show herself on the balcony of the château. Lafayette -- who at that point commanded all the troops around Versailles -- asked her what she wanted to do. She knew the reason some of them wanted her to come out was so that they could shoot "the Austrian whore".
"Haven't you seen the gestures they make at me?" she asked him.
"Yes, Madame," he said and offered her his arm. "Come."
Witnesses said later that there were indeed calls in the crowd to kill her and that muskets were raised, but no shots were fired. Lafayette tried to speak to the crowd, but when he could not be heard above the roar, he thought to give a low bow to the queen and to kiss her hand. Suddenly the crowd's demeanor changed, and she heard a cry she had not heard from the people of France for some time: "Vive la reine!"
By 1792, his unyielding support for a constitutional monarchy had left him equally despised by the radical followers of Robespierre and the monarchs of Europe. Wisely taking his chances with the Austrian emperor rather than the guillotine, he spent five hard years in prison. When he was released he had been ruined financially by the confiscation of his fortune and property, but he nevertheless rebuffed Napoleon's offers of the Legion of Honor, the ambassadorship to the United States and other bribes in order to protect his ability to stand forthrightly against authoritarianism, as he later fought that of Louis XVIII and Charles X. Meanwhile he supported liberation movements all over the world, and when he had no money to give them he borrowed more.
Forty-one years after the fall of the Bastille, Lafayette found himself at the head of the Revolution of 1830, which toppled Charles X. Once more the darling of the Parisian crowd, he delivered, at the age of 72, perhaps the grandest grand gesture of his life, deflecting appeals that he become the first president of a French republic to install the "republican monarchy" of Louis-Philippe. He did this by the simple act of embracing him in front of Paris's City Hall and literally wrapping him in a tricolor flag, which had been banned for the past fifteen years of the Bourbon restoration. Chateaubriand called the moment "coronation by a republican kiss."
Louis-Philippe never forgave him for the importance of his support, and when Lafayette died, four years later, he was carried to his grave under heavy guard. Displays of affection for him were quickly smothered by force, and no eulogies were permitted.
Lafayette's place in American history is secure, but his standing in France, along with that of his beloved Declaration of Rights and tricolor standard, has risen and fallen with every change of government since 1789 (three monarchs, two emperors, five republics). As late as 1987, in his Histoire et dictionnaire de la révolution française, the eminent historian Jean Tulard described Lafayette this way: "An empty-headed political dwarf, Lafayette is one of the people most responsible for the destruction of the French monarchy." Left-wing historians have faulted him equally for a lack of revolutionary rigor.
With historians so divided, the safest resort is the uncontroverted fact. One is that the people closest to Lafayette loved and respected him with a devotion that has left an indelible record. Another is that he did not lack courage, which was tested on the battlefield and on the streets of Paris, in his youth and in his old age. As many times as he was defeated, he never left the field.
Finally, if any doubt remains as to the success of the cause to which he devoted his life, there is the Constitution of the Fifth Republic, which has been in effect since 1958 and which begins with these words: "The French people solemnly proclaim their attachment to the Rights of Man and the principles of national sovereignty as defined by the Declaration of 1789... The nation's emblem shall be the blue, white and red tricolor flag... Its principle shall be: government of the people, by the people, and for the people. National sovereignty shall belong to the people."