Actions are Worth More Than Words: The Life and Actions of Marquis de Lafayette
Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette, Marquis de La Fayette, better known in the United States simply as Lafayette was a French nobleman who lived from 1757 to 1834. Lafayette’s life coincides with numerous world-altering events and he was engaged in many of them. The most important events during his lifetime that Lafayette had a profound impact on were the American Revolution of 1775, the French Revolution of 1789, and the July Revolution of 1830. Before we can begin to understand the effects that Lafayette had on human rights we must first know what exactly he did with his life.
Lafayette in the American Revolution
As previously alluded to, Lafayette was heavily involved in the American Revolution. When Lafayette was only 19 years old he decided to leave France where he was a courtier (advisor) to Louis the XVI and join the revolutionary force in America. When Lafayette arrived in America he had very little military experience and went to address the Continental Congress, the leaders of the revolution, to ask for a military commission. Lafayette was granted the rank of Major General due to his wealth and status, Lafayette joined George Washington’s command and became very close friends with the future president. Lafayette played a big role in the Battle of Monmouth in 1778. Here he took command after General Lee, at the time second in command of the Continental Army, gave many conflicting orders causing disarray, Lafayette was able to lead the Americans to a stalemate.
Roughly six months after this battle Lafayette briefly returned to France as a diplomat alongside Benjamin Franklin. During this time Lafayette was able to secure French aid for the Americans and was treated like a hero by the French people. Lafayette returned to America with roughly 6000 French infantry and 6 ships. This leads us to the final battle of the American Revolutionary War which Lafayette greatly impacted, the Battle of Yorktown. In this battle, Lafayette had pinned and surrounded General Cornwallis and the British Army against the York River. Lafayette and the Americans were later reinforced by Washington and a French fleet. His success in the battle granted him the title of “Hero of Two Worlds” and caused Cornwallis’s surrender, what many consider to be the end of the war.
Lafayette in the French Revolution
After the American Revolution in 1782, Lafayette returned to his native France. Achieving one of his goals in America, Lafayette was now an influential and highly respected figure in French politics. Here some of Lafayette’s affinities for human rights were displayed prominently. Lafayette was the leader of a liberal aristocratic faction, the Fayettistes, and he pushed for religious tolerance and the abolition of the slave trade.
Prior to the Estates-General Louis XVI enlisted the Assembly of Notables made up of members from the clergy and aristocracy. Lafayette was a member of this council and spoke for reform and insisted on an assembly that represented the whole of France. After the failure to achieve his goals with the Assembly of Notables, Louis XVI called upon the Estates-General which convened on May 5, 1789. The Estates-General was an ancient council in which all parts of French society would be able to make decisions. This council consisted of three estates: the clergy, nobles, and commons. Lafayette was selected as a representative of the second (noble) estate. Traditionally voting would be done with each estate having one vote, because of this the third (commons) estate would be constantly outvoted by the other two estates despite containing the vast majority of the French population. Lafayette attempted to make the voting by head rather than Estate but failed to gain support for this among the nobility. Resulting from this blatant unfairness, the Third Estate began to meet separately, they were slowly joined by some of the clergy and nobility, including Lafayette, and declared themselves the National Assembly.
After finding themselves locked out from the usual meeting hall the National Assembly met at a nearby tennis court leading to the Tennis Court Oath. In this oath members of the Assembly refused to separate until a constitution was established in France. On July 11, 1789, Lafayette presented to the Assembly his draft of the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.” Lafayette had prepared this draft with the help of Thomas Jefferson, the writer of the United States Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen is one of the most important documents ever written regarding human rights and will be expanded on in a later section.
Only a few days later on July 14th, the Bastille was stormed and a day after that, July 15th, Lafayette was made commander of the National Guard. The National Guard was charged with maintaining order, controlling traffic, and even sanitization. One of the most notable events of his tenure as commander of the National Guard was the October March. The October March was an event during the French Revolution in which thousands of people, primarily women, marched on Versailles. This march was motivated by the scarcity of bread and the fact that King Louis XVI had just rejected the proposed “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” three days earlier. Lafayette, being the Commander of the National Guard, followed the angry crowd and looked to calm them once reaching Versailles. At this point, Lafayette was one of the most popular people in France, despite being an aristocrat the people loved him. Using his popularity he eased the tension by bringing the royals onto the balcony, here he kissed Marie Antoinette on the hand leading to cheers and quite possibly saving their lives. The royal family was taken to Paris following the insistence of the crowd, escorted by Lafayette and the National Guard.
Gravity seemed to quickly pull Lafayette down from his fame and his popularity in France began to decline following a few unfortunate events. The first of these events was the Flight to Varennes, this was the plot of the royal family to leave France. These events drastically reduced trust in Lafayette as the royal family was under the watch of the National Guard. Even though the royals were captured and brought back to Paris, radical revolutionaries such as Danton and Robespierre used this as a chance to discredit and turn public opinion against Lafayette. These men went as far as to call Lafayette a “person whom you could not trust” and a “traitor to the people.” This effectively made Lafayette appear as a royalist to the public and shifted support to the radicals. The second major blow to Lafayette’s reputation was the Champs de Mars Massacre. Anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 protesters gathered to demand the abdication of the King, during this demonstration the crowd became violent killing two men they thought may have been spies of the king. With this Lafayette and the National Guard appeared to restore order and were greeted with hostility from the crowd, with a member attempting to assassinate Lafayette. Following the failed assassination attempt the National Guard fired above the crowd in an effort to scare them off, however, this just lead to retaliation and after two members were killed they fired into the crowd itself killing anywhere from 12 to 54 people and one (unreliable) source claiming 400. Understandably, Lafayette’s reputation was in shambles at this point and he resigned from his post in October 1791, shortly after the massacre.
Lafayette’s retirement was short-lived as in December of 1791 he was made to lead one of the three French armies, and in April of 1792, France declared war on Austria. At this point Robespierre was gaining more power and called for Lafayette to step down; he likely would have been tried for treason had he not been captured by the Austrians. Lafayette remained in custody until 1797 in various places in Prussia (modern-day Germany) and Austria. By this time Lafayette’s wife was imprisoned by the French as well with much of her family not surviving the Reign of Terror. Many prominent Americans tried to assist Lafayette while he was in prison with Washington, and Jefferson working to guarantee he was held in good conditions. James Monroe, future president of the United States and at the time Minister to France, secured US passports for Lafayette’s wife and children and helped them meet with Lafayette in prison. In 1797 Lafayette’s release was negotiated by Napoleon Bonaparte, but was initially not allowed back into France as he refused to recognize Napoleon as the rightful ruler of France. He was eventually allowed to return, but without citizenship and being banned from political life, he was not even invited to speak at the memorial service for George Washington in Paris. During the following years, Lafayette was offered many positions by both the American and French governments, however, he declined them all as a form of protest against the Bonaparte regime.
After a tour of the United States to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the country Lafayette returned to France to find a new King, Charles X, who attempted to reinstate the absolute monarchy. Lafayette remained an outspoken advocate for liberty and was public in his dislike of Charles X. Regaining his lost popularity Charles X felt it too dangerous to simply arrest Lafayette. On July 25, 1830, Charles X abolished the Chamber of Deputies, a body of elected officials to limit the power of the monarchy, causing riots throughout Paris. Lafayette joined the fray and routed the royalists, he quickly moved to maintain order fearful of a repeat of 1789. Lafayette was offered the throne by the Chamber, however, he refused viewing it as unconstitutional. Not wanting to leave the French people without a ruler Lafayette and his faction installed Louis-Philippe, also known as, “The Citizen King” as monarch, after guaranteeing certain reforms. Following this revolution, Lafayette retired once again, but rejoined the political sphere after Louis-Philippe started to implement similar reforms to Charles X. Lafayette remained a proponent of liberal philosophy until his death in 1834.
Contribution to Human Rights
Lafayette throughout his life in the public spotlight never shied away from his beliefs, even when they put his life on the line. Seeing the successful implementation of democracy in America Lafayette wanted a similar system in France. He pushed for a middle ground with a Constitutional Monarchy with a National Assembly elected by the people working with the King. Lafayette did not write as much as other revolutionaries of the time so his ideas are often less defined, however, he strongly wrote against slavery in his letters to both Washington and Jefferson. While his views on slavery were never widely implemented as he hoped, he did run a plantation without any slaves being bought or sold. Lafayette also gave many speeches in various forms of French governmental bodies supporting personal liberty and freedom of the press.
Previously alluded to in the section on the French Revolution, Lafayette also famously authored the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.” This document extensively defended human rights and liberty. Some of the highlights of this document include the second article claiming the right to liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression. “Resistance to oppression” is the most interesting part of that article in my opinion as it is not listed in the American Bill of Rights, but is a key aspect of both revolutions, this allows for the citizens to rise up if needed. The Declaration also made all citizens equal in law, abolishing noble and clerical privilege, keep in mind a noble wrote this. Decriminalization of homosexuality was also brought about by the Declaration as it made it impossible to prosecute for it as it was not specifically mentioned as illegal. While the Declaration did not make slavery illegal it inspired a successful slave revolt in Haiti.
While his views were never properly written down and spread in the way they should have, Lafayette acted upon his ideals and fought for his vision of liberty for all in a way many others were too afraid to do. “Words may show a man’s wit, but actions show his meaning,” Benjamin Franklin. Lafayette garnered the respect of many throughout his life and in his death, his example is still clear to all those who look for it.
Lafayette’s achievements in the field of human rights are enjoyed by millions of people across the world today. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and its guarantee of freedom of speech and safeguard from arbitrary arrest is something we often take for granted. My family lived in both Communist Cuba and Fascist Spain places where if you said the wrong thing you would never be seen again. Another key aspect of the Declaration and Lafayette’s philosophy that affects me is all citizens being equal in the law and “employments, according to their capacity and without distinction other than that of their virtues and of their talents.” Equality in the law is something that greatly impacts me as sadly I am not noble nor rich and would have been immediately guilty in the past or unable to bring up rightful grievances against the elite. The second aspect of the previous statement regarding employment cannot be underplayed. This (theoretically) allows for competent people to run the government and bureaucracy instead of simply hereditary succession and elitist domination.
While Lafayette’s contributions to human rights may seem more abstract than other revolutionaries, just try to imagine your life without just one of these principles and see how much they all mean to your daily life. As John Quincy Adams, 6th US president said Lafayette is truly a “benefactor of mankind.”
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