Lafayette for Young Americans - Rupert Holland

How Lafayette Sought to Give Liberty to France

The people of the thirteen American colonies that became the United States had always had more liberty than the people of France. Most of the colonies had been settled by men who had left Europe and gone to America in order that they might en joy civil 5r religious independence. They largely made their own laws, and by the time of the Revolution had become so well educated in self-government that they were able to draw up a Constitution and live by its terms with extremely little friction or unrest. The success that followed the forming of the republic of the West was a marvel to Europe; that success was mainly due to the lessons of self-restraint and the real appreciation of what liberty meant that had come to the colonists before the Revolution. Progress that is to be real progress must begin right, and Washington and Jefferson and Franklin were far-sighted and clear-headed builders. The people of France had been putting up with wrongs a thousandfold worse than those the Americans had borne, but they had never been educated in self-government, and so when they tried to win liberty they plunged headlong into turmoil.

France was still governed very much as it had been in the Middle Ages. The peasants were reduced to the very lowest form of living, starvation and ignorance were common through the country. The business classes were hampered by unjust laws. The nobility were idle, corrupt, and grossly extravagant. Almost all power lay in the King, and Louis XVI., amiable though he was, followed the lines of his Bourbon ancestors, Louis XIV. and Louis XV., the former of whom had said, "The State, it is I," and had ruled by that principle.

Unhappily for Louis XVI., however, the world had progressed from the viewpoint of the Middle Ages, and men were beginning to talk of constitutions and of the duties that sovereigns owed their people. He shut his ears to such talk as well as he could, and his courtiers helped him to ignore the protests. The court continued to spend money on entertainments as if it was water, while the peasants starved. Then it was found that the expense of aiding the United States in the war had added enough to the nation's debt to make it impossible to pay the interest and to find means to carry on the government. Either the court's expenses must be lessened or new taxes must be levied. The nobles furiously resisted the first alternative, and the people resisted the second. Toward the end of 1786 Calonne, the Minister of Finance, had to admit that the treasury was bankrupt and advise the King to call a meeting of the Assembly of Notables to find some way out of the difficulty.

[Illustration] from Lafayette for Young Americans by Rupert Holland


The Assembly was made up almost entirely of men of the highest rank, who failed to appreciate the distresses of the country. Lafayette was known to hold very liberal views, he was constantly talking of the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and at first a part of the court opposed his membership in the Assembly. He was given his seat there, however, and with one or two others tried to convince the council of the need of reforming the laws. But the nobles would not listen. They were immovably arrogant and autocratic; they would hear nothing of reforms or constitutions or the rights of the people.

The Assembly of Notables reached no satisfactory conclusion. When it adjourned conditions grew steadily worse. The affairs of the country were in a terrible muddle, each class in the land thought only of itself, and each was divided, envious and hostile to the others. Lafayette fought heroically to bring them to the point of view of Washington's countrymen. The Marquis, however, was too much of an enthusiast and too little of a statesman to see that the long downtrodden peasants of France were a different type from the educated American farmers. Americans in France, John Adams and Gouverneur Morris, realized better than he did that the people of France were not yet fitted to govern themselves; but he would not listen to these statesmen's opinions. His role was that of a popular leader, not that of a far-seeing statesman in very difficult times. But the sufferings of the people were always present to him, and he took the most direct course he could to relieve and satisfy them.

When he saw that the Assembly of Notables would accomplish nothing to help the situation Lafayette startled the meeting by asking that they beg the King to summon a National Assembly of the States-General, a council that had not met for one hundred and seventy-three years and the existence of which had almost been forgotten.

The Notables were amazed. "What, sir!" exclaimed the Count d'Artois, who was presiding at the meeting. "You ask the convocation of the States-General?"

"Yes, monseigneur," said Lafayette, "and even more than that."

"You wish that I write," said the Count, "and that I carry to the King, 'Monsieur de Lafayette moves to convoke the States-General'?"

"Yes, monseigneur," was Lafayette's answer.

The proposal was sent to the King, with Lafayette's name the only one attached to the request. But as soon as the news of his petition became known the people hailed the idea with delight.

The States-General was a much more representative body than the Assembly of Notables, and Louis XVI. was loath to summon it. The situation of the country was so unsatisfactory, however, that he finally yielded and ordered the States-General to meet in May, 1789.

Lafayette had great hopes of this new parliament. He wrote to Washington, describing the situation. "The King is all-powerful," he said. "He possesses all the means of compulsion, of punishment, and of corruption. The ministers naturally incline and believe themselves bound to preserve despotism. The court is filled with swarms of vile and effeminate courtiers; men's minds are enervated by the influence of women and the love of pleasure; the lower classes are plunged in ignorance. On the other hand, French character is lively, enterprising, and inclined to despise those who govern. The public mind begins to be enlightened by the works of philosophers and the example of other nations." And when the state of affairs grew even more disturbed he wrote again to the same friend, "In the midst of these troubles and this anarchy, the friends of liberty strengthen themselves daily, shut their ears to every compromise, and say that they shall have a national assembly or nothing. Such is, my dear general, the improvement in our situation. For my part, I am satisfied with the thought that before long I shall be in an assembly of representatives of the French nation or at Mount Vernon."

Elections were held throughout the country to choose the members of the States-General, which was composed of representatives of the three orders, the nobles, the clergy, and what was known as the third estate, or the middle class. Lafayette went to Auvergne to make his campaign for election, and was chosen as deputy to represent the nobility of Riom. On May 2, 1789, the States-General paid their respects to the King, and on May fourth they marched in procession to hear Mass at the Church of St. Louis. The third estate marched last, dressed in black, and in their ranks were men destined before long to upset the old order, Mirabeau, Danton, Marat, Guillotin, Desmoulins, Robespierre.

On May fifth the States-General formally met for business. Then began continual struggles between the orders of nobles and clergy on the one hand and the third estate on the other, finally ending by a declaration of the latter that if the first two orders would not act in agreement with them they would organize themselves, without the other two, as the States-General of France.

On June twelfth the third estate met and called the roll of all the deputies, but none of the nobles or clergy answered to their names. Next day, however, three clerical members appeared, and the meeting felt itself sufficiently bold, under the leadership of Mirabeau, to declare itself positively the National Assembly of France. The indignant nobles answered this by inducing the King to suspend all meetings until a "royal session "could be held on June twentieth. But the third estate, having had a taste of power, would not bow to command so easily, and when they found that the hall where they had been meeting was closed they withdrew to the tennis-court, where they took the famous oath not to separate until they had given a constitution to France.

At their next meeting the third estate were joined by a large number of the clerical members of the States-General and by two of the nobles. This gave them greater assurance. At the "royal session "on June twentieth, however, the King tried to ignore the power that the third estate had claimed, and the latter had to decide between submitting to the royal orders or rebelling. They decided to take the second course and stand firmly on their rights as representatives of the people. When the master of ceremonies tried to clear the hall where they had gathered Mirabeau said defiantly, "The commons of France will never retire except at the point of the bayonet."

The King, although surrounded by weak and selfish advisers, at last yielded to the demands of the third estate, and the nobles and clergy joined the meetings of the National Assembly.

Lafayette, who had been elected as a deputy of the nobility, had found his position extremely difficult. He had thought of resigning and trying to be elected a second time as a deputy of the people, although Thomas Jefferson, the American minister, had urged him to take his stand outright with the third estate, arguing that his well-known liberal views would prevent his gaining any influence with his fellow-nobles and that if he delayed in taking up the cause of the people the latter might regard him with suspicion. This difficulty was solved when, at the King's command, the deputies of the nobles finally joined with the third estate.

The States-General, or the National Assembly, as it was now generally called, went on with its meetings which took on more and more a revolutionary color. There was rioting in Paris and Versailles, and the King ordered troops to guard both places. The Assembly considered that the soldiers were meant to intimidate their sessions and requested that they be sent away. The King refused this request, and as a result the breach between the crown and the parliament was still further widened.

Soon afterward Lafayette presented to the Assembly what he called his "Declaration of Rights," which was based on Jefferson's Declaration of Independence of the United States. This occasioned long discussion, for the nobles thought its terms were revolutionary in the extreme while many of the third estate considered that it did not go nearly far enough. And all the time the King continued his policy of trying to overawe the Assembly, and finally appointed the Marshal de Broglie commander of the troops that were gathering in Paris and Versailles, planning to bring the third estate to its senses and show the mob in Paris who was the real ruler of France.

Events followed rapidly. July eleventh the King dismissed Necker and the ministers who had been trying to bring order out of confusion. The Assembly, fearing that the King would next dissolve their meetings, declared itself in permanent session, and elected Lafayette its vice-president. The royal court, blind as usual, paid no attention to the storm the King's course was rousing, and a grand ball was held at the palace on the evening of July thirteenth. Next day, as if in answer to rulers who could dance while the people starved, the mob in Paris stormed the prison of the Bastille and captured that stronghold of royal tyranny.

The storm had broken at last. The Duke de la Rochefoucauld-Liancourt hurried to Versailles, entered the King's chamber, and told him the news. "Why," exclaimed Louis XVI., "this is a revolt!"

"No, sire," answered the Duke, "it is a revolution!"

Next morning the Marshal de Broglie, who found that instead of a competent army, he had only a few disorganized troops at his command, resigned. The King, seeing his army melting away, decided that his only chance of restoring order lay in making friends with the Assembly, and appeared before it, begging it to aid him, and promising to recall the dismissed ministers.

The Assembly, delighted at this evidence of its power, agreed to aid the King, and sent Lafayette, with fifty other deputies, to see what could be done to quiet the people in Paris. They found the city in the wildest confusion. Shops were closed, barricades blocked the streets, and gangs of ruffians were fighting everywhere. The deputies brought some order, Lafayette made a speech to the people at the Hotel de Ville, and told them that the Assembly was glad that they had won liberty. Then it was decided that a mayor must be chosen to govern Paris and a National Guard formed to preserve order. Moreau de Saint Mery, who was presiding, pointed to the bust of Lafayette that the State of Virginia had sent to the city of Paris. His gesture was understood and Lafayette was immediately chosen to command the National Guard. Bailly was by a like unanimous vote elected mayor.

So, at thirty-two, Lafayette gave up his seat in the National Assembly and became Commander of the National Guard.

The deputies, on their return to Versailles, told their fellow-members that the only way in which confidence could be restored in the crown was for the King personally to visit Paris. This Louis XVI. agreed to do on July seventeenth. In the meantime Lafayette had collected the nucleus of a guard, had restored some sort of order, and made arrangements to receive the King. When Louis arrived at the city gates he was met by the mayor, Bailly, who handed him the keys of Paris, saying, "They are the same keys that were presented to Henry IV. He had reconquered his people; now it is the people who have reconquered their king."

The King was escorted to the Hotel de Ville through a double line of National Guards. There he was given the new national cockade, which he fixed in his hat. Afterward speeches were made and then King Louis rode back to Versailles. He was still the sovereign in name, but his real power was gone, shorn from him by the obstinacy of his nobles and himself.

Lafayette had no easy task in keeping order in Paris. His Guards obeyed his commands, but many of the mob, having tasted revolt, continued on a wild course, and they were now joined by many of the worst element from the provinces. Two innocent men were murdered in spite, and Lafayette could do nothing to prevent it. Disgusted at the trend of events he soon resigned his office of Commander, but since no one else appeared able to fill it he finally consented to resume it.

Meantime the Assembly was uprooting the old feudal laws and doing away with almost all forms of taxation. Their object was to tear down, not to build up; and the result was that in a very short time people throughout France were making their own laws in every city and village and paying no attention to the needs of the nation.

As autumn approached the population of Paris became restless. The Assembly at Versailles was not sufficiently under the people's thumb, the lower classes especially were eager to get both Assembly and King and Queen in their power. A reception given by Louis to the National Guards at Versailles roused great indignation. The court, so the people said, was as frivolous and extravagant as ever, and was trying to win the Guards over to its side. The excitement reached its climax when, on October fifth, Maillard, a leader of the mob, called on the people of Paris to march to Versailles. At once the cry "To Versailles!" echoed through the city, and men and women flocked to answer the cry.

Lafayette heard of the plan and sent couriers to Versailles to warn the King and the Assembly of what was in the air. All day he tried his best to quiet the people and induce them to give up the march. He forbade the National Guards to leave their posts, and at first they, obeyed hint. But presently deputation after deputation came to him. "General," said one of his men, "we do not think you a traitor; but we think the government betrays you. It is time that this end. We cannot turn our bayonets against women crying to us for bread. The people are miserable; the source of the mischief is at Versailles; we must go seek the King and bring him to Paris."

That was the view of the Guards, and it grew more and more positive. Armed crowds were leaving the city, dragging cannon, and at last the Guards surrounded their commander and declared their intention to march and to take him with them. So finally Lafayette set out for Versailles, preceded and followed by an immense rabble of men and women.

Meantime the couriers sent by Lafayette to Versailles had reported the news of the march of the mob. The Assembly could think of nothing that would pacify the people, and contented itself with sending messengers to the King, who happened to be hunting in the Versailles forests. Louis returned to his palace to find his bodyguards, the Swiss and the Flanders Regiment, drawn up in the courtyards as though to withstand a siege.

In the middle of the afternoon the first crowd of women, led by Maillard beating his drum, arrived at Versailles. Some marched to the Assembly and shouted to the deputies to pass laws at once that should lower the price of bread. Others paraded through the streets, and still others went to the palace to see the King, who received them very kindly and tried to assure them that he entirely agreed with all their wishes.

But the royal family had taken alarm and wanted to fly from the palace. Their carriages were ordered out, and the bodyguards placed in readiness to serve as escort. This plan became known, however, and when the carriages drove out from the great stables some of the National Guards themselves seized the horses' heads and turned them back.

The National Assembly itself was in an uproar. The President, Mounier, left the chamber to see the King, and when he came back he found a fat fish-woman making a speech to the crowd from his own chair. The Assembly had taken power and authority away from the King; now the mob was bent on doing the same thing to the Assembly.

At eleven o'clock that evening Lafayette reached Versailles with his National Guards and the rest of the rabble from Paris. On the way he had tried to curb the rougher part of the crowd and had made his troops stop and renew their oaths of allegiance "to the nation, the law, and the King." He went at once to the palace to receive King Louis' orders, but the Swiss guards would not let him enter until he agreed to go in without any of the people from Paris. When he did enter he found the halls and rooms filled with courtiers. One of them, seeing him, exclaimed, "Here is Cromwell!" Lafayette answered instantly, "Cromwell would not have entered alone."

The King received him cordially, and told him to guard the outside of the palace, leaving the inside to the protection of the royal bodyguards. Lafayette then saw that his men were bivouacked for the night, quieted noisy marchers, and felt that, at least for the time, Versailles was at rest. Worn out with the day's exertions the Marquis finally got a chance to sleep.

Early next day, however, the mob burst forth again. A crowd fell to disputing with the royal bodyguards at one of the gates to the palace, rushed the soldiers, and broke into the inner court. Up the stairs they streamed, killing the guards that tried to oppose them. Marie Antoinette had barely time to fly from her room to that of the King before the rioters reached her apartment, crying out threats against her.

As soon as he heard of all this Lafayette sent two companies of soldiers to clear the mob from the palace. When he arrived himself he found the people all shouting "To Paris!" He saw at once that his National Guards were not to be trusted to oppose the crowd, and urged the King to agree to go to Paris. Louis consented, and Lafayette went out on the balcony and announced the King's decision.

This appeased the throng somewhat, and Lafayette asked the King to appear on the balcony with him. Louis stepped out and was greeted with cheers of "Vine le roil "Then Lafayette said to the Queen, "What are your intentions, madame?"

"I know the fate which awaits me," answered Marie Antoinette, "but my duty is to die at the feet of the King and in the arms of my children."

"Well, madame, come with me," said Lafayette.

"What! Alone on the balcony? Have you not seen the signs which have been made to me?"

"Yes, madame, but let us go."

Marie Antoinette agreed, and stepped out with her children. The crowd cried, "No children!" and they were sent back. The mob was making too much noise for Lafayette to speak to them, so instead he took the Queen's hand, and, bowing low, kissed it. The crowd, always ready to go from one extreme to another, immediately set up shouts of "Long live the General! Long live the Queen!"

King Louis then asked Lafayette about the safety of his bodyguards. Lafayette stuck a tricolor cockade in the hat of one of these soldiers, and taking him on to the balcony, embraced him. The mob's answer was cheers of "Vive les gardes du corps!"

So peace was restored for the time. Fifty thousand people marched back to Paris, the King and the royal family in their carriage, Lafayette riding beside them. Close to them marched the royal bodyguards, and close to the latter came the National Guards. And the crowd shouted with exultation at having forced their sovereign to do their will.

At the gates of the city the mayor met the procession and made a patriotic address. From there they went to the Hotel de Ville, where more speeches were made, and it was late in the day before Louis XVI. and Marie Antoinette and their children were allowed to take refuge in the Palace of the Tuileries.

Lafayette, who had played with the Queen and her friends in the gardens at Versailles when he was a boy, had stood by her loyally on that day when the mob had vowed vengeance against her. He believed in liberty and constitutional government, but he also believed in order. He wanted to protect the weak and defenseless, and he hated the excesses of the mob. He thought he could reproduce in France what he had seen accomplished in America. But conditions were too different. The people of France had been ground down too long by their nobles. Their first taste of liberty had gone to their heads like strong wine. So, like a boat that has lost its rudder, the ship of state of France plunged on to the whirlpool of the French Revolution.