Lafayette for Young Americans - Rupert Holland

In the Days of Napoleon

After the treaty of Campo Formio with Austria, which had secured the liberation of Lafayette, Napoleon Bonaparte returned to Paris the leading man of France. The government in Paris, which had gone through one change after another since the end of the Reign of Terror, was now in the hands of what was known as the Directory. But the members of this, divided in their views, were not very popular with the people, who were so tired of disorder that they desired above everything else a strong hand at the helm of the state. The people were already looking to the brilliant young general as such a helmsman, and the Directors knew this, and so grew increasingly jealous of Bonaparte.

Having settled his score with Austria Bonaparte suggested to the French government that he should strike a blow at England by invading Egypt. The Directory, glad to have him out of the country, agreed to this, and in May, 1798, Bonaparte departed on such an expedition. As soon as Bonaparte was safely away the enemies of France resumed their attacks, and when the French people saw that the Corsican was their surest defender they began to clamor more loudly against the Directory. Bonaparte kept himself informed of what was happening at home, and when he thought that the proper moment had come he left his army in Egypt and appeared in France. His welcome there made it clear that the people wanted him for their leader; they were weary of turmoil and constant changes in government, they were ready for a strong and able dictator.

France had known ten years of disorder, bloodshed, anarchy, democratic misrule, financial ruin, and political failure, and the people were no longer so much concerned about liberty as they had once been. Bonaparte was crafty; he pretended that he wanted power in order to safeguard the principles that had been won in the Revolution. He went to Paris, and there, on November 9, 1799, was made First Consul, and the real dictator of France. The country was still a republic in name, but at once the First Consul began to gather all the reins of authority in his own hands.

Under the Directory Lafayette had been an exile, forbidden to enter French territory. But with Napoleon in power conditions changed. Lafayette felt the greatest gratitude to the man who had freed him from Olmutz, he had the deepest admiration for the general who had won so many brilliant victories for France, and he was disposed to believe that Napoleon really intended to secure liberty for the country. When he heard of Napoleon's return from Egypt he wrote to his wife, who was in France at the time, "People jealous of Bonaparte see in me his future opponent; they are right, if he wishes to suppress liberty; but if he have the good sense to promote it, I will suit him in every respect. I do not believe him to be so foolish as to wish to be only a despot."

He also sent a letter to Napoleon, in which he said, "The love of liberty and country would suffice for your arrival to fill me with joy and hope. To this desire for public happiness is joined a lively and profound sentiment for my liberator. Your greetings to the prisoners of Olmutz have been sent to me by her whose life I owe to you. I rejoice in all my obligations to you, citizen-general, and in the happy conviction that to cherish your glory and to wish your success is an act of civism as much as of attachment and gratitude."

[Illustration] from Lafayette for Young Americans by Rupert Holland


Friends procured the exile a passport and he returned to Paris. But Bonaparte was not glad to have him come back; the First Consul was in reality no friend of the principles of the Revolution, and he felt that such a man as Lafayette must inevitably oppose him and might even prejudice the people against him. He showed his anger unreservedly when friends told him of Lafayette's arrival, and the friends immediately advised the latter that he had better return to the Netherlands. But Lafayette, having made up his mind to come, would not budge now. "You should be sufficiently acquainted with me," he said to the men who brought him the news from the First Consul, "to know that this imperious and menacing tone would suffice to confirm me in the course which I have taken." And he added, "It would be very amusing for me to be arrested at night by the National Guard of Paris and imprisoned in the Temple the next day by the restorer of the principles of 1789."

Madame Lafayette called on the First Consul, who received her kindly. She pleaded so eloquently for her husband, pointing out his natural desire to be in France, that Napoleon's anger vanished. He said that he regretted Lafayette's return only because it would "retard his progress toward the reestablishment of Lafayette's principles, and would force him to take in sail." "You do not understand me, madame," he continued, "but General Lafayette will understand me; and not having been in the midst of affairs, he will feel that I can judge better than he. I therefore conjure him to avoid all publicity; I leave it to his patriotism." Madame answered that that Lafayette was her husband's wish.

Believing that Lafayette had no desire to oppose him, Napoleon soon restored him to citizenship. Different as the two men were, each admired the strong qualities of the other. The First Consul could appreciate Lafayette's devotion to the cause of liberty, and Lafayette said to Napoleon, "I have but one wish, General,—a free government and you at the head of it."

Napoleon, however, had no real liking for a free government. He had forgotten any belief in liberty that he might have had in the days when he was a poor and obscure lieutenant. He had tasted power, and was already looking forward to the time when he should be not only the most powerful man in France but in the whole world. To do that he must make his countrymen forget their recently won liberties. He must keep Lafayette, the greatest apostle of freedom, in the background, and not allow him to remind the people of his liberal dreams. So Napoleon adopted a policy of silence toward Lafayette. In February, 1800, the celebrated French orator Fontanes delivered a public eulogy on the character of Washington, who had lately died. Napoleon forbade the orator to mention the name of Lafayette in his address, and saw to it that Lafayette was not invited to the ceremony, nor any Americans. The bust of Washington was draped in banners that the First Consul had taken in battle.

Lafayette's son George applied for and was given a commission in one of Napoleon's regiments of hussars. When his name was erased from the list of exiles Lafayette himself was restored to his rank of major-general in the French army; but he did not ask for any command. He went to Lagrange, an estate that his wife had inherited from her mother, and set himself to the work of trying to pay off the debts that had piled up while he was in prison in Austria. Like all the old aristocracy that returned to France after the Revolution he found that most of his property had been taken by the state and now had new owners and that the little that was left was burdened by heavy taxes.

Chavaniac and a few acres near it came into his possession, but there were relatives who needed it as a home more than he did and he let them live there. He himself cultivated the farm at Lagrange, and was able in a few years to pay off his French creditors. But he was still greatly in debt to Gouverneur Morris and other Americans who had helped his wife with money when she had need of it, and these were loans that were difficult to pay.

Lafayette was living quietly on his farm when Napoleon returned with fresh triumphs from Italy. The man who had been a general could not help but admire the great military genius of the First Consul. The latter felt that he had little now to fear from Lafayette, and the relations between the two men became quite friendly. Had they only been able to work together they might have accomplished a great deal for the good of France, but no two men could have been more fundamentally different in their characters and ideals than Lafayette and Napoleon.

Occasionally they discussed their views on government, and Lafayette once said to the First Consul, "I do not ignore the effect of the crimes and follies which have profaned the name of liberty; but the French are, perhaps, more than ever in a state to receive it. It is for you to give it; it is from you that it is expected." Napoleon smiled; he had his own notions about liberty, and he felt himself strong enough to force those notions upon France.

Yet the First Consul did wish for the good opinion and support of Lafayette. It was at his suggestion that certain friends urged the latter to become a Senator. Lafayette felt that, disapproving as he did of some of the policies of the new government, he must decline, and did so, stating his reasons frankly. Then Napoleon's minister Talleyrand offered to send him as the French representative to the United States, but this Lafayette declined also. His political views and the need of cultivating the farm at Lagrange were sufficient to keep him from accepting office.

Lafayette enjoyed his talks with Napoleon, though the latter was often inclined to be domineering. Lord Cornwallis came to Paris in 1802 to conclude the Treaty of Amiens between France and England, and Lafayette met his old opponent at dinner at the house of Joseph Bonaparte, the brother of Napoleon. The next time Napoleon and Lafayette met the former said, "I warn you that Lord Cornwallis gives out that you are not cured yet."

"Of what?" answered Lafayette. "Is it of loving liberty? What could have disgusted me with it? The extravagances and crimes of the tyranny of the Terror? They only make me hate still more every arbitrary system, and attach me more and more to my principles."

Napoleon said seriously, "I should tell you, General Lafayette, and I see with regret, that by your manner of expressing yourself on the acts of this government you give to its enemies the weight of your name."

"What better can I do?" asked Lafayette. "I live in retirement in the country, I avoid occasions for speaking; but whenever any one comes to ask me whether your system is conformant to my ideas of liberty, I shall answer that it is not; for, General, I certainly wish to be prudent, but I shall not be false."

"What do you mean," said Napoleon, "with your arbitrary system? Yours was not so, I admit; but you had against your adversaries the resource of riots. . . . I observed you carefully. . . . You had to get up riots."

"If you call the national insurrection of July, 1789, a riot," Lafayette answered, "I lay claim to that one; but after that period I wanted no more. I have repressed many; many were gotten up against me; and, since you appeal to my experience regarding them, I shall say that in the course of the Revolution I saw no injustice, no deviation from liberty, which did not injure the Revolution itself."

Napoleon ended the conversation by saying, "After all, I have spoken to you as the head of the government, and in this character I have cause to complain of you; but as an individual, I should be content, for in all that I hear of you, I have recognized that, in spite of your severity toward the acts of the government, there has always been on your part personal goodwill toward myself."

And this in truth expressed Lafayette's attitude toward Napoleon, admiration and friendship for the General, but opposition to the growing love of power of the First Consul.

That love of power soon made itself manifest in Napoleon's election to the new office of "Consul for life." Meantime Lafayette was busy cultivating his farm, work which he greatly enjoyed. And to Lagrange came many distinguished English and American visitors, eager to meet the owner and hear him tell of his adventurous career on two continents.

The United States treated him well. While he was still in prison at Olmutz he was placed on the army list at full pay. Congress voted to him more than eleven thousand acres on the banks of the Ohio, and when the great territory of Louisiana was acquired a tract near the city of New Orleans was set aside for him and he was informed that the government of Louisiana was destined for him. But Madame Lafayette's health had been delicate ever since those trying days in Austria, and that, combined with Lafayette's own feeling that he ought to remain in France, led him to decline the eager invitations that were sent him to settle in America.

Napoleon's star led the Corsican on, farther and farther away from the path that Lafayette hoped he would follow. In May, 1804, the man who was "Consul for life "became the Emperor of France, and seated himself on the most powerful throne in Europe. Lafayette was tremendously disappointed at this step. Again Napoleon's friends made overtures to the General, and the latter's own cousin, the Count de Segur, who had wanted to go with him to America to fight for freedom, and who was now the Grand Master of Ceremonies at the new Emperor's court, wrote to him asking him to become one of the high officers of the Legion of Honor. Lafayette refused the invitation, and from that time the friendship between him and Napoleon ceased. The Emperor had now no use for the lover of liberty, and carried his dislike for the latter so far that Lafayette's son George, though a brave and brilliant officer in the army, was forced to resign his commission.

Napoleon went on and on, his victories over all the armies of Europe dazzling the eyes of his people. Those who had been aristocrats under Louis XVI. and those who had been Jacobins during the Reign of Terror were glad to accept the smallest favors from the all-powerful Emperor. But Lafayette stayed away from Paris and gave all his attention to his farm, which began to prove productive. In his house portraits of his great friends, Washington, Franklin, La Rochefoucauld, Fox, kept fresh the memory of more stirring times.

But France, and even the Emperor, had not forgotten him. Once in an angry speech to his chief councilors about the men who had brought about the French Revolution, Napoleon exclaimed, "Gentlemen, this talk is not aimed at you; I know your devotion to the throne. Everybody in France is corrected. I was thinking of the only man who is not—Lafayette. He has never retreated an inch."

And at another time, when a conspiracy against the life of the Emperor was discovered, Napoleon was inclined to charge Lafayette with having been concerned in it. "Don't be afraid," said Napoleon's brother Joseph. "Wherever there are aristocrats and kings you are certain not to find Lafayette."

Meantime at Lagrange Madame Lafayette fell ill and died in December, 1807. No husband and wife were ever more devoted to each other, and Lafayette expressed his feelings in regard to her in a letter to his friend Maubourg. "During the thirty-four years of a union, in which the love and the elevation, the delicacy and the generosity of her soul charmed, adorned, and honored my days," he wrote, "I was so much accustomed to all that she was to me, that I did not distinguish her from my own existence. Her heart wedded all that interested me. I thought that I loved her and needed her; but it is only in losing her that I can at last clearly see the wreck of me that remains for the rest of my life; for there only remain for me memories of the woman to whom I owed the happiness of every moment, undimmed by any cloud."

Madame Lafayette deserved the tribute. Never for one moment in the course of all the storms of her husband's career had she wavered in her loyal devotion to his ideals and interests. The little girl who had met him first in her father's garden in Paris had stood by him when all her family and friends opposed him, had been his counselor in the days of the French Revolution, and had gone to share his prison in Austria. History rarely says enough about the devoted wives of the great men who have helped the world. No hero ever found greater aid and sympathy when he needed it most than Lafayette had from his wife Adrienne. _

From his home at Lagrange the true patriot of France watched the wonderful course of the Emperor of France. It was a course amazing in its victories. The men who had been an undrilled rabble in the days of the Revolution were now the veterans of the proudest army in Europe. The people did not have much more liberty than they had enjoyed under Louis XVI.; they had exchanged one despotic government for another, but Napoleon fed them on victories, dazzled their vision, swept them off their feet by his long succession of triumphs.

The treaty of Tilsit, made in July, 1807, followed the great victories of Eylau and Friedland, which crushed the power of Prussia and changed Russia into an ally of France. Napoleon's might reached its zenith then. No European nation dared to contest his claim of supremacy. He was the ruler of France, of Northern Italy, of Eastern Germany; he had made Spain a dependency, and placed his brothers on the thrones of Holland, Naples, and Westphalia. For five years his power remained at this height. In 1812 he set out to invade Russia with an army of five hundred thousand men, gathered from half the countries of Europe. He stopped at Dresden, and kings of the oldest lineage, who only held their crowns at his pleasure, came to do homage to the little Corsican soldier who had made himself the most powerful man in the world. Only one country still dared to resist him, England, who held control of the seas, but who was feeling the effect of the commercial war he was waging against her.

But the very size of Napoleon's dominion was a source of weakness. The gigantic power he had built up depended on the life and abilities of one man. No empire can rest for long on such a foundation. When Napoleon left the greater part of the grand army in the wilderness of Russia and hurried back to Paris the first ominous signs of cracks in the foundation of his empire began to appear. France was almost exhausted by his campaigns, but the Emperor needed more triumphs and demanded more men. He won more victories, but his enemies increased. The French people were tired of war; there came a time when they were ready to barter Napoleon for peace. The allied armies that were ranged against him occupied the hills about Paris in March, 1814, and on April fourth of that year the Emperor Napoleon abdicated his throne at Fontainebleau.

The illness of relatives brought Lafayette to Paris at the same time, and seeing the storms that again threatened his country he did what he could to bring order out of confusion. His son and his son-in-law Lasteyrie enlisted in the National Guard, and his other son-in-law, Maubourg, joined the regular army. When the allies entered Paris Lafayette witnessed the downfall of the Empire with mixed emotions. He had never approved of Napoleon, but he knew that he had at least given the country a stable government. And when the allies placed the brother of Lafayette's old friend Louis XVI. on the throne, with the title of Louis XVIII., he hoped that the new king might rule according to a liberal constitution, and hastened to offer his services to that sovereign.

The people, tired of Napoleon's wars, wanting peace now as they had wanted it after the Revolution, agreed passively to the change of rulers. But Louis XVIII., a true Bourbon, soon showed that he had learned nothing from the misfortunes of his family. Lafayette met the Emperor of Russia in Paris, and the latter spoke to him with misgiving of the fact that the Bourbons appeared to be returning as obtuse and illiberal as ever. "Their misfortunes should have corrected them," said Lafayette.

"Corrected!" exclaimed the Emperor. "They are uncorrected and incorrigible. There is only one, the Duke of Orleans, who has any liberal ideas. But from the others expect nothing at all."

Lafayette soon found that was true. The new king proved the saying about his family, that the Bourbons never learned nor forgot. Louis XVIII. was that same Count of Provence whom Lafayette had taken pains to offend at Versailles when he did not want to be attached as a courtier to his staff. The King remembered that incident, and when Lafayette offered to serve him now showed his resentment and anger very plainly.

Seeing that there was nothing he could do in Paris, Lafayette retired again to Lagrange, and there watched the course of events. Napoleon, in exile on the island of Elba in the Mediterranean, was watching too, and he soon saw that France was not satisfied with her new sovereign. Agents brought him word that the people were only waiting for him to overthrow the Bourbon rule, and on March 1, 1815, he landed on the shores of Provence with a few hundred soldiers of his old Guard to reconquer his empire.

He had judged the situation rightly. As he advanced the people rose to greet him, the cities opened their gates, the soldiers sent to oppose him rallied to his standard. As Napoleon neared Paris Louis XVIII. fled across the frontier.

Again Lafayette went to the capital. "I had no faith in the conversion of Napoleon," he said, "and I saw better prospects in the awkward and pusillanimous ill-will of the Bourbons than in the vigorous and profound perversity of their adversary." But he found that the people of Paris wanted Napoleon again, and he heard with hope that the restored Emperor had agreed to a constitution and had established a Senate and a Representative Assembly elected by popular vote. These decisions sounded well, and as a result of them Lafayette allowed himself to be elected a member of the Representative Assembly, or Chamber of Deputies.

The other nations of Europe were furious when they heard of Napoleon's return. They collected their armies again and prepared for a new campaign. Exhausted though France was, the Emperor was able to raise a new army of six hundred thousand men. With these he tried to defeat his enemies, but on the field of Waterloo on June 18, 1814, he was decisively beaten and hurried back to Paris to see what could be done to retrieve defeat.

He found the Chamber of Deputies openly hostile; its members wanted him to abdicate. He held meetings with the representatives, among whom Lafayette now held a chief place. At last the Assembly gave Napoleon an hour in which to abdicate the throne. Finally he agreed to abdicate in favor of his son. The Assembly did not want the young Napoleon as Emperor, and decided instead on a government by a commission of five men. Napoleon's hour was over, his star had set; he was sent a prisoner to the far-distant island of St. Helena to end his days.

Lafayette wanted to see the new government adopt the ideas he had had in mind when France had first wrung a constitution from Louis XVI., and would have liked to serve on the commission that had charge of the country. Instead he was sent to make terms of peace with the allied armies that had been fighting Napoleon. And while he was away on this business the commission in Paris was dickering behind his back to restore Louis XVIII. The allies had taken possession of the French capital with their soldiers, the white flag of the Bourbons was everywhere replacing the tricolor of the Empire, and when Lafayette returned he found the King again upon his throne. Lafayette was disgusted with what he considered the folly and selfishness of the rulers of his country; he protested against the return of the old autocratic Bourbons, but the people were now more than ever eager for peace and harmony and accepted meekly whomever their leaders gave them.

Louis XVIII. was a weak, despotic ruler; the members of his house were equally narrow-minded and overbearing. Lafayette opposed their government in every way he could. In 1819 he was elected a member of the new Assembly, and for four years as a deputy he fought against the encroachments of the royal power. He took part in a conspiracy to overthrow the King, and when his friends cautioned him that he was risking his life and his property he answered, "Bah! I have already lived a long time, and it seems to me that I would worthily crown my political career by dying on a scaffold in the cause of liberty."

That conspiracy failed, and although Lafayette was known to have been connected with the plot, neither the King nor his ministers dared to imprison him or even to call him to account. A year later he joined with other conspirators against the Bourbons, but again the plans failed through blunders. The Chamber of Deputies attempted to investigate the affair, but Lafayette so boldly challenged a public comparison of his own and the government's course that the royalists shrank from pursuing the matter further. They knew what the people thought of their champion and did not dare to lay a hand upon him.

He retired from public life after this second conspiracy and went to live with his children and grandchildren at his country home of Lagrange. From there he wrote often to Thomas Jefferson and his other friends in the United States. If the Revolution in France had failed to bring about that republic he dreamed of the struggle in America had at least borne good fruits. More and more he thought of the young nation across the sea, in the birth of which he had played a great part, and more and more he wished to visit it again. So when he was invited by President Monroe in 1824 he gladly accepted, and for the fourth time set out across the Atlantic.