The Marquis de Lafayette sometimes comes across as a comic figure from our Revolution. His youthful exuberance and enthusiasm often seem somewhat absurd in film recreations of the Revolution. Lafayette was actually a far more important figure than that. He helped smooth rufffled feathers on both sides of the Franco-American alliance during the war, and was one of the few Frenchmen who truly understood Americans and their point of view. After the war he was a shrewd observer of America, a land which for him was always his second homeland. He never lost his enthusiasm during his long life for the principles that he and the other Founding Fathers of the nation had contended for. On December 31, 1834, John Quincy Adams gave a memorable eulogy to the Frenchman all Americans honor:
On the 6th of September, 1757, Lafayette was born. The kings of France and Britain were seated upon their thrones by virtue of the principle of hereditary succession, variously modified and blended with different forms of religious faith, and they were waging war against each other, and exhausting the blood and treasure of their people for causes in which neither of the nations had any beneficial or lawful interest.
In this war the father of Lafayette fell in the cause of his King, but not of his country. He was an officer of an invading army, the instrument of his sovereign’s wanton ambition and lust of conquest. The people of the electorate of Hanover had done no wrong to him or to his country. When his son came to an age capable of understanding the irreparable loss that he had suffered, and to reflect upon the causes of his father’s fate, there was no drop of consolation mingled in the cup, from the consideration that he had died for his country. And when the youthful mind was awakened to meditation upon the rights of mankind, the principles of freedom, and theories of government, it cannot be difficult to perceive, in the illustrations of his own family records, the source of that aversion to hereditary rule, perhaps the most distinguishing feature of his political opinions, and to which he adhered through all the vicissitudes of his life.
In the same war, and at the same time, George Washington was armed, a loyal subject, in support of his King; but to him that was also the cause of his country. His commission was not in the army of George II., but issued under the authority of the colony of Virginia, the province in which he received his birth. On the borders of that province, the war in its most horrid forms was waged—not a war of mercy, and of courtesy, like that of the civilized embattled legions of Europe—but war to the knife; the war of Indian savages, terrible to man, but more terrible to the tender sex, and most terrible to helpless infancy. In defense of his country against the ravages of such a war, Washington, in the dawn of manhood, had drawn his sword, as if Providence, with deliberate purpose, had sanctified for him the practice of war, all detestable and unhallowed as it is, that he might, in a cause, virtuous and exalted by its motive and its end, be trained and fitted in a congenial school to march in after times the leader of heroes in the war of his country’s independence.
At the time of the birth of Lafayette, this war, which was to make him a fatherless child, and in which Washington was laying broad and deep, in the defense and protection of his native land, the foundations of his unrivalled renown, was but in its early stage. It was to continue five years longer, and was to close with the total extinguishment of the colonial dominion of France on the continent of North America. The deep humiliation of France, and the triumphant ascendency on this continent of her rival, were the first results of this great national conflict. The complete expulsion of France from North America seemed to the superficial vision of men to fix the British power over these extensive regions on foundations immovable as the everlasting hills.
Let us pass in imagination a period of only twenty years, and alight upon the borders of the River Brandywine. Washington is commander-in-chief of the armies of the United States of America; war is again raging in the heart of his native land; hostile armies of one and the same name, blood, and language, are arrayed for battle on the banks of the stream; and Philadelphia, where the United States are in Congress assembled, and whence their decree of independence has gone forth, is the destined prize to the conflict of the day. Who is that tall, slender youth, of foreign air and aspect, scarcely emerged from the years of boyhood, and fresh from the walls of a college; fighting, a volunteer, at the side of Washington, bleeding, unconsciously to himself, and rallying his men to secure the retreat of the scattered American ranks? It is Gilbert Motier de Lafayette, the son of the victim of Minden; and he is bleeding in the cause of North American independence and of freedom.
We pause one moment to inquire what was this cause of North American independence, and what were the motives and inducements to the youthful stranger to devote himself, his life, and fortune to it.
The people of the British colonies in North America, after a controversy of ten years duration with their sovereign beyond the seas, upon an attempt by him and his Parliament to tax them without their consent, had been constrained by necessity to declare themselves independent—to dissolve the tie of their allegiance to him—to renounce their right to his protection, and to assume their station among the independent civilized nations of the earth. This had been done with a deliberation and solemnity unexampled in the history of the world; done in the midst of a civil war, differing in character from any of those which for centuries before had desolated Europe. The war had arisen upon a question between the rights of the people and the powers of their government. The discussions, in the progress of the controversy, had opened to the contemplations of men the first foundations of civil society and of government. The war of independence began by litigation upon a petty stamp on paper, and a tax of three pence a pound upon tea; but these broke up the fountains of the great deep, and the deluge ensued. Had the British Parliament the right to tax the people of the colonies in another hemisphere, not represented in the imperial legislature? They affirmed they had; the people of the colonies insisted they had not. There were ten years of pleading before they came to an issue; and all the legitimate sources of power, and all the primitive elements of freedom, were scrutinized, debated, analyzed, and elucidated before the lighting of the torch of Ate, and her cry of havoc upon letting slip the dogs of war.
When the day of conflict came, the issue of the contest was necessarily changed. The people of the colonies had maintained the contest on the principle of resisting the invasion of chartered rights—first by argument and remonstrance, and finally, by appeal to the sword. But with the war came the necessary exercise of sovereign powers. The Declaration of Independence justified itself as the only possible remedy for insufferable wrongs. It seated itself upon the first foundations of the law of nature, and the incontestable doctrine of human rights. There was no longer any question of the constitutional powers of the British Parliament, or of violated colonial charters. Thenceforward the American nation supported its existence by war; and the British nation, by war, was contending for conquest. As, between the two parties, the single question at issue was independence—but in the confederate existence of the North American Union, Liberty—not only their own liberty, but the vital principle of liberty to the whole race of civilized man, was involved.
It was at this stage of the conflict, and immediately after the Declaration of Independence, that it drew the attention, and called into action the moral sensibilities and the intellectual faculties of Lafayette, then in the nineteenth year of his age.
The war was revolutionary. It began by the dissolution of the British government in the colonies; the people of which were, by that operation left without any government whatever. They were then at one and the same time maintaining their independent national existence by war, and forming new social compacts for their own government thenceforward. The construction of civil society; the extent and the limitations of organized power; the establishment of a system of government combining the greatest enlargement of individual liberty with the most perfect preservation of public order, were the continual occupations of every mind. The consequences of this state of things to the history of mankind, and especially of Europe, were foreseen by none. Europe saw nothing but the war; a people struggling for liberty, and against oppression; and the people in every part of Europe sympathized with the people of the American colonies.
With their governments it was not so. The people of the American colonies were insurgents; all governments abhor insurrection. They were revolted colonists; the great maritime powers of Europe had colonies of their own, to which the example of resistance against oppression might be contagious. The American colonists were stigmatized in all the official acts of the British government as rebels; and rebellion to the governing part of mankind is as the sin of witchcraft. The governments of Europe, therefore, were at heart, on the side of the British government in this war, and the people of Europe were on the side of the American people.
Lafayette, by his position and condition in life, was one of those who, governed by the ordinary impulses which influence and control the conduct of men, would have sided in sentiment with the royal cause.
Lafayette was born a subject of the most absolute and most splendid monarchy of Europe; and in the highest rank of her proud and chivalrous nobility. He had been educated at the college of the University of Paris, founded by the royal munificence of Louis XIV., or Cardinal Richelieu. Left an orphan in early childhood, with the inheritance of a princely fortune, he had been married at sixteen years of age to a daughter of the house of Noailles, the most distinguished family of the kingdom, scarcely deemed in public consideration inferior to that which wore the crown. He came into active life, at the change from boy to man, a husband and a father, in the full enjoyment of everything that avarice could covet, with a certain prospect before him of all that ambition could crave. Happy in his domestic affections, incapable, from the benignity of his nature, of envy, hatred, or revenge, a life of “ignoble ease and indolent repose” seemed to be that which nature and fortune had combined to prepare before him. To men of ordinary mould this condition would have led to a life of luxurious apathy and sensual indulgence. Such was the life into which, from the operation of the same causes, Louis XV. had sunk, with his household and Court, while Lafayette was rising to manhood surrounded by the contamination of their example. Had his natural endowments been even of the higher and nobler order of such as adhere to virtue even in the lap of prosperity and in the bosom of temptation, he might have lived and died a pattern of the nobility of France, to be classed, in after times, with the Turennes and the Montausiers of the age of Louis XIV., or with the Villars or the Lamoignons of the age immediately preceding his own.
But, as in the firmament of heaven that rolls over our heads there is, among the stars of the first magnitude, one so preeminent in splendor as, in the opinion of astronomers, to constitute a class by itself, so in the 1,400 years of the French monarchy, among the multitudes of great and mighty men which it has evolved, the name of Lafayette stands unrivalled in the solitude of glory.
In entering upon the threshold of life a career was to open before him. He had the option of the court and the camp. An office was tendered to him in the household of the King’s brother, the Count de Provence, since successively a royal exile and a reinstated King. The servitude and inaction of a court had no charms for him; he preferred a commission in the army, and at the time of the Declaration of Independence was a captain of dragoons in garrison at Metz.
There, at an entertainment given by his relative, the Marechal de Broglie, the commandant of the place, to the Duke of Gloucester, brother to the British King, and then a transient traveler through that part of France, he learns, as an incident of intelligence received that morning by the English prince from London, that the Congress of rebels at Philadelphia had issued a declaration of independence. A conversation ensues upon the causes which have contributed to produce this event, and upon the consequences which may be expected to flow from it. The imagination of Lafayette has caught across the Atlantic tide the spark emitted from the Declaration of Independence, his heart has kindled, at the shock, and, before he slumbers upon his pillow, he has resolved to devote his life and fortune to the cause.
You have before you the cause and the man. The selfdevotion of Lafayette was twofold. First to the people, maintaining a bold and seemingly desperate struggle against oppression, and for national existence. Secondly, and chiefly, to the principles of their declaration, which then first unfurled before his eyes the consecrated standard of human rights. To that standard, without an instant of hesitation, he repaired. Where it would lead him, it is scarcely probable that he himself then foresaw. It was then identical with the stars and stripes of the American Union, floating to the breeze from the Hall of Independence, at Philadelphia. Nor sordid avarice, nor vulgar ambition, could point his foot-steps to the pathway leading to that banner. To the love of ease or pleasure nothing could be more repulsive. Something may be allowed to the beatings of the youthful breast, which make ambition virtue, and something to the spirit of military adventures imbibed from his profession, and which he felt in common with many others. France, Germany, Poland, furnished to the armies of this Union, in our revolutionary struggle, no inconsiderable number of officers of high rank and distinguished merit. The names of Pulaski and De Kalb are numbered among the martyrs of our freedom, and their ashes repose in our soil side by side with the canonized bones of Warren and of Montgomery. To the virtues of Lafayette, a more protracted career and happier earthly destiny were reserved. To the moral principle of political action, the sacrifices of no other man were comparable to his. Youth, health, fortune; the favor of his King; the enjoyment of ease and pleasure; even the choicest blessings of domestic felicity – he gave them all for toil and danger in a distant land, and an almost hopeless cause; but it was the cause of justice, and of the rights of humankind.
The resolve is firmly fixed, and it now remains to be carried into execution. On December 7, 1776, Silas Deane, then a secret agent of the American Congress at Paris, stipulates with the Marquis de Lafayette that he shall receive a commission, to date from that day, of major-general in the army of the United States; and the marquis stipulates, in return, to depart when and how Mr. Deane shall judge proper, to serve the United States with all possible zeal, without pay or emolument, reserving to himself only the liberty of returning to Europe, if his family or his King should recall him.
Neither his family nor his King were willing that he should depart; nor had Mr. Deane the power, either to conclude this contract, or to furnish the means of his conveyance to America. Difficulties rise up before him only to be dispersed, and obstacles thicken only to be surmounted. The day after the signing of the contract, Mr. Deane’s agency was superseded by the arrival of Dr. Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee as his colleagues in commission; nor did they think themselves authorized to confirm his engagements. Lafayette is not to be discouraged. The commissioners extenuate nothing of the unpromising condition of their cause. Mr. Deane avows his inability to furnish him with a passage to the United States. “The more desperate the cause,” says Lafayette, “the greater need has it of my services; and, if Mr. Deane has no vessel for my passage, I shall purchase one for myself, and will traverse the ocean with a selected company of my own.”
Other impediments arise. His design becomes known to the British ambassador at the Court of Versailles, who remonstrates to the French government against it. At his instance, orders are issued for the detention of the vessel purchased by the marquis and fitted out at Bordeaux, and for the arrest of his person. To elude the first of these orders, the vessel is removed from Bordeaux to the neighboring port of Passage, within the dominion of Spain. The order for his own arrest is executed; but, by stratagem and disguise, he escapes from the custody of those who have him in charge, and, before a second order can reach him, he is safe on the ocean wave, bound to the land of independence and of freedom.
The war of American Independence is closed. The people of the North American Confederation are in union, sovereign and independent. Lafayette at twenty-five years of age has lived the life of a patriarch, and illustrated the career of a hero. Had his days upon earth been then numbered, and had he then slept with his fathers, illustrious as for centuries their names had been, his name, to the end of time, would have transcended them all. Fortunate youth! fortunate beyond even the measure of his companions in arms with whom he had achieved the glorious consummation of American Independence. His fame was all his own; not cheaply earned; not ignobly won. His fellow-soldiers had been the champions and defenders of their country. They reaped for themselves, for their wives, their children, their posterity to the latest time the rewards of their dangers and their toils. Lafayette had watched, and labored, and fought, and bled, not for himself, not for his family, not, in the first instance, even for his country. In the legendary tales of chivalry we read of tournaments at which a foreign and unknown knight suddenly presents himself, armed in complete steel, and, with the vizor down, enters the ring to contend with the assembled flower of knighthood for the prize of honor, to be awarded by the hand of beauty; bears it in triumph away, and disappears from the astonished multitude of competitors and spectators of the feats of arms. But where in the rolls of history, where in the fictions of romance, where but in the life of Lafayette, has been seen the noble stranger, flying, with the tribute of his name, his rank, his influence, his ease, his domestic bliss, his treasure, his blood, to the relief of a suffering and distant land, in the hour of her deepest calamity-baring his bosom to her foes; and not at the transient pageantry of a tournament, but for a succession of five years sharing all the vicissitudes of her fortunes; always eager to appear at the post of danger-tempering the glow of youthful ardor with the cold caution of a veteran commander; bold and daring in action; prompt in execution; rapid in pursuit; fertile in expedients; unattainable in retreat; often exposed, but never surprised, never disconcerted; eluding his enemy when within his fancied grasp; bearing upon him with irresistible sway when of force to cope with him in the conflict of arms? And what is this but the diary of Lafayette, from the day of his rallying the scattered fugitives of the Brandywine, insensible of the blood flowing from his wounds, to the storming of the redoubt at Yorktown?
Henceforth, as a public man, Lafayette is to be considered as a Frenchman, always active and ardent to serve the United States, but no longer in their service as an officer. So transcendent had been his merits in the common cause, that, to reward them, the rule of progressive advancement in the armies of France was set aside for him. He received from the minister of war a notification that from the day of his retirement from the service of the United States as a major-general, at the close of the war, he should hold the same rank in the armies of France, to date from the day of the capitulation of Lord Cornwallis.
Henceforth he is a Frenchman, destined to perform in the history of his country a part as peculiarly his own, and not less glorious, than that which he had performed in the war of independence. A short period of profound peace followed the great triumph of freedom. The desire of Lafayette once more to see the land of his adoption and the associates of his glory, the fellow-soldiers who had become to him as brothers, and the friend and patron of his youth, who had become to him as a father; sympathizing with their desire once more to see him – to see in their prosperity him who had come to them in their affliction-induced him, in the year 1784, to pay a visit to the United States.
On August 4, of that year, he landed at New York, and, in the space of five months from that time, visited his venerable friend at Mount Vernon, where he was then living in retirement, and traversed ten States of the Union, receiving everywhere, from their legislative assemblies, from the municipal bodies of the cities and towns through which he passed, from the officers of the army, his late associates, now restored to the virtues and occupations of private life, and even from the recent emigrants from Ireland, who had come to adopt for their country the self-emancipated land, addresses of gratulation and of joy, the effusions of hearts grateful in the enjoyment of the blessings for the possession of which they had been so largely indebted to his exertions; and, finally, from the United States of America, in Congress assembled, at Trenton.
On December 9 it was resolved by that body that a committee, to consist of one member from each State, should be appointed to receive and, in the name of Congress, take leave of the marquis. That they should be instructed to assure him that Congress continued to entertain the same high sense of his abilities and zeal to promote the welfare of America, both here and in Europe, which they had frequently expressed and manifested on former occasions, and which the recent marks of his attention to their commercial and other interests had perfectly confirmed. “That, as his uniform and unceasing attachment to this country has resembled that of a patriotic citizen, the United States regard him with particular affection, and will not cease to feel an interest in whatever may concern his honor and prosperity; and that their best and kindest wishes will always attend him.”
And it was further resolved that a letter be written to his most Christian Majesty, to be signed by his Excellency, the president of Congress, expressive of the high sense which the United States, in Congress assembled, entertain of the zeal, talents, and meritorious services of the Marquis de Lafayette, and recommending him to the favor and patronage of his Majesty.
The first of these resolutions was, on the next day, carried into execution. At a solemn interview with the committee of Congress, received in their hall, and addressed by the chairman of their committee, John Jay, the purport of these resolutions was communicated to him. He replied in terms of fervent sensibility for the kindness manifested personally to himself, and, with allusions to the situation, the prospects, and the duties of the people of this country, he pointed out the great interests which he believed it indispensable to their welfare that they should cultivate and cherish. In the following memorable sentences the ultimate objects of his solicitude are disclosed in a tone deeply solemn and impressive: “May this immense temple of freedom,” said he, “ever stand, a lesson to oppressors, an example to the oppressed, a sanctuary for the rights of mankind! and may these happy United States attain that complete splendor and prosperity which will illustrate the blessings of their government, and for ages to come rejoice the departed souls of its founders.” Fellow-citizens, ages have passed away since these words were spoken; but ages are the years of the existence of nations. The founders of this immense temple of freedom have all departed, save here and there a solitary exception, even while I speak, at the point of taking wing. The prayer of Lafayette is not yet consummated. Ages upon ages are still to pass away before it can have its full accomplishment; and, for its full accomplishment, his spirit, hovering over our heads, in more than echoes talks around these walls. It repeats the prayer which from his lips fifty years ago was at once a parting blessing and a prophecy; for, were it possible for the whole human race, now breathing the breath of life, to be assembled within this hall, your orator would, in your name and in that of your constituents, appeal to them to testify for your fathers of the last generation, that, so far as has depended upon them, the blessing of Lafayette has been prophecy. Yes! this immense temple of freedom still stands, a lesson to oppressors, an example to the oppressed, and a sanctuary for the rights of mankind. Yes! with the smiles of a benignant Providence, the splendor and prosperity of these happy United States have illustrated the blessings of their government, and, we may humbly hope, have rejoiced the departed souls of its founders. For the past your fathers and you have been responsible. The charge of the future devolves upon you and upon your children. The vestal fire of freedom is in your custody. May the souls of its departed founders never be called to witness its extinction by neglect, nor a soil upon the purity of its keepers!
With this valedictory Lafayette took, as he and those who heard him then believed, a final leave of the people of the United States. He returned to France, and arrived at Paris on January 25, 1785.
Such, legislators of the North American Confederate Union, was the life of Gilbert Motier de Lafayette, and the record of his life is the delineation of his character. Consider him as one human being of 1,000,000,000, his contemporaries on the surface of the terraqueous globe. Among that 1,000,000,000 seek for an object of comparison with him; assume for the standard of comparison all the virtues which exalt the character of man above that of the brute creation; take the ideal man, little lower than the angels; mark the qualities of mind and heart which entitle him to his station of preeminence in the scale of created beings, and inquire who, that lived in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of the Christian era, combined in himself so many of those qualities, so little alloyed with those which belong to that earthly vesture of decay in which the immortal spirit is enclosed, as Lafayette.
Pronounce him one of the first men of his age, and you have not yet done him justice. Try him by that test by which he sought in vain to stimulate the vulgar and selfish spirit of Napoleon; class him among the men who, to compare and seat themselves, must take in the compass of all ages; turn back your eyes upon the records of time; summon from the creation of the world to this day the mighty dead of every age and every clime —and where, among the race of merely mortal men, shall one be found, who, as the benefactor of his kind, shall claim to take precedence of Lafayette?
There have doubtless been, in all ages, men, whose discoveries or inventions, in the world of matter or of mind, have opened new avenues to the dominion of man over the material creation; have in-creased his means or his faculties of enjoyment; have raised him in nearer approximation to that higher and happier condition, the object of his hopes and aspirations in his present state of existence.
Lafayette discovered no new principles of politics or of morals. He invented nothing in science. He disclosed no new phenomenon in the laws of nature. Born and educated in the highest order of feudal nobility, under the most absolute monarchy of Europe, in possession of an affluent fortune, and master of himself and of all his capabilities, at the moment of attaining manhood, the principle of republican justice and of social equality took possession of his heart and mind, as if inspired from above. He devoted himself, his life, his fortune, his hereditary honors, his towering ambition, his splendid hopes, all to the cause of liberty. He came to another hemisphere to defend her. He became one of the most effective champions of our independence; but, that once achieved, be returned to his own country, and thenceforward took no part in the controversies which have divided us. In the events of our Revolution, and in the forms of policy which we have adopted for the establishment and perpetuation of our freedom, Lafayette found the most perfect form of government. He wished to add nothing to it. He would gladly have abstracted nothing from it. Instead of the imaginary republic of Plato, or the Utopia of Sir Thomas More, he took a practical existing model, in actual operation here, and never attempted or wished more than to apply it faithfully to his own country.
It was not given to Moses to enter the promised land; but he saw it from the summit of Pisgah. It was not given to Lafayette to witness the consummation of his wishes in the establishment of a republic, and the extinction of all hereditary rule in France. His principles were in advance of the age and hemisphere in which he lived. A Bourbon still reigns on the throne of France, and it is not for us to scrutinize the title by which he reigns. The principles of elective and hereditary power, blended in reluctant union in his person, like the red and white roses of York and Lancaster, may postpone to aftertime the last conflict to which they must ultimately come. The life of the patriarch was not long enough for the development of his whole political system. Its final accomplishment is in the womb of time.
The anticipation of this event is the more certain, from the consideration that all the principles for which Lafayette contended were practical. He never indulged himself in wild and fanciful speculations. The principle of hereditary power was, in his opinion, the bane of all republican liberty in Europe. Unable to extinguish it in the revolution of 1830, so far as concerned the chief magistracy of the nation, Lafayette had the satisfaction of seeing it abolished with reference to the peerage. A hereditary crown, stripped of the support which it may derive from an hereditary peerage, however compatible with Asiatic despotism, is an anomaly in the history of the Christian world, and in the theory of free government. There is no argument producible against the existence of an hereditary peerage but applies with aggravated weight against the transmission from sire to son of an hereditary crown. The prejudices and passions of the people of France rejected the principle of inherited power in every station of public trust, excepting the first and highest of them all; but there they clung to it, as did the Israelites of old to the savory deities of Egypt.
This is not the time or the place for a disquisition upon the comparative merits, as a system of government, of a republic and a monarchy surrounded by republican institutions. Upon this subject there is among us no diversity of opinion, and if it should take the people of France another half-century of internal and external war, of dazzling and delusive glories, of unparalleled triumphs, humiliating reverses, and bitter disappointments, to settle it to their satisfaction, the ultimate result can only bring them to the point where we have stood from the day of the Declaration of Independence-to the point where Lafayette would have brought them, and to which he looked as a consummation devoutly to be wished.
Then, too, and then only, will be the time when the character of Lafayette will be appreciated at its true value throughout the civilized world. When the principle of hereditary dominion shall be extinguished in all the institutions of France; when government shall no longer be considered as property transmissible from sire to son, but as a trust committed for a limited time, and then to return to the people whence it came; as a burdensome duty to be discharged and not as a reward to be abused; when a claim, any claim, to political power by inheritance shall, in the estimation of the whole French people, be held as it now is by the whole people of the North American Union-then will be the time for contemplating the character of Lafayette, not merely in the events of his life, but in the full development of his intellectual conceptions, of his fervent aspirations, of the labors and perils and sacrifices of his long and eventful career upon earth; and thenceforward, till the hour when the trump of the archangel shall sound to announce that Time shall be no more, the name of Lafayette shall stand enrolled high on the list of the pure and disinterested benefactors of mankind.