Marie-Joseph, Marquis de LaFayette, was born in 1757, into a firmly established aristocratic family in a large European country whose people had been spoiling for a rebellion since the death of Louis XIV. Aged only twenty he was an officer in the French Army, showing enthusiasm for the American War of Independence. In fact his enthusiasm was unbounded and he emigrated to North America to join the colonists in their struggle against British control.
George Washington soon got to hear of this Gallic firebrand, who fought well at Brandywine, endured with the rest at Valley Forge, and then again at Monmouth in 1778. He was just twenty-one years old.
One year later LaFayette was back in France, which was nearing its own revolution, though the uprisings were aimed at the Monarchy, the Church, the Bourgoisie and especially rich nobles like LaFayette. While in France he was able to use his wealth to guarantee support to rebellious officers in the Navy. Having made his promises, he sailed off again for America.
In 1781 he was in Virginia, where Washington got him a command, though he was still only twenty-four. He took part in the Siege of Yorktown where his strategy and courage made him popular with the rebels and unpopular with British commanders, who swore to hang him if they could catch him.
But before the Redcoats could trap him he was back in France (1782). The fateful year 1789 was approaching. In the name of dissidence against the establishment he got into the States General (q.v.) and the National Assembly, which promptly made him commander of Paris’ National Guard. Watchers in America did not take their eyes off him, indeed, LaFayette has always been better known in America than in Europe.
At the head of his troopers he saved Louis XVI and his wife Marie-Antoinette (q.v.) from the baying mob attacking the Palace of Versailles (q.v.). An officer in the French Army, it was his duty to do so, however radical his views on the Monarchy might have been. But very soon his liberal, humanist republicanism was blown away for him by the increasingly bloodthirsty Jacobins led by Marat and Robespierre and others (q.v.).
In 1792 he had to get out of France double quick to avoid the guillotine, but was caught first by the Prussians and then by the Austrians, who had their own views on pro-Revolutionary movements against kings. He was considered an out-and-out revolutionary, though no-one could prove he was either violent or ill-disciplined.
After Napoleon Bonaparte had saved France from bloody anarchy LaFayette became a liberal spokesman (1815 – 30). As an advocate of freedom, endowed with great charm, he visited the United States of America between 1824 and 1825 where he became famous.
Military schools, centres of learning, statues, hotels and even roads are named after him. He died in bed in 1834 as the States’ French champion. He was seventy-five.
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