Biographies & Memoirs



Lafayette found himself in a contemplative mood on January 1, 1788, with his customary optimism tainted by anxiety. He spent the “first moments” of the New Year at home on the Rue de Bourbon, writing an affectionate message to his “beloved General.” It was the longest letter he had sent to Washington in months; now that the Assembly of Notables had drawn to a close and the provincial assembly of the Auvergne had completed its work, he had a bit of time to reflect.

As he had since 1777, Lafayette wrote freely to Washington, almost as though he were addressing his better self—a man who knew him intimately and treasured him despite his foibles. On this day, Lafayette’s thoughts ranged across a typically broad array of affairs. He shared news of conflicts that threatened to engulf Europe in war and his work on French-American trade as well as an appreciative assessment of Thomas Jefferson, with whom he was “more and more pleased.” He wrote with particular pride of the recent meeting of the Auvergne assembly, where he “had the happiness to please the people, and the misfortune to displease the Government to a very high degree.” In response to the crown’s plea “for an increase of revenue,” he explained, “our Province was among the few who gave nothing, and she expressed herself in a manner which has been taken very much amiss.” Yet something new had entered into Lafayette’s thinking. As a boy, he had yearned to capture the Beast of the Gévaudan without stopping to wonder what, exactly, he would do with the creature if he ever trapped it. Now Lafayette pondered the consequences of his actions. Once tyranny had been vanquished, he wondered, what would take its place?

It was a burning question on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1787, fifty-five men had worked through four steamy Philadelphia months to hammer out provisional answers, and a copy of the resulting document, the Constitution of the United States of America, had since made its way to Lafayette. “It is needless for me to tell you,” wrote Lafayette to Washington, “that I have read the new proposed Constitution with an unspeakable eagerness and attention. I have admired it, and find in it a bold, large, and solid frame for the Confederation.” Still, Lafayette had concerns. Sensitized by the Assembly of Notables to the dangers of governmental overreaching, he was troubled by the constitutional convention’s decision to forgo a bill of rights. Such a document, Lafayette believed, was needed in order to guarantee “that the people will remain in possession of their natural rights and of a perfect equality among the citizens.” He was also wary of “the great powers and possible continuance of the President” permitted by the Constitution’s vision of the executive branch. Dictatorship, he feared, might be the result. Certain that Washington was the only man capable of leading the nation past these obstacles, Lafayette implored him: “In the name of America, of mankind at large, and your own fame, I beseech you, my dear General, not to deny your acceptance of the office of President.… You alone can settle that political machine.” Lafayette had unbounded faith in Washington’s leadership, which, he felt certain, would set the United States firmly on the right path.

If only France would follow America’s lead. “For my part,” wrote Lafayette of his homeland, “I am heartily wishing for a Constitution and bill of rights, and wish it may be effected with as much tranquility and mutual satisfaction as it is possible.” As Washington knew full well, the constitution that his acolyte envisioned for France bore scant resemblance to the document that was making its way through ratification conventions in every state of the American union. Lafayette and his intimates thought instead of a charter that would reimagine the French monarchy as a version of the English system, with even Jefferson suggesting that they look to England for inspiration. Shortly after the Assembly of Notables convened, Jefferson had sent his best wishes to Lafayette, along with advice that, by “keeping the good model of your neighboring country before your eyes, you may get on, step by step, towards a good constitution.” Jefferson acknowledged that a government based on the English “model may not be perfect,” but he believed “it would unite more suffrages than any new one which could be proposed.”

From a distance of more than two centuries, it may seem unfathomable that a founding father of the United States would encourage France to emulate England, but in 1788, the position espoused by Jefferson was widely shared. Inspired by Montesquieu, many political theorists saw constitutional monarchy as the form of government most likely to ensure liberty in an Old World nation. “Liberty,” Montesquieu argued, is not synonymous with unfettered freedom. Rather, in a chapter devoted to the English constitution, Montesquieu wrote that “political liberty … is that tranquility of mind that derives from the opinion each person has of his safety.” Montesquieu believed that the key to guaranteeing such peace of mind lay in a separation of powers that permitted each branch of government to check the unbridled expansion of the other branches; England, with its legislative Parliament and executive monarchy, had achieved just that. In 1771, the Genevan Jean Louis de Lolme had fleshed out these ideas in his Constitution of England; or, An Account of the English Government, a book that found a home in the libraries of Jefferson, Lafayette, and thousands of like-minded thinkers across Europe and the Americas.

On May 25, 1788, Lafayette seized an opportunity to take a public stand against the kind of executive overreach that Montesquieu deemed anathema to liberty. Just as Lafayette was putting the finishing touches on another letter to Washington, a petition drafted by the nobility of Brittany arrived at the Rue de Bourbon. The Breton nobles, to which Lafayette belonged by virtue of his maternal inheritance from the La Rivière family, insisted on preserving their region’s historical exemption from certain directives issued by the crown and hoped that Lafayette might add his signature to their declaration. In a postscript to Washington, Lafayette reported, “I very plainly Have Given My Assent.”

The twelve noblemen who delivered the document to Versailles on July 12, 1788, promptly found themselves locked up in the Bastille. Lafayette, who was one of some three hundred signatories, suffered a lesser punishment: he was officially “disgraced” by being deprived of a military command he had been scheduled to undertake later that summer. It may well have been the perfect penalty for Lafayette—public enough to burnish his reputation as a defender of freedom but far less onerous than prison. Jefferson acknowledged as much in a letter to James Madison. By way of assuring Madison that Americans need not worry for Lafayette’s safety, Jefferson explained that the punishment meted out to Lafayette by the crown was intended “more to save appearances for their own authority than anything else; for at the very time they pretended that they had put him into disgrace, they were constantly conferring and communicating with him.”

Still, Lafayette was proud to have stood with the nobles of Brittany. “I associate myself with every opposition to arbitrary acts, present or future, which threaten or may threaten the rights of the nation,” he wrote to them. But some of Lafayette’s allies interpreted the Breton document rather differently—as a retrograde defense of noble prerogatives intended to halt the nation’s progress toward a more democratic government. The Marquis de Condorcet worried that Lafayette’s decision to align with the Breton nobles signaled a weakening of his reformist resolve. Writing to the Italian friend of America, Philip Mazzei, Condorcet jokingly suggested that Mazzei “try to exorcise the devil of aristocracy” from Lafayette’s home, advising Mazzei to “take along in your pocket a little vial of Potomac water and a sprinkler made from the wood of a Continental Army rifle and make your prayers in the name of Liberty, Equality, and Reason, which are but a single divinity in three persons.”

Condorcet’s jest pointed to a dilemma that would hound Lafayette throughout the French Revolution: while partisans on the right deemed him too radical, partisans on the left found him too conservative. Lafayette loved the United States and believed that—unlike France—the young nation was a blank slate on which an ideal government could be drawn from scratch. Summing up his view in a letter to Jefferson, Lafayette wrote that the Americans who collaborated on the Constitution enjoyed “the advantage to work a new ground, uninfluenced by all the circumstances which in Europe necessitate calculations very different.” In France, however, privileges and grievances had deep roots in centuries of history that could not be easily dismissed. Lafayette believed that any reforms would have to respect this history. The French abolitionist Jacques-Pierre Brissot discussed Lafayette’s stance with Washington during a 1788 visit to Mount Vernon. According to Brissot’s published account, Washington spoke of Lafayette with paternal concern, describing the marquis’s situation with “a joy, mixed with uneasiness.” Washington, Brissot reported, strained to reconcile apparent contradictions in Lafayette’s thinking. On one hand, Washington “recognized the ardor of Frenchmen in going to extremes.” But on the other hand, “their deep veneration for antique governments and monarchs … appeared strange to him.”

Lafayette saw no conflict. Not only did he deem it possible to create a French constitution that would meld ancient traditions with modern values, but he was one of several men who were determined to help draft an introduction to such a document. On January 12, 1789, Jefferson wrote to Madison from Paris that “everybody here is trying their hand at forming declarations of rights.” Knowing that Madison was working on “something of that kind” for the United States, Jefferson was forwarding two examples of French efforts. One was Lafayette’s. Acknowledging its hybrid nature, Jefferson explained that, “it contains the essential principles of ours accommodated as much as could be to the actual state of things here.” These “accommodations” are evident from the first sentence of an early version of Lafayette’s document, preserved in Jefferson’s papers, which modifies universal claims to equality with specific exceptions that allow for French realities: “Nature has made men equal, and distinctions among them necessitated by the monarchy are founded upon and must be measured by the general good.” The second sentence, too, reveals Lafayette’s connections to the values of the sword nobility, naming “honor” one of man’s inalienable rights, along with life, liberty, and property. A subsequent passage states that “the command of the army is in the hands of the King alone.”

Despite these differences, the fundamental tenets of Lafayette’s text had much in common with America’s founding documents. After all, they’d emerged from the same traditions and been inspired by the same templates. Condorcet pointed to the Virginia Declaration of Rights, written by George Mason in early 1776, as “the first declaration of rights that truly merits the name,” and Mason, in turn, had built on a strain of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European political theory that identified the citizens of a state as the only legitimate source of sovereignty. The Frenchmen drafting declarations of rights in 1789 were openly borrowing from—and, in their view, improving upon—the Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States; not only did they know these documents in translation but they also had the privilege of consulting with Jefferson, Gouverneur Morris (a coauthor of the Constitution who was then in Paris on business), and other Americans. Lafayette, who considered the Federalist Morris too much of an aristocrat, collaborated mostly with Jefferson. As it happened, the men would have less time to focus on the declaration than they might have hoped, for the calendar year of 1789 held many distractions in store.

Everyone agreed that France was in crisis, but there was little consensus on how to solve the nation’s unrelenting problems. In the months leading up to the convocation of the Estates-General, improvisation reigned supreme as the crown rotated through a series of policies and personnel in the hope of finding the right combination. By the time Brienne stepped down as minister of finance, on August 25, 1788, he had exhausted all of his ideas for salvaging the nation’s solvency, leaving France in more or less the same dire straits in which he had found it. In a last-ditch effort to restore the nation’s faith in its government, the king replaced Brienne with the one financial figure in whom the people had not lost trust: Jacques Necker, the author of the 1781 Comte rendu au roi. But the appointment of the popular Necker only sharpened the battle lines at Versailles, where absolutists and reformers offered competing advice to an indecisive king.

Meanwhile in Paris, Lafayette, Condorcet, and their constitutionally minded colleagues joined together to form a faction of their own. Staunchly opposed to the “party of the Court”—the men and women in the circle of Marie Antoinette and Artois who clung tenaciously to every last shred of absolute power—Lafayette and his circle claimed the name “patriots” and welcomed anyone who shared their views. Many of these figures had come to know each other in the 1780s, when they met at the societies and social assemblies that paved the way for the political clubs that emerged during the revolution: Freemasonic lodges, Mesmer’s Society of Harmony, Brissot’s Society of the Friends of the Blacks, and gatherings hosted by forward-thinking salonnières, including Adrienne’s aunt Madame de Tessé. Like the men and women who gathered at such places, the patriots represented every estate and a wide range of viewpoints, from the “aristocratic monarchists” who sought greater powers for the nobility to the “left-wing patriots,” like Condorcet, who had already declared himself “republican.” Lafayette, the ultimate centrist, occupied a space in the middle.

At the core of this loosely affiliated group stood Adrien Duport, a wealthy member of the robe nobility whose home in the Marais district of Paris became the primary gathering place for a core contingent that became known as the “Society of Thirty” (although its membership ultimately grew to fifty-five). By November 1788, the society was meeting there three times a week for several hours at a time. Lafayette was regularly in attendance, as were the Vicomte de Noailles and other members of his set; having watched theirpower at court wane since the death of Louis XV, the Noailleses viewed a change in the nation’s governing structure as a way to recapture their lost grandeur. When districts throughout France and its colonies began electing representatives to the Estates-General in March 1789, a rudimentary version of a modern-day political campaign got under way, and the Society of Thirty marshaled all of its resources to woo public support of a constitutional monarchy.

As the Estates-General drew nearer, processes were disputed as much as outcomes. Although Louis XVI had named a date in May for the convocation, he had left open the question of how exactly the body should function. On this question, tradition and equity were at odds. In 1614, when the Estates-General had last convened, every district in France had been represented by three men, each of whom had been elected by the members of a single estate: one represented the district’s clergy, another its nobility, and a third itscommoners. They assembled, debated, and voted by estate, with each estate granted a single vote in the final tally. Such a system made no claims to proportional representation, since the Third Estate could always be outvoted by a coalition of its numerically smaller, but electorally more potent, social superiors. Would the same system be followed in 1789? The king decided not to decide. Each district and each estate would be free to issue its own instructions to its own deputies—some would be told to vote by estate, others by the principle of one man, one vote. Chaos was all but ensured.

Compounding the nation’s woes, all the forces of nature conspired to bring France to its knees. In the twelve months preceding the Estates-General, a summer hailstorm followed hard upon a spring drought, devastating the autumn wheat harvest. Jefferson recalled that “the slender stock of bread-stuff had for some time threatened famine,” and the cost had risen “to an enormous price.” Subsistence quantities were distributed free of charge to the neediest, while those who could pay were relegated to strict rations. So widespread was the impact that Jefferson remembered receiving “cards of invitation to dine in the richest houses” in which “the guest was notified to bring his own bread.” He also remembered the winter of 1788–89 as a season “of such severe cold, as was without example in the memory of man, or in the written records of history.” If Jefferson’s numbers are accurate, the temperature dipped as low as eighteen below zero Fahrenheit. Jefferson described a freeze so bitter that “all out-door labor was suspended, and the poor, without the wages of labor, were of course without either bread or fuel.” Bonfires, constructed by the crown, burned at every major intersection in Paris, attracting scores of “people gathered in crowds to avoid perishing with cold.” Hunger was continuing to plague the nation when some twelve hundred elected deputies began making their way to Paris and Versailles in the month of April for the convocation of the Estates-General.

With voting procedures still undecided, Jefferson was uneasy. “I am in great pain for the Marquis de Lafayette,” Jefferson wrote to Washington. “His principles, you know, are clearly with the people; but having been elected for the Noblesse of Auvergne, they have laid him under express instructions to vote for the decision by orders and not persons. This would ruin him with the Tiers Etat [Third Estate], and it is not possible he could continue long to give satisfaction to the Noblesse.” Jefferson shared similar thoughts in a letter to the marquis himself. As a foreign ambassador, Jefferson might have been crossing a line by interfering with the affairs of a host nation, yet he was genuinely concerned, both for France and for Lafayette. On May 6, Jefferson wrote to Lafayette, “As it becomes more and more possible that the Noblesse will go wrong, I become uneasy for you. Your principles are decidedly with the Tiers Etat, and your instructions against them.” Jefferson feared that Lafayette’s actions

may give an appearance of trimming between the two parties, which may lose you both. You will, in the end, go over wholly to the Tiers Etat, because it will be impossible for you to live in a constant sacrifice of your own sentiments.… But you would be received by the Tiers Etat at any future day, coldly, and without confidence. This appears to me the moment to take at once that honest and manly stand with them which your own principles dictate.

Appealing to Lafayette’s desire for popularity, Jefferson advised him that joining the Third Estate now would “win their hearts forever, be approved by the world, which marks and honors the man of the people, and will be an eternal consolation to yourself.” The nobility, he added, “will always prefer men who do their dirty work for them. You are not made for that. They will, therefore, soon drop you, and the people, in that case, will perhaps not take you up.” Finally, Jefferson put a finer point on the matter when he asked Lafayette to “suppose a scission should take place. The Priests and Nobles will secede, the nation will remain in place, and, with the King, will do its own business. If violence should be attempted where will you be?”

It was no idle question—violence had already been seen on the streets of Paris. Although the popular imagination tends to think of the storming of the Bastille prison on July 14, 1789, as the outbreak of the French Revolution, the first deadly rioting actually began on April 28 at the home of Jean-Baptiste Réveillon—a wallpaper manufacturer. Réveillon lived with his family in an uncommonly grand house near his workshops and warehouses in the heart of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine—the traditional tradesmen’s district on the eastern outskirts of Paris, where his business practices made him unpopular among his neighbors. Blithely ignoring time-honored traditions and regulations that assigned different steps of any production process to tradesmen from different guilds, Réveillon produced wallpapers of unparalleled quality by bringing every step of the process in-house. He made a fortune, and his employees—too well trained to be easily replaced—enjoyed a degree of job security that was almost unheard of, even among guild members.

When Réveillon uttered a few ill-chosen words at a meeting of his district’s electoral assembly on April 23, 1789, he unwittingly set off a powder keg. Speaking to a select group of men who, like himself, were able to afford the six-livre poll tax required to vote for representatives to the Estates-General, Réveillon complained of the rising costs of doing business, referring to a bygone time when workers were paid only fifteen sous a day. Now it cost nearly that much—fourteen and a half sous—just to buy a loaf of bread. As Réveillon’s comments spread throughout the faubourg in the following days, they were garbled into an invidious caricature. Soon, word on the street had it that Réveillon was advocating starvation wages—fifteen sous a day.

One of the most complete accounts of the so-called Réveillon riots comes from the letters of the Marquis de Ferrières, a conservative deputy representing the nobility of Saumur who dutifully wrote home nearly every night of his stay in the capital. As Ferrières reported, “Blood flowed in the Faubourg St-Antoine in Paris.” The trouble began when “five or six thousand workers … assembled at ten o’clock in the morning, armed with clubs, and descended like furies on the house of a man named Réveillon.” Once arrived, “they climbed the walls, broke down the doors, shouting, howling, that they wanted to murder Réveillon, his wife, his children. They destroyed everything they found, burned the papers, the drawings, and even the bills in the cash register, ravaged the gardens, chopped down the trees.” Réveillon and his family escaped over the garden wall, and as Ferrières put it, “The Garde Française fired several rounds, but this only stirred up the mob even more. They climbed up onto houses and threw stones at the troops. The Garde Française advanced with cannons killing many. The rioting lasted until four in the morning and there were as many as seven or eight hundred dead.” Ferrières’s numbers were exaggerated and his choice of words unsympathetic, but his story is essentially correct. The matter ended badly for a handful of rioters, who were summarily executed on April 29, and for some thirty other participants, who were arrested in the days that followed. The riots were an unmistakable warning of more violence to come.

Lafayette left no record of his response to the unrest in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, but he was surely troubled by the disorder. In addition to the cost in human lives and personal property, popular uprisings had the potential to derail the nation from the reformed future that Lafayette envisioned. He remained fully committed to a course of action that he termed “moderation,” but he had begun to understand the political and pragmatic difficulties that such a path entailed. Having spent most of March in the Auvergne campaigning for election to the Estates-General in the face of well-organized opposition from the party of Artois and Marie Antoinette, Lafayette found himself playing a new and unfamiliar part that required cobbling together fragile coalitions and agreeing to terms that, under other circumstances, he might well have repudiated. Although Lafayette emerged victorious, he was not entirely happy with the deals he cut. He regretted the hodgepodge of instructions he accepted, referring to them, in a letter to his friend and ally the Auvergnat Charles César de Fay de La Tour-Maubourg, as “a composite of great principles and petty details, of popular ideas and feudal ideas.” Summing up the intractable problem at the heart of a document that had one foot in the past and one in the future, Lafayette lamented that “there are two hundred years between one provision and another.” The position of a moderate was a delicate one, and the slightest disturbance might destroy it completely.

As the opening of the Estates-General approached, political posturing abounded and conspiracy theories flourished. Suspicion, fear, and anger, already widely shared, had been stoked by the recent violence, and in the days before the convocation, Ferrières predicted that the Estates-General would be stormy. “The animosity between the orders is tremendous,” he wrote to his wife. On May 15, as the meetings devolved into chaos, he added an ominous postscript: “The orders are neither in accord within themselves, nor in accord with each other.” The nobility divided into factions that would form, mutate, and then dissolve as quickly as they arose, and fingers were pointed in all directions, blaming one group or another for each new setback. Lafayette and his allies in theSociety of Thirty were at odds with Ferrières and other supporters of an absolute monarchy, and divisions even ran through the princes of the blood. Rumors held that the Réveillon riots had been instigated by the Duc d’Orléans as part of a plot to bring down the king, and Marie Antoinette carried on feuds with everyone from the reform-minded Duchesse d’Orléans to the Mesdames de France, the king’s staunchly traditionalist aunts.

Such was the precarious state of affairs on Monday, May 4, 1789, when the deputies to the Estates-General gathered at seven in the morning at the Church of Notre-Dame in Versailles, located just north of the palace, to await the arrival of the king and queen. As the Marquis de Ferrières described the ceremony, three hours passed before the sound of drum, fife, and trumpet announced the approach of the members of the royal family, who were accompanied by the king’s ministers, the queen’s ladies-in-waiting, and a vast retinue of courtiers. Brilliantly dressed—the women were “covered in diamonds,” according to Ferrières—the royal family and courtiers briefly took their seats on banquettes draped with velvet cloth embroidered with fleurs-de-lis while the king gazed upon the spectacle from a throne placed before the choir screen.

Notre-Dame was only a staging ground for the main event: a High Mass was celebrated at the Cathedral of Saint-Louis, located some three-quarters of a mile away, just south of the palace. There, divine blessings would be solicited for the Estates-General. Two by two, the elected deputies made their way from one church to the next in a grand procession through streets hung with rich tapestries, each man carrying a long wax taper to be lit at the cathedral. Royal guards lined the route, and spectators looked on from windows and balconies—or, in the case of Gouverneur Morris, from the street, where he glimpsed what he could “thro a double row of tapestry.” Swept up in the pomp and ceremony of the sunny day, Ferrières found his “soul plunged into sweet drunkenness” as his eyes took in the “image of joy, happiness, and satisfaction.” Morris saw less but perceived more: observing the progress of the king and queen through the parade, he noted that “the former is repeatedly saluted as he passes along with the Vive le Roi, but the latter meets not a single Acclamation … [and] looks … with Contempt on the Scene in which she acts a Part.” Later in the day Morris learned that Louis, too, was displeased. Not only had the king’s “Consort received no Mark of public Satisfaction,” but his cousin Orléans had chosen to “walk as Representative and not as Prince of the Blood.”

The Duc d’Orléans was a modern man who understood that public opinion would play a dominant role in the nation’s reinvention, but Louis XVI believed that affairs of state could move forward simply by following the traditions of the past. When the Estates-General convened on May 5, they met in yet another enormous hall at the Hôtel des Menus Plaisirs. Large enough to accommodate several times the number of participants as the room constructed for the Assembly of Notables, the cavernous space was flanked by side aisles, and loges above the main floor provided additional room for spectators. Delegates were instructed to dress in the costumes specified by the king (although one commoner drew applause when he entered in farmer’s garb), and seating arrangements reinforced the hierarchical divisions. The king presided from his golden throne, which had been placed atop a dais surrounded by velvet draperies at the far end of the room, as the queen, ministers, and princes of the blood fanned out around him. Deputies of theclergy and nobility occupied benches arranged in rows perpendicular to the throne, while representatives of the Third Estate sat far from the center of power, facing the king from the opposite end of the hall, the two landed estates strategically placed between them and the monarch. The visual messages were neither mistaken nor forgotten. Jules Michelet, the great nineteenth-century historian, wrote that Louis XVI had resurrected “the odious details of a gothic ceremonial, those oppositions of classes, those signs of social distinctions and hatred which it should rather have buried in oblivion. Blazonry, figures, and symbols, after Voltaire, after Figaro! It was [too] late.”

Procession of the Estates-General through the streets of Versailles, May 4, 1789. (illustration credit 12.3)

Ceremonial costumes worn by members of the clergy, the nobility, and the Third Estate at the Estates-General. (illustration credit 12.4)

The real work of the Estates-General began on May 6, when the deputies reassembled with each estate in its own meeting room. Asked to verify that its membership had been constituted properly, the Third Estate refused, declaring itself unwilling to set a precedent for voting by order and insisting that all decisions be taken up by the Estates-General as a whole. The clergy and nobility, however, proceeded as they were instructed despite some scattered dissension in their ranks. In the weeks that followed, the Third Estate repeatedly tried and failed to persuade the other orders to join them in constituting a unified entity. On June 12, the Third Estate boldly proclaimed itself to be an independent legislative body—operating on a principle of one man, one vote—and adopted the name of the National Assembly. Members of the other orders were welcome. Some clergymen joined the National Assembly, and nobles, too, began to cross over. As early as May 6 one of the noblemen, Mathieu-Jean-Félicité, Comte de Montmorency-Laval, who had attended the Collège du Plessis a few years after Lafayette had departed, argued that the representatives’ verification of powers be done jointly, rather than by estate.

As Jefferson had predicted, Lafayette was betwixt and between. On the one hand, his noble constituents had instructed him to vote by estate, and his own inclinations reinforced the idea that an empowered and conscientious nobility was the surest protection against an overreaching monarchy and was, therefore, the nation’s best guarantor of liberty. On the other hand, he was keenly aware that his reform-minded colleagues were drifting to the side of the commoners, and he wondered whether this might represent a better and more humane path forward. For a time, Lafayette considered resolving the issue by relinquishing his seat among the nobility and putting himself forward as a candidate representing the Third Estate. But just as he had at the beginning of the Assembly of Notables, he temporized, mired in the conflicting demands of his own belief system.

While the deputies debated in the halls of Versailles, the citizens of Paris were losing patience. The collective voice of the city clamored for a unified National Assembly that might at last begin to address the pressing problems of hunger and inflation. Traveling through France, the English agronomist Arthur Young reported in June that more than a dozen new pamphlets appeared every day in the shops that lined the arcades of the Palais-Royal, with “nineteen twentieths of these productions … in favour of liberty, and commonly violent against the clergy and nobility.” The people, Young noted, were thronging in such large numbers to the boutiques and coffeehouses on the Orléans property that “one can scarcely squeeze from the door to the counter.… They are not only crowded within, but other expectant crowds are at the doors and windows, listening … to certain orators, who from chairs and tables harangue each his little audience. The eagerness with which they are heard, and the thunder of applause they receive for every sentiment of more than common hardiness or violence against the present government, cannot be easily imagined.”

On the morning of Saturday, June 20, the deputies of the Third Estate arrived at Versailles expecting to welcome the reform-minded clergy into their midst. Instead, all three of the estates found their meeting places locked—the doors barred by armed guards—and signs announcing that a royal session would be held on Monday. Undeterred by the show of force and concerned that the previously unplanned royal session augured ill, the Third Estate and much of the clergy went in search of a new meeting place. Finding an unlocked door leading to an indoor tennis court on the Rue Saint-François, they entered. In an action that would soon be immortalized by the preeminent French painter of the day, Jacques-Louis David, the deputies courageously raised their right arms and pledged not to disband until France had a new constitution. The men who swore the “Oath of the Tennis Court,” as it became known, proclaimed the unassailable validity of the National Assembly by insisting that “nothing can prevent it from continuing its deliberations, in whatever locale it may be forced to establish itself; … wherever its members are gathered, there is the National Assembly.” As the days passed, more clergy joined the commoners, and on June 25, forty-eight nobles declared themselves members of the National Assembly. Lafayette was still not among them. In due course, Louis XVI realized that he had lost the battle. He ordered the clergy and nobility to join the Third Estate in the assembly on June 27.

With the wrangling over process now complete, the National Assembly could turn to the project that Lafayette and many others believed would be the final task of the French Revolution: forging a new constitution. A June letter presumably written to the royalist Madame de Simiane explained Lafayette’s goals: “At nineteen, I dedicated myself to the liberty of mankind and the destruction of despotism, as much as a weak individual like myself possibly could. I set out for the New World thwarted by all and helped by no one.… I had the pleasure of seeing that revolution completed, and thinking already of revolution in France, I said in a discourse to Congress, printed everywhere except in the [state-sponsored] Gazette de France: ‘May this revolution serve as a lesson to the oppressors and an example to the oppressed.’ ” Now he believed that the joyous moment was at hand when he would produce a document that would help France rid itself of oppression in a peaceful and orderly fashion:

I have tried everything short of civil war, which I could have accomplished except that I feared its horrors. A year ago I developed a plan whose simplest points seemed like extravagances, and which six months from now will be executed in its entirety, yes in its entirety, without changing a single word. I have also created a declaration of rights which M. Jefferson found so good that he had it sent to General Washington; and this declaration, or something like it, will be the catechism of France.

Unfortunately, circumstances were not conducive to the sort of level-headed deliberation that might right the nation’s course. Tens of thousands of royal troops and foreign forces—mostly Swiss and German mercenaries—had been amassing on the outskirts of both Paris and Versailles since May. By early July, some 25,000 soldiers were encamped in a ring around the capital, awaiting orders from their commanding officer, Marshal Victor-François de Broglie, brother of the man at whose table Lafayette had been converted to the American cause. This enormous show of force was widely understood to be the brainchild of the Comte d’Artois and Marie Antoinette. Their absolutist faction still faced opposition from Necker and other moderates in the king’s council, but it was steadily gaining strength. Gouverneur Morris’s diary entry for June 30 records a conversation with Jefferson, who informed him that “very serious Events are apprehended. That perhaps the King will be prompted to attempt a Resumption of his authority.” Widespread rumors held that the National Assembly would be dismantled, the nascent constitution thwarted, and any dissenters slaughtered.

Within the Paris city limits, the authorities were fast losing control. On July 1, Morris wrote to John Jay, a fellow New Yorker who shared his belief in a strong central government, that “the Soldiery in this City … declare they will not act against the People … and parade about the Streets drunk, huzzaing for the Tiers.” According to Morris, on June 30 a group of soldiers who had been imprisoned for mutiny were freed by a “Mob”—four thousand strong—with help from military guards. Morris added that when “a Party of Dragoons, ordered on Duty to disperse the Riot, thought it better to drink with the Rioters,” jubilation ensued. The prisoners were then “paraded in Triumph to the palais Royal, which is now the Liberty Pole of this City.” Versailles, too, saw the streets filled with angry crowds. Summing up the state of affairs in his letter to Jay, Morris concluded that “the Sword has slipped out of the Monarch’s Hands without his perceiving a Tittle of the Matter.”

The National Assembly could do little more than look on with dismay. On July 8, Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, Comte de Mirabeau— a member of the Society of Thirty who, sharing Lafayette’s hope for a constitutional monarchy, had written some of that group’s more persuasive pamphlets—proposed that the assembly send a deputation to the king bearing a “very humble address” asking for troops to be withdrawn. Born into the Provençal nobility, Mirabeau had been “déclassé”—stripped of the privileges of his order—following a series of scandals. Now a member of the National Assembly, elected by the Third Estate of Aix-en-Provence, he was fast becoming one of the most passionate orators of the French Revolution. The military presence, argued Mirabeau, was causing, not quelling, alarm in the streets of Paris, and jeopardizing “the liberty and honor of the National Assembly.” The written appeal that Mirabeau presented for the assembly’s consideration the next day elaborated further, declaring for his majesty’s edification that “the danger, Sire, threatens the tasks that are our primary duty, and that can have full success, real permanence, only insofar as the people regard them as entirely free.” The Archives parlementaires—the published record of France’s legislative proceedings—reported that Mirabeau’s July 9 address “caused the greatest stir in the Assembly, which rose in unison in a sign of support.” But the king soon put an end to their enthusiasm, for as Morris wrote in his diary, Louis XVI contemptuously suggested to the deputies that if they felt unsafe at Versailles they could be relocated to a more remote town, such as Soissons or Noyon, in the rural reaches of Picardy.

Lafayette, who seconded Mirabeau’s proposal on July 8, grew steadily more wary. Writing to Jefferson, he reported that the king and his council “are very angry with me. If they take me up you must claim me as an American citizen.” Rarely did Lafayette invoke the divine, but he closed this letter with the phrase “God bless you,” as though these might be his parting words. He had reason to fear trouble from factions other than the king’s party as well. Members of the Orléans circle had been making “advances” to Lafayette, seeking an alliance he deemed suspect. In a letter written on July 11, Lafayette explained:

They tell me that the head of M. le duc d’Orléans and mine have been marked; that sinister plots have been set in motion against me, as the only one capable of commanding an army; that M. le duc d’Orléans and I should coordinate our efforts; that he should be the captain of my guard, and I of his.

Lafayette reported that he had rebuffed these offers in no uncertain terms, responding “coldly” that “M. le duc d’Orléans is, in my view, nothing more than an individual wealthier than myself, whose fate is of no greater interest than that of other members of the minority.” Vowing to keep an eye on Orléans, he even dared to imagine a time when he might denounce Artois and Orléans as equally “factious”—inclined to sedition—one prince of the blood being prone to aristocratic scheming, the other employing “more popular means.” As far as Lafayette was concerned, neither man had the best wishes of the nation at heart.

On July 9, despite the inauspicious conditions, the thirty-man committee charged with determining a process for writing a new French constitution reported on its work. Lafayette was not a member of the committee, but the report was read into the record by one of his allies, Jean-Joseph Mounier, a lawyer from Grenoble who had devoted many years of study to the English system of government and who, upon reaching Paris in 1789, had been introduced into the salon of Madame de Tessé by Lafayette. Mounier announced that the constitution of France would begin—just as Lafayette hoped—with a preamble articulating the universal rights shared by all of mankind. Mounier’s logic was clear: “The goal of all societies being the general good,” any valid principle of governance “must be founded on the rights of man.” Anxious to act before the window of opportunity slammed shut, Mounier enjoined his listeners to “seize the favorable moment.” But before enumerating the committee’s proposals, he added a heartfelt plea for a lasting success: “May all the provinces, through the organ of their representatives, finally contract among themselves and with the throne an eternal alliance!”

Lafayette knew he had to act quickly if he wished to be the one to provide France with its declaration of rights. His letter to Jefferson of July 10 included a draft of the document along with a request for Jefferson “to consider it again and make your observations.” Lafayette impressed his urgency upon Jefferson: “I beg you to answer as soon as you get up, and wish to hear from you about eight or nine at least.”

On July 11, Lafayette presented his “Declaration of the Rights of Man” to the National Assembly. Although he had been eager to solicit Jefferson’s advice, Lafayette did not necessarily follow it. Annotations to a copy of the text found among Jefferson’s papers suggest that the American was uncomfortable with Lafayette’s proposal to include property and honor among man’s fundamental rights. In other passages, Lafayette’s final copy jettisons ideas inspired by Jefferson found in earlier versions, among them the assertion that “no man may be disturbed … for his religion.” Facing a fractious and frightened assembly, Lafayette was in all likelihood more concerned with winning the support of the clergy than with acting immediately on the matter of religious freedom.

It may not have fulfilled all of Jefferson’s expectations, but Lafayette’s Declaration of the Rights of Man was sufficiently radical to raise red flags among some of the assembly’s more outspoken deputies. And it was not only what Lafayette said but what he failed to say that attracted attention. In a striking departure from Mounier’s oration, the word “monarchy” was pointedly absent from Lafayette’s text. In earlier drafts, Lafayette had made the customary references to the king and his ministers, but in the version he presented on July 11, he asserted that “the principle of all sovereignty resides in the nation” and left the specifics open to debate.

As soon as Lafayette’s speech concluded, the Comte de Lally-Tolendal, a supporter of absolute monarchy, took the floor to issue a series of dire warnings couched in words of support. Lally-Tolendal duly noted the speaker’s unique history, applauding Lafayette’s declaration of “sacred” principles. It was appropriate, he declared, that Lafayette should “be the first to present them to you; he speaks of liberty as he has defended it.” Certainly, Lally-Tolendal maintained, this seminal text should be debated in the bureaus. But under no circumstances should such a potentially explosive document—filled as it was with a free-floating array of abstract principles—be circulated to the public at this preliminary stage. “Allow me, Messieurs, to insist more than ever on the danger” that might be produced by “such a declaration isolated from the rest of the constitution,” he urged. Publicizing this document would arm the ministry, which would accuse the assembly of wreaking havoc. France, he insisted, was not like America: “There is an enormous difference between a new-born nation announcing itself to the universe, a colonial people breaking ties with a distant government, and an antique, immense nation, one of the greatest in the world.” An American solution—he called it “primitive equality”—would not work in France, Lally-Tolendal asserted, where people must be bound “to the monarchical government” and where the rights of “man, citizen, subject, king” must be articulated. The danger of announcing natural rights would be “incalculable.” Loud and lengthy applause greeted the termination of Lally-Tolendal’s speech. The deputies decided unanimously that Lafayette’s declaration would be sent to the bureaus to be refined in tandem with the articles of constitution and would not beshared with a wider audience until the constitution could be published alongside it.

If Lally-Tolendal and his fellow deputies believed they could stop any dissemination of Lafayette’s declaration beyond the walls of the Menus Plaisirs, they were mistaken. A new information age was dawning in Paris, as the public’s craving for political news was met by an ever-growing cast of publishers, authors, editors, and artists capitalizing on the government’s gradual relaxation of censorship laws over the course of the preceding year. The Journal de Paris, whose editors traveled in the same circles as the Society of Thirty, was particularly friendly to Lafayette in these days. The paper routinely reprinted Lafayette’s speeches and letters alongside a selection of flattering responses. On July 13, the Journal reported Lafayette’s presentation of his Declaration of the Rights of Man along with a highly partial view of its reception: despite Lally-Tolendal’s mixed reaction, the paper published only the absolutist’s most generous statement about the declaration: “Its author speaks of liberty as he defended it.”

A steady stream of exquisitely varnished reports reached American readers, who avidly devoured news of their favorite Frenchman. Nearly every ship that sailed for the United States carried updates from Paris and Versailles. French and English newspapers, private letters, and diplomatic missives shared cargo space with cases of textiles, wines, and other goods destined for the American market. Word traveled slowly: the crossing to New York or Boston could take more than three months, and another few weeks were generally required for information to reach America’s southern and western regions. Sometimes newspapers copied articles word for word from their European or American sources; sometimes they added their own embellishments.

On September 30, Bostonians read the Journal de Paris story of July 13 embroidered with local ornament, as the Massachusetts Centinel related that “M. Lally was so delighted with the speech that he exclaimed—‘The gallant Marquis speaks of liberty with the same spirit that he fought for it on the plains of America.’ ” Tellingly, the article’s title was also changed in translation. The Journal de Paris had reported its news under the headline “National Assembly,” but the Boston article was titled simply “Marquis de La Fayette.” More than an analysis of France’s growing concern for human rights, it was a celebration of Lafayette and a reflection that America wished to claim him as its own. Overstating Lafayette’s role in the French Revolution, the Centinel went so far as to assert that “to the Marquis de La Fayette may the present emancipation of the citizens of the Commonwealth of France be more justly attributed than to any other of their patriotic characters.” But no exaggeration was involved in the paper’s description of Lafayette’s indebtedness to American precedents: “He has been taught the relative Rights of the Ruler and the Ruled, in the continual correspondence he has kept up with his adopted father, General Washington—the hero and statesman.” The author closed the article with a poetic reverie:

Who with th’ enlighten’d Patriots met,

On Schuylkill’s banks in close Divan,

And wing’d that arrow sure as fate,

Which ascertain’d the Sacred Rights of Man.

It was not simply happenstance that Lafayette’s Declaration of the Rights of Man was reported both widely and favorably in France and abroad. Thanks to an aide on a swift horse, Lafayette’s words had flown to Paris nearly as quickly as they were spoken. Within hours of Lafayette’s July 11 speech, a secretary could be heard reading Lafayette’s text aloud in a large chamber of the Hôtel de Ville, an enormous French Renaissance edifice located across from the vast Place de Grève (now Place de l’Hôtel de Ville) on the Right Bank of the Seine, about a mile east of the Palais-Royal. The audience was the city’s Assembly of Electors, a group of some 180 men who, having been elected to choose Paris’s representatives to the Estates-General, were now serving as the municipality’s ad hoc government. That night, printed copies of Lafayette’s speech were turned out in quantity, and by the morning of July 12, broadsides proclaiming his enumeration of every French citizen’s inalienable rights were available for purchase throughout Paris. But in such tumultuous times, the news of the morning was not always the news of the afternoon, and Lafayette’s declaration did not hold the attention of the city for long.

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