Biographies & Memoirs



Lafayette emerged victorious from a night that could well have been his last, but the time for celebration was not yet at hand. A seasoned general, he quickly surveyed the available options, assessed strategies, and then picked his next battle. He would spend the week from October 7 to October 14 embroiled in a political struggle with his old nemesis the Duc d’Orléans, who, having burnished his populist credentials, now called himself Philippe Égalité.

No one was certain how the tumult of October 5 began—the question remains open to this day—but several theories pinned the blame on Orléans. According to Madame Campan, “Many people averred that they had recognized the duc d’Orléans at four-thirty in the morning … at the top of the marble staircase pointing the way to the guardroom that led to the queen’s bedchamber.” The self-styled prince of equality was said to have been wearing a “redingote” (the word derives from the French attempt to pronounce “riding coat”)—a style of jacket imported from Orléans’s beloved England—and an unstructured hat with a turned-down brim. The chapeau rabattu would have been doubly handy; not only was the style generally worn by commoners, but its drooping edges were useful for shielding one’s face from unwanted scrutiny. A pamphlet spelled out what Campan only implied—that Orléans had instigated the march on Versailles as part of a regicide plot that would have rendered him regent, if not king.

Lafayette might or might not have helped spread these rumors, but he was certainly happy to capitalize on them. Meeting with Orléans three times in a span of seven days, Lafayette succeeded in convincing the highborn Anglophile that London might prove a safer haven than Paris, and on Wednesday, October 14, Orléans appeared before the National Assembly to request a passport, claiming that he had been “charged by His Majesty with an important mission.” In a letter to his ally Mounier, Lafayette admitted to having no proof that Orléans was conspiring against the king. If he had any, he wrote, “I would have denounced him.” Yet Orléans did not call his bluff. Whether acting out of guilt or fear, or perhaps some combination of the two, the duke decamped for England on October 15.

Out of sight was, however, not out of mind. The possibility that Orléans might return to Paris weighed heavily on Lafayette, who enlisted the help of the Chevalier de la Luzerne—then serving as ambassador to London—to keep tabs on the duke’s movements. Lafayette also dispatched one of his former aides-de-camp to the British capital to tell Orléans “that it would suit neither you nor [Lafayette] for you to return to Paris before the end of the Revolution.” Indeed, if Orléans were to head for home, Lafayette would see him “as his enemy” and would challenge him to a duel on the morning after his arrival.

Even as Lafayette eased Orléans into exile, he choreographed an intricate political dance to stabilize the leadership of the nation and to ensure his own place in the power structure. His town house became a locus of coalition building as a steady stream ofcarriages made their way to the Rue de Bourbon filled with men seeking places for themselves or their friends in what they hoped might soon be a new government. That Lafayette had no legal authority to establish such a government, much less distribute appointments within it, seems to have been a matter of little concern.

Lafayette’s strength rested in part on his military might, which had grown considerably on October 7, when Louis XVI had granted him control over any troops within a forty-five-mile radius of Paris, so that he might guarantee the “provisioning of the capital.” Lafayette also wielded another, more symbolic, form of power, deriving from his symbolic role as the French embodiment of American liberty. In the wake of the October Days (as the events of October 5 and 6 became known), journalists friendly to Lafayette repeatedly emphasized the importance of this connection for the benefit of their readers. The Courrier de Versailles à Paris et Paris à Versailles, which was edited by Lafayette’s former classmate Antoine-Joseph Gorsas, proclaimed on October 8 that the names of “Lafayette and Liberty” were “synonyms … made to be reunited.” And on October 12, the paper hailed Lafayette as “the champion of liberty in two worlds.”

Lafayette played the role to the hilt. The candidates and lobbyists who flocked to his cabinet struck deals in a room lined with English-language books on American politics—William Gordon’s The History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment of the Independence of the United States of America (1788), Joel Barlow’s The Vision of Columbus (1787), and various works by Jefferson, Adams, and other leaders of the American Revolution—and decorated with the golden Declaration of Independence that Lafayette had commissioned in 1784. No one could have emerged from the study unaware of Lafayette’s deep connection to the cause of liberty in the New World.

Morris was a frequent visitor to Lafayette’s cabinet in these days. Reveling in the gamesmanship of French politics, he and Madame de Flahaut had already drawn up their ideal list of government ministers, and on Sunday, October 11, a visit to Lafayette was the first stop on Morris’s busy social itinerary. He arrived at nine in the morning but was obliged to wait, as Lafayette was already occupied in conversation despite the early hour. Morris had friends—or, more precisely, friends of friends—whom he wished to see well placed, but first he would have to loosen Lafayette’s grip on the reins of power. Morris tried to explain “that [Lafayette] cannot possibly act both as Minister and Soldier, still less as Minister of every Department. That he must have Coadjutors in whom he can confide.” Lafayette raised moral objections to some of the names proposed by Morris, but the stubborn New Yorker would not take no for an answer. Continuing his quest to shake Lafayette from the optimism that, remarkably, seems not to have deserted him even during this period of radical social upheaval, Morris insisted that “Men do not go into Administration as the direct Road to Heaven … they are prompted by Ambition or Avarice and therefore … the only Way to secure the most virtuous is by making it in their Interest to act rightly.”

To Morris, it would seem, bedfellows made strange politics. One of the men on whose behalf he was lobbying was his mistress’s other lover, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, the bishop of Autun and a representative to the National Assembly—known to history simply as Talleyrand. As the firstborn son of a noble family, Talleyrand should have inherited the family fortune and carried on the name by the rule of primogeniture. But after a childhood accident left him with a clubfoot, his image-conscious family settled all of his rights and privileges on a younger brother; they instead steered Talleyrand toward a path traditionally followed by second sons by sending him to the clergy. And yet he was a clergyman more in name than in spirit, as amply evidenced by the Comtesse de Flauhaut’s giving birth to his child (a son) in 1784. No cause for embarrassment in the context of Parisian aristocratic mores, the lad was welcomed by the Comte de Flahaut, who was well aware that Talleyrand was the boy’s father, and the infant was even portrayed with his mother in a scene of maternal tenderness painted by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, one of the premier portraitists in Paris, and exhibited at the 1785 Salon. Morris and Talleyrand met frequently at the Hôtel de Flahaut—sometimes one arrived as the other departed, and at other times they sat and chatted amiably with or without the object of their mutual affection.

On Tuesday, November 3, Morris and Talleyrand visited Lafayette together. According to Morris’s diary, Talleyrand concluded “that La Fayette has no fixed Plan,” and Morris gathered that Lafayette had “a great Deal of the Intriguant in his Character” but that “he must be used by others because he has not talents enough to make use of them.” Perhaps their jaded ways prevented them from seeing what Lafayette was about. He was in fact quite certain of the end he wished to achieve: a constitutional monarchy that guaranteed the liberty of the French people. But being unsure of the best way to attain his objective, Lafayette adopted the technique he had learned as a nineteen-year-old member of Washington’s military family, methodically gathering advisers around himself so that he might listen to their thoughts before doing what generals inevitably must do: command and sally forth.

Many people got Lafayette wrong in those days, almost as though they couldn’t believe that his single-minded dedication to the project of a constitutional monarchy might be genuine. Marie Antoinette suspected that Lafayette intended to usurp her husband’s throne. As she confided in a conversation with Madame Campan, the queen felt sure “that the whole army was devoted to him and that everything he said about the pressure used against him to make him march on Versailles was merely a feint.” In her opinion, Lafayette had orchestrated the October Days to showcase his own power, and rumors that Lafayette was fomenting crises to advance his own interests had been spreading through Paris at least since September. One popular pamphlet asked “Why, Citizens! have Lafayette, Bailly, and the chefs of the Commune left you wanting for bread? … Imbecile residents of Paris and Versailles! … These villains [scélérats] think that you have too much life in you.” Parisians were fools to believe that their lives were more secure, insisted the anonymous author, “in the hands of the traitor La Fayette, this scoundrel, this vampire, than in those of your good king.”

In a rare case of agreement across a growing political divide, agitators on the extreme left concurred with traditionalists on the political right on the issue of Lafayette: it was universally acknowledged that he posed a grave threat to the liberty of the nation. Jean-Paul Marat, a writer and the publisher of the radical newspaper L’ami du peuple, was among the first and most outspoken of the republican firebrands who believed Lafayette to be a military dictator in the making. Marat is perhaps best remembered today for his dramatic demise; he was stabbed to death in his bathtub by a female assassin in 1793—an episode brilliantly memorialized by Jacques-Louis David, who was an ardent Jacobin for a few years and arguably the greatest French painter of the eighteenth century. But before Marat became a martyr for the revolution, he was a journalistic force to be reckoned with. Publicizing scandals, fanning the flames of conspiracy theories, and issuing warnings of imminent doom were among Marat’s weapons of choice. Marat’s tasks, in his own eyes, included “inciting an ignorant, cowardly, and corrupt people to break its tyrants’ yoke.” Defending his methods with chilling logic, Marat insisted that “everything is permitted to shake the populace out of its deadly lethargy, recall to it the sense of its rights, inspire it with the courage to defend them.” Lafayette’s friend Gorsas saw Marat rather differently, however, roundly denouncing him as “a vile and accursed man having neither honor to lose nor virtues to risk, but a cowardly pen to prostitute and black bile with which to infect paper.”

The intense animosity that sprang up between Lafayette and Marat had its roots in a dispute over freedom of the press that began during the return to order following the October Days. Lafayette’s feelings on the subject were mixed. In 1787, he condemned as “seditious” the avertissement in which Calonne attempted to rouse the ire of the people against the landed classes, and at least one preliminary draft of Lafayette’s Declaration of the Rights of Man had allowed for limits on the press, insisting that “no man may be disturbed either for … his opinions, or the communication of his thoughts by speech, writing, or print unless he has disturbed the peace by slander.” The version he presented in public was far more liberal, though, listing “the communications of his thoughts by all possible means” among every man’s “inalienable and imprescriptible” rights. On October 8, the Châtelet—the criminal court of Paris, which was closely associated with both the city police and Lafayette’s National Guard—issued a warrant for Marat’s arrest. Officially, Marat was charged with having libeled one of the city’s leaders, but behind the accusation lay a series of venomous attacks against the municipal and national governments. In one, Marat had gone so far as to call for the head of Necker, whom Marat had denounced as a traitor. In the wake of the march to Versailles, Lafayette seems to have reconsidered the consequences of unfettered free speech, especially in cases where incitement to violence was concerned.

On January 9, 1790, the National Guard made the first of several unsuccessful attempts to take Marat into custody. He responded in his favorite venue, placing an open letter to Lafayette in L’ami du peuple. As Marat described it, forty or fifty armed grenadiers and chasseurs had stormed into his home at eleven-thirty in the evening to arrest him for the high crime of publishing insults and slander. Not only should these “brave warriors” have been embarrassed by such an outsized show of force, wrote Marat, but they “should never forget that, being soldiers of the nation, they must never take up arms to oppress its defenders.” He addressed Lafayette directly, insisting that “you, sir, on whom the confidence of the nation rests,” should instill sentiments of restraint in the troops. Observing that the soldiers who came “to violate my privacy, and to tear me from my hearth” had been technically sent by the Châtelet, Marat absolved Lafayette of complicity, largely for rhetorical effect: “If this tribunal can make soldiers oppress the people with impunity and without your consent, who will stop them from using the national forces against the public? What will happen to your functions as Commander General? And what will the nation, which regards you as its avenger, think of you?” He concluded with a personal challenge, daring Lafayette “to justify in the eyes of the nation the sincerity of the patriotic sentiments that you profess.” Lafayette did not respond to Marat directly, but before the year was out he would profess his patriotism more grandly than ever before.

Since November 29, 1789, cities and towns throughout France had been hosting picturesque “festivals of federation”—elaborately choreographed celebrations organized by local members of the National Guard, in which citizens witnessed their militiamen swearing allegiance to a reborn France and its new constitution. At each event, the local population constructed stage sets, designed costumes, and composed suites of music in an outpouring of creative fervor that swept the nation throughout the spring of 1790. The largest and most spectacular of these festivals was held on July 14, 1790, at the Champ de Mars in Paris—the parade ground for the École Militaire and, today, the home of the Eiffel Tower. The celebration was meant to mark the revolution’s culmination, and it was destined to be Lafayette’s day of triumph.

Preparations began in June, when Bailly, acting on behalf of the Parisian authorities, presented the city’s plan for a Festival of Federation to the National Assembly. “Messieurs,” he began, “a new order of things is emerging and will regenerate all the parts of the realm.” Divisions among the provinces and their people having been banished, he declared, “There is now only one duty, that of submission to the law and the king; there is now only one sentiment, that of love and fraternity.” Recognizing that the nation’s future peace and prosperity would rest on this unity, Bailly rallied all “our brothers to come, as deputies of districts and departments, to join with us within our walls, in our presence, and to add to the civic oath already sworn by all the French that of being indivisibly united, to love each other always and to help each other, as the need arises, from one end of the realm to the other.” By holding the event on July 14, the city intended to honor the fall of the Bastille, a date, Bailly concluded, that marked the beginning of “the epoch of liberty.”

Festival of Federation, celebrated on the Champ de Mars, July 14, 1790. (illustration credit 15.1)

Louis XVI preparing the ground for the Festival of Federation at the Champ de Mars. (illustration credit 15.2)

The assembly approved overwhelmingly. The president envisioned a “union of all the citizens, of all the soldiers of liberty, of all the military,” who would join with “the king of a free nation” in swearing “with him to maintain this constitution as long as the sentiment of liberty and the enlightenment of reason exist among men.” The curate of Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois was even more effusive. He predicted a veritable paradise on earth, in which “citizens of all ages” would be transported by “the holy joy that will enflame their hearts.” As he saw it, July 14, 1790, would be a “beautiful day, which will never be erased from our memory.”

The plan approved by the assembly called for the Champ de Mars to undergo massive renovations. An enormous, oval amphitheater would be carved out of the training grounds, stretching the entire length of the field. At the northern end of the arena, near the Seine, a triumphal arch would permit three columns of soldiers to enter in the manner of victorious Romans. And at the center of it all, on a raised, circular platform atop a flight of steps, amid clouds of incense wafting from a ring of braziers, Lafayette would lead the crowd in swearing allegiance to the king, the nation, and the constitution, while Talleyrand—who, despite the various worldly roles he played, was a bona fide bishop—would consecrate the occasion with a Roman Catholic Mass. Louis XVI, who by this point had effectively become a bystander in his own realm, was to look on from a viewing platform covered with a canopy of blue and gold fabric to be erected just in front of the École Militaire. In the United States, Lafayette had been feted by every city he’d visited, but nothing in the young American republic could possibly compare with festivities that featured Lafayette upstaging his own monarch.

Souvenir of the Festival of Federation. (illustration credit 15.3)

To bring about this glorious spectacle, the citizens of Paris were unable to tame the heavens, but they were willing to move the earth. After pouring rains delayed construction for weeks, men, women, and children of all ages and classes—including Lafayette, members of the National Assembly, and no less a figure than the king himself—labored for days on end, swinging picks, shoveling dirt, and pushing wheelbarrows for the cause, while their voices joined together to sing “Le carillon national”—“Ah! Ça ira! Ça ira! Ça ira!” Louis-Sebastien Mercier waxed rhapsodic about the heartwarming scene of 150,000 citizens peacefully united and recalled witnesses coming away with “their eyes bathed in tears.” So picturesque was the sight that an anonymous society of artists took out a classified ad on July 12 offering hand-colored commemorative drawings depicting a “View of the Patriots’ Work on the Champ de Mars.” Each made-to-order drawing promised “gay scenes, unique tableaux, a striking mélange of varied costumes, an astonishing flurry of cheerful groups brought together by chance.” Together, these joyous vignettes would help to “perpetuate the memory of an event that posterity will find hard to believe.” Advance orders were welcome; any visitors from the provinces who might wish “to help their countrymen enjoy the view of a spectacle that they were not able to attend” were advised that pictures commissioned before the festival would be ready for pickup four days later.

Such enterprising draftsmen were but a small part of the vast cottage industry that sprang up in Paris in July 1790 as individuals from all walks of life sought to cash in on the opportunities presented by the influx of tens of thousands of men from every corner of the nation. Advertisements for products and services ranging from commemorative souvenirs to ride-shares for the homeward journey vied for the attention of “Messieurs les Députés” in the pages of the daily Affiches, annonces, et avis divers. Capitalizing on a fortuitous view of the Champ de Mars, the owner of a “large and comfortable house” situated on the Chaillot hill offered all-inclusive tickets for twenty-four livres apiece, providing “refreshments of all variety,” an afternoon concert, “a good dinner” at nine p.m., and a grand ball to cap off the night. Another property owner sold no-frills seats with views of the procession at lower rates varying from three livres to one livre, sixteen sous, depending on proximity and line of sight. Performances and spectacles adopted patriotic themes, as the Comédie Française appended topical verses to its presentation of July 9—for instance, taking liberties with the geography of America’s heroes to produce the rhyme “Paris, like Boston / has in Bailly, in Lafayette / its Franklin and its Washington.” On July 11, a commercial pleasure ground in the Marais called the Vauxhall d’Été offered illuminations, fireworks, and a spectacular reenactment of “The Taking of the Bastille,” described as a “grand pyrotechnic Pantomime ending with The Temple of Liberty.” And on July 14, just hours after the national festival concluded, the circus at the Palais-Royal re-created it in a “musical drama,” with tickets priced at double the usual cost.

As fate would have it, the festival itself turned out to be a sodden affair, as a cold wind and frequent downpours arrived before dawn on July 14, drenching the crowds camped out on the Champ de Mars. The dreadful weather continued for most of the day, but no item was omitted from the agenda, as the fédérés, as members of the National Guard from each of the nation’s eighty-three departments were known, started gathering at six in the morning and celebrated through the morning and afternoon, with events culminating in a dinner held in their honor at the nearby Château de la Muette at six in the evening. The opening procession alone lasted hours: representatives from scores of civil and military groups filed through the triumphal arches in fits and starts. The army sent detachments of cavalry, grenadiers, artillerymen, chasseurs, and hussars. Paris was represented by its electors and mayor as well as the presidents of each district, a battalion of veterans, a group of children, and a corps of musicians. The National Assembly was out in full force, joining the Paris National Guard and the fédérés. It was not until three-thirty in the afternoon that Talleyrand took his place at the altar to bless the white flags held aloft by the eldest member of every departmental deputation. Following a full Latin Mass, Lafayette’s moment finally arrived. Five hundred drums beat as one as he climbed the steps to the altar. Miraculously, the rain abated as Lafayette led the assembled crowd, some 350,000 strong, in swearing allegiance to the nation, the law, and the king.

Helen Maria Williams, an English author who attended the Festival of Federation, surely exaggerated when she called the spectacle “the triumph of human kind,” but it was indisputably the triumph of Lafayette. The Révolutions de Paris, whose editors had grown wary of Lafayette’s overweening success, parodied the day’s outsized displays of affection in a tongue-in-cheek report on the fédérés’ fondness for their hero: “Ten thousand of them dashed towards him, some kissing his face, others his hands, others his uniform: it was only with great difficulty that he managed to remount his horse.” Referring to Suetonius’s account of the notoriously depraved emperor Caligula, who appointed his horse consul, the authors predicted that “if there had been an election, popular folly might have lavished on M. de la Fayette’s horse … the honors that a Roman emperor bestowed upon his own in a fit of despotic frenzy.”

In contrast to Lafayette’s white horse, Louis XVI was barely noticed. Declining to join the grand procession due to the rain, the king entered the royal pavilion through a rear door. He bore no scepter and wore neither crown nor ceremonial robe. Put out by this grandiose display of his own insignificance, the king did not so much as “bother to leave his throne for the altar to give the people who had loaned him twenty-five million [livres] … the satisfaction of seeing him take the oath,” in the words of the Révolutions de Paris.

In the hours and days that followed the oath taking, Lafayette continued to reign triumphant. William Short, Jefferson’s private secretary who succeeded Jefferson as the American ambassador to France, wrote to Morris, then sojourning in London, to say that Lafayette “seemed to have taken full possession of the fédérés—his popular manner pleased them beyond measure.” Writing to Jefferson, Short noted that Lafayette had opened the ground floor of his home to the fédérés, feeding at first one hundred, then a hundred and fifty, then two or three hundred men every day at tables set up wherever space permitted. According to the Englishwoman Helen Maria Williams, Lafayette, “who is so justly the idol of the French nation,” was nearly smothered at the feast at La Muette. Writing to a friend in England, she related that Lafayette had cried out, “But, my friends, you stifle me!” before being whisked away in the interest of his own safety. For the rest of the week, as dances and festivals enlivened the streets of Paris and visiting soldiers filled the arcades of the Palais-Royal with “the air of the general rendez vous of all the votaries of Mars, Bacchus, and Venus,” the Révolutions de Paris observed that Lafayette “was everywhere, and everywhere he received the honors of an apotheosis.” An illuminated transparency of his likeness and a corresponding image of Bailly were erected on the Pont Neuf, placed on either side of the equestrian statue of the still-beloved Bourbon monarch Henri IV, while a vast outpouring of prints, paintings, poems, and songs celebrated Lafayette as the man who brought liberty to France. According to the Révolutions de Paris, as the fédérés began to pack their bags full of souvenirs to share with friends and family at home, “all the editions of the portrait of this hero sold out.”

Lafayette at the altar of the Festival of Federation, July 14, 1790. (illustration credit 15.4)

Among the thousands of pieces of revolutionary memorabilia held in the remarkable collections of the Musée Carnavalet (the museum of Paris history), one oil painting epitomizes the week’s veneration of Lafayette. The artist, whose identity is unknown, offers a close-up view of the patriotic altar erected on the Champ de Mars just as Lafayette begins to read the oath to the expectant crowd. Dressed in his blue-and-white National Guard uniform, Lafayette stands proudly atop the circular platform, his upright posture echoed by the columnar altar in front of him and the triumphal arch in the distance. Talleyrand, in his bishop’s miter, stands a few steps down, in a position so marginal that his robes seem to flow past the picture’s rightmost edge. At the left, two fédérés—perhaps the men who commissioned the painting—gaze directly at the viewer as their companions tilt their heads upward, mouths parted in anticipation of the coming pledge. Lafayette’s raised left hand holds a piece of paper, presumably the text of the oath, while he points with his sword, using his right hand, at the base of a small crucifix. Although dark clouds occlude much of the sky, three diagonal beams of light streak down through a clear blue patch at the upper left, pointing directly at Lafayette, as though the very forces of nature had conspired to heighten the drama. A gust of wind threatens to topple the red, white, and blue figure of a patriotic altar boy, who struggles to remain upright as his tricolor flag, caught in the wind, pulls him back. Lafayette alone stands effortlessly erect, commanding our admiration.

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