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Marquis De La Fayette
Marie Jean Paul Roch Yves Gilbert Motier, Marquis de la Fayette, one of the most celebrated men that France ever produced, was born at Chavaignac, in Auvergne, on September 6, 1757, of a noble family, with a long line of illustrious ancestors. Left an orphan at the age of thirteen, he married, three years later, his cousin Anastasie, Countess de Noailles. Inspired from the earliest age with a love of freedom and aversion to constraint, the impulses of childhood became the daydreams of youth and the realities of maturer life. Filled with enthusiastic sympathy for the struggling colonies of America in their contest with Great Britain, he offered his services to the United States, and, though his enterprise was forbidden by the French Government, hired a vessel, sailed for this country, landed at Charleston in April, 1777, and proceeded to Philadelphia. His advances having been treated by Congress with some coldness, by reason of the incessant application of other foreigners for commissions, he offered to serve as a volunteer and at his own expense. Congress may be excused for having taken him at his word; on July 31st it appointed him major-general, without pay the titular honor, which carried with it no command, being, perhaps, the highest ever given in America to a young man of nineteen years. Having accepted the cordial invitation of General Washington, the commander-in-chief, to live at his head-quarters and to serve on his staff, Lafayette was severely wounded in the leg at the battle of the Brandywine, on September 11th, and the intrepidity he displayed in that engagement was equalled by the fortitude that he evinced during the following winter, in which he shared the privations of the American army in the wretched camp at Valley Forge. His fidelity to Washington at this time, when the latter was maligned by secret foes and conspired against by Conway's cabal, cemented the friendship between those great men. Lafayette was soon afterward detached to take command of an expedition that was to set out from Albany, cross Lake Champlain on the ice, and invade Canada; but, on arriving at the intended starting-point, and finding that no adequate preparations had been made, he refused to repeat the unfortunate experiment of Montgomery and Arnold of two years before, and waited for suitable supplies to be sent to him before setting out. These came not, the ice melted in March, and he returned to Valley Forge, with the thanks of Congress for his forbearance in abstaining from risking the loss of an army in order to acquire personal glory. France having declared war against England, May 2, 1778, and at the same time effected an alliance with the colonies, Lafayette returned home in January, 1779; on his arrival at Paris he was lionized and feted, and during his stay there he received from the United States Congress a sword with massive gold handle and mounting, presented to him in appreciation of his services and particularly of his gallantry at the battle of Monmouth, on June 28th, in the preceding year. The high reputation that he had acquired in America increased his influence at home to such a degree that he was able to accomplish the object of his mission and procure money and troops from the ministry of war.
The Arch of Steel.
This was the meridian of Lafayette's career, when his popularity and his influence were at their height. Power we can hardly call it, for that implies some voluntary deed of assumption, and he always acted in obedience to others, to some authority constituted at least under the forms of law, or, in the absence of that, to the sovereign people. From this time difficulties thickened around him and he was constantly environed by suspicion and by intrigues of all kinds against his character and his life, but he never swerved from the line of his duty. Not one of the political parties gave him its entire confidence, and each in turn conspired against him, only to be baffled by the underlying conviction, on the part of the masses, of his supreme patriotism and integrity. After the flight of the king and his family, on June 20th, Lafayette was violently denounced in the Jacobin club as a friend to royalty, and accused of having assisted in the evasion; but the attempt to proscribe him in the Assembly failed utterly, and that body appointed six commissioners to protect him from the sudden fury of the people. The royal fugitives having been stopped at Varennes and brought back to the Tuileries on the 25th, he saved them, by his personal efforts, from being torn in pieces by the mob, but was compelled to guard them much more strictly than before. On July 17th a disorderly assemblage gathered in the Champ de Mars to petition for the overthrow of the monarchy, and, in the tumult that ensued on the appearance of the troops, Lafayette ordered a volley of musketry, whereby the rioters were dispersed with a loss of several killed and wounded, but whereby, also, while that act of firmness elicited commendation from all lovers of order, occasion was given for further intrigues on the part of his enemies and the shattering of his influence among the lower classes. A momentary gleam of sunshine broke forth in September, when, the king having accepted the new constitution, Lafayette took advantage of the general state of good feeling thereby produced to propose a comprehensive act of amnesty for all offences committed on either side during the revolution, which was passed by the Constituent Assembly just before its final adjournment on the 30th. On that day he resigned, permanently, the command of the National Guard, and retired to his estate at Chavaignac, being followed by the most gratifying testimonials of public regard, among them a sword and a marble statue of Washington, presented by the city of Paris, and a sword cast from one of the bolts of the Bastille, given by his old soldiers.
Contrary to his personal wishes, his friends and his patriotism persuaded him, in November, to stand as a candidate for the mayoralty of Paris, with the result that might have been foreseen, for Petion, being supported both by the Jacobins and by the court party, was elected by a large majority. This defeat did not prevent Lafayette's appointment, a month later, to the command of one of the three armies formed to defend the frontier against an expected invasion of the Austrians, the rank of lieutenant-general being given to him, with the exalted honor of marshal of France. War was declared against Austria, April 20, 1792, and hostilities began, but even the active service in which he was engaged could not keep his thoughts from the political condition of the country, and on June 16th he wrote to the Legislative Assembly, which had succeeded the Constituent in the previous autumn, a letter in which he pointed out the dangers that menaced the nation and denounced the Jacobins as the faction whose growing power was full of peril to the state. Four days later the mob invaded the Tuileries and passed riotously through all the rooms, insulting in the grossest manner the royal family, who were compelled to stand before them and undergo this humiliation for three hours. On hearing of this event Lafayette hurried from his camp and appeared before the Assembly, entreating the punishment of the instigators of the outrage. His sublime audacity in thus opposing his own personality to the machinations of his enemies, and that, too, before a body already irritated by his unasked advice, paralyzed the fury of his adversaries, while his eloquence charmed the hearts of his hearers; but all was in vain, and the only result of this heroic action was that a decree of accusation was brought in against him, which was rejected by a vote of 406 to 224. Upon the massacre of the Swiss Guards, on August 10th, followed by the actual deposition and imprisonment of the king, Lafayette sounded his army to ascertain if they would march to Paris in defence of constitutional government, but he found them vacillating and untrustworthy. His own dismissal from command came soon after: orders were sent for his arrest, and nothing remained for him but flight.
On August 19th he left the army and attempted to pass through Belgium on his way to England, but he was captured by Austrian soldiers near the frontier. He protested that he no longer held rank as an officer in the army and should be considered as a private citizen; but his rights were not respected in either capacity, for he was not treated as a prisoner of war neither was he arraigned as a criminal. On the contrary, without any charges being preferred against him, and without the formality of a trial of any kind, he was immediately thrown into prison and was detained in various Belgian, Prussian, and Austrian jails and fortresses for more than five years, the last three being passed in close confinement at Olmutz. An unsuccessful attempt at escape increased the severity of his detention, and he nearly lost his life through the hardships and privations that he endured, till his wife and daughters came, in 1795, and voluntarily shared his incarceration. The only reason for the savage treatment that he received, unjustified by any forms of international, of military, or of criminal law, seems to have lain in the fact that he had been a member of the National Assembly and prominent in the constitutional struggle for liberty.
A feeling of revenge, as mean as it was groundless--for he had done everything in his power to protect the dignity as well as the life of Marie Antoinette, the sister of the Austrian emperor--joined with a fear that other peoples might follow the lead of the French and overthrow monarchical institutions unless deterred by some world-shocking example, formed the mainspring of this atrocious procedure. Efforts were made in this country and in England to procure the release of the prisoner, but no governmental action was taken in that direction, the United States Congress declining to pass a resolution to that effect, so that President Washington was left alone in his unceasing attempts, by instructions to our ministers abroad and by a personal letter to the emperor, to repay some of the debt that he and the whole country owed to our adopted citizen. It was not till the successes of the French republican armies enabled General Bonaparte, at the instance of the Directory, to insist upon the liberation of Lafayette as one of the conditions of the treaty of Campo Formio, that he was discharged on September 19, 1797, the Austrian Government pretending that this was done out of regard for the United States of America. Passing into Denmark and Holland he resided in those countries for two years, when he returned to France only to receive from Bonaparte a significant message recommending to him a very quiet life, a piece of advice which, as it accorded with his own desires, he followed, settling down at Lagrange, an estate inherited by his wife, as his own property had been confiscated by the National Convention, which had succeeded the Legislative Assembly. True to the principles that he had always entertained, he cast his vote, in 1802, with less than nine thousand others, and in opposition to the suffrages of more than three-and-a-half millions, against the decree to make Bonaparte consul for life, writing after his name on the polling register the statement that he could not vote for such a measure till public freedom was sufficiently guaranteed. This insured the continued displeasure of the military despot, who revenged himself by refusing to Lafayette's only son, George Washington, the promotion that he had earned by his brilliant exploits in the army. President Jefferson's offer in 1803, of the governorship of the province of Louisiana, just after its purchase from France, was rejected by Lafayette, who continued in his retirement through the time of the empire and after the first restoration of the Bourbons, till the return from Elba, in March, 1815, of Napoleon, who used every exertion to conciliate him and win his support.
All these overtures he declined, but, on the other hand, accepted an election to the popular branch of the Legislature, of which he was chosen vice-president. After the battle of Waterloo, on June 18th, Napoleon returned to Paris and proposed to his council the dissolution of the Chamber of Deputies and the assumption of absolutely dictatorial power; a desperate project which was frustrated only by the alertness, vigor, and energy of Lafayette, whose eloquent appeals induced the Legislature to compel the final abdication of the emperor, under the alternative threat of forfeiture and expulsion. Five commissioners, with Lafayette at the head, appointed by the chambers, proceeded to the head-quarters of the allied sovereigns, at Haguenau, to treat for peace; but, while negotiations were pending, the foreign armies pushed on toward the capital, and he returned on July 3d, to find that Paris had capitulated and was at the mercy of the conquerors, who dictated their own terms, forcibly dissolved the Corps Legislatif, and replaced Louis XVIII. on the throne. Lafayette retired to Lagrange, but was again elected, in 1817, a deputy, in spite of the strenuous opposition of the Government, and exerted his influence in favor of liberal measures, though with indifferent success. In 1824, on the invitation of President Monroe, he revisited this country, travelled through every State, was received with the highest honors by Congress (which voted him $200,000 and a township of land for his services), by legislatures, by colleges, by corporations of cities, by societies of all kinds by his surviving comrades of the revolution, and by the whole nation; took part in the laying of the corner-stone of the Bunker Hill Monument June 17, 1825, and sailed for home in September, on the United States frigate Brandywine, which had been put at his disposal by the Government.
Soon after his return to France he was re-elected to the Corps Legislatif, and served as a member for most of the remainder of his life. The stupid tyranny of King Charles X. having caused an outbreak of the Parisians in July, 1830, Lafayette unhesitatingly espoused the popular cause, and, though nearly seventy-three years old, accepted the command of the National Guard; after a conflict of three days the royal troops gave way, the king abdicated, to be succeeded by the Duke of Orleans as King Louis Philippe, and Lafayette had the satisfaction of contributing largely to the establishment of what he had advocated so strongly forty years before--a constitutional monarchy. He died at his home, in the country, on May 20, 1834, but his remains were taken to Paris for interment, and as the funeral train passed through the streets the lamentations on every hand attested the affection and the sorrow of the people. Few men have lived who present a figure so attractive to the eye of the student; fewer still, so prominent on the theatre of history, who will bear, with so little possibility of censure, the closest scrutiny, the severest judgment. His actions were visible to all the world, his motives were transparent, his sentiments were unconcealed, his life was blameless. To the physical endowments of dignity of person and resistless charm of manner he added all desirable qualities of head and heart, a dauntless courage, an enthusiasm beautiful and yet consistent, a sublime patriotism, a disinterested generosity. If, with all these, he seems to have failed of achieving the highest success, it was because not of what he lacked but of what he possessed in the fullest degree, a lofty integrity that forbade him to pander to the passions of the mob, a supreme regard for the rights of the community and of the individual. He might have snatched the sovereign power, but in doing it he would have lost his self-respect. In place, then, of glittering success, he obtained the quiet admiration of mankind and the loving gratitude of two nations.
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