4/23/09 - the marquis de lafayette

In today's encore excerpt - in the bloodiest hours of the French Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette, a true hero of the American Revolution lay pale and emaciated in a filthy Austrian dungeon:

"How was it that Lafayette, having blazed trails of glory in America, was so spectacularly unsuccessful in guiding the French Revolution? It is an intriguing puzzle. He was ... six-foot-one, unusually handsome and marvelously self-deprecating, he possessed an exquisite bloodline that stretched back to service for Joan of Arc. His family had spilled blood in the name of country, served kings in the name of honor, and amassed extraordinary wealth; he was perhaps the richest aristocrat in France. ... But at the age of nineteen, brimming with passions and compassion and idealism, left it all behind and, defying orders of the king, volunteered to fight and bleed for American independence. And fight and bleed he did: He groped his way through South Carolina's swamps, endured the hideous cold at Valley Forge, weathered the tireless crack of enemy fire in Virginia, and was wounded at the Battle of Brandywine. ... Lafayette was a courageous and canny soldier, revered and loved by his troops. And when America's Revolution tottered on the brink of failure, he harbored no illusions save for idealism, and promptly set sail for France to help push Europe's oldest most entrenched monarchy to ally itself with the upstart rebels against a fellow king. Succeeding, he arrived on American shores with a sizable French armada in tow, then played a critical role in the campaign that ultimately led to Britain's defeat at Yorktown, earning him the accolade of 'the conqueror of Cornwallis.' ...

"Washington welcomed him 'as if he were my own son'; in turn, Lafayette loved Washington back as 'my adoptive father.' ...

"Yet, whatever Lafayette's successes in America, they quickly turned to farce and then calamity when he labored to transplant American-style liberty and constitutionalism in his native land; more often than not, as the revolution intensified and the bloodshed mounted, he was fatally naive, or, at times downright incompetent. ... Once the royal family was incarcerated in the Temple and as an arrest warrant now hung over his head, he hoped to flee to Britain and settle in his adopted land—America. ... He told his wife: 'Let us settle in America, where we will find the liberty that no longer exists in France.' But it was not meant to be, for in France he was a marked man, and across Europe monarchs damned Lafayette for having carried this dreaded disease [of liberty] over from America and releasing it on their continent. ...

"Seized by Austrians, Lafayette protested that he was an American citizen; unmoved, their response was to lock him up in a fortress prison. ... For her part, Lafayette's wife begged Washington to use his influence to obtain Lafayette's release. But Washington was as helpless as she was—the United States was still allied with Jacobin France, which wanted Lafayette's head, and lacked sway with the monarchies of Europe. ... In prison, however, Lafayette soon became almost unrecognizable: Once days turned to weeks, then weeks to months and months to years, he was covered in rags, his hair fell out, and oozing sores covered his skin. But unlike so many of his compatriots, at least he was still alive."


Jay Winik


The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800


Harper Collins Publishers


Copyright 2007 by Jay Winik


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