“Happily ever after” is a fate reserved to only a few heroes. Most find life after their great triumphs quite disappointing. For Lafayette, the years after the victory over the British army in 1789 brought a long decline into tragedy.
Within 8 years of the Marquis’ return to France, the ruling aristocracy was in trouble. King Louis XVI had squandered the treasury so badly that, by 1789, he could only hold onto his crown by agreeing to share power with a National Assembly of citizens.
Lafayette was one of the few nobles who immediately joined this new government. He quickly directed military convoys to bring food into the poorest sections of the city. He gave orders to level the Bastille prison and he sent the gate key as a gift to President Washington. He wrote a “Declaration of the Rights of Man of the Citizen” — a French version of our bill of rights, and presented it to the Assembly in Paris.
However, his “Rights” weren’t radical enough for Parisian demagogues, who rewrote the document to their benefit. Lafayette soon recognized he was stranded in a dangerous middle ground. The old nobility had never fully trusted him since his return from America. The radicals considered him an enemy because he had tried to curb the slaughter of aristocrats by mobs. The government had put him in charge of the militia, but when he used force to disperse a mob, he was declared him a criminal.
Realizing that his life was barely more secure than the king’s, he tried to flee the country. He slipped into Holland, heading for sanctuary in the United States. But before he could reach the coast, he was captured by Austrian troops, who were massing on the border, preparing to invade France and overturn the revolutionary government.
Lafayette was a prisoner, and the crowned heads of Europe gloated. Finally they had caught the rebel aristocrat who had betrayed his class and fought for the rights of commoners
The Austrians imprisoned Lafayette, but soon moved him to a jail in Prussia. Two years later, with his health broken, his fortune seized by the French government, and his wife imprisoned in Paris, his fortunes fell again when he was moved to a dungeon in Bohemia. For the next five years, this celebrated general of the American Revolution lived in solitude, chained to the wall of a small, filthy cell.
He was released after seven years of captivity. Napoleon Bonaparte had assumed control of the government and obtained his release. He also offered Lafayette a commission in the French imperial army. But Lafayette had learned to recognize tyrants in the making. He turned down the offer and moved to a country estate. Then, in 1824, came the invitation from President Monroe.
Americans gave Lafayette all the adulation they could muster, in city after city. They crowded the streets to see him, and cheered everything he said. As one Post reporter wrote:
It is impossible to travel through the towns of Connecticut and not feel a part of the enthusiasm which pervaded all classes. Even the poor lads who drove the carriages entered fully into the common feeling, and seemed proud of the honours… “Behave pretty now, Charley,” said the drive of Lafayette’s coach to one of his horses,” behave pretty Charley — you are going to carry the greatest man in the world. [August 28]
The national celebration was a response to Lafayette’s great service to the United States, but also an awareness of the suffering he had endured for liberty. In the warmth of the adulation he felt across the country, surely Lafayette felt some of his old spirit and youth return. A Post reporter who saw Lafayette in New York observed—
The General is now about 67 years old, and must have been blessed with a good constitution to have borne so well his severe and long confinement and the suffering incident to a change of fortune. His mind appears to have been but little impaired, and retains much of its original vigor and vivacity. His memory is very retentive; he is once familiar, and he enters into the details of the war of our revolution with great accuracy. —
He is of fine portly figure, about 5 feet 11 inches high, has strong and full features, prominent eye brows, but his fine forehead is somewhat concealed by a wig — his manner is graceful and dignified; and he very soon puts his company perfectly at ease. There is always great mildness in his countenance that in conversation is brightened by a smile, which carries with it evidence that it proceeds from the heart.
He speaks the English language with fluency, and when animated, with eloquence; his pronunciation alone betraying that he is by birth a Frenchman. He is lame, but not so much so as to impede his progress, as he walks tolerably fast, and gets into his carriage without assistance —
Lafayette must surely have felt his years of hardship slip away during his visit to Virginia, where he dined with three past presidents.
We cannot image any meeting of living individuals, which it would have been so delightful and impressive to witness, as the interview between these four venerable men — Lafayette, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. What stations have they occupied, how conspicuous the parts they have acted, and what space they fill in the world’s history! The group would have been complete could the patriarch Adams have been present.
(He had earlier seen Adams in Massachusetts so he could claim, when leaving, that he had dined with all the Presidents of the United States — all but the one he still revered as his father.)
In September of 1824, Lafayette had been asked to address Congress. The speaker of the House introduced him as a hero and a paragon of republican virtues. But Lafayette didn’t respond as a hero. He spoke, instead, of his indebtedness to America and its ideals.
My obligations to the United States, sir, far exceed any merit I might claim. They date from the time when I have had the happiness to be adopted as a young solder, a favored son of America. They have been continued to me during almost half a century of constant affection and confidence, and now, sir, thanks to your most gratifying imitation, I find myself greeted by a series of welcomes, one hour of which would more than compensate for the public exertions and sufferings of a whole life — The approbation of the American people and their Representatives, for my conduct during the vicissitudes of the European Revolution, is the highest reward I could receive. Well may I stand “firm and erect,” when, in their names, and by you, Mr. Speaker, I am declared to have, in every instance, been faithful to those American principles of liberty, equality, and true social order, the devotion to which, as it has been from my earliest youth, so it shall continue to be of my latest breath.