Study Guide

Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette in Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen

By The Marquis de Lafayette

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Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette

Born To Lead

Ah, yes: the guy with the longest name that you've never heard of. But this is a dude you should get to know, because this is one non-stuffy Marquis. Although it's safe to assume that in high school the Marquis de Lafayette was not voted Most Likely to Abolish the Nobility (because that would have been considered scandalous) but he worked most of his adult life to do just that.

The Marquis de Lafayette was born into one of France's wealthiest and most distinguished noble families. Marquis isn't his name—although it would make an awesome first name—it's his title, putting him above a count, but below a duke. He came from a long line of French military commanders and he was no exception. Lafayette became an officer in the Musketeers (yup, like The Three Musketeers) at age eleven. But, like most jobs given to the French nobility, his duties were mainly ceremonial.

Lafayette did learn how to do more than just march in parades. By age eighteen he became obsessed with what was going on in the American colonies. Historians aren't exactly sure what turned him. His father had been killed fighting the British, so maybe he wanted revenge. Or he may have come into contact with soldiers, or his fellow freemasons, who convinced him that the Americans were fighting a just cause.

Whatever the reason, in 1776 he demanded to be sent to fight on the American side and even paid his own way when the Continental Congress of the United States failed to come up with the money.

As a major general Lafayette took charge in America commanding French troops who'd arrived unable to speak English and untrained in combat. He impressed George Washington by being the type of courageous young go-getter who even after being shot in the leg kept on fighting. (Dang, Marquis.) He returned to France mid-war to convince King Louis XVI to send more troops and then once he was back in the U.S. he played a big part in the final battle of Yorktown where the British finally surrendered.

Lovin' Lafayette

News of Lafayette's victories—and his just downright awesomeness—spread through both the United States and France so that he was a bit of an international celebrity everywhere he went. People couldn't get enough of the guy. He toured the U.S. to cheering crowds and went back to France where they heaped all kinds of awards and honors on him including, most notably, electing him to the Estates General in 1789.

Lafayette was made a representative of the nobility, the Second Estate. However, unlike most of the rest of the titled elite, Lafayette wanted to change things up. The same principles that convinced him to fight with the American upstarts against their king, made him call for more equality and representation for the average Frenchman. He tried to change the rules so that the Estates General voted by head, which would have given the large Third Estate the majority. When he was overruled and they continued to vote by Estate, the Third Estate was always outvoted two to one (by the First and Second Estate).

Huh: wonder why the First and Second Estate wouldn't have been too keen on a Lafayette's ideas?

Lafayette joined the Third Estate when they formed the National Assembly and convinced them to consider his little side project: the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. He'd written it with help from Thomas Jefferson who was serving as ambassador to France. With adjustments, the document was approved and Lafayette was now a heroic figure on and off the battlefield.

But his luck was about to change.

The Terror

Lafayette was put in command of the National Guard, which sounds like the perfect job for him, but it didn't actually go very well. When the king and his family almost escaped out of France, Lafayette was blamed. As the Revolution turned more radical and violent Lafayette's troops failed to maintain any kind of peace in the streets of Paris. Extremists like Maximilien Robespierre claimed Lafayette was a royalist and too sympathetic to the nobility to be allowed to lead military forces. The Reign of Terror nearly ended his life—his mother-in-law and several other members of his wife's family were guillotined.

After being imprisoned and then temporarily exiled, Lafayette spent the rest of his life watching first Napoleon Bonaparte, then members of King Louis family attempt to reign over France and quash the revolution he'd believed in. Cue the sad trombone.

He mainly avoided politics and refused to fully accept the return of the French monarchy, pretty much becoming a cranky old man who talked a lot about how things were better back in the day when he was young and spry. He is remembered as an important—but ultimately unsuccessful—champion of Enlightenment ideals in France.

Maybe his superlative in high school was "Most Likely to Almost Succeed."

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