La Fayette

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Born in the Chateau de Chavaniac in Auvergne on Septermber 6th 1757, Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette was a young liberal member of the aristocracy in the late 1780ies. Shortly after his marriage to Mdslle de Noailles he became enamoured of the American colonists struggle against the British authorities in North America. For two years from early 1777 to late 1778 he fought among the revolutionaries at his own expense. When he returned to France in 1779 he became an ardent campaigner for French intervention in the conflict and when France declared war on England he returned to the fray, helping to defend Virginia and participating in the taking of Yorktown.

From this time on La Fayette was a supporter of democratic ideas and openly supported a limited revolution to bring about a constitutional monarchy controled by a representative body of nobles and the upper echelons of the Bourgeoisie. He was elected to the Estates-General, sitting among the nobles, he actively urged the three estates to be joined together. After July 14th he became the commander of the National Guard and ordered his troops to wear the red-white-and-blue cocard. During the October insurrection he escorted the royal family safely back to Paris.

At the Fete de la Federation La Fayette's popularity peaked and he would have liked to end the revolution there and remain in a position of power between the king and the assembly, but his naive optimism was not enough to hold back the forces now set in motion. Marie-Antoinette hated him and the democrats distrusted him too. In the aftermath of the flight to Varennes he tried to impose a cover-up and ordered his troops to fire on an angry mob in the Champs-de-Mars. This act destroyed his reputation as a popular leader and labelled him as a counter-revolutionary.

Nonetheless when war was declared he was given command of the Armée du Centre. June 20th 1792 he made a final bid to defend a limited monarchy, threatening to march on Paris. He was promptly branded an outlaw and fled, being taken prisoner by the Austrians and held by them until the treaty of Campo Formio in 1797.

La Fayette returned to France in 1800 but did not participate in Napoeon's regime. He was elected to the assembly during the 100 days and contributed to Bonaparte's final downfall. Under the Restoration (1815-1830) he became one of the foremost liberal political leaders, and for many a symbol of the great days of 1789. This newfound popularity made him a key figure in the revolution of 1830, when he was one of those who rejected the republic and opted for a limited monarchy under Louis-Philippe. Louis quickly distanced himself from the old campaigner, though, and for the last four years of his life La Fayette staunchly opposed yet another regime he had helped to bring to power. He died in Paris May 20th 1834.

This entry is part of the French Revolution University Project.

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