The marquis de Lafayette earned fame and the moniker “hero of two worlds” for his bravery during the American Revolution (1775-1783). His experience in the United States sowed the seeds of the idea of liberty in his mind and he wrote the first Declaration of the Rights of Man after returning to France. As commander of the National Guard during the French Revolution, Lafayette wavered between monarchists and revolutionaries and was forced to flee abroad.
Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette, came to Versailles at the age of 17. He had everything it took to succeed – a huge fortune and ties by marriage to a powerful family close to Louis XVI – but his independent spirit led him to turn down a brilliant court position and instead he chose a military career. As a young officer Lafayette became impassioned by the American rebels’ cause and secretly organised a voyage to the New World against the king’s wishes.
At the age of 20 Lafayette became a major-general in the American army and a friend of Washington’s, who treated him like a son. A veritable hero, he helped the ragtag colonial army win several battles, especially the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, a decisive event that led England to grant the Americans’ their independence. The Treaty of Versailles officially ended the war two years later. Lafayette returned to France and triumphed at the court; he danced a quadrille with Marie-Antoinette at the Trianon and, despite his progressive ideas, was always treated with kindness by Louis XVI.
The ideas of liberty had won over the young officer in the United States. At the National Assembly, formed in June 1789, he drafted the first Declaration of the Rights of Man, which was closely based on the Declaration of Independence. The day after the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789 he was appointed, against the king’s wishes, commander of the national guard, which had responsibility for keeping order in Paris and consequently played a decisive role in the French Revolution’s early days. When the people of Paris marched on Versailles in October, they swamped Lafayette and his men, overran the château and slaughtered the bodyguards defending the queen’s apartment. But the marquis managed to save Marie-Antoinette in the nick of time; they appeared together on the balcony of the king’s bedroom. Louis XVI and the court left for Paris, never to see Versailles again. Lafayette, wavering between the revolutionary and monarchist factions, looked suspicious to everybody. He had to flee abroad during the Reign of Terror, and unsuccessfully tried to save Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette from the guillotine.
Lafayette spent five hard years in Austrian dungeons, took a long retirement at his château in Auvergne, and made one last triumphal journey to the United States before springing back to the forefront when he handed Louis-Philippe the new French flag in 1830. It was blue, white and red, the colours of the insignia he had given the national guard in 1789.
Lafayette was posthumously made an honorary citizen of the United States in 2002.