Napoleon and the Marquis de Lafayette

Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette by Ary Scheffer, 1824

Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette by Ary Scheffer, 1824

Major General Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette, was a hero of both the American and French revolutions. Though Lafayette initially hoped that Napoleon would serve the cause of liberty, he was soon disillusioned. His low-key opposition and refusal to accept office under the Consulate and Empire made the Marquis de Lafayette a continuing thorn in Napoleon’s side.

Imprisoned for the Revolution

Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette was born in Chavaniac, France, on September 6, 1757 to a wealthy noble family. At the age of 13, he joined a company of the king’s musketeers. In 1773, he was posted to the regiment of Noailles as a sub-lieutenant. His marriage was arranged to Marie Adrienne Françoise de Noailles. He moved in with the Noailles family, who were connected with the French royals. Lafayette trained at the riding school of Versailles with the dauphin (Louis XVI), the Count of Provence (Louis XVIII), and the Count of Artois (Charles X). Although he and his wife regularly attended Marie Antoinette’s balls, Lafayette did not care for the frivolousness of court life.

In 1777, the Marquis de Lafayette sailed to North America to assist the Americans during their revolutionary war against Britain. Back in France, he was elected to the Estates-General of 1789. He helped write the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.” After the storming of the Bastille, Lafayette became commander-in-chief of the National Guard. He tried to maintain order and protect the rule of law as radicals gained in influence.

In 1792, Lafayette denounced the Jacobins and other radicals. A warrant was put out for his arrest. He fled from France, but was captured by the Austrians, who imprisoned him in Olmütz for his role in the French Revolution. His wife and two daughters were eventually allowed to join him.

The nagging question of liberty

In 1797, the Directory instructed then General Napoleon Bonaparte to negotiate the release of the prisoners at Olmütz as part of the Treaty of Campo Formio. This Napoleon did, earning Lafayette’s gratitude. Lafayette’s view of Napoleon was not entirely rosy, however. In October 1799, not long before Napoleon’s coup d’état of 18 Brumaire, the Marquis de Lafayette wrote to a friend:

Bonaparte thinks only of his own ambition, and until now has not found glory in serving liberty…. He will risk no personal advantage for the sake of liberty; he has proved that his soul could quite happily watch and even cooperate in its violation. If, however, his fame and his ambition demand that he put himself forward in defence of the cause, he will do so. His wish must be to establish the Republic on a solid foundation of liberty and justice. (1)

The Marquis de Lafayette and Napoleon met several times when Napoleon was First Consul. They had an extended conversation at Joseph Bonaparte’s estate on October 2, 1800, during a party to celebrate the signing of the Treaty of Mortefontaine between France and the United States. Part of the discussion reportedly went as follows:

Napoleon: ‘You must have found the French looking very coldly upon liberty.’

Lafayette: ‘Yes, but they are in a condition to receive it.’

Napoleon: ‘They are much disgusted, the Parisians, for example. The shopkeepers want no more of it.’

Lafayette: ‘It’s not lightly, General, that I’ve used this expression. I do not ignore the effect of the crimes and follies which have profaned the name of liberty; but the French are, perhaps, more than ever in a state to receive it. It is for you to give it; it is from you that it is expected.’ (2)

By now you will have gathered that liberty was a bit of sticking point between Napoleon and Lafayette. Still, they remained on friendly terms. As Napoleon gradually began to admit exiles back into France, Lafayette asked for the names of his friends and relatives to be removed from the list of proscribed persons. Napoleon granted this request. Napoleon also (through intermediaries) invited Lafayette to join the Senate and offered him the position of ambassador to the United States, but Lafayette refused.

Lafayette replied that the silence of his retreat was the maximum of his deference; that if Bonaparte had been willing to be of service to liberty, he would have been devoted to him, but that he could neither approve nor associate himself with an arbitrary government. (3)

Lafayette continued to hope that Napoleon would balance his ambition with support for liberty. When Lafayette congratulated Napoleon on surviving the “infernal machine” assassination attempt of December 24, 1800, Napoleon told him:

You may disapprove of this government, think me a despot; … you will see one day whether I am working for myself or for posterity… But in the end, I am master of this government, I, whom the revolution, whom you, whom all the patriots have placed where I am; and if I brought these people [the royalists] here, it would be to deliver you to all their vengeance. (4)

As Lafayette continued to plump for liberty, his relations with Napoleon soured. In the spring of 1802, Napoleon said,

‘I must tell you, General Lafayette, and I see with regret that, by your manner of expressing yourself on the acts of the government you give to its enemies the weight of your name.’ Lafayette replied, ‘What better can I do? I live in retirement in the country, I avoid occasions for speaking; but whenever anyone comes to ask me whether your regime conforms to my ideas of liberty, I shall answer that it does not; for, General, I certainly wish to be prudent, but I shall not be false.’ (5)

Lafayette’s vote against Napoleon’s establishment of the consulship for life marked a complete break between the two. Lafayette explained his vote in these terms:

I cannot vote for such a magistracy until public liberty has been sufficiently guaranteed; then I will give my voice for Napoleon Bonaparte. (6)

He provided a more extended rationale to Napoleon in a letter dated May 20, 1802.

General – When a man who is deeply impressed with a sense of the gratitude he owes you, and who is too ardent a lover of glory to be wholly indifferent to yours, connects his suffrage with conditional restrictions, those restrictions not only secure him from suspicion, but prove amply that no one will more gladly than himself behold in you the chief magistrate for life, of a free and independent republic. The 18th Brumaire saved France from destruction; and I felt myself reassured and recalled by the liberal declarations to which you have connected the sanction of your honor. In your consular authority, there was afterwards discerned that salutary dictatorial prerogative, which, under the auspices of a genius like yours, accomplished such glorious purposes; yet less glorious, let me add, than the restoration of liberty would prove. … The people of this country have been acquainted with their rights too long to forget them forever; but perhaps they may recover and enjoy them better now, than during the period of revolutionary effervescence. And you, by the strength of your character, and the influence of public confidence, by the superiority of your talents, your power, and your fortune, in re-establishing the liberties of France, can allay all agitations, calm all anxieties, and subdue all dangers. When I wish, then, to see the career of your glory crowned by the honors of perpetual magistracy, I but act in correspondence with my own private sentiments, and am influenced exclusively by patriotic considerations. But all my political and moral obligations, the principles that have governed every action of my life, call on me to pause, before I bestow on you my suffrage, until I feel assured, that your authority shall be erected on a basis worthy of the nation and yourself. (7)

The Marquis de Lafayette retired to his rural estate of La Grange, east of Paris. In 1804, Joseph Bonaparte again made an attempt to get Lafayette on side by offering him an elevated rank in the Legion of Honour. Lafayette refused, saying it was the chivalry of an order of things contrary to his principles.

Irritated by Lafayette’s refusal to support his government, Napoleon refused to promote Lafayette’s eldest son George above the level of lieutenant. George had repeatedly distinguished himself in the army, particularly at the Battle of Eylau. George and Lafayette’s son-in-law Louis de Lasteyrie – similarly discriminated against – both quit the French army in September 1807.

The Marquis de Lafayette did not bend in his politics. Napoleon continued to regard him with suspicion. In an 1812 discussion in which Napoleon criticized the men of the Revolution, he said:

Gentlemen, this is not aimed at you; I know your devotion to the power of the throne; everybody in France is corrected. I was thinking of the only man who is not – Lafayette; he has never retreated an inch. You see him quiet now; well, I assure you that he is ready to begin again. (8)

Nailing the coffin

Though the Marquis de Lafayette had misgivings about the return of the Bourbons in 1814, he found Louis XVIII preferable to Napoleon. When Napoleon escaped from Elba and landed in France in 1815, Lafayette rushed to Paris to oppose the Emperor’s return.

I had no faith in the conversion of Napoleon, and I saw better prospects in the awkward and pusillanimous ill-will of the Bourbons than in the vigorous and profound perversity of their adversary. (9)

Lafayette refused to serve in Napoleon’s new government, but allowed himself to be elected to a seat in the Chamber of Deputies. When Lucien Bonaparte begged the deputies to support Napoleon after his defeat at Waterloo, Lafayette responded:

Who shall dare to accuse the French nation of inconstancy to the Emperor Napoleon? That nation has followed his bloody footsteps through the sands of Egypt and through the wastes of Russia; over fifty fields of battle; in disaster as faithfully as victory; and it is for having thus devotedly followed him that we now mourn the blood of three millions of Frenchmen. (10)

Lafayette pressed for Napoleon’s abdication. When it was finally offered, Lafayette was part of the deputation sent to the Tuileries to thank Napoleon for this act. Lafayette later said:

We found him, upon this occasion as upon many others, acting out of the ordinary rules of calculation; neither affecting the pathetic dignity of fallen greatness, nor evincing the uncontrollable dejection of disappointed ambition, of hopes crushed, never to revive, and of splendor quenched, never to rekindle. We found him calm and serene – he received us with a faint and gracious smile. He spoke with firmness and precision. I think the parallel for this moment was that when he presented his breast to the troops drawn out against him, on his return from Elba, exclaiming, ‘I am your emperor, strike if you will.’ There have been splendid traits in the life of this man, not to be reconciled to his other modes of conduct – his character is out of all ordinary keeping and to him the doctrine of probabilities could never, in any instance, be applied. (11)

The Marquis de Lafayette under the Restoration

In 1819, the Marquis de Lafayette was again elected as an opposition member of the Chamber of Deputies. Though this put him on the same side as the Bonapartists, he continued to criticize Napoleon privately. He had little patience for the Champ d’Asile, the Bonapartist colony in Texas, for which the French newspaper La Minerve was raising money. Instead he urged his friends to contribute to a collection for the relief of indigent exiles, a “more useful” enterprise than “gifts to Texas where surely no one is hungry.” (12)

By 1820, Lafayette was pessimistic about what could be accomplished in the Chamber. Just as he does in Napoleon in America, Lafayette became involved in liberal plots to overthrow the Bourbons. He lent his name and his money to enterprises that had little chance of success. Most notably, in December 1821, Lafayette and his son George started out in their carriage to join a planned rising at Belfort in Alsace. Lafayette’s longtime servant Bastien (Sebastien Wagner), who also appears in Napoleon in America, joined them.

When the general saw his old servant Bastien enter the carriage, he said, ‘Bastien, George and I are about to risk our heads; I ought to warn you that in accompanying us you may be risking your own.’ Bastien replied, ‘I know it, General. I know what we are about to do; but don’t let that disturb you; I am going on my own account; moreover, these opinions are also mine.’ (13)

Warned en route that the plot had been discovered, Lafayette diverted the carriage to a nearby town. He stayed with a friend and concocted a plausible excuse for the trip. Though the government tried to implicate Lafayette in the conspiracy, witnesses shielded him. Lafayette also became involved in Charles Fabvier’s plans to subvert the French forces headed for Spain in 1823.

During his tour of the United States in 1824, Lafayette visited Joseph Bonaparte in New Jersey, and met Achille Murat, the son of Napoleon’s sister Caroline. After the July 1830 Revolution dethroned Charles X, Joseph wrote to Lafayette – who was again head of the National Guard – asking for abolition of the law that exiled the Bonapartes from France. He also suggested that Napoleon’s son, Napoleon II, could be called to the throne. Lafayette replied:

The Napoleon system was resplendent with glory, but it was stamped with despotism, aristocracy, and slavery.… Besides, the son of your wonderful brother has become an Austrian prince, and you know very well what the cabinet of Vienna is. For these reasons, my dear Count, and notwithstanding my personal feelings towards you, it was impossible for me to wish for the re-establishment of a throne which the Hundred Days had shown was incorrigible in its tendency to former errors. (14)

Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette, died on May 20, 1834, at the age of 76. Click here to read about his final days and his last words. The Marquis de Lafayette is buried in Picpus Cemetery in Paris.

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  1. Étienne Charavay, Le Général Lafayette, 1757-1834 (Paris, 1898), p. 374.
  2. Bayard Tuckerman, Life of General Lafayette, Vol. II (London, 1889), p. 152.
  3. Ibid., p. 154.
  4. Le Général Lafayette, 1757-1834, p. 384.
  5. Life of General Lafayette, Vol. II, p. 158.
  6. Le Général Lafayette, 1757-1834, p. 385.
  7. Life of Lafayette (Boston, 1835), p. 103.
  8. Life of General Lafayette, Vol. II, p. 174.
  9. Ibid., p. 184.
  10. Life of Lafayette, pp. 113-114.
  11. Sydney Morgan, France (Philadelphia, 1817), Part 2, p. 132.
  12. Sylvia Neely, Lafayette and the Liberal Ideal 1814-1824 (Carbondale and Edwardsville, 1991), p. 98.
  13. Life of General Lafayette, Vol. II, p. 209.
  14. Bernard Sarrans, Lafayette, Louis-Philippe, and the Revolution of 1830, Vol. I (London, 1832), pp. 224-225.

11 commments on “Napoleon and the Marquis de Lafayette”

  • Geoffrey says:

    Caroline Girard Haslam (later Peale) and Henriette Girard Clark (formerly Lallemand) were acquainted with Lafayette. Caroline’s journal of their trip to Europe in 1829-30 describes how he invited them to attend his Tuesday soirees in Paris. They went to one on 5th January 1830: “The rooms were well filled, principally Americans. The General looks younger by many years than when in the States — he and his family received us very cordially.- he invited us to visit him at the Grange when we return in the summer {ie from Italy}.-passed a very pleasant eveng.”
    The following year, however, their stay in Paris coincided with the July revolution, when Lafayette was otherwise engaged, being appointed Commander-in-Chief of the National Guards and Governor of Paris at the end of July. They attended his soiree on 24th August, which was “crowded and more brilliant than heretofore – the old gentleman was habited in his uniform – many officers of the new government present.” Later he sent them tickets for a military display.
    Later this year I hope to type out at least parts of this journal.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Wonderful stuff, Geoffrey. You should really consider publishing the journal, or extracts from it – at minimum it sounds like it would make a good article for a historical magazine.

  • Geoffrey says:

    I note that Lafayette mourned 3 million French, the victims of Napoleon’s egotism. He didn’t mention the millions of his other victims around the world. What a contrast with a century earlier, when the allies had Louis XIV at their mercy, but Queen Anne gave restraining orders to prevent battle, apparently because she could not bear the thought of carnage. She used to weep over the casualty lists.

  • Irene Hartlmayr says:

    Hello Geoffrey,
    Statistics done in the past century and several times since then have proved that the number of French casualties were previously immensely exaggerated. They are now proven to have been around 950,000 “only”. What do you understand by “the millions of casualties overseas”?

    • Geoffrey says:

      Sorry, “overseas” was careless ( from someone who lives on an island). I meant casualties who were not French, and who did not seem to concern Lafayette.

    • Geoffrey says:

      Looking back, I now see that I didn’t actually say “overseas”. All this slaughter reminds me of Blake’s lines
      The strongest poison ever known
      Came from Caesar’s laurel crown.
      Napoleon had the crown copied for himself, didn’t he?

  • Andrew R Knight says:

    Excellent piece. I did a senior level under-grad paper discussing LaFayette’s tour of America in 1824-25.

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[Napoleon] will risk no personal advantage for the sake of liberty; he has proved that his soul could quite happily watch and even cooperate in its violation.

Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette