From Hero To “Traitor”: The French Revolution

In 1789, Lafayette was among the most progressive deputies of the nobility to the Estates-General, which became the National Assembly. While his brother-in-law Noailles played a crucial role in stripping the nobility of its privileges, Lafayette became head of the National Guard, a militia of citizen-soldiers aimed at crowd-control. The celebrations of July 1790 on the Champ de Mars marked his apotheosis: more than a few saw in him the savior of constitutional monarchy and the vested rights of the bourgeoisie against “anarchy”. A year later, when a republican mob rioted on the same place calling for the removal of Louis XVI, the Guard fired, and rumors swept through Paris that Lafayette had shown his true colors.

In August 1791, after he lost the first elections for the mayor of Paris, Lafayette was put in charge of one of the three armies mobilized against Austria and Prussia. Yet he seemed worried as much by the increasing power of the revolutionary Left as by foreign invaders. He was even tempted to march his army from the frontier to Paris in order to ensure the security of the royal family. When placed under arrest, he decided to desert (August, 19 1792), and was taken prisoner by the Austrians. Despite international pressure and lobbying from the United States, he remained in prison until September 1797, including one year of complete isolation after an escape attempt. Most of his family was guillotined, imprisoned, or forced into exile.

Lafayette and National Guardsmen. Ink drawing, [n. d.].

Visible behind Lafayette is the Bastille. On July 14, 1789, a mob of Parisians enraged by the dismissal of popular minister Jacques Necker attacked this fortress, which was a hated symbol of absolutism because it was used for arbitrary imprisonment. The storming of the Bastille marked the beginning of lower- and middle-class participation in the French Revolution. At Chavaniac, Lafayette kept “a piece of stone from the Bastille,” with his portrait and that of Bailly (the Mayor of Paris) and Louis XVI painted on it.

Certificate of Good Behavior in the National Guard for Charles Thomas Pierre, Signed by Lafayette and Bailly, 1789.

An astronomer and deputy to the Estates General, Jean-Sylvain Bailly was named the first Mayor of Paris in 1789 by the same bourgeoisie that adored Lafayette. In 1800, the prominent politician Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès jested that “the burghers of Paris will be eternally grateful to [him] for having been granted the right to bear a gaudy uniform with epaulets.”

“Federation Fan,” 1790.

This fan conveys the ideals of the moderate owner-class. The images on the left refer to a fable entitled “The Heifer, the Goat, and the Sheep in Company with the Lion.” The “king of the animals” takes the lion’s share “because I am called the Lion,” illustrating the arbitrariness of despotism. The central section depicts King Louis XVI (on the left), Bailly and Lafayette (on the right) taking the oath to the Constitution decreed by the National Assembly. On the right, representatives of the lower clergy and the bourgeoisie celebrate the end of the society of orders and the rise of civic equality; the aristocrat does not enjoy the circumstances at all.

Porcelain Cup. “The Nation, the Law, the King.” [1790 or 1791].
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In 1789 the motto of the Old Regime, “One King, One Faith, One Law,” was replaced by “The Nation, the Law, the King,” which established a new hierarchy: the National Assembly would make secular laws which the King would only implement. When the monarchy was abolished in August 1792, the Assembly became the sole source of sovereignty. “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” was adopted in June 1793 and remains France’s motto.

Abbé Jean-Charles Jumel. Réveillon du Père Duchêne avec M. de La Fayette et tous ses aides de camp, [1790].

Lafayette was often the target of Père Duchesne, an imaginary stove merchant and radical sans-culotte who offered monologues on the state of political affairs, spiced with argot and injurious words. He appeared in eight rival eponymous newspapers, the most known of which were published by Jean-Charles Jumel (the chaplain of a regiment of national guards and a Jacobin) and Jacques Hébert, respectively. This is an example of the Jumel version. The vignette shows a little abbot terrorized by the gargantuan and ferocious patriot.

“L’Épouvantail de la Nation” (The National Scarecrow), [1792].

Lafayette is portrayed as a scarecrow mounted on two long shanks (“Congré Americain [sic]” and “Commune de Paris”). With his sword, he is trying to chase away a swarm of despots such as Pope Pius VI, Frederick William II of Prussia, and Leopold II of Austria, all eager to defeat the Revolution in France so as to avoid revolutionary contagion in their countries. In his back bag, Lafayette carries the Constitution. The cartoon seems intended to ridicule his vanity, his military inabilities, and his “dictator complex” altogether.

Charles François Dumouriez. Letter to General François Kellermann. August 24, 1792.
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…Charon is going to become acting commander of Lafayette-the-traitor’s army, until replaced by Dillon (if confirmed), a very good officer who has been suspected, accused, and indicted by the Assembly, which I resent because he was ever loyal to me while Lafayette was committing atrocities against me... I believe the enemy is more surprised than we are by Lafayette’s botched treason... The Nation’s reaction of pride, with soldiers emerging en masse from the ground, shall dissuade them from taking initiatives. Stay on the defensive until your army is reinforced, in three weeks you will be able to initiate a great offensive.... My dear friend, hopefully our army is now definitely purged of aristocrats! We, as two good Jacobins and true patriots, will be praised as the happy saviors of our fatherland...

A rogue soldier with ambitions frustrated before 1789, Charles Francois Dumouriez (1739-1823) joined the pro-war revolutionary Left and served as Foreign Minister of France (March-June 1792). He took over Lafayette’s position after the marquis left his command. It was a hard time for generals, whose failures or even mixed achievements were often interpreted as treason. Dumouriez himself defected to the Austrians in April 1793 after a defeat; Dillon was guillotined in 1794.

Germaine de Staël and Mathieu de Montmorency. Letter to Lafayette, Coppet (Switzerland), 1797.
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I hope this letter will reach you, for I would like to be among the first ones to let you know how much indignation, suffering, hope, fear, discouragement, the souls of all those who love you endured because of your situation... Please return to France once free: there is no other fatherland for you; here you will find the republic you wished, even though your conscience bound you to the monarchy; you will find it victorious, and delivered from the crimes which tarnished its birth; and you will stand by it because liberty today cannot exist without the republic; as a hero and a martyr, your name is intrinsically linked to liberty...

The wealthy, left-wing bohemian Germaine de Staël (1766-1817) was first and foremost a great intellectual. She lived surrounded by admirers like Montmorency, a former liberal deputy (1789-92) and future conservative Foreign Minister (1821-22). She made real efforts to obtain Lafayette’s liberation, urging American diplomat Gouverneur Morris in Vienna to do something: “You already saved his wife. Let’s save the whole family, and repay your country’s debt!” Madame de Staël was instrumental in spreading the myth of Lafayette as a “romantic hero.”

Aimé-Jules Dalou. Bronze Statuette of Lafayette, circa 1883.
On Loan from the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art.
Gift of Arthur H. Dean and Mary Marden Dean.

A fervent Republican and Socialist, Aimé-Jules Dalou (1838-1902) was the celebrated author of the ten meter-high “Triumph of the Republic” dedicated during the celebration of the republicans’ decisive victory over monarchists. A plaster version was erected in 1889 on the renamed Place de la Nation and replaced by the current bronze version in 1899. This monument is still a rallying point for popular demonstrations today. In the early 1880s, the Third Republic held a competition for a new monument commemorating the Constituent Assembly of 1789. Though it was never built, the competition mock-ups were exhibited, and “Lafayette” was so well-received that many versions were executed in porcelain and bronze, mostly for the American market.

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