"Ever wondered why there are so few streets, if any, called rue/boulevard/avenue Lafayette in France? Because in France, the marquis is seen as an asshole, not as a national hero.
When returned to France, three days after Bastille Day, July 17, 1791, on the Champ de Mars (Where today the Eiffel tower stands), he had his army shoot the crowds demanding that the King be dethroned.'
That write up is selective, sensationalist, revisionist history and undermines one of the true heroes of the French revolution. Lafayette was a man who, his entire life, agitated for freedom of the press, suffrage for all taxpayers, and the worldwide abolition of slavery - to debase his legacy by claiming him a mass-murderer is grossly misstating the facts of his life. I'm sourcing my information from Woodward's biography of Lafayette, from Gaines' work on the first French Revolution and from my own studies on the man.
On July 17th, the day of the Champ de Mars massacre, a crowd gathered around a dais (named the Altar of the Nation) on which was placed a petition to dethrone France's king. Underneath that dais was a a winemaker and his companion, who had brought two things with them - a hand-drill to bore a hole in the dais to look up women's skirts and a cask of wine.
Unfortunately for our two intrepid adventurers, the drill pierced the wooden dais and also the sole of a lady's shoe - quite naturally, she cried out in surprise. The two men beneath the platform were discovered, and, despite their protestations, the cask of wine was immediately decided by the crowd to be a keg of gunpowder. The two unfortunate voyeurs were dragged from beneath the stage and accused of attempting to destroy the Altar of the Nation that housed the anti-Royalist petition.
Their heads were hacked off and paraded on pikes around the streets of Paris.
Hopefully that gives you some background as to why Lafayette, then General of the French National Guard, dispatched troops to Champs de Mars. When he arrived at the head of his detachment a man from the crowd fired at Lafayette - the bullet supposedly missed his head by inches. As members of the National Guard were preparing to kill the assailant, Lafayette ordered that he be placed in prison. Leaders from the anti-Royalist crowd gathered at the Altar of the Nation assured the General that there would be no further violence - satisfied with this, Lafayette withdrew his troops and returned home.
The promises of no more violence, however, were quickly broken. Lafayette received word from the National Assembly (a strange, quasi-Parliament that was in semi-control of France after the revolution) that the mob from the Altar of the Nation was in the process of marching in attack against not only the national assembly but also the Tuileries, the then-home of the King.
The mayor of Paris, Bailly - a well liked astronomer who had been appointed by the people after the revolution - declared martial law due to the militant uprising. Lafayette, along with the mayor, marched towards the scene of the unrest along with a large contingent of the National Guard. The Guardsmen, commanded by Mayor Bailly, ordered the crowd to disperse. They responded by hurling missiles. The National Guard fired a volley into the air. The crowd continued to hurl stones at the Guardsmen, Mayor Bailly and General Lafayette. Lafayette then ordered the Guard to fire a volley into the crowd. 12 were killed, 20 wounded.
Both sides of the engagement saw themselves as patriots. Lafayette and Bailly were decried as traitors to the revolution by figures such as Jean Paul Marat and Maximilien Robespierre, leaders of the anti-royalist movement that, in their time, would be responsible for the Terror - killing 16,000 nobles and civilians. Lafayette and Bailly - in declaring martial law against the uprising that would most likely have ended the reign of the king and destroyed the National Assembly - were striving to maintain order and to establish a constitutional monarchy.
The crowd that Lafayette had ordered his Guardsmen to fire on had not only brutally murdered two innocent (if slightly unlucky) men, a member of the mob had attempted to shoot him in the head and were in the process of marching to destroy the institutions Lafayette had sworn to protect when he joined the Revolution and created the National Guard. Granted, surely not all members of the crowd were involved in the murders and the violence, but all members of the crowd chose that march.
The previous write up goes on to say that "when the king was arrested, (Lafayette) plotted to march on Paris with his army and to save the monarchy. He was forced to emigrate for ten years. One month later, the first Republic was proclaimed.' Yes, he did try to save not only the King's life but the prospect of a French constitutional monarchy. Why? Stability. He recognised already that the revolution he had joined had grown out of control. He was forced to emigrate because those that came to power proceeded to summarily execute the moderate participants in the Revolution, of which he was staunchly a member. The First Republic was responsible for Lafayette's wife's family being publicly executed for no discernible reason, not to mention thousands of others. The First Republic was a brutal, hellish regime that ranks up there with the very worst in modern history in my opinion. I'm proud that Lafayette attempted to prevent it. He believed in liberty, not violent, bloody-minded radicalism.
What the previous writer neglected to mention was that Lafayette, after Napoleon's reign, was so loved by the people of France that they were clamouring for him to be head of an American-style French Republic after the revolution of 1830. What the previous writer completely missed was Lafayette's dedication to the cause of not only American liberty but the liberty of all the people of Europe. He was not a fantastic leader of men, his ideas were not always practical, but he was completely committed for his whole life to the nebulous ideal of freedom.
I normally hate that word. It's misty and undefinable, it's been used to justify genuine horrors in our time. But to hear Lafayette write of freedom - a man who George Washington thought of as his own son - is to hear the concept in one of the purest forms I've ever seen.
I would like the author of the previous write up to read Lafayette's Declaration of the Rights of Man, to read of how he gave up his birthright as a noble to join the revolutionary cause, to actually sit down and engage with the facts of his life and observe just how extraordinary his contributions to the French nation were.
I would like them to realise that maybe there are more places in America named after Lafayette than in France because, oh, I don't know, France had been around for a thousand fucking years and most things were already named in his time, whereas America was a new nation he helped build. Or because the French had so many rotations in government and revolutions during the late 18th and 19th centuries that the politicised place names were changed on an almost yearly basis. Don't for a minute believe that because the Place de la Concorde does not bear Lafayette's name he was reviled by the people of France. Thousands of free-thinking, progressive individuals put their lives on the line for him and his ideal of freedom.
Most of all, I'd like whoever wrote that last write up - whoever called this man an asshole - to not selectively abstract elements of somebody's life and make your declarations. The whole picture of Lafayette is a man who wasn't the smartest, certainly wasn't the most effective, but who believed - genuinely believed - in the ideals that he fought for in a time when ideals were used to extend political capital and condemn people to death. He wasn't an asshole. He wasn't a saint. But I believe he was an honest, decent man who survived the very worst the world had to offer in the cause of trying to make it the very best that it could become.