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Lanky and redheaded, the nineteen-year-old French nobleman stood as if in a trance on the three-masted ship’s quarterdeck. Twenty-five feet long, with an eighteen-foot beam, La Victoire was as stubby as it was crowded. And as the sea rolled beneath the young man’s feet, a northeasterly wind swelled his ship’s sails, nudging it down the final hours of its four-month, four-thousand-mile Atlantic crossing.
Just before noon, on June 13, 1777, the marquis de Lafayette reached for his telescope. Scanning the western horizon, unmindful of the summer morning’s merciless brightness and searing heat, he longed for his first sighting of South Carolina’s coast. For the past few days he and his crew had spotted birds associated with land. He had grown so convinced of their imminent landfall that, as a precaution against hostile ships possibly lurking close to the shore, he had taken to ordering the ship to sail without lights at night. Increasing their discomfiture, the voyage had been badly planned, and they were running low on food and water.
Ironically, however, those privations only sweetened that morning’s renewed spirits. As Lafayette scanned the horizon, his shipmates—each man at his station—optimistically prepared for their long journey’s conclusion. Even so, amid the morning’s gathering joy, if Lafayette still appeared anxious, all understood his reasons: If expectations proved sound, he was about to set foot upon the terra firma of a lifelong dream.1
* * *
Since childhood Lafayette had hungered for martial glory. What he never contemplated was realizing that dream in the uniform of a foreign army. With a general’s commission in hand, he would soon report for duty in the Continental army, the military arm of the United States of America, an improbable republic declared two years earlier. The ill-equipped, poorly trained army was now slogging through the third year of a dispiriting insurgent war against the superior forces of Great Britain, against whose empire its former North American colonists were now rebelling.
In reality much of the brave, leveling rhetoric of that young nation’s self-described “Patriots”—from “Give me liberty or give me death” to “All men are created equal”—carried a hollow, abstract resonance for the young, wealthy French nobleman. His Enlightenment education, venerating safely distant ancient republics, disposed him in principle to share such sentiments. But in day-to-day life Lafayette also remained a loyal subject of his own country’s monarch, Louis XVI, whose absolutism made Britain’s king George III appear, by comparison, a zealot of democratic principles.
Other considerations, however, drew Lafayette to the Patriots’ cause. Fourteen years earlier, in the Seven Years’ War, the same British forces that the Americans now faced had defeated those of the marquis’s native land. Personalizing that sting, his father, fighting for France, had died in the conflict. Lafayette was just two years old when his father—Michel-Louis-Christophe-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, from whom he inherited his title—died. But in the coming years, as the fallen soldier’s only son grew up in an extended family that revered military service, Lafayette père acquired, in the mind of that son, an almost mythic scale.2
* * *
Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier was born on September 6, 1757, in south-central France’s province of Auvergne—three years after his parents’ marriage in Paris. The boy’s father had generational ties to Auvergne. His mother, Marie Louise Jolie de La Rivière, was the daughter of a rich nobleman from Brittany.
Auvergne lay inside the Massif Central, landlocked mountains indented by deep-valley forests teeming with tall oaks, chestnuts, firs, and beech trees; high plateaus; and sublime uplands crowned with domed, rocky outcrops. Lafayette spent his childhood at the Château de Chavaniac, an eighteen-room mansion set on a hillock amid the area’s volcano-sculpted mountains. The Lafayette family, its lineage deeply embedded in France’s history, could lay claim to celebrated figures. But recent generations, though retaining noble titles and landholdings, had scant ties to Versailles’s reigning Bourbon dynasty. Recalled Lafayette, the family by then “left the provinces only to make war and played no role at court.”
Jacques-Roch du Motier, the older brother of Lafayette’s father, died in 1734, at age eighteen, fighting Austrian forces in the War of the Polish Succession. Two years later Éduoard du Motier, a recently titled marquis—father of the two brothers—died in an equestrian accident while serving as a bodyguard for Louis XV. From Éduoard—Lafayette’s paternal grandfather—Lafayette’s own father, Michel-Louis-Christophe-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, had inherited the marquis title. And after his death at age twenty-six—in August 1759, killed by a British cannonball during the Battle of Minden in the Seven Years’ War, in what is today’s northern Germany—the title fell to his son, Gilbert, then just weeks shy of his second birthday.
An extended configuration of the Lafayette clan, overseen by Gilbert’s paternal grandmother, was, by then, living at the Château de Chavaniac. And by February 1762—apparently traumatized by her husband’s death—Gilbert’s mother, Mary Louise Jolie de La Rivière, a native of Paris, had returned there to live with her family. Her son, Gilbert, thus spent his formative years living amid a ménage of aunts, cousins, and servants, all dominated by his formidable paternal grandmother.
During Gilbert’s lifetime his name was often spelled “La Fayette” and variations thereof. It was an age, after all, that had yet to standardize spellings; and many, including some who knew him, were unaware of how Lafayette spelled the family name. But he himself, when referring to himself, spelled it as one word, though whether as “LaFayette” or “Lafayette,” his autograph—its F indecipherable as to lower- or uppercase—makes it impossible to render any final conclusion.
For five years during the 1760s, Lafayette saw his mother only during her occasional visits to the Auvergne. While the thought of a mother leaving a child to be raised by others may seem harsh to modern sensibilities, in the world of eighteenth-century French nobility it was accepted practice: Infants were often turned over to wet nurses; and older children to governesses, tutors, and grandparents: “Although my mother loved me a great deal,” Lafayette remembered, “the thought of taking me away from my grandmother La Fayette never crossed her mind.”
At Chavaniac, beyond what he learned from the family’s hired tutors, Lafayette grew up transfixed by stories, doubtless embellished, of the glorious deeds of his father, uncle, and other relatives who had perished in service to France. Gilbert also relished adolescent explorations of the wildernesses that lay within his childhood’s reach. In the Auvergne’s highlands, canyons, and forests, he cultivated a fertile imagination—one that made room for a legendary creature, the Beast of the Gévaudan, reputed to roam south-central France.
Its size and predations exaggerated in local folklore, the “beast” was likely a large lynx, some other known species of forest mammal, or even a human being. Whatever the legend’s origins, the chimerical creature had reputedly killed livestock and even women and children. And while Lafayette never claimed to have actually seen the beast, his contemplations of it—his ponderings of its powers and size—inflamed his imagination. And along with tales of his relatives’ military exploits, the Beast of the Gévaudan nourished an early taste for romantic adventure: “I recall nothing in my life that preceded my enthusiasm for glorious tales or my plans to travel the world in search of renown.” Moreover, he recalled, himself “burning with the desire to have a uniform.”3
By 1767 Lafayette’s mother had decided that it was time for her son to join her in Paris. Soon returning to Chavaniac that December, Marie Louise Jolie and Gilbert commenced a two-week journey to Paris and her Luxembourg Palace apartment. Later recalling his first months in Paris, he remembered being “separated with the utmost chagrin from a grandmother, two aunts, and a cousin, whom I adored.” Even so—though taken aback by the lack of deference shown him in Paris, compared with that accorded him in the Auvergne—the city stamped an indelible impression on him.
In 1768 Gilbert was enrolled in Paris’s Collège du Plessis, a secondary school run by the University of Paris, on the rue Saint-Jacques, not far from the Lafayette family’s residence. Most of his Plessis classmates came from families whose social status derived from the Nobility of the Robe, a category derived from government or judicial service.
Nobles among Lafayette’s family, by contrast, belonged to the Nobility of the Sword, a more prestigious ranking, derived from military service to the court. At the Collège du Plessis, Lafayette—heretofore having spent much of his free time in rural isolation—now reveled in the company of other boys. Moreover, he blossomed into a popular and gifted student (excelling in Latin) and quickly established himself as a leader among his classmates.
With his growing proficiency in Latin, he also commenced his lifelong love of the writings of Cicero, Plutarch, Virgil, Horace, and other classical writers who celebrated the heroes of ancient Rome and Greece. But—at least initially for Lafayette, as was the tendency among other students of his generation and court milieu—those readings tended to foster a republicanism more ornamental than active, rarely producing antimonarchist actions. “One comes away from the study of the Latin language with a taste for republics,” observed a contemporary. But, he added, upon graduation those same young men realize that they “must lose and forget” such tastes—“for their safety, for their advancement and for their happiness.”
Even so, attesting to the imaginative powers of such readings, Lafayette—like other young Frenchmen in his circle—tended to view the American leaders and emissaries they met, at least initially, as latter-day avatars of classical Greece or Rome. As a Lafayette friend recalled after meeting Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane, and other American diplomats in Paris, he could not help but view the exotic, foreign-speaking emissaries as “some wise contemporaries of Plato, or republicans from the time of Cato and Fabius.”
* * *
In April 1770, upon the deaths of his mother and, weeks later, an even wealthier grandfather—both heavily invested in land, the latter in Brittany—Gilbert became rich. Indeed, his combined inheritances made the twelve-year-old orphan one of the wealthiest souls in all of France. In 1774, when he was sixteen, those riches grew still more: In an arranged marriage he wed fourteen-year-old Marie-Adrienne-Françoise de Noailles, the daughter of a wealthy, well-connected Parisian nobleman. For Lafayette’s relatives, who arranged the union, the Noailleses promised social entrée; for the Noailleses—with five daughters to marry off—the groom offered solid finances, funds that lessened the family’s burden, at least in Adrienne’s case, of their dowry-provision obligations.
Adrienne’s father, Jean-Paul-François de Noailles, duc d’Ayen, a chemist and courtier, favored the union. But given the couple’s youth when the marriage arrangements were made—Adrienne was only twelve—her mother, Henriette-Anne-Louise d’Aguesseau, duchesse d’Ayen, insisted that the wedding be delayed for two years. In the interim Gilbert moved into a separate wing of the Hôtel de Noailles, the family’s capacious Paris town house. There, for two years, he lived not as a family member, but as a tenant—albeit a pampered one, paying rent and for his own food, fuel, and servants. All the while, hoping to keep the couple’s union unconsummated until their marriage, Gilbert’s future in-laws did their best to keep watchful eyes upon him.
Before and after the couple’s eventual wedding, on April 11, 1774, Lafayette, through the Noailleses, expanded his social ties into court society’s upper tiers. In contrast, however, to the ease of his adjustment to the Collège du Plessis, his entry into those circles proved difficult. His provincial origins discomfited him, and his former ease collapsed into awkwardness and self-conscious reticence.
Acquiring what became a lifelong indulgence, he spent lavishly on clothes. Otherwise, adapting to the high-spending, high-living ways of young men and women of Versailles and Paris court society, he took up—at least during those years—heavy drinking and high-stakes wagering on card games and horses. In time his closest friends even formed their own club, the “Society of the Wooden Sword.” Named after a favorite cabaret, its members included Adrienne’s friend, Vienna-born Marie Antoinette. Then barely twenty and recently arrived at Versailles, Marie Antoinette, with her husband, Louis XVI, would, upon the death of Louis XV in 1774, assume France’s Bourbon throne.
In the end, however, despite Lafayette’s strivings, he often felt undone “by the gaucheness of [his] manners which, without being out of place on any important occasion, never yielded to the graces of the court or the charms of supper in the capital.” The comte de La Marck, a Belgian nobleman who often socialized with the Noailleses, regarded Lafayette as a hopeless arriviste—disdainfully recalled that he “danced without grace [and] sat badly on his horse.” He also recalled an episode in which Lafayette, assisted by his in-laws, secured an invitation to an evening of dancing hosted by Marie Antoinette; but when Lafayette’s moment arrived to dance with the queen, La Marck noted that the scion of Chavaniac proved himself to be so “maladroit … that the Queen could not stop herself from laughing.”
Making matters worse, Lafayette’s native wit often rendered it difficult for him to abide the intellectual pretensions of generational peers in such elevated circles. On one occasion, as the comte de Provence, the elder of Louis XVI’s two brothers, boasted ad nauseam of the capacity of his memory, an irritated Lafayette could not resist a tart retort: “Memory,” he shot back, “is a fool’s intellect.” Until that moment, as Lafayette was aware, he had been under consideration by the comte de Provence for a court sinecure arranged by his in-laws. But the experience apparently left him unchastened, for it was not the last time that an impolitic impulse would cost him royal favor.4
Copyright © 2019 by Tom Chaffin