He was born of a distinguished family and early entered the army. Enthusiastic over the news of the American Revolution, he evaded all obstacles set in his way by the officially neutral French government and left France to join George Washington's army. He arrived (1777) in Philadelphia, where Congress appointed him a major general. He quickly won the close friendship of Washington, was wounded at Brandywine, shared the hardships of Valley Forge, and obtained a divisional command. After a trip to France (1779–80), where he negotiated for French aid, he distinguished himself in the Yorktown campaign. Returning to France in 1782, Lafayette was a member of the Assembly of Notables (1787) and the States-General (1789). Elected vice president of the National Assembly, he was made commander of the militia (later named the National Guard) the day after the fall of the Bastille (July, 1789). In this key position he sought to exploit his immense popularity and to maintain order by acting as moderator between the contending factions. However, he did not have the confidence of the court, and he lost all influence and popularity when he gave the order to fire into a crowd that had gathered (July 17, 1791) on the Champs de Mars to draft a petition for dethronement of the king. He took command (1792) of the army of the center, formed in preparation for war against Austria. After a brief visit to Paris (June, 1792), when he attempted to defend the monarchy, he returned to the front. He was, however, relieved of his command and ordered to return to Paris. Lafayette left his army, fled (Aug., 1792) across the border, and was captured and imprisoned in Austria. Finally liberated (1797) by Napoleon, he returned (1799) to France, where he lived in retirement during the First Empire. As member of the chamber of deputies in the Restoration, he joined the liberal party. In 1824–25 he visited the United States, where he was given an unparalleled welcome. Lafayette took part in the July Revolution (1830) as a leader of the moderates. His prestige was largely responsible for the installation of Louis Philippe as king of the French. Lafayette's unswerving courage, integrity, and idealism made him a popular symbol of the bond between France and the United States. His direct descendants, the Chambrun family, are honorary U.S. citizens. The modern French flag was created by Lafayette in July, 1789, by combining the royal white with the blue and red of Paris. For selected writings, see Stanley J. Izderda and others, Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution (4 vol., 1977–81).
See biography by Louis Gottschalk (5 vol., 1935–69); bibliography by S. W. Jackson (1930).
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