Lafayette Enlightenment

Marquis de Lafayette became the commander in chief of the National Guard in France

Marquis de Lafayette was one of the most outstanding figures of the American and French Revolutions. If you have seen the musical, Hamilton, you may recognize his name from that, too. Lafayette was a very capable military commander and he was also strongly dedicated to the ideals of the Enlightenment including individual liberty, civil rights and abolition of slavery.

In 1789, Marie-Joseph Paul Roch Yves Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, became the colonel-general of the National Guard of Paris one day after the fall of the Bastille.

Unlike many of his revolutionary contemporaries in France, he staunchly opposed radicalism. Lafayette was a big supporter of a limited constitutional monarchy, where he believed old traditions could be successfully merged with a limited civil government accountable to its citizens. Before he was appointed the commander of the National Guard, Lafayette was a key participant in the French National Assembly, where he presented his famous Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. He wrote this with Thomas Jefferson modeled on the American Declaration of Independence.

In 1792, the revolution escalated and Lafayette fiercely denounced the new Jacobin government and the escalation of violence known as the Reign of Terror. An arrest warrant was issued for him and he was forced into exile, whereafter he was arrested by the Austrians. With Napoleon’s rise to power, Lafayette was able to return to France and restore his citizenship in 1800. Napoleon offered him a government position, but Lafayette firmly refused. Moreover, he was one of the few people who resisted Napoleon’s usurpation of power and his election as consul for life.

In a highly polarized environment, Lafayette was able to stay true to the spirit of the Enlightenment. He believed firmly in civil rights and individual freedoms, and opposed extremism in all its forms.

Who do you think today is a politician, in the spirit of Lafayette, who stays true to these beliefs?

Sources and Further Reading



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