Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  Lafayette

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889


By Bayard Tuckerman (1855–1923)

[Born in New York, N. Y., 1855. Died, 1923. Life of General Lafayette. 1889.]

THE CAREER and character of General Lafayette have been too often judged by isolated periods of his life. Americans, with thoughts of his services to them in mind, have been inclined to exaggerate his abilities and pass over his shortcomings. English Tory writers with difficulty have found terms sufficiently severe for the commander of the National Guard of 1789. In France, opinions are even yet colored by party feeling.

The claims of Lafayette to the respect and admiration of posterity do not rest upon his abilities as a soldier or a statesman, but rather upon his character as a philanthropist. Considering the prominence of the part which he played during fifty-five years of extraordinary political commotions, he never gave evidence of more than good abilities. He had been a brave and faithful officer; but his merits as a soldier lay less in his military talents than in the affection and confidence which his character inspired among his troops. As a statesman, his mistakes have been pointed out in these volumes. The undue confidence in human nature which made him give loose rein to the inexperienced aspirations of a people unaccustomed to self-government; the lack of penetration, which, seeing the misgovernment of the few, could not foresee the misgovernment of the many; the imprudent enthusiasm, which, in pursuit of an abstract good, overlooked the circumstances which made its immediate attainment undesirable,—all these were serious failings in a man of such power and influence.

It is in the force, the nobility, and the unselfishness of his character, in the elevation, purity, and constancy of his moral nature, that we must look for the qualities which enabled him to accomplish so much. It was not in the carefully measured value of his services to America that lay his claim to her gratitude; it was in the spirit of self-sacrifice, in the example set, in the generous adoption of a rightful, though probably unsuccessful, cause. When the States-General met in 1789, it was the well-known unselfishness, patriotism, and honesty of the youthful general that immediately made him the repository of such immense power. It was the constant determination, at any sacrifice, to remain faithful to principles eternally right, however temporarily discredited, that made him the rallying-point of the friends of political liberty through the despotism of the Empire and the grasping tyranny of the Restoration, and in 1830 gave him the opportunity to set his country again on the path to freedom.

The remarkable consistency of Lafayette’s political career was an essential result of his character. He remained the man of 1789 to the day of his death. Offers of power from the Jacobins could not attract him to their illegal rule. A return to France from the exile in Belgium was a bribe offered in vain by the Directory. The reaction toward despotism caused by the excesses of the Revolution left Lafayette still cherishing a rational liberty at Lagrange. The nobility and public men of France waited and bowed at Napoleon’s court, deserted him for Louis XVIII., returned to their former master in 1815, only to turn against him in the hour of adversity and to seek again the favors of the Bourbon king by servility and self-abasement. Of all this Lafayette made no part. He waited till 1830 and found a reward and a justification.

The faults of Lafayette’s character grew out of its virtues. The enthusiasm was too impulsive, the confidence in others too undiscriminating, the desire to do good too little modified by prudence. Yet had he not been enthusiastic, confident, and benevolent he would never have taken up the cause of liberty in the shadow of the old French monarchy. Other weaknesses, prominent in his youth, resulted from that age and passed away with it. The love of popularity, which Jefferson had characterized as a “canine appetite,” ceased to influence him when the vicissitudes of the Revolution had taught him the value of popular applause. The “delicious smile of the multitude,” seductive to the man of thirty, had lost its charm for the man of forty. The fancy for outward marks of greatness—titles and decorations—had so completely disappeared with experience of life, that Napoleon’s offer of the highest dignities of the Legion of Honor did not amount to a temptation.

The fault to be found with Lafayette’s political views is that they were too advanced for his country. Liberty had appealed to his ardent imagination as the remedy for the terrible public evils which had grown up under a despotic system. His visit to America had furnished so extraordinary a contrast to the miserable state of France, that he was naturally led to believe that his countrymen would be equally happy under similar political conditions. Some of these conditions have since been attained by the French and have borne the hoped-for fruit. But the mistake made by Lafayette, as by the best of his countrymen, was in the attempt to confer such benefits before they could be understood or enjoyed by the people. Throughout his life, he proclaimed order and respect for the law as the essential accompaniment of liberty. But his countrymen had much to suffer before they could appreciate this doctrine. Although tenacious of his own views, and looking upon a republic as the ideal form of government, he showed himself in 1791 and in 1830 ready to forget his own preferences before the will of the majority.

Few men have lived more for others than Lafayette. While political liberty was the great object of his philanthropic devotion, the causes of the negroes, of persons persecuted for religious opinions, of the victims of oppressive laws, were ceaselessly in his mind. But a short time before his death he exerted himself for the emancipation of the blacks. A character so unselfish, so humanitarian, could not remain indifferent to the Christian religion, the precepts of which his life illustrated. In his youth he had seen religion either in an aspect of puerile superstition, or as discredited by the vices and unbelief of its courtly ministers. For many years he maintained an attitude of silent indifference; but after the death of his wife his feelings underwent a change. New examination and reflection enabled him to separate the essential good from its accidental accompaniments, and attendance at divine service became a habit.

Lafayette had in an exceptional degree the social qualities and domestic tastes which make the happiness of private life. His manner was extremely gracious, the result of a natural kindliness which embraced all mankind. His long career had furnished a fund of anecdote which enriched his conversation. He had the French sprightliness of mind and liveliness of repartee, with a great deal of Anglo-Saxon solidity. His charities were ceaseless and often involved serious self-sacrifice. In his comments on the conduct of other men, he displayed a remarkable degree of moderation and justice. It would be in vain to look among his voluminous correspondence and papers for a single harsh judgment upon the conduct of any of his political opponents. He took it for granted that they were acting conscientiously, and while criticising their opinions never questioned their motives. While the unsuspecting frankness of his nature sometimes led him into mistakes, it had much to do with the strength of the friendship which he excited and retained. Washington, Jefferson, and Fox loved him. Napoleon and Charles X. were personally attracted to the man whom neither bribes nor threats could affect, who accepted no favors, and was guilty of no disloyalty. The honesty of his public career had been in accord with the delicate sense of honor which belonged to his nature. The grief which was felt by all ranks of society at Lafayette’s death was a personal one. His familiar figure and revered character had become an old and precious landmark on the road of progress which all men regretted to see no more.