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Who was Marie-Joseph Paul Lafayette?

Updated on December 3, 2016

Marie-Joseph Paul Lafayette (1757-1834), went to America at the age of twenty to help the colonists in the American War of Independence against Britain. He distinguished himself in several battles, became a friend of Washington, went back to France to raise more assistance for the American cause and took a prominent part in the Battle of Yorktown.

From 1782 in France, although an aristocrat, Lafayette campaigned for social reform; he treated the peasants well on his own estates, demanded a national assembly and, on taking his seat as a deputy in the States-General of 1789, became one of the leaders of the French Revolution. He supported the storming of the Bastille, organized the National Guard and took command of the army, but his position was never easy, since the extreme revolutionaries despised his humane attitude, while the Royalists hated him for his reforming zeal. After commanding the army against Austria (1792), he returned to Paris to defend the monarchy, but was deserted by his troops and declared a traitor, so he fled, was captured by the Austrians and held prisoner for five years.

Released by Napoleon, he returned to France, but, disliking the Emperor, retired to his estates. Under the Bourbons he became a leader of the opposition, made a triumphal visit to America (1824-25) and briefly commanded the National Guard during the July Revolution of 1830. To the end of his life he continued to press for reform and to keep in touch with liberals everywhere. Lafayette, though brave, was not a good general nor did he possess great ability as a politician and administrator; but he cared passionately for humanity and liberty, had the gift of winning popularity and tried hard to deserve it. No foreigner has ever won so much warm admiration from Americans.


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