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Louis the Sixteenth, were wavering between the desire and the dread of striking a great blow against England. They were not willing to take open part with insurgent America, especially while no success had crowned its arms: but they wished to give assistance so far as assistance could be given secretly. From their ports during the whole previous autumn, succours of various kinds had been sent forth. And no sooner had Franklin landed, than he was able to report that an underhand supply had been obtained from the government of two hundred brass field-pieces, thirty thousand fire-locks, and some other military stores, which were already shipping for America, and which were to be convoyed by a man-of-war.* Shortly afterwards, the French Ministers further granted a gift or subsidy of two millions of livres in quarterly payments. They likewise contributed the means for supplying and refitting the American cruisers that came into French ports. Further still, they secretly gave license to four good officers of their own Engineers — Monsieur Du Portail especially— to accept commissions in the American army. All this while they never wearied in friendly protestations and assurances to Lord Stormont, the ambassador from England.
At this period, indeed, Lord Stormont was disposed to hold high and peremptory language both to the French Court and to the American Commissioners. When the latter wrote to him suggesting an exchange of the seamen captured by the cruisers on both sides, they only drew from his Lordship the following laconic reply: "The "King's ambassador receives no application from rebels "unless they come to implore his Majesty's mercy." This note was sent back to him by Franklin and Deane. "In "answer to a letter," they said, "which concerns some of "the most material interests of humanity, we received the "inclosed indecent paper, which we return for your Lord"ship's more mature consideration."
While the Court of Versailles was in this manner double-dealing—eager to strike, yet fearful lest the blow should recoil—the current of feeling at Paris had from the first run strongly in favour of the insurgent Colonies.
* Letter to the President of Congress, December 8. 1776.
For that feeling among the people more than one cause may be assigned. There was a rankling recollection of their disasters during the late war, and a desire to assist in humbling the countrymen of Chatham. There was a growing sense of their own servitude—a growing love of freedom. Moreover, in so martial a nation there was, with the younger men at least, an attachment to war for its own sake. Under such influences, and without awaiting orders from the government, many officers, or men desiring to be so, had crossed the Atlantic, and engaged in the Service of the United States. So early as October, 1776, we find Washington complain to Congress of the number of French gentlemen whom, from their ignorance of the language, he was not able to employ.* There were also several Poles, who had lately fought in the civil wars of their native country. Among them, Kosciusko, employed in America as an officer of Engineers, may be most honourably mentioned.']" But these men, whether French or Poles, were, for the most part, either adventurers or exiles; none among them as yet united in himself the two-fold advantages of high rank and of affluent fortune. Such a man now first appeared in the young Marquis de La Fayette.
The Marquis de La Fayette was born in 1757, as a posthumous son, his father having fallen shortly before at the battle of Minden. His studies were slight, and soon interrupted; less, perhaps, by his entrance into the regiment of Mousquetaires Noirs (since, as he says himself, he was only taken from school on the days of areviewj); but at the age of sixteeen he was married to a daughter of the House of Noailles. This illustrious alliance, combined with his own high birth, drew him frequently to Court, a sphere by no means congenial to his temper, but
* Writings, vol. iv. p. 146. He adds, " They seem to be genteel "sensible men."
f See on Kosciusko, a note to Washington's Writings, vol. v. p, H2. It is to be observed, however, that of the Poles, some at least were not unwilling to engage upon the other side. One of these, Count Grabowsky, an intrepid volunteer, fell in our ranks at the storm of Fort Clinton. (Stedman's History, vol. i. p. 362.)
J "Memoires jusqu'en 1780." Correspondance de La Fayette, vol. i. p. 6. ed. 1S37.
at which ho acquired much suavity and gentleness of manners. These — I have heard Prince Talleyrand observe — he constantly retained even through scenes and with associates, as at the first French Revolution, that displayed a striking contrast to them. It cannot be said, however, that the Graces so highly vaunted by Lord Chesterfield ever fell to his share, since, in several of his writings, we find him make a jest of his own awkwardness.*
It so chanced that in the summer of 1776, La Fayette, still in his teens, and serving as a subaltern with the French army, was stationed with his regiment at Metz. It happened also that in the course of a foreign tour their Royal Highnesses of Gloucester passed a few days in that town. The principal officers entertained the Duke at dinner, when the conversation turned to the last news from Philadelphia and the new Declaration of Independence. Being at that period offended with his Court, from its neglect of the Duchess, the Duke indulged in Opposition topics, and, in some degree at least, took the part of the Americans. The details were new to La Fayette. He listened with eagerness, and prolonged the conversation by asking questions of the Royal guest. The cause of the Colonies that had risen against England seemed to him just and noble, even on the showing of one of the English princes; and before he left the table, the thought came into his head that he would go to America, and offer the Americans his services. He determined to return to Paris, and make further inquiries. His inquiries being mainly addressed to Silas Deane and other zealous friends of the insurgents, could not fail to confirm him in his first impressions. He became fired with an ardent zeal for Republican principles and the American cause. That zeal continued ever afterwards—for well-nigh sixty years— the polar star of his course. That zeal, favoured as it was by fortune, adapted to the times that came upon him, and
* Thus, he writes from America to Madame de La Fayette; "Vous aurez espere qu'on ne pouvait pas etre egalement gauche •'sur tous les theatres." (le 24 Aout, 1781.) In his "Memoires "jusqu'en 1780" (p. 7.). he as frankly owns "la gaucherie de mes ** manieres qui ne sc plicrcnt jamais aux graces de la Cour."
urged forward by great personal vanity, laid the foundations of his fame far more, as I conceive, than any strength of mind or talents of his own. Few men have ever been so conspicuous from afar with so little, when closely viewed, of real weight or dimension. As a General, it can scarcely be pretended that his exploits were either many or considerable. As an orator, we look in vain for any high powers of debate. As a statesman, we find only an undistinguishing eagerness to apply the Transatlantic examples and to act the part of Washington, without duly estimating either the immense superiority of Washington's character above his own, or the manifold points of difference between America and Europe.
It was said by Napoleon, at St. Helena, that "La "Fayette was a man of no ability, either in civil or mili- "tary life; his understanding was confined to narrow "bounds; his character was full of dissimulation, and "swayed by vague ideas of liberty, which, in him, were "undefined and ill-digested." No doubt there is some exaggeration in these words. No doubt the late Emperor, at that period, was stirred by personal resentment at the hostile conduct of the General in 1815; yet it will perhaps be found more easy by any admirer of La Fayette to impugn the good faith of the draughtsman than the general accuracy of the portrait.*
The fortune of La Fayette was ample, his yearly income being little short of two hundred thousand livres; and his connexions, as we have seen, were among the first at Court. Under such circumstances, Silas Deane felt the vast importance of securing him. An agreement was
* The article Lafayette, by Messieurs Boullee and Michaud, in the " Supplement a la Biographie Universelle" (vol. lxix. ed. 1841), which quotes the saying of Napoleon, gives also a curious confirmation of it from the MS. Memoirs of M. de St Priest. It appears that a little before the French Revolution, and when M. de St. Priest had returned from his embassy at Constantinople, General La Fayette called upon him and expressed his intention to undertake, as a private individual, with a band of followers, the conquest of Egypt, or else of the Barbary States — all this without the slightest knowledge of the actual condition or means of defence of these countries! It is added: "M. de St. Priest fat si etonne, si mecontent, de son "ignorance, et de ses plans ridicules, qu'il lui tourna le dos et lui *' fcrma sa porte 1"
concluded between them, by the intervention of one Mr. Carmichael (for as yet La Fayette spoke no English, and Deane little French), according to the terms of which the Marquis de La Fayette was to join the American service, and to receive from Congress the rank of Major-General* — no slight temptation to a stripling of nineteen! La Fayette was to be accompanied, or rather attended, by the Baron de Kalb and eleven other officers of lower rank, seeking service in America. He sent, in secret, an agent to Bordeaux, there to purchase and prepare a vessel for their voyage. Meanwhile he made an excursion of three weeks to London, where his kinsman, the Marquis de Noailles, was ambassador. He was presented to the King, and graciously received. He saw at the Opera General Clinton, who had come home on a winter leave of absence, and who was next to meet him on a field of battle in America. But, mindful of his own hostile designs, he deemed it proper to forbear from prying into the military forces of the kingdom, and declined an invitation to visit the naval armament at Portsmouth.
On his return to France, La Fayette bade farewell to his young wife, leaving her four months gone with child, and set out for Bordeaux. Thus far all had prospered according to his wishes. But at Bordeaux he found that his preparations had been discovered and complained of by Lord Stormont, and that a Lettre De Cachet for his arrest was already issued. Nevertheless he did not relinquish his design. He crossed the Spanish frontier in the disguise of a courier, found his vessel at Passages, and there embarked with his companions. Towards the middle of June he landed on the coast of Carolina; and after a few days' rest, pursued his route to Philadelphia. His reception by the Congress was not at first a warm one; but La Fayette declared that he would accept no pay, and was willing to serve as a volunteer; and under these circumstances, the Assembly fulfilled the terms of the secret agreement, and bestowed on him the rank of MajorGeneral.
* See the valuable and authentic "Note," or rather, Memoir, written by Mr. Jared Sparks, but derived in great part from La Fayette's own oral information, in the Appendix to Washington's Writings, vol. v. p. 445—456.