Washington & Lafayette

Almost inseparable in wartime, the two generals split over a vital question: Should revolutionary ideals be imposed on others?

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Two years later, in the run-up to Yorktown, Washington ordered the troops of "Mad Anthony" Wayne and Lafayette to move south to defend Virginia. Both men immediately faced mutinies, Wayne because his men had not been paid for months, Lafayette because his had been told they would be on the march for only a few days. Wayne responded by holding an immediate court-martial, executing six of the mutiny's ringleaders and making the rest file past the corpses—which they did, "mute as fish," a witness would recall—on their way to Virginia.

Lafayette told his men they were free to go. Ahead of them, he said, lay a hard road, great danger and a superior army determined on their destruction. He, for one, meant to face that army, but anyone who did not wish to fight could simply apply for leave to return to camp, which would be granted. Given the option of fighting or declaring themselves to be unpatriotic cowards, Lafayette's men stopped deserting, and several deserters returned. Lafayette rewarded his men by spending 2,000 pounds of his own money to buy desperately needed clothing, shorts, shoes, hats and blankets. But it was his appeal to their pride that mattered most.

The idea would not have occurred to Lafayette even a year before, in the spring of 1780, when he had proposed a foolishly intrepid attack on the British fleet in New York. The Comte de Rochambeau, commander of French forces in America, told Lafayette it was a rash bid for military glory (as it was). Lafayette learned the lesson well. In the summer of 1781, he managed to corner British forces in Yorktown precisely because he did not attack, while Lord Cornwallis painted himself into the corner from which there would be no escape.

When the admiral of the French fleet arrived in the Chesapeake Bay off Yorktown, he insisted that his forces and Lafayette's were sufficient to defeat Cornwallis by themselves. (He was probably right.) Lafayette, several ranks and decades the admiral's junior, was well aware that he would gain more glory by not waiting for the forces of Washington and Rochambeau, and equally aware that he would be just a third-tier officer once they arrived. But he rebuffed the admiral and waited. Confessing "the strongest attachment to those troops," he asked Washington only to leave him in command of them. He recognized that there was more at stake than his personal glory and that glory was a more complex alloy than he had known before.

After Washington assumed the presidency of his new nation, his goal was the emergence of a uniquely American character, of a distinctive and respected Americanism that was respected as such at home and abroad. Lafayette, returning to France after Yorktown, began advocating American principles with the fervor of a convert. But at the end of Washington's life, the relationship between the two men nearly foundered on an issue that, two centuries later, would divide France and America over the war in Iraq: the wisdom of trying to export revolutionary ideals by force.

The France of Napoleon was making that experiment, and while Lafayette despised Bonaparte's authoritarianism, he was thrilled with France's victories in the field. Washington, who exhorted his country never to "unsheath the sword except in self-defense," was furious with France's military adventurism, coming as it did at the expense of American shipping (the "family spat," Napoleon had called it). His letter excoriating France for such behavior was the last to Lafayette he ever wrote. Lafayette's defensive reply was Lafayette's last to Washington.

When Washington died, in 1799, his refusal to let America be drawn into the sanguinary politics of Europe stood as one of his most important legacies. As much as he believed American principles worthy of export, he recoiled at the idea as a matter of principle as well as pragmatism. His policy of neutrality toward England and France—which was widely interpreted as favoring our enemy at the expense of our ally and monarchic rule over egalitarian government—robbed him of the universal acclaim he had long enjoyed and led to the severest criticism he was ever to endure. Benjamin Franklin Bache's Aurora, Washington's fiercest critic, called him everything from a weak-minded captive of his cabinet to a traitor. Thomas Paine, famously, said: "[T]reacherous in private friendship...and a hypocrite in public life, the world will be puzzled to decide, whether you are an apostate or an impostor; whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any." For a man as intolerant of criticism as Washington, such abuse must have been unbearable.

Still, his policy of neutrality saved Americans not only from involvement in the war between Britain and France but also from supporting either of them as models of government. In the course of years, Washington had found a greater glory, or something greater than glory, that allowed him to achieve his final victory in a campaign for peace, without which American independence might never have been secured.

In time, Napoleon's misadventures would bring Lafayette closer to Washington's view about exporting revolution by force, but he never gave up support for liberation movements around the world. At home he was an early leader of the pre-revolutionary reform movement, and he was named commandant-general of the National Guard of Paris on July 15, 1789. The preeminent leader of the "moderate" first two years of the French Revolution, he wrote the first draft of France's Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and invented the tricolor cockade, which combined the colors of Paris with Bourbon white to create the symbol of France's republican revolution. But he never changed his view that the government best suited to France was a constitutional monarchy, which put him at odds with Robespierre and eventually contributed to his conviction in absentia for treason. At the time, he was the general of one of three French armies arrayed against an invasion by Austrian and Prussian forces. Lafayette had already returned to Paris twice to denounce Jacobin radicalism before the National Assembly, and rather than return a third time to meet certain death at the guillotine, he crossed into enemy territory and served the next five years in prison, followed by two more in exile.

Lafayette returned to France in 1799 but stayed out of politics until 1815, when he was elected to the National Assembly in time to put the weight of his revolutionary-era credentials behind the call for Napoleon to abdicate after Waterloo. When the emperor's brother, Lucien Bonaparte, came before the assembly to denounce the attempt as that of a weak-willed nation, Lafayette silenced him. "By what right do you dare accuse the nation of...want of perseverance in the emperor's interest?" he asked. "The nation has followed him on the fields of Italy, across the sands of Egypt and the plains of Germany, across the frozen deserts of Russia.... The nation has followed him in fifty battles, in his defeats and in his victories, and in doing so we have to mourn the blood of three million Frenchmen."


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