MADAME LAFAYETTE TO THE RESCUE
ADRIENNE MARQUISE DE LAFAYETTE THE UNSUNG HEROINE
and the continuation of the French American friendship.
Through her actions Adrienne Marquise de Lafayette (2 November 1759 - 24 December 1807) was the ultimate unsung heroine. She was living in one of the most dangerous period in the History of France.
Firts Let's describe the complex context and unstable background where the story of her life unfolded
In 1794 during the French revolution the left wing extremists seized power following a coup that rejected the French Constitution. They installed a regime now remembered as the reign of terror or more often as The Terror.
The Terror started under Danton and was continued even more forcefully by Robespierre. Makeshift tribunals were formed to condemn aristocrats and perceived enemies of the regime.
These Tribunals were called Revolutionary Tribunals and their judgment had only one outcome: beheading by Guillotine. The list of suspects was drafted by the Committee of Public Safety and by the Committee of General Security from proposals that came from a popular commission.
These tribunals were already a mockery of justice, but they were rendered even worse and more dangerous by the infamous Law of the 22 of Prairial (June 10/1794) which forbade prisoners to employ counsel for their defense, suppressed the hearing of witnesses and made the death penalty the only possible outcome.
Before the 22 of Prairial the Revolutionary Tribunal had pronounced 1,220 death-sentences in thirteen months; during the forty-nine days between the passing of the Prairial law and the fall of Robespierre 1,376 persons in Paris were condemned, including many innocent victims.
At this time Madame de Lafayette was already in prison ready to be brought immediately in front of the Revolutionary Tribunals to be judged. The conditions of existence in these prisons went from unhealthy to horrible. Cells or rooms with too many inmates, Disgusting straw laid on the ground to sleep on, unhealthy disgusting, scarce food, total absence of hygiene.
In addition to Adrienne de Lafayette, her Grandmother, her Mother and her Sister had been arrested and sent to prison. They were members of France's highest nobility, the Noailles family.
All of the Noailles women except for Adrienne de Lafayette herself from the Noailles family were promptly beheaded together after they were condemned by the Tribunal.
The question is, "Why Adrienne Marquise de Lafayette, born a Noailles, wasn't brought in front of the Tribunal and beheaded?"
In addition of being an Aristocrat, she was the wife of the Marquis de Lafayette who was then marked as an outlaw in his own country by the left wing terror regime. She should have been executed before all the women of her family
Days passed, one after the other, and she was still in prison but alive. What happened to keep her alive?
A miracle had happened, an American miracle. George Washington had sent numerous letters to Governor Morris his Ambassador in France asking him to unofficially do whatever he could do to help the two Lafayettes. Governor Morris in transition to relinquish his ambassador duties, wrote a remarkable letter to the Committee of exterior relations a committee under the supervision of the Committee of Public Safety, a letter highlighting the fact that Madame and the Marquis Lafayette were adored in the USA and alluded that the USA the only other significant Republic in the world could be a powerful ally to France in the future. His letter was a good example of the offer of a stick and a carrot. When his letter was not acknowledged he went to some members of the Committee of Public Safety and repeated his arguments, offering the stick and the carrot once again.
Robespierre was unable to remain immune to these arguments, but overtly rescuing a Noailles-Lafayette from the guillotine was suicidal for him or any leader involved in The Terror. Fortunately he had major control of all the steps leading to the Tribunal and everyone on the committees either feared him or owed him something. The day before prisoners were summoned to the court, the files of the prisoners were prepared and stacked up to be given to the court the next day. He arranged that almost EVERYDAY Madame de Lafayette's file would be taken from the top of the pile and be moved to the very bottom. And every day or every other day this magical slight of hand which buried her file was repeated to make sure that Madame de Lafayette's file would never be sent to the Revolutionary Tribunal who would have her executed by beheading her with the guillotine.
The intervention of the USA Ambassador to France, Governor Morris was the miracle that saved Adrienne Marquise de Lafayette. It was the first of many actions the Americans took as thank you gestures demonstrating how much they appreciated the Marquis de Lafayette's help in their fight for freedom.
You may think that this miracle was wonderful by itself but it gets much better. Robespierre was executed and the reign of Terror ended, but even though many Aristocrats were freed Adrienne Marquise de Lafayette was still a prisoner and the French government did not want to free her. Again the question was, "Who would free her?"
The person who freed her was James Monroe the future President of the USA who had replaced Governor Morris as American Ambassador in Paris. Ambassador Monroe's wife went to visit Adrienne Marquise de Lafayette and was appalled at the conditions of her existence. The Ambassador accompanied his wife in visits to the Marquise on many occasions until it became incredibly embarrassing for the French Government to read in the press about the attachment of the American Ambassador and his wife for this wonderful lady. In fact Madame Lafayette was not guilty . She was finally released due to the support of Ambassador Monroe and his wife.
She immediately began to do everything she could to have her husband freed while at the same time she continued fighting tooth and nail, brains and persistence, to finalize buying back the Domain of the Marquis de Lafayette located in Auvergne and reorganizing it. Her fight to regain her husband's domain was funded with money borrowed from Governor Morris and personal funds given by George Washington before her imprisonment. This was an amazing accomplishment for an Aristocrat during these times. This remarkable woman managed to successfully complete this difficult and extremely tiresome task. She also managed to buy back a smaller but important domain called La Grange.
But It gets even better.
After she reorganized the estates of the Marquis de Lafayette she asked for an audience with Francis II, Roman Emperor also known as Francis I, Austrian Emperor. Because she was a member of the nobility and he had met members of her family in the past he granted her an audience. He braced himself to rebuke her demand to free her husband the Marquis de Lafayette, but she asked instead to be allowed to be a prisoner with him at Olmutz one of the most horrible prison-fortresses of these times. The Emperor was so startled that he agreed to let her become a prisoner. She went to Olmutz with her two daughters and was given a cell next to Lafayette and allowed about three hours of visitations rights each day.
It is almost beyond the comprehension of our modern minds to apprehend the level of courage one needs to go volontarily go into a prison after having already being a prisoner while never having being guilty of any crime.
When the rest of the European world learned about her voluntary captivity so that she could be close to her husband she became an instant heroine and through her dedication she again drew attention to the Marquis de Lafayette. Without his wife Adrienne, the Marquis de Lafayette would probably have withered into oblivion and death.
Adrienne Marquise de Lafayette became the ultimate heroine when she demonstrated her absolute courage as well as her absolute virtue.
Her gesture of unselfish and absolute love had consequences she had not expected. Across the western world she become an instant celebrity even in anti-French England. Her exploits were widely publicized and rightly so. In America her deeds made her famous and beloved, and the love of the American people swelled into a gigantic wave filled with poems, songs and articles written in the honor of the couple.
However, conditions in the prison were so unhealthy with foul air, scarce food and infestations of insects in her cell that she became extremely ill with blisters all over her body. She was literally dying and a doctor was asked to visit. She was a prisoner, but she was a member of the highest levels of the aristocracy and the doctor had to send a message to Emperor Francis II asking that the prisoner be conducted to the best doctor in Vienna. The Emperor agreed under the condition that she would not return to prison. Being the truly courageous woman and loving wife she was, she refused to go to Vienna and see the best doctor preferring to stay in jail with her beloved husband and risk dying
Her health continued to decline, she was dying. Would there be another miracle to save this saint or would she die in prison? Well, there were no more miracles left but her iron will. She spend the last two years of her imprisonment withering away in bad heath but with so much determination to stay alive to be with her beloved husband that she did not die.
Napoleon Bonaparte not yet an Emperor but as a General of the Revolutionary Army, vanquished the Austrians in a succession of battles and Austria asked for a peace resulting in the Treaty of Campo Formio (17 October 1797.) Even though it had not been one of Napoleon's wishes, the negotiations about the release of the Lafayette Family were part of the treaty, and it was again American Diplomats who pushed to hurry the negotiations and made the accommodations for them to be sent to their family in Belgium. After two years in Belgium. The Marquis de Lafayette decided to return to France against Napoleon orders and settled in his domain previously bought back by his wife. Thanks of his wife tireless solicitations he and his family were not homeless.
They spent the next few years very happy together because the Marquis was more or less confined to his estates and he had become very much in love with his wife. Her husband beside showing her his love acknowledged that she was a remarkable woman by making her the de facto leader of the household keeping only politic as his prerogative. She lived another ten years to the age of 47 years old
To be brave and a man charging the enemy when you are 22 years old raised in a Military family, believing as all young persons that you are immortal is very easy.
Fighting tooth and nail against an horrible bureaucracy that hates Aristocrats and condescend on women, fighting when in prison, fighting when out of prison, begging tirelessly, following the most difficult path, challenging death, that is true Courage.
Eric Lafayette March 2010