Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, the Marquies de la Fayette, was born at the chateau of Chavaniac in Auvergne, France. His father was killed at Minden in 1759, and his mother and his grandfather died in 1770. At the age of 13, he was left an orphan with a princely fortune. He married at 16 to Marie Adrienne Francoise de Noailles, daughter of the duc d'Ayen and granddaughter of the duc de Noailles, then one of the most influential families in the kingdom. Lafayette chose to follow the career of his father, and entered the Guards.
La Fayette was 19 and a captain of dragoons when the English colonies in America proclaimed their independence. "At the first news of this quarrel", he afterwards wrote in his memoirs, "my heart was enrolled in it." The count de Broglie, whom he consulted, discouraged his zeal for the cause of liberty. Finding his purpose unchangeable, however, he presented the young enthusiast to Johann Kalb, who was also seeking service in America, and through Silas Deane, American agent in Paris, an arrangement was concluded, on December 7, 1776, by which Lafayette was to enter the American service as major-general. At this moment, the news arrived of grave disasters to the American arms. His friends again advised him to abandon his purpose. Even the American envoys, Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee, who had superseded Deane, withheld further encouragement and the king himself forbade his leaving. At the instance of the British ambassador at Versailles orders were issued to seize the ship he was fitting out at Bordeaux and La Fayette himself was arrested. But the ship was sent from Bordeaux to a neighboring port in Spain, La Fayette escaped from custody in disguise, and before a second lettre de cachet could reach him he was afloat with eleven chosen companions. Though 2 British cruisers had been sent in pursuit of him, he landed safely near Georgetown, South Carolina, after a tedious voyage of nearly two months, and hastened to Philadelphia, then the seat of government of the colonies.
When La Fayette was 19, with the little English he had been able to pick up on his voyage, he presented himself to the U.S. Congress with Deane's authority to demand a commission of the highest rank after the commander-in-chief, his reception was chilly. Deane's contracts were so numerous, and for officers of such high rank, that it was impossible for Congress to ratify them without injustice to Americans who had become entitled by their service to promotion. Lafayette appreciated the situation as soon as it was explained to him, and immediately expressed his desire to serve in the American army upon two conditions—that he should receive no pay, and that he should act as a volunteer.
These terms were so different from those made by other foreigners, they had been attended with such substantial sacrifices, and they promised such important indirect advantages, that Congress passed a resolution, on July 31, 1777,
"that his services be accepted, and that, in consideration of his zeal, illustrious family and connexions, he have the rank and commission of major-general of the United States."
The next day he met Gen. George Washington, who became his lifelong friend. Congress intended his appointment as purely honorary, and the question of giving him a command was left entirely to Washington's discretion.
La Fayette's first action was at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777, where he showed courage and activity and received a wound. Shortly afterwards he secured what he most desired, the command of a division—the immediate result of a communication from Washington to Congress of November 1, in which he said:
"The Marquis de La Fayette is extremely solicitous of having a command equal to his rank. I do not know in what light Congress will view the matter, but it appears to me, from a consideration of his illustrious and, important connexions, the attachment which he has manifested for our cause, and the consequences which his return in disgust might produce, that it will be advisable to gratify his wishes, and the more so as several gentlemen from France who came over under some assurances have gone back disappointed in their expectations. His conduct with respect to them stands in a favourable point of view—having interested himself to remove their uneasiness and urged the impropriety of their making any unfavourable representations upon their arrival at home. Besides, he is sensible, discreet in his manners, has made great proficiency in our language, and from the disposition he discovered at the battle of Brandywine possesses a large share of bravery and military ardour."
Though the commander of a division, Lafayette never had many troops in his charge. Whatever military talents he possessed were not the kind which appeared as conspicuous advantage on the theatre to which his wealth and family influence rather than his soldierly gifts had called him. In the first months of 1778, he commanded troops detailed for the projected expedition against Canada. His retreat from Barren Hill on May 28, 1778, was commended as masterly, and he fought at the Battle of Monmouth on June 28 and received from Congress a formal recognition of his services in the Rhode Island expedition on August 1778.
The treaties of commerce and defensive alliance, signed by the insurgents and France on February 6, 1778, were promptly followed by a declaration of war by Great Britain against the latter, and La Fayette asked leave to revisit France and to consult his king as to the further direction of his services. This leave was readily granted; it was not difficult for Washington to replace the major-general, but it was impossible to find another equally competent, influential and devoted champion of the American cause near the court of Louis XVI. In fact, he went on a mission rather than a visit. He embarked on January 11, 1779, was received with enthusiasm, and was made a colonel in the French cavalry. On March 4, 1779, Franklin wrote to the president of Congress:
"The marquis de La Fayette is infinitely esteemed and beloved here, and I am persuaded will do everything in his power to merit a continuance of the same affection from America."
He won the confidence of Vergennes.
La Fayette was absent from America about six months, and his return was the occasion of a complimentary resolution of Congress. From April- October 1781, he was charged with the defence of Virginia, in which Washington gave him the credit of doing all that was possible with the forces at his disposal; and he showed his zeal by borrowing money on his own account to provide his soldiers with necessaries. The Battle of Yorktown, in which he bore an honourable if not a distinguished part, was the last of the war, and terminated his military career in the United States. He immediately obtained leave to return to France, where it was supposed he might be useful in negotiations for a general peace. He was also occupied in the preparations for a combined French and Spanish expedition against some of the British West India Islands, of which he had been appointed chief of staff, and a formidable fleet assembled at Cádiz, but the armistice signed on January 20, 1783 between the belligerents put a stop to the expedition. He had been promoted (1781) to the rank of maréchal de camp (brigadier general) in the French army, and he received every token of regard from his sovereign and his countrymen. He visited the United States again in 1784, and remained some five months as a guest of the nation.
La Fayette did not appear again prominently in public life until 1787, though he did good service to the French Protestants, and became actively interested in plans to abolish slavery. In 1787 he took his seat in the Assembly of Notables. He demanded, and he alone signed the demand, that the king convoke the Estates-General, thus becoming a leader in the French Revolution. He showed liberal tendencies both in that assembly and after its dispersal, and in 1788 was deprived, in consequence, of his active command. In 1789 La Fayette was elected to the Estates-General, and took a prominent part in its proceedings. He was chosen vice-president of the National Assembly, and on July 11, 1789 proposed a declaration of rights, modelled on Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence in 1776.
On July 15, the second day of the new regime, La Fayette was chosen by acclamation colonel-general of the new National Guard of Paris. He also proposed the combination of the colours of Paris, red and blue, and the royal white, into the famous tricolour cockade of modern France on July 17. For the succeeding three years, until the end of the constitutional monarchy in 1792, his history is largely the history of France. His life was beset with great responsibility and perils, for he was ever the minister of humanity and order in a time of great chaos. He rescued Marie Antoinette from the hands of the populace in October 1789, saved many humbler victims who had been condemned to death, and he risked his life in many unsuccessful attempts to rescue others. Before this, disgusted with enormities which he was powerless to prevent, he had resigned his commission; but so impossible was it to replace him that he was induced to resume it.
In the Constituent Assembly he pleaded for the abolition of arbitrary imprisonment, for religious tolerance, for popular representation, for the establishment of trial by jury, for the gradual emancipation of slaves, for the freedom of the press, for the abolition of titles of nobility, and the suppression of privileged orders. Pursuing these goals he drafted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen which was adopted by the Assembly. In February 1790 he refused the supreme command of the National Guard of the kingdom. In May he founded the "Society of 1789" which afterwards became the Feuillants Club. He took a prominent part in the celebration of July 14, 1790, the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. After suppressing a riot in April 1791 he again resigned his commission, and was again compelled to retain it. He was the friend of liberty as well as of order, and when Louis XVI fled to Varennes he issued orders to stop him. Shortly afterwards he was made lieutenant-general in the army. He commanded the troops in the suppression of another riot, on the occasion of the proclamation of the constitution on September 18, 1791, after which, feeling that his task was done, he retired into private life. This did not prevent his friends from proposing him for the mayoralty of Paris in opposition to Jérôme Pétion de Villeneuve.
When, in December 1791, three armies were formed on the western frontier to attack Austria, La Fayette was placed in command of one of them. But events moved faster than La Fayette's moderate and humane republicanism, and seeing that the lives of the king and queen were each day more and more in danger, he definitely opposed himself to the further advance of the Jacobin party, intending eventually to use his army for the restoration of a limited monarchy. On August 19, 1792, the Assembly declared him a traitor. He was compelled to take refuge in the neutral territory of Liège, whence as one of the prime movers in the Revolution he was taken and held as a prisoner of state for five years, first in Prussian and afterwards in Austrian prisons fom 1794-97 in Olomouc, in spite of the intercession of America and the pleadings of his wife. Napoleon, however, though he had a low opinion of his capacities, stipulated in the Treaty of Campo Formio in 1797 for La Fayette's release. He was not allowed to return to France by the Directory. He returned in 1799; in 1802 he voted against the life consulate of Napoleon, and in 1804 he voted against the imperial title.
La Fayette lived in retirement during the First Empire, but returned to public affairs under the First Restoration and took some part in the political events of the Hundred Days. From 1818-24 he was deputy for the Sarthe, speaking and voting always on the Liberal side, and even becoming a carbonaro. He then revisited America in July 1824, attending the inaugural banquet of the University of Virginia, at Jefferson's invitation) where his role in the Revolution placed him above the strong partisan divisions of the time. As a living symbol of a revolution that was then approaching its fiftieth anniversary, he was overwhelmed with popular applause and voted the sum of $200,000 and a township of land. From 1825 to his death, he sat in the Chamber of Deputies for Meaux. During the revolution of 1830 he again took command of the National Guard and pursued the same line of conduct, with equal want of success, as in the first revolution. In 1834 he made his last speech—on behalf of Polish political refugees. He died at Paris on May 20, 1834 and was buried in the Cimetière de Picpus.
Few men have owed more of their success and usefulness to their family rank than La Fayette, and still fewer have abused it less. He never achieved distinction in the field, and his political career proved him to be incapable of ruling a great national movement, but he had strong convictions which always impelled him to study the interests of humanity, and a pertinacity in maintaining them, which, in all the strange vicissitudes of his eventful life, secured him a very unusual measure of public respect. No citizen of a foreign country has ever had so many and such warm admirers in America, nor does any statesman in France appear to have ever possessed uninterruptedly for so many years so large a measure of popular influence and respect. He had what Jefferson called a "canine appetite" for popularity and fame, but in him the appetite only seemed to make him more anxious to merit the fame which he enjoyed. He was brave to rashness, and he never shrank from danger or responsibility if he saw the way open to spare life or suffering, to protect the defenseless, to sustain the law and preserve order.
The name "La Fayette" is derived from an estate in Aix that belonged to the Motier family in the 13th century. The original Gilbert Lafayette, Marshall of France, (from whom Lafayette draws his motto, "CUR NON?", (Latin for "WHY NOT?") fought, successfully, at the Battle of Baugé (also called Battle of Beauge) and nine years later for Joan of Arc. Lafayette's full name is seldom used in the United States, where he is usually known as "General Lafayette" or simply "Lafayette" (his preferences and as written on his birth certificate), but sometimes is called "the Marquis de Lafayette" (mistakenly or maliciously, if used in post 1790 references since he permanently renounced the nobility title on June 19, 1790) After 1790 and especially after the Bourbon Restoration, Lafayette's enemies viciously taunted him in the press by continually referring to him as "Marquis" and thereby using this propaganda to give Lafayette's supporters the false impression that he gave up on his life-long belief that "ALL men are created equal". Note that Lafayette may be written as one word or as two; one word is more typical in American usage and Lafayette's preference and as it appears on his grave stone, while the two-word form is preferred in contemporary British and French usage. Many places in the United States are named Lafayette, Fayette, or Fayetteville in his honor.
He was the father of Georges Washington Motier Lafayette (1779–1849) (whose godfather was Lafayette's close friend George Washington) and grandfather of Oscar Thomas Gilbert Motier Lafayette (1815–1881).