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Lafayette: 1776-1834

Born into the French nobility but passionately committed from his early years to the principles of liberal democracy, Lafayette is the only man to play a significant role in both the great 18th-century revolutions, American and French.

As a young officer in the French dragoons, he persuades the American agent in Paris in December 1776 to secure him a commission in the army of the new American republic. Once in America he builds a close relationship with George Washington (fighting alongside him for the first time at Brandywine in 1777), and becomes an essential go-between in the developing alliance between the American Congress and France.

In 1781 Lafayette is in command of the army confronting Cornwallis in Virginia, in the campaign leading up to the final British collapse at Yorktown. When the 25-year-old soldier returns to France in 1782, with a new rank of major general in the French army, he is already famous as 'the hero of two worlds'.

His role in the second great revolution of the age begins as one of the deputies to the estates general in Versailles in 1789. Although representing the nobility, his democratic sympathies are well known. He is the first to present a draft of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and on 13 July 1789 he is elected vice-president of the Constituent Assembly.

In this role he leads the delegation from Versailles to Paris on 15 July 1789, the day after the fall of the Bastille. As an experienced general with an impeccable record as a democrat, he is elected commander of the National Guard - formed on that same day. It is he who devises for his guards the tricolour cockade which becomes such a powerful symbol of the revolution and then of the republic.

Continuing to command the National Guard in Paris, Lafayette is an influential figure during the next two years - trusted by both sides (king and assembly) and invariably a voice on the side of moderation.

This moderate stance tells against him after the king's rule is suspended in August 1792. Proscribed by the assembly, Lafayette tries to escape to asylum in America. But he is apprehended by the Austrians (with whom France is now at war) and is held prisoner until 1797.

During the Napoleonic period Lafayette lives privately in France as a gentleman farmer, but he returns to politics after the Bourbon restoration. In an increasingly reactionary climate, he speaks for liberalism - and eventually plays a leading role in the revolution bringing Louis-Philippe to power in 1830. That July he even resumes his command of the National Guard in Paris, forty-one years to the month after his first appointment.

Meanwhile, in 1824-5, he has toured the United States and has been hailed everywhere as the last surviving major general of the American Revolution, the living embodiment of the principles of liberty.

In 1834 he makes his last major speech to the national assembly in Paris. It includes a ringing endorsement of the principle, deriving from two revolutions, which has guided his life: 'True republicanism is the sovereignty of the people.'

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