Lafayette for Young Americans - Rupert Holland

Lafayette in Prison and Exile

Lafayette knew that he could expect to find no place of refuge on either side of the French frontier; on the one hand were the Jacobin soldiers of the Reign of Terror who held him to be a traitor, and on the other the emigrant noblemen and their allies who regarded him as in large part responsible for all the troubles that had befallen Louis XVI. and his court. He had got himself into a position where both sides considered him an enemy; and his best course seemed to be to make his way to England and there take ship for America, where he was always sure to meet a friendly welcome.

Austrian and Prussian troops held the northern border of France and garrisoned the outpost towns of Belgium. Lafayette and his companions crossed the frontier on their road to Brussels, but were stopped at the town of Rochefort because they had no passports. One of the party, Bureaux de Pusy, rode to Namur, the nearest large town, to try to get the necessary papers, but when he told the officer in charge there that the passports were wanted for General Lafayette and several friends there was great commotion. "Passports for Lafayette, the enemy of the King and of order!" the Austrian officer exclaimed. Lafayette was too important a man to let escape in any such fashion. And at once the command was given to arrest the Frenchman and his companions.

They were found at Liege and arrested. Lafayette protested that he and his friends were now non-combatants, and moreover were on neutral territory in Belgium. In spite of that they were held as prisoners, although a secret message was sent to Lafayette that he could have his freedom if he would forswear his republican principles and give certain information about conditions in France. Indignantly he refused to buy his liberty in any such way, and then was sent to the Prussian fortress of Wesel on the Rhine. On the journey there he was questioned several times about the French army he had commanded, but the haughty contempt with which he refused to make any answers quickly showed his captors the sort of man they had to deal with. At one town an officer of the Duke of Saxe Teschen came to him and demanded that Lafayette turn over to the Duke the treasure chest of his army that his enemies supposed he had taken with him. At first Lafayette thought the request a joke; but when the demand was repeated he turned on the officer. "I am to infer, then, that if the Duke of Saxe Teschen had been in my place, he would have stolen the military chest of the army?" said he. The officer backed out of the room in confusion, and afterward no one dared to doubt the Frenchman's honesty.

The prison at Wesel was mean and unhealthy, and the cells so small and cold and damp that the prisoners suffered greatly. Yet to every protest of Lafayette the only answer vouchsafed was that he should have better treatment if he would tell his captors the military plans of the army of France. His reply was always the same, an indignant refusal. The Jacobins had declared him a traitor to the government of the Commune, but he never repaid them by any treachery.

The Prussians and Austrians, arch-enemies of liberty, felt that in Lafayette they had caught the chief apostle of freedom in all Europe, and for greater security they presently moved him from the prison at Wesel to the stronger fortress at Magdeburg on the Elbe. There Lafayette had a cell about eight feet by four in size, under the outer rampart, never lighted by a ray of sun. Its walls were damp with mould, and two guards constantly watched the prisoner. Even the nobles in Paris, victims of the Terror, were treated better than the Prussians treated Lafayette. For five months he stayed there, with no chance for exercise or change, proof against every threat and bribe. Then the King of Prussia, seeing that he would soon have to make peace with France, and unwilling that this leader of liberty should be set free, decided to hand Lafayette and his comrades over to the Emperor of Austria, the bitterest foe of freedom and of France.

So Lafayette and several of the others were secretly transferred across the frontier to the fortress of Olmutz, a town of Moravia in central Austria. Here they were given numbers instead of names, and only a few officials knew who the prisoners were or where they were kept. Lafayette practically disappeared, as many other famous prisoners had disappeared in Austrian dungeons. Neither his wife and friends in France nor Washington in America had any inkling of what had become of him.

When he had first left France on his way to Brussels he had written to his wife at Chavaniac. "Whatever may be the vicissitudes of fortune, my dear heart," he said, "you know that my soul is not of the kind to give way; but you know it too well not to have pity on the suffering that I experienced on leaving my country. . . . There is none among you who would wish to owe fortune to conduct contrary to my conscience. Join me in England; let us establish ourselves in America. We shall find there the liberty which exists no longer in France, and my tenderness will seek to recompense you for all the enjoyments you have lost." Later, in his first days in prison, he wrote to a friend in England, using a toothpick with some lemon juice and lampblack for pen and ink. "A prison," he said, "is the only proper place for me, and I prefer to suffer in the name of the despotism I have fought, than in the name of the people whose cause is dear to my heart, and which is profaned to-day by brigands."

For as brigands he thought of Robespierre and his crew who were making of France a country of horror and fear. From time to time he had news of the execution in Paris of friends who had been very near and dear to him. When Louis XVI. was beheaded he wrote of it as "the assassination of the King, in which all the laws of humanity, of justice, and of national faith were trampled under foot." When his old friend La Rochefoucauld had fallen at the hands of the Terror he said, "The name of my unhappy friend La Rochefoucauld ever presents itself to me. Ah, that crime has most profoundly wounded my heart! The cause of the people is not less sacred to me; for that I would give my blood, drop by drop; I should reproach myself every instant of my life which was not devoted to that cause; but the charm is lost."

The lover of liberty saw anarchy in the land he had worked to set free; king, nobles and many citizens swept away by the fury of a mob that mistook violence for freedom. Few things are more bitter than for a man who has labored for a great cause to see that cause turn and destroy his ideals.

Meantime Madame Lafayette was suffering also. She was arrested at the old castle of Chavaniac and for a time imprisoned, persecuted, and even threatened with death. The state had denounced Lafayette as an émigré, or runaway, and had confiscated all his property. Yet through all these trials his wife remained calm and determined, her one purpose being to learn where her husband was and secure his release if possible. She wrote to Washington, who was then the President of the United States, begging him to intercede for her husband, and when she finally managed to find out where Lafayette was imprisoned she urged the Austrians to allow her to share his captivity.

The Emperor of Austria turned a deaf ear to all requests made on behalf of Lafayette. The United States, however, was able to do something for the man who had befriended it, and deposited two thousand florins in Prussia, subject to his order, and obtained permission )f the King of Prussia that Lafayette should be informed that his wife and children were alive.

The prisoner might well have thought that his own family had shared the fate of so many of their relatives and friends. The name of Lafayette was no protection to them, rather an added menace in a land where the Jacobins held sway. On September 2, 1792, when the Reign of Terror was in full flood in Paris, Minister Roland ordered that Madame Lafayette should be arrested at Chavaniac. She was taken, with her aunt and her elder daughter, who refused to leave her, as far as the town of Puy, but there she wrote such vigorous letters of protest to Roland and other officials that she was allowed to return to her home on parole. In October of the next year she was again arrested, this time under the new law that called for the arrest of all persons who might be suspected of hostility to the government, and now she was actually put into a country prison. In June, 1794, Robespierre's agents brought her to Paris, and she was imprisoned in the College du Plessis, where her 1 husband had gone to school as a boy. From there her next journey, according to the custom of that time, would have been to the guillotine.

At this point, however, Gouverneur Morris, the Minister of the United States, stepped upon the scene. He had already advanced Madame Lafayette large sums of money, when her property had been confiscated; now when he heard that she was to be condemned to the guillotine by the butchers of the Revolution he immediately bearded those butchers in their den. He wrote to the authorities, the Committee of Safety, as the officials grotesquely called it, and told them that the execution of Madame Lafayette would make a very bad impression in America.

The Committee of Safety were not disposed to listen to reason from any quarter. Yet, when they heard Gouverneur Morris say, "If you kill the wife of Lafayette all the enemies of the Republic and of popular liberty will rejoice; you will make America hostile, and justify England in her slanders against you," they hesitated and postponed ordering her execution. But, because of his protests against such violent acts of the Reign of Terror, Gouverneur Morris was sent back to America, on the ground that he had too much sympathy with the victims of "liberty!"

Madame Lafayette was brought into court, and the Committee of Safety did its best to insult her. Said the Chief Commissioner, "I have old scores against you. I detest you, your husband, and your name!"

Madame Lafayette answered him fearlessly, "I shall always defend my husband; and as for a name there is no wrong in that."

"You are insolent!" shouted the Commissioner, and was about to order her execution when he remembered Morris's words and sent her back to her prison instead.

With her husband in prison in Austria, her young children left unprotected and far away from her, the plight of Madame Lafayette was hard indeed. But she was very brave, though she knew that any day might take her to the scaffold. Almost all the old nobility were brave. While Robespierre and his rabble made liberty and justice a mockery the prisoners maintained their old contempt for their jailers and held their heads as high as in the old days when they had taken their pleasure at Versailles.

On July 22, 1794, Madame Lafayette's grandmother, the Marechale de Noailles, her mother, the Duchess d'Ayen, and her sister, the Vicomtesse de Noailles, were beheaded by the guillotine, victims of the popular rage {, against all aristocrats. A few days later the Reign of Terror came to a sudden end, the prey of the very excesses it had committed.

The people were sick of blood; even the judges and executioners were weary. On July twenty-eighth Robespierre and his supporters were declared traitors and were carted off to the guillotine in their turn. The new revolution opened the prison doors to most of the captives, but it was not until February, 1795, that Madame Lafayette obtained her freedom, and then it was largely owing to the efforts of the new Minister of the United States, James Monroe. At once she flew to her children, and sent her son George to America to be under the protection of Washington. A friend had bought Chavaniac and gave it back to her, but another Reign of Terror seemed imminent and Madame Lafayette wanted to leave France. A passport was obtained for her, and with her daughters she went by sea to Hamburg. There the American consul gave her another passport, made out in the name of "Madame Motier, of Hartford, in Connecticut." Then she went to Austria and at Vienna presented herself to the grand chamberlain, the Prince of Rosenberg, who was an old acquaintance of her family. He took her to the Emperor, and from the latter she finally won permission to share her husband's captivity at Olmutz.

Meantime Lafayette's health had suffered under his long imprisonment. In the dark damp fortress, deprived of exercise, of company, of books, he had passed many weary days. But the Fourth of July he remembered as the birthday of American freedom and spent the hours recollecting the happy time he had known in the young republic across the Atlantic.

At last his wife and daughters joined him in his prison and told him of what had happened in France. Imprisonment was easier to bear now that his family was with him, but the confinement was hard on all of them, and presently the prison authorities, seeing Lafayette in need of exercise, gave him more liberty, allowing him to walk or ride each day, but always strongly guarded.

His friends in America were not idle. Washington had earlier sent a letter to Prussia asking the liberation of Lafayette as a favor. But the prisoner had already been transferred to Austria. In May, 1796, Washington wrote to the Emperor of Austria, and the American Minister, John Jay, presented the letter. "Permit me only to submit to your Majesty's consideration," wrote Washington, "whether his long imprisonment and the confiscation of his estate and the indigence and dispersion of his family, and the painful anxieties incident to all these circumstances, do not form an assemblage of sufferings which recommend him to the mediation of humanity. Allow me, sir, on this occasion, to be its organ; and to entreat that he may be permitted to come to this country, on such conditions and under such instructions as your Majesty may think it expedient to prescribe."

Austria, however, did not intend to release the prisoner. She had too much fear of him as a leader of liberty. When at an earlier time a friend of Lafayette had asked for his release an official of Frederick the Great had refused the request on the same ground that Austria's emperor now took. "Monsieur de Lafayette," said this official, "is too fanatic on the subject of liberty; he does not hide it; all his letters show it; he could not keep quiet, if out of prison. I saw him when he was here, and still remember a statement of his, which surprised me very much at that time: 'Do you believe,' said he to me, 'that I went to America to make a military reputation for myself? I went for the sake of liberty. When a man loves it, he can rest only when he has established it in his own country.' "

Before Madame Lafayette had joined her husband in the prison at Olmutz a friend had tried to help the captive to escape. At the time the Austrian officials were allowing Lafayette a little more freedom, although he was practically never out of the watchful sight of guards. The friend was a young man who had come to Vienna to try to find out where the famous Frenchman was imprisoned, the young American, Francis Kinloch Huger, who, as a small boy, had stood in the doorway of his father's house in South Carolina at midnight and helped to welcome Lafayette and his companions when they first reached American soil. Francis Huger's father had been attached to Lafayette's command during the campaign in Virginia, and the son had retained so deep an admiration for his hero that he had come to Europe to help him if he could.

After he had been in Vienna some time Francis Huger met a German physician, Doctor Bollman, who was as great an admirer of Lafayette as the young American. Bollman said to Francis Huger, "Lafayette is in Olmutz," and then explained how he had found out the place where their hero was hidden. He had become acquainted with the physician who was visiting the Frenchman in prison, and had used this doctor, who knew nothing of his plans, as a go-between. By means of chemically-prepared paper and sympathetic ink he had actually communicated with Lafayette and had arranged a method of escape to be attempted some day when the prisoner was outdoors.

Francis Huger entered eagerly into the plot, and the two conspirators made ready their horses and signals and other preparations for escape. Lafayette had learned part of their plans. As he rode out one day in November, 1794, accompanied by an officer and two soldiers, his two friends were ready for him. Lafayette and the officer got out of the carriage to walk along the road. The carriage, with the two soldiers, drove on. When it was far ahead, Huger and Bollman, who had been watching from their saddles, charged on the officer, while Lafayette turned on the latter, snatched at his unsheathed sword, and tried to disarm him.

The Austrian officer fought gamely, and while Huger held the horses Bollman ran to the aid of the Frenchman, whose strength had been sapped by his long imprisonment. The two soldiers, alarmed at the sudden assault, made no effort to help their officer, but drove away for aid. Meantime the officer was thrown to the ground and held there by Doctor Bollman.

Francis Huger, holding the restive horses with one hand, helped to gag the Austrian officer with his handkerchief. Then one of the horses broke from his grasp and dashed away. Bollman thrust a purse full of money into Lafayette's hand, and, still holding the struggling Austrian, called to Lafayette in English, so that the officer should not understand, "Get to Hoff! Get to Hoff!"

Lafayette, who was very much excited, was too intent on escaping to pay special attention to Bollman's directions. He thought the latter was merely shouting, "Get off; get off!" and so, with the help of Francis Huger, he sprang to the saddle of the remaining horse and galloped away as fast as he could go. He did not take the road to Hoff, where his rescuers had arranged to have fresh horses waiting, but took another road which led to Jagerndorf on the German frontier. Before he reached Jagerndorf his horse gave out, and while he was trying to get a fresh mount he was recognized, arrested, and taken back to his prison at Olmutz.

So the attempted escape failed. Huger and Bollman were arrested while they were hunting for the lost Lafayette. They were thrown into prison, put in chains, and nearly starved to death. And for some time after that the officials made Lafayette's life in prison even more uncomfortable than it had been before.

Fortunately neither Huger nor Bollman died in their Austrian prison. After eight months in their cells they were set free and sent out of the country. Both went to America, where in time Doctor Bollman became a political adventurer and aided Aaron Burr in those schemes which ultimately brought Burr to trial for treason. Then Bollman might have been punished had not Lafayette remembered what he had done at Olmutz and begged President Jefferson to set him free. Francis Huger was among the Americans who welcomed Lafayette to the United States in 1824.

The Frenchman, however, had to continue in prison in Austria. After his wife and daughters joined him the imprisonment grew less hard. But after a time his daughters fell ill of prison-fever, and soon their mother was sick also. She appealed to the Emperor for permission to go to Vienna to see a doctor. The Emperor answered that she could go to Vienna "only on condition that you do not go back to Olmutz."

She would not desert her husband. "I will never expose myself to the horrors of another separation from my husband," she declared; and so she and her daughters stayed with Lafayette, enduring all manner of privations and sufferings for his sake.

The world, however, had not forgotten Lafayette. America worked constantly to free him, Washington and Jefferson and Jay, Morris and Marshall and Monroe used all their influence with Austria, but America was not loved in the tyrannical court of Vienna and the appeals of her statesmen passed unheeded. England was generous also toward the man who had once fought against her. The general who had commanded the forces against him at the Brandywine moved Parliament again and again to interfere on behalf of the French hero, and Charles James Fox, the great English orator, pleaded in favor, as he said, "of a noble character, which will flourish in the annals of the world, and live in the veneration of posterity, when kings, and the crowns they wear, will be no more regarded than the dust to which they must return."

Help finally came from his own land, though in a very strange guise. While Lafayette lay in his cell at Olmutz a new star was rising in the skies, a planet succeeding to the confusion of the Reign of Terror in France. A Corsican officer, Napoleon Bonaparte, was winning wonderful laurels as a general. From victory he strode to victory, and by the spring of 1797 he had broken the power of Austria, had crossed the Italian Alps, and in sight of the Emperor's capital was ready to dictate the terms of the treaty of Campo Formio. Then he remembered that a Frenchman, Lafayette, was still in an Austrian dungeon. Neither Bonaparte nor the Directory that now governed France wanted Lafayette to return to that country, but both were determined that Austria must give him up. Napoleon wrote that demand into the treaty. The Austrian Emperor objected, but Napoleon insisted and finally threatened, and he held the upper hand. The Emperor sent an officer to demand a written acknowledgment of his past good treatment from Lafayette and a promise never to enter Austria again. Lafayette refused to say anything about his past treatment but agreed to the second condition. Dissatisfied with this the Austrians represented to General Bonaparte that the prisoner had been set free and urged him to sign the treaty. Bonaparte saw through the ruse. He sent an officer to see that Lafayette was liberated, and only when he was satisfied of this would he make peace with the crafty Emperor.

On September 17, 1797, Lafayette, after five years in prison, walked out of Olmutz with his wife and daughters a free man. Even then, however, the Emperor did not hand him over to the French; instead he had him delivered to the American consul, with the statement that "Monsieur the Marquis de Lafayette was released from imprisonment simply because of the Emperor's desire to favor and gratify America."

The French Revolution had swept away Lafayette's estates and fortune, but his friends came to his assistance and helped to provide for him. Especially Americans were eager to show their appreciation of what he had done for their country. Washington, who had been caring for Lafayette's son at Mount Vernon, now sent him back to Europe, with a letter showing that the great American was as devoted as ever to the great Frenchman.

Lafayette knew that his liberation was due to the brilliant young general, Bonaparte, and he wrote a letter to the latter expressing his gratitude. But there was considerable jealousy in the French government at that time; the letter was distasteful to some of the Directory, and they took their revenge by confiscating the little property that still belonged to Lafayette. Two Englishwomen, however, had left money to the Frenchman as a tribute to his "virtuous and noble character,," and this enabled him to tide over the period until he could get back some of his native estates.

The Netherlands offered Lafayette a home, and he went to the little town of Vianen, near Utrecht, to live. Here he wrote many letters to his friends in America, studied the amazing events that had happened in France since the day on which the States-General had first met at Versailles, and watched the wonderful course of the new leader, Napoleon Bonaparte, across the fields of Europe. Bonaparte puzzled him; he was not sure whether the Corsican was a liberator or a despot; but he saw that the General was restoring order to a France that was greatly in need of it, and hoped that he might accomplish some of the ends for which Lafayette and his friends had worked. Presently the time came when the exile felt that he might safely return to his home.