Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER III: General La Fayette. - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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CHAPTER III: General La Fayette. - Germaine de Staël, Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.) 
Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution, newly revised translation of the 1818 English edition, edited, with an introduction and notes by Aurelian Craiutu (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008).
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General La Fayette.
M. de la Fayette, having fought from his early youth for the cause of America, had early become imbued with the principles of liberty which form the basis of that government. If he made mistakes in regard to the French Revolution, we are to ascribe them all to his admiration of the American institutions, and of Washington, the hero citizen who guided the first steps of that nation in the career of independence. La Fayette, young, affluent, of noble family, and beloved at home, relinquished all these advantages at the age of nineteen to serve beyond the ocean in the cause of that liberty, the love of which has decided every action of his life. Had he had the happiness to be a native of the United States, his conduct would have been that of Washington: the same disinterestedness, the same enthusiasm, the same perseverance in their opinions, distinguished each of these generous friends of humanity. Had General Washington been, like the Marquis de la Fayette, commander of the national guard of Paris, he also might have found it impossible to control the course of circumstances; he also might have seen his efforts baffled by the difficulty of being at once faithful to his engagements to the King, and of establishing at the same time the liberty of his country.
M. de la Fayette, I must say, has a right to be considered a true republican; none of the vanities of his rank ever entered his head; power, the effect of which is so great in France, had no ascendancy over him; the desire of pleasing in drawing-room conversation did not with him influence a single phrase; he sacrificed all his fortune to his opinions with the most generous indifference. When in the prisons of Olmütz,1 as when at the height of his influence, he was equally firm in his attachment to his principles. His manner of seeing and acting is open and direct. Whoever has marked his conduct may foretell with certainty what he will do on any particular occasion. His political feeling is that of a citizen of the United States, and even his person is more English than French. The hatred of which M. de la Fayette is the object has never embittered his temper, and his gentleness of soul is complete; at the same time nothing has ever modified his opinions, and his confidence in the triumph of liberty is the same as that of a pious man in a future life. These sentiments, so contrary to the selfish calculations of most of the men who have acted a part in France, may appear pitiable in the eyes of some persons—“It is so silly,” they think, “to prefer one’s country to oneself, not to change one’s party when that party is vanquished; in short, to consider mankind not as cards with which to play a winning game, but as the sacred objects of unlimited sacrifices.” If this is to form the charge of silliness, would that it were but once merited by our men of talents!
It is a singular phenomenon that such a character as that of M. de la Fayette should have appeared in the foremost rank of French nobles; but he can neither be censured nor exculpated with impartiality, without being acknowledged to be such as I have described him. It then becomes easy to understand the different contrasts which naturally arose between his disposition and his situation. Supporting monarchy more from duty than taste, he drew involuntarily toward the principles of the democrats whom he was obliged to resist; and a certain kindness for the advocates of the republican form was perceptible in him, although his reflection forbade the admission of their system into France. Since the departure of M. de la Fayette for America, now forty years ago,2 we cannot quote a single action or a single word of his which was not direct and consistent; personal interest never blended itself in the least with his public conduct. Success would have displayed such sentiments to advantage; but they deserve all the attention of the historian, in spite of circumstances, and in spite even of faults which might serve as weapons for opponents.
On the 11th of July, before the Third Estate had obtained their triumph, M. de la Fayette addressed the Constituent Assembly and proposed a declaration of rights, nearly similar to that which the Americans placed at the head of their constitution, after conquering their independence.3 The English, likewise, after excluding the Stuarts and calling William III to the crown, made him sign a bill of rights, on which their present constitution is founded. But the American declaration of rights being intended for a people where there were no pre-existing privileges to impede the pure operation of reason, a number of universal principles regarding political liberty and equality were placed at the beginning of this declaration altogether in conformity with the state of knowledge already diffused among them. In England the bill of rights did not proceed on general ideas; it confirmed existing laws and institutions.4
The French declaration of rights in 1789 contained the best part of those of England and America; but it would have perhaps been better to have confined it, on the one hand to what was indisputable and on the other to what would not have admitted of any dangerous interpretation. There can be no doubt that distinctions in society can have no other object than the general good; that all political power takes its rise from the interest of the people; that men are born and remain free and equal in the eye of the law; but there is ample space for sophistry in so wide a field, while nothing is more clear or undoubted than the application of these truths to individual liberty, the establishment of juries, the freedom of the press, popular elections, the division of the legislative power, the sanctioning of taxes, etc.5 Philip the Tall said that “every man, in particular every Frenchman, was born, and remained free”; he was, it is well known, very far from imposing any restraint on himself from the consequences of this maxim. A nation, however, is likely to take words of this nature in a much more extensive sense than a king. When the declaration of the rights of man appeared in the Constituent Assembly, in the midst of all those young nobles who so lately had figured as courtiers, they brought to the tribune, one after the other, their philosophical phrases; entering with self-complacency into minute discussions on the mode of expressing this or that maxim, the truth of which, however, is so evident that the plainest words in any language are equally capable of conveying it. It was then foreseen that nothing durable could be produced by a mode of debating into which vanity, at once frivolous and factious, had so soon found its way.
[1. ] After his surrender to the Austrians (August 19, 1792), La Fayette was imprisoned at Olmütz from May 1794 to October 1797.
[2. ] La Fayette left for America in 1777. Madame de Staël wrote these lines forty years later, in 1817.
[3. ] An inaccurate description. The American Constitution is not prefaced by a declaration of rights. The first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution—the famous Bill of Rights—were adopted within three years of the Constitution’s ratification and resulted from political negotiations during the state ratifying conventions that were called to accept or reject the draft produced by the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. It is likely that the source of La Fayette’s inspiration might have been Virginia’s famous 1776 Declaration of Rights. For more information on this topic, see Hoffman and Albert, The Bill of Rights: Government Proscribed, especially the essay by Akhil Reed Amar, “The Bill of Rights as a Constitution,” 274–386.
[4. ] The Bill of Rights had been signed on October 23, 1689. Madame de Staël seems to confound here the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the first ten amendments to the Constitution (September 1789–December 1791).
[5. ] On the Declaration of Rights of Man and of Citizen, see Marcel Gauchet’s entry on the rights of man in A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, 818–28, and also see Gauchet, La Révolution des droits de l’homme.