Opinion | What Happened to This Hero From the American Revolution?
After his yearlong tour of the United States in 1824, the aging Lafayette returned to France in 1825 to settle in to something like retirement. But during his time away, political life had taken a turn for the worse. The death of the relatively moderate King Louis XVIII — who had been brought to the throne in the wake of Napoleon’s rule — meant that his younger brother, the archreactionary Comte d’Artois, now reigned as King Charles X.
“While Louis attempted to rule from the middle,” Duncan notes, “Charles tossed any pretense of moderation or compromise with liberals.” Nearly four decades earlier, in July 1789, Charles fled France, one of many counterrevolutionary émigrés. “For thirty-five years he harbored dreams of undoing the Revolution,” Duncan writes of the newly installed monarch. “Now he finally had his chance.”
Lafayette tried to stay out of domestic politics but events were conspiring in ways that would compel his re-entry. In early 1827, the king’s prime minister, Joseph de Villèle, introduced a bill that would make it impossible to operate a newspaper critical of the regime. In April 1829, after taking insults from the Paris National Guard at an event held to celebrate the anniversary of his return to the city 15 years earlier, Charles disbanded it. That same year, the liberal opposition made headway in the Chamber of Deputies, winning enough power to take a vote of no confidence on a subsequent prime minister, Jean Baptiste Gay, the comte de Martignac. Charles fired Martignac and replaced him with Jules de Polignac, an “intransigent ultraroyalist.”
Unsurprisingly, things only escalated from there. In February 1830, Charles gave a royal address bristling with contempt for his liberal opponents in the national legislature. Those deputies — who at this point included Lafayette — responded with a letter of protest, to which the king responded by dissolving the chamber and calling for new elections.
“This announcement set off a wave of protests and political mobilization across France,” Duncan writes. Desperate to change the subject, Charles and Polignac launched a war to seize and occupy Algiers, an early instance of “wagging the dog.” (It would be another 130 years before France left. In the initial war of conquest, more than 500,000 Algerians were killed, and it didn’t stop there.) Charles also promoted his preferred candidates in the upcoming legislative elections, in hopes of winning a slate of deputies who backed him and his priorities.
None of it worked. In the elections held between July 5-19, 1830, the liberals triumphed. They elected more deputies than ever and now commanded a clear majority in the chamber.
The victory would be short-lived because a week later, on July 26, King Charles would try to take power for himself. On that day, Charles issued four ordinances, each decreed by fiat:
The first suspended freedom of the press. The second dissolved the recently elected Chamber of Deputies before they event met. The third completely reorganized elections — reducing the number of deputies, changing eligibility requirements to exclude all but the wealthiest voters, and summarily disenfranchising three-fourths of the electorate. The fourth called for elections under the new rules to be held in September.
Lafayette could not help but act. He rushed to Paris, met with opposition leaders and gave his moral support to those armed Parisians who had seized the Hôtel de Ville and fortified their position with barricades all around central Paris. With the support of the public behind him, Lafayette took command of a remobilized National Guard.
“My dear fellow citizens and brave comrades,” he said, “the confidence of the people of Paris once more calls me to the command of the popular force. I have accepted with devotion and joy the powers that have been confided in me, and, as in 1789, I feel myself strong in the approbation of my honorable colleagues, this day assembled in Paris.”