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Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette was born at Chavaniac, Auvergne, in 1757, to an old, illustrious family of the provincial and military nobility. He lost both his parents early: his father was killed by the British at the Battle of Minden when Lafayette was two years old (1759), and when he was thirteen and attending the prestigious College de Plessis in Paris both his mother and grandfather died (1770). The latter's death left Lafayette with a sizable inheritance: he was actually the richest bachelor in France. In 1771 Lafayette became one of the King's Musketeers, beginning the military career he had always envisioned for himself. In February of 1773 he moved to Versailles as a protege of Jean de Noailles, the Duc d'Ayen, becoming a lieutenant in the Noailles Dragoons in April and promoted to captain one year later, shortly after his arranged marriage to the Duc d'Ayen's daughter, Adrienne de Noailles on April 11, 1774. And yet, Lafayette's chances at obtaining a position matching his wealth and status were curtailed by the prevailing reformist mood and when the Ministry of War cut costs and suppressed his regiment, he was relegated to reserve status (June1776.)

Lafayette first heard of the American revolt in 1775, at a dinner given by his commander the comte de Broglie in Metz. Inspired to serve the American cause though he knew very little about America beyond what he had read in Raynal and what he heard from Franklin, Lafayette managed to sign on as a future major-general in the American army in December 1776. But although by this time the French government was sending covert aid to the Americans in the hope of securing French trade interests (the "arms-for-tobacco deal"), Lafayette had to buy his own ship, La Victoire . It sailed from Spain on April 20, 1777 and arrived at North Island, South Carolina on June 13, 1777. Initially disappointed to find himself a general without a command, Lafayette was to return to France in 1782 having earned gloire for himself as well as liberty for the American colonies.

When Lafayette met George Washington on July 31, 1777, it was the start of a famous and long-lasting friendship, often described as a "father-son relationship." Lafayette first saw combat at Brandywine (September 11, 1777). The leg wound that he got there lent him military credibility, and he received command of the Virginia division of the Continental Army, with which he spent the winter at Valley Forge under nearly unlivable conditions. In 1778 Lafayette took part in battles at Barren Hill and Monmouth Court House and served with the Continental detachment in Rhode Island in conjunction with d'Estaing's expeditionary force. Earlier that year, Congress had chosen Lafayette to lead a campaign into Canada, but the campaign was ultimately abandoned as unfeasible.

Lafayette returned to a France that was now officially an ally of the United States at the beginning of 1779. He was thus in France for the birth of his son George Washington Lafayette, as he had not been when Adrienne de Lafayette gave birth to their second daughter, Anastasie (1777), and buried Henriette, their first (1778). During this year at home, in addition to pleading the American cause to his compatriots, Lafayette was appointed to the French army as it prepared to invade England. The invasion never came about, and Lafayette was in America again by April 1780. In February 1781, Lafayette led a detachment against troops led by the traitor Benedict Arnold. Later that year he commanded forces against Cornwallis in the decisive campaign of the American war.

Lafayette returned to France in 1782 a popular hero and lobbyist for American economic interests. He accepted the position of quartermaster general of a Franco-Spanish expeditionary force that was headed for British Canada, and then the position of marechal de camp in 1783, the year peace was officially declared in the United States. His second daughter Virginie was born in September. In these inter-revolutionary years, Lafayette energetically involved himself in the liberal causes of his day. He had been a member of the Freemasons since 1775 but in 1782 publicly identified himself with this network of secret societies that, with the literary salons of the day, formed pockets of free thought within the ancient regime and eventually espoused liberal politics. Lafayette devoted himself especially to the causes of toleration for French Protestants, whom he visited in Cevennes in 1785. In one of his most original enterprises, he also purchased a plantation in the French colony of Guiana which was to be the site of an experiment in gradually emancipating black slaves so as to maximize both their chances at integration into free society, and their productivity and birth rate. Madame Lafayette oversaw the management of the plantation after the death of its appointed manager, Richeprey, in 1786. During the 1780s, Lafayette's international popularity was evidenced by his first "American Tour" in 1784 and an "European Tour" in 1785, the highlight of which was a personal meeting with the "enlightened despot" Frederick II of Prussia.

Lafayette's role in the French Revolution was conditioned by the several aspects of his public identity, as paternalistic aristocrat, enthusiastic defender of freedoms, self-serving hero, and soldier. In 1787 and 1788, Lafayette attended sessions of the Assembly of Notables, called at this time to resolve pressing taxation issues. To the Assembly Lafayette brought his call for the civil rights of Protestants (an Edict of Toleration was in fact enacted in November of 1787). In 1789 Lafayette represented the nobility when he was elected deputy to the Estates General, a long inactive governing institution which now joined with the Third Estate to become the National Assembly. Lafayette presented the " Declaration de droits de l'homme et du citoyen " to the Assembly on July 11, 1789, and was chosen vice-president of the National Assembly on the eve of the Fall of the Bastille. In the turbulence that followed, Lafayette was proclaimed commandant of the Garde Nationale, with the charge of keeping order in the streets of Paris, a task in which his popular sway among the moderate bourgeoisie aided him. The Guard escorted the King and Queen to Paris in October of 1789. On July 14, 1790, he presided at the Fête de la Federation.

Criticism of Lafayette intensified when he ordered his men to fire on the unruly crowd and forty at the Champs de Mars in 1791. In October of that year Lafayette resigned as commandant of the Garde Nationale of Paris. In 1792 he became a commander in the war with Austria, which began in April. Lafayette's censure of the increasing influence of Jacobinism, and his basic inability to understand political trends, placed him at odds with both the government and the opposition. He was publicly accused of plotting to march on Paris with his troops. On August 19, 1792, the National Convention, formed after the arrest of Louis XVI on August 10, replaced Lafayette with Dumouriez, who dumbed him "a traitor" after he emigrated. Lafayette was in fact intercepted by the Austrians and imprisoned for five years -- first at Wesel, then at Magdebourg, Neisse and Olmütz. Adrienne Lafayette and the children, who had been experiencing the revolution from the provinces, joined him in prison in 1795. Adrienne herself had been in jail in France, and had survived the guillotining of her mother, grandmother and elder sister. The Lafayette family was more fortunate; save George who was staying in America, they together bore two more years of imprisonment. Freed in 1797, Lafayette remained on the list of proscribed emigres , living in exile in Holstein and Holland until 1799. Adrienne, meanwhile, was in France (1797-1799) trying to get permission for her husband's return and to recover part of her inheritance: the Directory had confiscated and sold all of Lafayette's properties in Bretagne and Auvergne except for the house at Chavaniac.

With the establishment of the Consulate in November 1799 (the "18th Brumaire") the political climate in France changed enough that Lafayette was able to repatriate. He retired to La Grange (part of Adrienne's inheritance), where, during the years of the Consulate and Empire (1800-1815), he led a relatively private life, pursuing the interest in modern agriculture that he had developed in prison, and absorbed in the day to day management of his estate and of his financial crises: Lafayette's extremely generous financing of two revolutions, in combination with the loss of his properties, left him deep in debt. In 1804 the American government expressed their gratitude for Lafayette's contribution to the Revolutionary War by granting him a tract of land in Louisiana, but this gift, like the Florida Lands granted him later, in 1824, turned out to be something of a liability, in that his attempts to sell portions of it to his creditors embroiled him in lawsuits and the lands themselves were, in some cases, already occupied by settlers. Adrienne, in ill health since her imprisonment, died in 1807.

With the Restoration (1815-1830) Lafayette was once more drawn into political life, in the liberal opposition. In 1815 he served several terms in the Chamber of Deputies, and insisted on Napoleon Bonaparte's abdication. Lafayette played a leading role in the "Glorious Revolution" of July 1830 and found himself again commandant of the Garde Nationale. He was now in his seventies. His decision to support the duc d'Orleans' accession to the throne seemed to some a betrayal of his role as defender of the republican ideals.

During the Restoration years La Grange became a mecca for Lafayette's many admirers. His popularity grew even more with his American Tour of 1824-1825 as city after city hailed Lafayette as almost another "Father of Our Country."

Finally, in the last years of his life, Lafayette, still true to his motto, " Cur non? " supported national insurrections in Belgium (1830) and Poland (1831). He had followed Belgian politics since 1789 when the Brabant revolted against Austrian domination, and the chief of the Flemish Catholic party, Van der Noot, was in contact with the French government through the mediation of Lafayette. As the President of the Comite Central en Faveur des Polonais (1830-1832), Lafayette was active in fundraising and in publicizing the plight of Poland and its refugees. He also during this time corresponded with many members of the Carbonari, revolutionary Italians involved in the 1831 uprising. Lafayette died in Paris on May 20, 1834.