An unpublished letter to the Secretary of the Treasury, William H. Crawford: “You will mark the first complaint made in an official way of the treatment basely exercised upon Napoleon... what might be thought necessary to keep him a prisoner".
A decade after his important contribution as a nineteen-year-old Major General in the American Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette became a pivotal player in the democratic uprising in his native France – the French Revolution. With the fall of the Bastille in July 1789, Lafayette was chosen to head the newly-formed Paris...
A decade after his important contribution as a nineteen-year-old Major General in the American Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette became a pivotal player in the democratic uprising in his native France – the French Revolution. With the fall of the Bastille in July 1789, Lafayette was chosen to head the newly-formed Paris citizen’s militia. This he subsequently converted into the Paris National Guard which he commanded until October of 1791. As the Revolution gained momentum, Lafayette found it increasingly difficult to maintain order and protect the royal family. His affairs reached a crisis in August 1792 after the deposition of King Louis XVI, when the Legislative Assembly passed a decree of impeachment against him. At the time, Lafayette was serving with the army on the northern French border in the newly-declared war against the Coalition (Prussia and Austria). Unable to get the support of his troops, Lafayette fled on August 19, 1792 with hopes of returning to America. When he tried to pass through Austrian-controlled territory on his way to a Dutch port, he was quickly challenged. Although Lafayette insisted that he was no longer a French general, but an American citizen – he had been given citizenship by several states after the American Revolution – the Austrian and Prussian rulers were unsympathetic and took him captive. They were fighting their own wars against this idea of democracy of which Lafayette, himself, was a major proponent and indeed a symbol. Imprisoned first in a Prussian fortress at Westphalia in 1792, Lafayette was transferred several times in Prussia before his final imprisonment at Olmütz in Austria in 1794.
At Olmütz prison Lafayette was reduced to a common prisoner. His few remaining possessions were taken from him – his watch, razor, and his final books pertaining to democracy. He was unable to send or receive letters, and, by this time, his friends did not know his whereabouts. Lafayette spent more than five years in prison and was only able to return to France after Napoleon Bonaparte secured his release in 1797. While Lafayette refused to participate in Napoleon’s government, he was always grateful to Napoleon for negotiating his release from Prison.
For a generation, Napoleon Bonaparte strode across Europe like a colossus, inspiring people, terrorizing nation’s and governments, and forcing realignments around the globe. His shadow was cast from Russia to the New World, and his name became synonymous with an age. After his first capture in 1814, he had been exiled to the Island of Elba. But that could not hold him and he escaped. Reconstituting his forces, he fought and lost to the Duke of Wellington at the famed Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815. This proved to be the end of Napoleon's career, and on July 15, 1815, after learning that the Prussians had ordered his capture “dead or alive”, he demanded asylum from the British. They respected and feared him, and to prevent another escape, banished him to the remote island of St. Helena in the Atlantic Ocean, 1,162 miles from the west coast of Africa. He would never return to Europe, a return that would have spelt more tumult for a continent attempting to rebuild and re-establish stability. Napoleon was accompanied to St. Helena by a small cadre of followers, and spent his time dictating his memoirs.
The Sainte Alliance, the Holy Alliance, was a coalition created by the monarchist great powers of Russia, Austria and Prussia. It was created after the ultimate defeat of Napoleon at the behest of Tsar Alexander I of Russia and signed as a treaty in Paris on 26 September 1815. The intention of the alliance was to restrain republicanism and secularism in Europe in the wake of the devastating French Revolutionary Wars, and the alliance nominally succeeded in this up until the Crimean War.
Lafayette most likely became acquainted with William H. Crawford when the latter was minister to France 1813-1815. Crawford, after his return to America in 1815, was the agent for the sale of land donated to the United States government by Lafayette. The two men remained fast friends. Lafayette visited Crawford on his second trip to America after the Revolution. They both died in 1834.
In June of 1819, Lafayette gave a speech on the mistreatment of Napoleon. It was not, however, reported this way by the majority of the newspapers at the time. Lafayette was desperate for an accurate accounting of his speech to reach America, so he took matters into his own hands, and reached out to Crawford, clearly stating his position and sending along a clipping from the Monitor newspaper, the only newspaper that accurately reported on Lafayette's speech.
Autograph letter signed, Paris, June 6 1819, to Crawford, in which Lafayette expresses concern over the way Napoleon is being treated as a prisoner and documents a report he made in which he expressed the need to do better by those exiled.
“My Dear Friend, The Parisian papers, in the hurry of publication, having, Monitour excepted, given an incorrect account of the inclosed speech of mine, I send the scrap of the Monitour not from a sentiment of vanity, but with a view to let you know the state of our debates, so far as respects the independent party, and also with a desire that if it was translated in the American papers, the translation might be correct. You will mark the first complaint made in an official way of the treatment basely exercised upon Napoleon, far beyond if reports are true, what might be thought necessary to keep him a prisoner of the Sainte Alliance. I have lately sent to you not a speech, for speaking was not allowed by the house, but a printed opinion that ought to have formed the basis of a speech respecting our exiles. Most truly and affectionately yours, Lafayette”
This is a powerful letter of Lafayette discussing the treatment of Napoleon and connecting the two great French figures of the era. It shows a humanitarian connection between Lafayette and Napoleon, despite their political differences.
Lafayette had cause for concern, as many feel Napoleon was being poisoned. Napoleon himself fueled suspicion, writing in his will a mere three weeks before his demise at age 51, “I die before my time, murdered by the English oligarchy and its assassin.”
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