In the brilliant spring of 1778, Talleyrand went to pay his respects to Voltaire. Even in a society where the worldliness of the clergy was notorious, this was a little unseemly. The ink had hardly dried on his theology degree from the Sorbonne before the young priest, already the holder of a benefice in Reims, and a delegate to the Assembly of the Clergy, hastened to do homage to the most notorious scourge of the Church. The visit had a flavor of filial impiety to it since Talleyrand was undoubtedly in search of a father figure more satisfactory than his natural parents. It was they who had placed him in the hands of a nurse and she who had let him drop from a cabinet, crushing a bone in his foot that would never mend. Disgraced as a cripple, the young Talleyrand was, in effect, also disinherited. For a boy who could neither fence nor dance could never hope to succeed either at court or in the army, the only two callings proper for a scion of the line of Périgord. Only one course was possible: a career in the Church, where he might rise in wealth and eminence, but for which, it was plain early on, he had the deepest aversion. At the Collège d’Harcourt, where he was sent at the age of seven, he was commanded to obey and to believe, whereas all his instincts and his intelligence urged him to disobey and to question. At the seminary of Saint-Sulpice he was further required to respect authority. Instead he began collecting a library of works by the most skeptical Enlightenment philosophers as well as fruity pornography, prominently featuring the libidos of priests and nuns. Destined by his misfortunes and his intellectual inclinations to be an outsider, he was drawn to other outsiders. On a wet night in 1771, after Mass, he offered his umbrella to a young actress of Jewish origins, Dorothèe Dorinville, known on the stage of the Comèdie-Française as Luzy. It was the first in a long line of amours and possibly the most tender: the heretical seminarian limping along in his black soutane with the pious convert, to what he called her “sanctuary” in the rue Férou.
For Talleyrand, the meeting with Voltaire was a kind of paternal benediction: a laying of gnarled hands on long, perfumed blond hair. Sixty years separated antigodfather from acolyte, the twenty-three-year-old from the eighty-four-year-old. While the worldly young cleric was seeking the courage of his convictions, the old philosopher was drawing a veil over his. Exiled from France for twenty-seven years, Voltaire had returned in February 1778 to a noisy and public apotheosis. He was ancient and unwell, and the long trip from Ferney over the Swiss border had not helped his infirmities. Periodically, in the town house of the Marquis de Villette, where he stayed, there would be a coughing fit of sputum and blood. Dr. Tronchin, the famous Swiss physician who had moved to France partly to attend his famous patients (the other being Rousseau), would be summoned. Expressions of anxiety would be made in the press. But Voltaire was determined to survive long enough to enjoy the adoration of young disciples who flocked to see him, and the embarrassment of older, fair-weather friends who now came to him for comfort and absolution. Yet whatever his own mixed feelings, he showed only his most gracious aspect to the admirers who lined up to be ushered into his presence. “I may be suffocated,” he mock-complained, “but it will be beneath a shower of roses.”
When the weather and his own health improved enough for him to venture out he appeared at the Théâtre-Français to direct rehearsals for his tragedy Irène. At the opening on March 16 all the royal family, except the King himself, was present to greet the author. And at the end of the sixth performance, on March 30, a specially commissioned portrait bust by Caffieri was placed on stage and was crowned with laurel by the actors. All the audience rose in standing ovation while the old man drank in the applause. He made no secret of enjoying this preliminary immortalization. Even his deathbed at the end of May was turned into a semipublic event, with le tout Paris watching to see if he would succumb to the wiles of the confessor who, to the very last, attempted an orthodox rite of absolution, rather than the artfully noncommittal formula Voltaire had devised – “I die in the Catholic religion into which I was born.” Even his reputed last words refusing to deny the Devil (“Is this a time to make enemies?”) were strictly apocryphal, the actual parting rebuff to the dogged priest being almost as good: “Leave me to die in peace.”
So there was something slightly worshipful about Talleyrand’s visit. Some accounts even have him kneeling before Voltaire in sacrilegious veneration. And there is no doubt that the worldly young priest idolized the wicked old deist whose battle cry had been “Ecrasez l’ infâme” (crush the infamous – meaning the Church). He was brought to the Hôtel de la Villette in the rue de Beaune by his school friend the Chevalier de Chamfort. Talleyrand was led into a small room, almost completely darkened except for one shutter, strategically opened to permit a single ray of sunlight to play on the cracked, puckish features of Voltaire: the Enlightenment illuminated. For a moment, the young man’s fastidiousness was disconcerted, even repelled, by the spectacle of spindly legs and bony feet protruding from a loose dressing gown. Somewhere in the gloom Voltaire’s niece, Mme Denis, no longer, if she had ever been, belle et bonne, busied herself with the chocolate, and wisps of sweet vapor curled about the room as the philosopher politely and admiringly inquired about the family in Périgord. From this banal beginning, Vol-taire gathered conversational momentum, so that it seemed to his impressionable young admirer that the famous esprit took wing. Words “flew from him, so rapid, so neat, yet so distinct and so clear… He spoke quickly and nervously with a play of features I have never seen in any man except him… His eye kindled with vivid fire, almost dazzling.” Everything was as anticipated: the brilliantly animated cranium talked and talked at his silent and devoted disciple. It was one of the decisive moments of Talleyrand’s life. “Every line of that remarkable countenance is engraved in my memory,” he remembered in his own old age. “I see it now before me – the small fiery eyes staring from shrunken sockets not unlike those of a chameleon.” And although in the time it took to get to the Palais-Royal after the audience, Talleyrand forgot exactly what it was that Voltaire had said to him, he never forgot the manner in which it was addressed nor the peculiar gentleness of his leave-taking. It was, he said, a paternal farewell.
For Talleyrand, the Revolution may have begun with this consecration of unbelief in the rue de Beaune. For Lafayette it began with an act of faith. For France, without any question, the Revolution began in America.
While Talleyrand was kneeling at the feet of his intellectual patron, Lafayette was shivering at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. There, among the “little shanties, scarcely gayer than dungeon cells,” that housed the pathetic remnant of the Continental Army, the twenty-year-old Marquis had found his surrogate father in the imposing shape of George Washington. His first account of the General written to his wife Adrienne after meeting with Washington in Philadelphia the previous July described him as “a quiet reserved gentleman old enough to be my father” though easily distinguished “by the majesty of his face and figure.” And it was during what Lafayette called “the great conversation” of October 14, 1777 – perhaps to compensate for being unable to give the Marquis the division for which he hungered – that Washington remarked that he would be pleased to have his confidence “as a friend and a father.” However casually the Virginian may have let slip this gentle compliment, it was Lafayette’s moment of epiphany. Henceforth he was the adopted son, devoted, almost to the point of slavishness, to the cause of his new father, the patrie and the pater now tied tightly together in an emotional knot.
If Talleyrand had thought himself a virtual orphan, “the only man of distinguished birth and belonging to a numerous family… who never enjoyed for a week of his life the joy of living beneath the paternal roof,” Lafayette felt his own loss with a keener pang. When Lafayette was two his father, a colonel in the Grenadiers de la France, had been killed in the Battle of Minden. His uncle had likewise been killed at the siege of Milan in 1733 during the War of Polish Succession. So that young Gilbert was brought up on the Auvergne estate of Chavaniac, his head swimming with dreams of martial glory. Near to the château were some fields known to the peasants as the “champs de bataille” and there Lafayette communed with the shades of Vercingetorix armed for the fray. But if his head was filled with historical romance, his heart was bent on dynastic vindication. Much later he would discover the identity of, and seek out, the Major Philips who had commanded the battery that had mown down his papa’s regiment. But as an adolescent it was enough for him to respond to the American cause as a perfect opportunity for revenge: both for the humiliations suffered by France in the Seven Years’ War and for his family’s particular share in those losses. In October 1777 he wrote to the French Foreign Minister, Vergennes, who was as yet proceeding in a pro-American policy with the utmost circumspection:
firmly persuaded that to harm England is to serve (dare I say revenge) my country I believe in the idea of putting to work all the resources of every individual who has the honor to be French.
Pater and patrie were collapsed into one passion burning in the sentimental breast of the orphaned Marquis (for his mother had died in 1770 when he was just thirteen). And the same martial restlessness affected many of his contemporaries. “We were tired of thelongueur of the peace that had lasted ten years,” wrote Lafayette’s fellow volunteer the Comte de Ségur, “and each of us burned with a desire to repair the affronts of the last wars, to fight the English and to fly to help the American cause.” Experience of Louis XV’s court at Versailles, where Lafayette’s wealth and connections (including his marriage at fourteen into the great clan of the Noailles) dictated an appearance, did nothing to quench these emotional dissatisfactions. While not crippled like Talleyrand, Lafayette was so ungainly on the dance floor that he might as well have been. Acutely aware of his provincial lack of polish, he already felt that his raw qualities were as much assets as handicaps in that they had preserved for him the qualities of natural manliness. “The awkwardness of my manner while not out of place during great events,” he later wrote in his memoirs, “did not enable me to stoop to the graces of the Court.”
It was the same inability to live with the trappings, rather than the substance, of military life that spurred him on further to some sort of action d’ éclat. By 1775 he had had enough of the horseplay that passed for boldness among his circle of rich, aristocratic friends at their favored inn, the Epée de Bois. Among this “Company of the Wooden Sword” were to be found a number of young men – La Rochefoucauld, Noailles, Ségur – who were not only to embrace the cause of the American “Insurgents” but who were to be among the most conspicuous citizen-nobles of 1789. And it was while Lafayette was serving with another military noble of advanced ideas, the Duc de Broglie, that he determined to use his enormous fortune (120,000 livres a year, inherited from his maternal grandfather) to transform unformed stirrings into concrete action. Ironically, de Broglie had undertaken, as the comrade of Lafayette’s father, to keep an eye on the restless young man and to deter him from anything so foolhardy that it might jeopardize what remained of the male line of the family. But following an eloquent advocacy of the American cause by none other than George III’s own brother the Duke of Gloucester, Lafayette’s commitment was such that, after attempting to reason with him, de Broglie resigned himself to accepting (or at least not physically preventing) some sort of American adventure. Indeed so far from detaining Lafayette, de Broglie actually decided, with Ségur and Noailles, to follow in his train.
The causes of personal, family and patriotic vindication, allied to a pre-Romantic thirst for glory, were paramount in motivating Lafayette to fit out the Victoire and sail for America in the autumn of 1777. But there was another, scarcely less vital element in his decision, and that was his deeply felt allegiance to the cause of “Liberty.” By his own account, this came early and it came naturally. Indeed it is the Romantic vein of his autobiography, which depicts the young Marquis as a child of nature empathizing with the free and untamed, that gives the best clue to his subsequent political infatuations. The craggy, forested uplands of the Auvergne where he grew up were about as far from the urbane civilities of Parisian society as could be imagined, and in that setting Lafayette’s Romantic imagination was left to run happily wild. In 1765, when he was eight, a beast known as the “hyena of the Gévaudan,” described in warning notices as “of the size of a young bull,” was not only slaughtering livestock but reputedly “attacking by preference women and children and drinking their blood.” Bands of peasants were sent in pursuit of this “monster,” but the boy Lafayette identified with the fugitive carnivore and together with a friend roamed the woods in the hope of a chance encounter. “Even at the age of eight,” he wrote, “my heart beat in sympathy with the hyena.” Years later, when attending the ex-Jesuit Collège du Plessis in Paris, he was asked to write an essay describing the perfect horse. In response, Lafayette eulogized an animal that bucked, reared and unseated his rider as soon as he sensed the whip – a piece of impertinence for which he himself was duly flogged.
Lafayette’s creative insubordination at the Collège is of more than anecdotal importance. Since the days of the great riding instructor Pluvinel in the reign of Henri IV, the mastery of equitation had been both metaphor and a literal preparation for the exercise of public power. From Richelieu onwards a succession of rulers had learned through the didactic parallel between horsemanship and statesmanship the importance of self-control, the breaking of the spirit and the display of authority. But during the 1760s, the growing cult of Sensibility, with its dramatic emphasis on the natural rather than the tutored, and on freedom rather than discipline, had supplied an alternative model for social and even political conduct. And what began with childish acts of sympathy for recalcitrant animals would not long after flower in a generalized preference for liberty over authority, spontaneity over calculation, candor over artifice, friendship over hierarchy, heart over head and nature over culture. That was the making of a revolutionary temper. “You will admit, my heart,” Lafayette wrote to Adrienne as he was about to embark on the Victoire,
that the business and life for which I am bound, are very different from those for which I was destined in that futile Italian journey [a Grand Tour of cultural sights]. Defender of that liberty which I worship, utterly free in my own person and going as a friend to offer my services to the most interesting of Republics, bringing to the service only my candor and goodwill without ambition or ulterior motive. Working for my own glory will become working for their happiness.
For many of Lafayette’s contemporaries in the French nobility, America corresponded precisely to their ideal vision of a society happily separated from the cynicism and decrepitude of the Old World. Its landscape, lovingly described by Abbé Delaporte, even its savages, hopelessly idealized on the Paris stage in plays like Billardon de Sauvigny’s Hirza ou les Illinois, and its settlers all represented to greater and lesser degrees the admired qualities of innocence, rugged directness and freedom. On arriving in Charleston in the summer of 1777, Lafayette claimed already to see this unspoiled fraternity in the local inhabitants. (The fact of a strong Huguenot presence probably reinforced the impression.) “They are as friendly as my enthusiasm had made me picture them,” he reported back to Adrienne. “Simplicity of manners, willingness to oblige, love of country and of liberty and an easy equality prevail here. The richest and the poorest are on the same level and although there are immense fortunes, I defy anyone to find the least difference in their bearing toward each other.”
In George Washington, all these qualities were writ large, and added to them in Lafayette’s eyes were the virtues of the heroes of antiquity: stoicism, fortitude in adversity, personal bravery and self-sacrifice; incorruptibility; lack of personal ambition; contempt for faction and intrigue; loftiness of soul; even the taciturn reserve that rebuked the insincere loquacity of Old World manners. Indeed a great part of Lafayette’s decision to remain in America, despite the disappointment of not receiving his coveted division, and when many of his French companions were preparing to return home, stemmed from his burning determination to prove himself in the eyes of his father figure. Blooded in combat at Brandywine Creek, he shared the rigors of Valley Forge and agreed to lead a manifestly futile expedition north to Canada through the winter snows. Adhesive in his attachment to Washington, he took it upon himself to defend the General from the captious attacks of rivals and critics in the Continental Army. He waxed indignant at anyone presuming to compare General Gates with Washington, and if anything, the naive passion of his defense gained from the fractured English in which it was expressed.
Which marches, which movements, what has he done to compare him to that hero who at the head of sixteen hundred peasants pursued last winter a strong disciplined army through an open and vast country – to that great general who is born for the salvation of his country and the admiration of the universe? Yes, Sir, that very same campaign of last winter would do one of the finest part of the life of Caesar, Condé, Turenne, and those men whose any soldier cannot pronounce the name without an entousiastik adoration.
Reflected in the doting gaze of the adopted son, Washington became the paragon of all virtues: martial, personal and political. To a striking degree he resembled the perfect leader because he also appeared to be the perfect father: simultaneously strong and compassionate, just and solicitous; the Citizen-General who cared paternally for his men, and by extension for the new nation. And although Washington was initially disconcerted by the ardor of Lafayette’s puppylike devotion, he accustomed himself, and not without some pleasure, to the role of surrogate father. When Lafayette was wounded, he made sure that he saw his own personal physician. He took a direct and active interest in Lafayette’s wife and family and sincerely commiserated with him at the death of his daughter in France. In return Adrienne Lafayette embroidered a Masonic apron for the General (for this was another bond the two men shared, the Marquis having joined, aptly enough, the lodge Saint-Jean de la Candeur in 1775). And Washington wore this apron when he presided over the supremely Masonic act of laying the foundation stone of the Capitol. Not surprisingly, Lafayette named his first son (born in 1780) George Washington “as a tribute of love and respect for my dear friend.” (A daughter was named Virginia.) And later George Junior would be sent to Mount Vernon to be tutored by his namesake when Lafayette’s paternal responsibilities were constrained by an Austrian prison. At times, indeed, the lines of paternity became complicated. One possibly not apocryphal anecdote claims that when a young American officer was due to return home from France, he called on Mme Lafayette to see if he could bring her husband any messages. And their small son is supposed to have responded, “Faites mon amour à mon papa Fayette et à mon papa Washington.”