TEACHING | RESEARCH [Lafayette/ Non-Lafayette ] | curriculum vitae | HOME


     Lafayette as Sujet, Citizen, and Citoyen:

         Vocabularies of Transatlantic Revolution

Robert Rhodes Crout

Presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association,

Atlanta, Georgia, January 5, 1996

            In a session held at the American Historical Association’s conference at San Francisco on December 30, 1989, William Sewell joked that it was likely to be literally the last word uttered on the Bicentennial of the French Revolution.  Participants in the session --- Jack Censer,  Keith Michael Baker, and Lynn Hunt --- discussed in amphitheater style format (in the middle of an audience of  several hundred  eager historians) the state of  scholarship about a series of events that has become one of the larger and more lasting of historical controversies.  Their discussions and an article appearing that same month in the American Historical Review  by Jack Censer centered on their work and that of other giants of the field:  Francois Furet, John Bosher, William Doyle, Simon Schama, and Donald Sutherland.1  Almost nothing was said about the appearance earlier that year of a translation of a 1962 German  doctoral dissertation by a man largely unknown to American academic circles named Jurgen Habermas.2

                  Little did most realize that day that the publication of an English language edition of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere would profoundly change the direction of American scholarship on the French Revolution.  A paradigm was taking hold that promised --- or threatened --- to shape the debates of scholarship almost as powerfully as the works of  Georges Lefebvre  had two generations before.

The central thesis of the book is that the uniquely modern private space created by capitalism has separated the bourgeois family from the industrial workplace.  Others expanded that original thesis to suggest that eighteenth-century French political culture pried open absolutism’s “secrets of state” and challenged the king’s claim as the realm’s only truly “public” person, eventually resulting in revolution. Since 1989 a number of scholarly works have appeared concentrating on the key phrase “public sphere.”3

            Another major work that appeared in dissertation form prior to the translation of Habermas but which dealt with the challenge to royal claims appeared in print in 1990, Jeffrey W. Merrick’s The Desacralization of the French Monarchy in the Eighteenth Century.   He explained in it the practical consequences of the religious character of the French monarchy and the complex relationship between crown and Church.  He then analyzed the challenges presented to divine right absolutism by Jansenists, parlements, clergy, and Protestants.  He concluded that  the failures of the crown to deal effectively with these challenges resulted in a desacralization of the monarchy.

             In the book and a series of corollary journal articles Merrick  dealt intensively with the distinctions between sujets (subjects) and citoyens (citizens) in eighteenth-century France.  The crown compelled subjects to attest births, marriages, and deaths through participation in the baptismal, matrimonial, and mortuary rites of the national faith.  The facts of life and death were records only in the parish registers.  Baptisms established legitimacy and enrolled persons among the subjects of the king.  Exclusion from the sacraments meant disgrace in life and in death.4

Those of the king’s subjects who would not or could not follow the prevailing precepts of the Church, especially Protestants and Jews, found themselves subject to but not necessarily fully invested subjects of the realm.  What then were the duties of citizens distinguished from subjects?  A supporter of Unigenitus had proclaimed, “Every good citizen must respect by his silence the important affairs of state which do not concern him.”  A parlementaire countered, “There are no discussions more interesting for every good citizen than those concerning public affairs.”5

Use of the term citoyen was, therefore, not unknown in France though it often applied to memberships of special significance, such as citizen of a town  or member of a republic.  As Merrick has shown,  the word appeared in controversial publications by parlementaires, philosophes, and Jansenists loosely and frequently.6  The authoritative study of revolutionary vocabulary being published by Reichardt and Schmitt stated more boldly that the terms “subject” and “citizen” appeared almost interchangeable until the Revolution.7

            Thus, from the religious and parlementaire controversies of the 1750s, 1760s and early 1770s, recent studies citing a significant volume of evidence indicate that there was a general confusion or disagreement over the relationship of the terms citizen and subject.  What I shall attempt to do in this paper is to relate this vast recent research to the life of a solitary prominent figure of the pre-Revolutionary and revolutionary political scene. This individual had grown up around the king’s court.  He had lived in Paris at the time of the Maupeou Revolution.  He had also fought in a republican army during the decade prior to the French Revolution.  He had heard the words “subject” and “citizen” used there by republicans who had just gone through the painful process of removing a king from sovereign rule over them.  That man was Lafayette.  Seen from the perspective of the previous twenty years, the word “citizen” had dangerous implications at the French court in 1777.  To supporters of the king, it implied popular sovereignty of a sort.  The word does not seem to have appeared in friendly public pronouncements before the monarch.

            Writing to William Carmichael on February 11, 1777, before leaving for America, Lafayette had indicated  his enthusiasm for the American cause and his good wishes for the Americans: “Your fellow citizens are dear to me....”8  Before reaching the first major American city upon his arrival, he reminded his wife of his  enthusiasm for republican virtue: “As the defender of that liberty which I idolize, freer than anyone else, coming as a friend to offer my services to this most interesting republic.....”9    Upon reaching Charleston, he reported to his wife, “What charms me here is that all the citizens are brothers.”10 To the Duc de Mouchy, his wife’s grand uncle, he even commented on a Frenchman who had lived in Charleston so long that he had reached a status of “naturalized citizen.”11

            While Lafayette did not refer to himself yet as an American citizen, he proudly called himself an “American” to John Hancock as early as August 1777 and asked his wife to become an “American.”12  The term seems to have implied less a citizen than a supporter of the American cause.   By the spring of 1778, Lafayette was referring to the “citizens” of Albany, New York.13   When news of the American treaties with France reached him, he offered his  congratulations to those leaders of the revolution  who were obtaining the “happiness and liberty of theyr Grateful citizens.”14  The farthest that Lafayette was willing to go in defining his own relationship to the American citizens was in a letter to Washington expressing his fraternal admiration at  the arrival of French troops: “joining my countrymen with my brothers of America under my command and the same standard.”15  

            With his first year of success in America, Lafayette found himself ready to return to the French court to make amends for his hasty departure in violation of his king’s orders.   Lafayette’s humble letter to Louis XVI of February 19, 1779  is a stereotypical letter of self abasement before the king, a letter fraught with abject requests for pardon closing, “Your majesty’s very humble and very obedient servant and faithful subject.”16  Preparing to return to America, Lafayette rode the delicate balance between being a loyal French subject and being an American officer in his correspondence with Vergennes.   Vergennes too was concerned that Lafayette not make public statements that might be interpreted as authorization from the French government.  Lafayette assured the minister, “Everything that I do or say will be as an American.... From Philadelphia I shall go to New York, to Boston, to the army, and I shall be French only in name, in heart, and in the pleasure that only  a Frenchman can feel when he serves his patrie [country].”17 Lafayette wrote to Franklin of  a dilemma that he had not mentioned to Vergennes, “Our people may perhaps be By this time in possession of New York.  When I say ours, I mean the Americans, and under that same denomination I us’d in America to mean the French, so that whatever of Both Countries I am in, I am at once Both speaking as a foreigner, and spoken of as a citizen.”18  This was the first time that Lafayette even loosely referred to himself as an American citizen.

            In a March 1781 letter to Jefferson Lafayette thanked him and “other Citizens of this State” for their support of his exertions.19 It was in the Virginia campaign of spring 1781 that the word emerged again in the context of the importance of impressing supplies in a letter to Thomas Jefferson of April 28:  “I request your excellency to be convinced that my respect for the rights and conveniences of the citizens cannot be equalled but by my zeal to forward every means of securing their freedom....”20  To Jefferson’s successor as governor, Thomas Nelson, later that spring, Lafayette made a similar statement in favor of impressment. and its importance for the “liberties of the Citizens....”21 In all of these instances, Lafayette in using the term sought to emphasize the duties of citizens to advance the revolutionary war effort.

            Upon returning to France in the aftermath of Yorktown, Lafayette continued his pattern of using the term “citizen” with Americans.  In a November 21, 1782 letter to the American Peace Commissioners, Lafayette reviewed his experiences in America and  provided this justification for his behavior: “...I  ever made it my point to do that which I thought would prove useful to her cause or agreable to her citizens.”22

            Lafayette’s triumphal return to America in 1784 provided him with the opportunity for the Americans to lavish upon him their highest honors, particularly those that Lafayette’s veiled humor had earlier indicated were dear to him.  In September Lafayette was designated as “freeman and citizen of the City of New York.”23  Lafayette defended yet minimized this honor to Vergennes as “the freedom of the city --- a compliment a l’anglaise which I first assured myself was of no consequence.” 24  In December the Maryland Senate and House of Delegates approved a proposal that Lafayette and his male heirs be made citizens of the state  in perpetuity. 25   This time Lafayette offered no explanation to Vergennes.   In February 1785 the city of Hartford, Connecticut made him and his son citizens.26  That same week the state of Massachusetts conferred citizenship on him and his heirs.27  In November 1785, Virginia, “being solicitous to bestow the most decisive mark of regard which a republic can give,”  named him a citizen.28  The Continental Congress underlined the importance of those actions by individual states and towns when it  passed a resolution in his favor on December 9, 1784, noting that “as his uniform and unceasing attachment to this country has resembled that of a patriotic citizen, the United States regard him with particular affection....”29

            Indeed Lafayette took these conferrals of American citizenship seriously.  In early January 1786, upon hearing of Franklin’s safe return to America, he wrote to congratulate Franklin and to convey his wish that he could have been able to “mingle in the happy crowd” of Lafayette’s “fellow citizens” when Franklin’s foot touched American soil.   In a letter to Madison the following year, he expressed good wishes for the impending American constitutional convention of his “fellow citizens” but warned Madison that he might see language from French reformers (in the Assembly of Notables) that “to a republican ear ought to appear very foolish.” 30

            How were the American overtures of citizenship to Lafayette received in Europe?  The Gazette de Leyde published news of Connecticut’s action and the full text of Maryland’s act in May 1785. 31  The French city Bayonne that had enjoyed the benefits of Lafayette’s support in its efforts to gain freeport status soon named him a citizen of the city.   Lafayette responded with appreciation for the title in a series of letters in which he took every opportunity to extend thanks to his municipal “fellow citizens.” 32

            However, Lafayette’s affinity for the word “citizen” in its broader national context did not extend to many of his other French correspondents now that he was back in France.  In an effusive letter of justification and self-abasement to Louis XVI of May 25, 1787, attempting to overcome claims that he had gone too far in criticizing royal officials at the Assembly of Notables, Lafayette found himself  again the object of intense scrutiny by a monarch with full sovereign power.  The letter closed as that of 1779 had with the phrase  “of your majesty the very humble and very obedient servant and faithful subject,” language rather like the supplicant child of an angry father.33 

            The earliest reference in which Lafayette referred to himself as a French citizen appeared in a November 1785 letter to the Protestant pastor Rabaut de Saint-Etienne when he called himself “less a soldier ... than a citizen....”34   Three years later, in December 1788, on the eve of the anticipated meeting of the Estates General, Lafayette wrote to Rabaut of his hope for a “league of Bons Citoiens”.35  In March 1789 as the time for the assembly drew, Lafayette again used the word in a remarkable letter to Rabaut, urging a reconciliation of the three orders.

            May all orders of citizens recognize that their well-being is in union, and that the executive power of the monarchy, the preeminence of the nobles, and the rights of property can only be assured within the shelter of a free constitution which lets citizens participate in the advantages that nature had granted to all men, that common sense must guarantee to all societies....36

It is interesting to note that Lafayette’s frankest surviving French correspondence on his pre-Revolutionary political views and his only consistent use of the term “citizen” in correspondence with a Frenchman was with this prominent Huguenot figure. It continued to be some time from the beginning of Lafayette’s public prominence in 1777 before Lafayette was ready to use the word “citizen” publicly in France.  It first appeared in his proposal for a Declaration of Rights made on the floor of the National Assembly on July 11, 1789.  In this proposal Lafayette sought to define the role of citizen.  Having stated that all sovereignty lay in the nation rather than in any individual, he directly proceeded to state that government must then assure the free representation of “citizens”  and that laws ought to be “clear, precise, [and] uniform for all citizens.” 37 

            From the beginning of the Revolution, Lafayette wrote Louis XVI a series of letters with recommendations on how to improve his standing among the people.  As a body of work they are noteworthy in that they represent the inconsistent but constantly changing politics that accompanied the changing moods and politics of the king and the changing relationship of the two men.  A few early letters contained that archaic closing of his youthful days: “I am with respect, Sire, the very humble, very obedient servant and faithful subject of your majesty.” 38     As time passed, the closings of his letters to Louis changed, first to “my attachment and my respect”, then to “my lively thanks and my respect.”  By June 1792, Lafayette simply offered “my respect.”39 

                 On the eve of the Fete de la Federation, Lafayette appeared before the National Assembly at the head of a delegation of federes as he pondered the role of  the national guard.  Were they to be guarantors of individual property and common property, the safety of all and of each, he asked the  Assembly?  He concluded, “We burn to find our place in your constitutional decrees, to read there, to meditate their on our duties, and to know how citizens will be armed to fulfill [those duties].”  To the king he urged “Be the glory and recompense of a citizen-king.”40

            Later that autumn as the National Assembly undertook the organization of the National Guard, Lafayette addressed  them  on November 18  that service in the National Guard was to be a civic duty.  “You decreed, Sirs, that all citizens of the realm were soldiers of the Revolution....  Citizens and Soldiers altogether we know that the arms that the Constitution gives us are the arms of the law; that it would be a sacrilege to use them to defend oneself from it.”41  In the spring of 1791, when Lafayette threatened to resign as guard members refused to obey one of his orders; he reminded them, “We are citizens, sirs, we are free, but without obedience to the law, there is nothing more than confusion, anarchy, despotism....” 42    In both of these instances, we hear the old Lafayette of Virginia, instructing, imploring, and occasionally even chiding his fellow citizens on their civic duties.

            In his farewell address to the Paris National Guards on October 8,  Lafayette remained concerned about the status of the Constitution.  Even though it had been approved, he was aware of the dissension and he urged:

Today, sirs, the constitution has been completed by those who had a right to make it, and, after having been sworn by all citizens, by all sections of the empire, it has just been legally adopted by the entire people and solemnly recognized by the first legislative assembly of its representatives....43 

            Lafayette’s retirement was short-lived.  He soon returned to duty at the head of a regular army in December 1791. Lafayette continued to try to inject himself into the politics of the Assembly on behalf of the constitution.  His longtime enemies the Jacobins openly in the Assembly attacked his criticism of their factionalism.  He wrote to the Assembly on June 18, 1792 in his own defense, “Nothing will impede me from exercising this right of a free man, from fulfilling this duty of a citizen....”44  What was to follow is well-known.  In the days after the Journee of August 10, the Corps Legislatif issued a decree  accusing him of the crimes of rebellion and treason, he fled for the Netherlands but the Austrians captured and imprisoned him for five years.

            What can we conclude, then, from these observations of Lafayette’s language during the American Revolution and the early phases of the French Revolution?    It does not appear that Lafayette used the terms subject and citizen interchangeably.  Obviously Lafayette had a sensitivity to the word prior to his arrival in America.  Perhaps it was due to his classical training at the College du Plessis; perhaps it was due to his presence in Paris during the Maupeou Revolution and the pamphlet war of the time; perhaps it was even related to his contacts at Mme de Tesse’s salon or in the Masonic lodges.  That is unclear.  What we do know is that Lafayette was hesitant to use the word  in public in France until the French Revolution.  He clearly associated “citizen” in its American context with active republicanism, and I suspect he was aware of the court association of the two terms and chose not to use it publically (with the exception of municipal citizenship) for obvious reasons.  It is interesting that the only Frenchman outside his family with whom he chose to use the word was the Huguenot Rabaut de Saint-Etienne.  However, once Louis recognized the National Assembly, Lafayette’s vocabulary significantly changed, though he for some time still found it awkward to style himself other than a “faithful subject” in direct correspondence with the king.  Even that changed with time.  What we might also note is that Lafayette saw the term “citizen” not only as a repository of rights but of responsibilities.  This he appears to have gained from his American experience.  Citizens of Virginia, citizens of New York --- all he had called upon to meet their active civic duties in times of revolutionary crisis.  Once in the French revolutionary crisis, he quickly called Frenchmen to their duties as citizens.  Unfortunately for him, faction appeared to be a much greater reality in the French revolution than the phantom it had been in the American war.

                 What can we conclude about the recent scholarship on these two words from the perspective of the Lafayette experience?   Obviously  eighteenth-century France was a more turbulent society before 1789 than we used to believe.  Yet the confusion of the two terms may have been more obvious in certain French political circles rather than others.  Lafayette was neither Huguenot, nor Jansenist, nor parlementaire. Those in high ranking families such as Lafayette may have been capable of actions that displeased the monarch (for example, his initial trip to America), but the power of a king who could still place one in the Bastille continued to be formidable.  The practical pre-revolutionary Lafayette would remain “subject” rather than “citizen” in the public sphere --- at least awaiting further revolutionary events.  Yet, he was prepared to lead in that transition as events allowed.


       *The author wishes to thank the National Endowment for the Humanities for providing him the opportunity to participate in a seminar for college teachers held during  summer 1995 at Newberry Library, which greatly aided in the development of the ideas presented in this paper.

       1.  Jack R. Censer,  “Commencing the Third Century of Debate,”  American Historical Review, 94 (1989): 1309-1325.

       2.  The work Strukturwandek der Offentlichkeit: Untersuchungen zu einer Kategorie der burgerlichen Gesellschaft (1962)  was translated by Thomas Burger  as  The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989).   The importance of the work for French historians is indicated by the appearance of an extensive review article in French Historical Studies in the Spring of 1990 by Benjamin Nathans (French Historical Studies, 16 [1990]: 620-644).  Dale Van Kley has recounted the reaction to Habermas’s book (which appeared in French translation in 1986) by Denis Richet at a 1986 conference on the Old Regime in Chicago.   He “complained at the closing session about the prevalence of jargon, singling out the expression ‘public sphere’ for special censure”  (Dale K. Van Kley, “In Search of Eighteenth-Century French Public Opinion,”  French Historical Studies, 19 (1995): 215).

       3.  Examples of the impact of this work are seen in Sarah Maza,  Private Lives and Public Affairs: The Causes Celebres of Prerevolutionary France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993) and Dena Goodman, The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994). See also Van Kley, “In Search of Eighteenth-Century French Public Opinion,” 215-226.

       4.  Jeffrey Merrick, The Desacralization of the French Monarchy in the Eighteenth Century (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 32-35.

       5. [Bon], Lettres d’un homme du monde au sujet des billets de confession et de la bulle Unigenitus (N.P., 1753); Brunville parlementary journal, Vol. 802, fol. 1, Bibliotheque du Senat, Paris, cited by Merrick, Desacralization, p. 105.

       6.  Merrick has written extensively on this subject.   See his “Conscience and Citizenship in Eighteenth-Century France,”  Eighteenth-Century Studies, 21 (1987): 48-70; “Subjects and Citizens in the Remonstrances of the Parlement of Paris in the Eighteenth Century,”  Journal of the History of Ideas,  (1990): 453-60.  For a fresh look at the earlier period in French history, see Charlotte C. Wells, Law and Citizenship in Early Modern France (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).

       7.  Pierre Retat, “Citoyen/sujet, civicisme,” in Rolf Reichardt and Eberhard Schmitt, eds., Handbuch politisch-sozialer Grundbegriffe in Frankreich, 1680-1820, 10 vols. to date (Munich, 1985-), 9:82.

       8. Stanley J. Idzerda and others, eds., Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution: Selected Letters and Papers, 1776-1790, 5 vols. to date (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977-), 1: 20, 407.

       9. Ibid., 1: 58.

       10. Ibid., 1: 61.

       11. Ibid., 1: 65.

       12. Lafayette to Hancock, August 13, 1777 in Ibid., 1:103; to Adrienne, June 7, 1777, in Ibid., 1: 58.

       13. Lafayette to George Clinton, March 3, 1778, in Ibid., 1:328.

       14.  Lafayette to President of Congress, May 1, 1778, in Ibid., 2:40.

       15.  Lafayette to George Washington, August 6, 1778, in Ibid., 2:133.

       16.  Lafayette to Louis XVI, February 19, 1779, in Ibid., 2:234.

       17.  Lafayette to Vergennes, August 16, 1779, in Ibid., 2:301.

       18.  Lafayette to Franklin, October 14, 1779, in Ibid., 2:330.

       19.  Lafayette to Jefferson, March 16, 1781, in Ibid., 3:400.

       20.  Ibid., 4:49.

       21.  Lafayette to Nelson, July 21, 1781, in Ibid., 5:262.

       22.  Ibid., 5:68.

       23.  Louis Gottschalk, Lafayette Between the American and the French Revolution (1783-1789) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1950), 93.

       24.  Ibid., 94.

       25.  Ibid., 145.

       26.  Ibid., 146.

       27. Ibid.

       28.  Ibid., 147.

       29.  Idzerda, Lafayette Papers, 5:281n.

       30.  Lafayette to Franklin, February 10, 1786, American Philosophical Society Library, Franklin Papers.  Lafayette to Madison, August 5, 1787,  Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Dreer Collection.

       31.  Nouvelles Extraordinaires de divers endroits [known as the Gazette de Leyde], May 10, 1785 supplement.

       32.  Lafayette to the Mayor of Bayonne, August 1, 1787, Bibliotheque Municipale de Bayonne, Liasse AA49, no. 22;  Lafayette to the Municipality of Bayonne, January 25, 1788, Ibid., Liasse AA50, no. 17.

       33.  Lafayette to Louis XVI, May 25, 1787,  Bibliotheque Nationale, Departement des manuscrits, Nouvelles acquisitions francaises, no. 23,615, fol. 279. On  the language of the king as father, see  Merrick, Desacralization, pp. 7-9 and Lynn Hunt’s recent important book on the subject.

       34.  Idzerda, Lafayette Papers, 5:351, 425.

       35.  Lafayette to Rabaut de St. Etienne, December 28, 1788,  Bibliotheque de la Ville de Nantes, Ms. 661, piece 133.

       36.  Same to same, 10 March [1789], Ibid., Ms. 667, piece 244.

       37. Motion de M. de la Fayette ([Paris, 1789?]), p. 6.

       38.  Lafayette, Memoires, correspondance et manuscrits du General Lafayette, publies par sa famille, 6 vols. (Paris, 1837-38),  2:474.  It is noteworthy that Lafayette’s published Memoires delete the phrase as “etc.” See Lafayette to Louis XVI, February 28, 1790, dated in the Memoires, 2:444-45 as February 20.  The original manuscripts of many of Lafayette’s letters to Louis XVI are in  Archives Nationales,  C184, 117.

       39.  Many of these are published in Lafayette, Memoires, vols. 2 and 3.

       40.  Adresse des Gardes Nationales de France, lue par M. de La Fayette a l’Assemblee Nationale, Dans la Seance du 13 Juillet 1790 (Paris, 1790), p. 3.  Discours prononce a l’Assemblee Nationale, par M. de La Fayette, au nom & a la tete des Deputes de toutes les Gardes Nationales de France; & la Reponse du Roi (Paris: Club National, [1790]), p. 6.

       41. Adresse de la Garde Nationale Parisienne a l’Assemblee Nationale (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale [1790]), p. 2.

       42.  Discourse prononce par M. de la Fayette, dans la seance du Conseil general de la Commune de Paris, du 22 avril 1791 (Paris: Lottin, 1791),  2-3.

       43.  Lafayette, Memoires, 3:120.

                44.  Lettre de M. Lafayette a l’Assemblee Nationale, Lue a la Seance du 18 Juin 1792 (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1792), p. 1.