Saturday, September 30, 2017

What Uncommon Love – the Marriage of Lafayette and Adrienne

Most Americans are at least marginally familiar with the Marquis de Lafayette, the young French aristocrat who embraced the glorious cause of the American Revolution as his own, and teamed up with George Washington to fight against the British.  The story of him self-funding his trip to the colonies at the tender age of 19, and how he selflessly endured the hardships of his adoptive comrades-in-arms, and how he demonstrated bravery and keen military leadership and strategy, is fascinating in and of itself.

What is even more amazing, though, is the relationship he had with his young bride. As was common back then, his marriage was arranged by his parents when he was 16 and she was only 14. At the beginning, her mother kept them apart in different chambers but after a couple years the marriage was consummated and Adrienne had her firstborn around age 16, a girl, Henriette.  Shortly thereafter, within a year, Lafayette up and left his daughter and very young bride to go fight against the British in America.   While he was gone, his first daughter died and Adrienne gave birth to a second daughter, Anastasie.  This is hardly the way to start off a successful marriage, and yet, how they grow in their love for each other, and where that love led them, is truly astonishing.
While he was gone, Lafayette wrote her often and lavished her with praise and expressions of love. When he returned after two years, she expressed great joy and admiration for him.  The fact of the matter was that he left as a young boy “with awkward country manners and clumsiness” but returned polished, confident, mature, and according to Adrienne, “as modest and as charming as when he went away.”* And so their love and relationship grew during this time, forging what would be a uncommon bond.  Before long, Lafayette left again for America, leaving Adrienne in charge of his estate, and would return two years later as a genuine victorious war hero of the American Revolution.
Upon his second return to France, Lafayette found himself in middle of the French Revolution.  He wanted the same freedom and liberty for his countrymen as what he helped establish in America.  The problem, though, was that the established royal leadership of France was not ready for republican ideals, nor were the commoners, the so-called Third Estate, able to resist the extremism of their leadership.  The French Revolution turned barbaric and left Lafayette no choice but to flee for his life since he would not submit to the extreme fanaticism of Robespierre.

The problem for Lafayette at this time was that his support for democracy had turned him into “the most hated man in Europe.”*  His ideals had caused problem for other royals throughout Europe, and so, when he crossed over into Belgium, he was arrested and sent to a Prussian prison. He had a board for a bed, nothing with which to read or write, and languished there for some time in the filth of that dungeon.  After two years he was transferred to another prison in Austria at Olmutz. “In comparison to Prussian prison cells, the cells at Olmutz were chambers of horrors. The prison was in part of the city wall over the Morawa River, which carried the city sewerage and filled the prison above it with suffocating stench and swarms of disease-carrying mosquitoes and flies.”* Lafayette was chained in his cell and suffered there in solitary confinement.

In the meantime, back in France, Adrienne was scrambling herself, trying to keep her family and assets safe. She was moderately successful but eventually even she was arrested. The American ambassador was able to keep her from the guillotine but earlier, her grandmother, mother, and sister, all met that horrible fate. Adrienne stayed in prison until the extremism of Robespierre proved too much for even his own supporters. He suffered a gunshot wound during a coup and was put out of his misery the next day, appropriately, via the guillotine.

In ensuing months, Adrienne worked to secure passports to flee to America but instead, and this is where her uncommon love for her husband comes to the forefront, she left for Vienna to plead her husband’s case to the emperor.  Frederick II would not grant him his freedom but he would let Adrienne and her two girls visit (a son, named after George Washington, had already found sanctuary in America) – on one condition – she and the girls had to share her husband’s fate and submit to being jailed! I don’t know how the girls felt about this but Adrienne willing consented. Consequently, for nearly two years she and the girls had to eat nasty prison food, endure the stench from the sewer, live in dark dirt-floored cells, sleep on pieces of wood, and hear the awful screams of other prisoners who were being flogged. Not exactly a second honeymoon!
On the positive side, prison officials allowed them to bring in books, along with paper with which to write letters.  The three provided comfort and companionship that Lafayette would never have had without them. Prison life, though, was not good for Adrienne and she developed fevers and swollen legs and arms.  She was offered the chance to leave Olmutz to get medical help but only on the condition that she not return.  Adrienne defiantly rejected that offer, choosing to suffer with her husband rather than leave him alone.
After much international pressure for their release (including pleas from George Washington), and the rise to power of Napoleon Bonaparte, the time finally came when neither Austria nor France wanted Lafayette’s presence.  His release and that of his family was secured but they were not able to travel to America, where they wanted to go, because of Adrienne’s health.  They ended up settling in Denmark, instead.

Eventually Adrienne recovered enough to return to France and fight for the restoration of their family assets.  Her ability to do this showed amazing political and personal acumen. She had developed into quite the legendary figure herself, a force to be reckoned with in her own right. But if that was not enough, she was also able to secure the ability for her husband to legally return to France. Lafayette’s presence in France turned him into a political force once again, but in the end, he was never able to see the freedom and liberty that America enjoyed embraced or implemented in France.

It’s hard to imagine the life that was in front of these two young children when they were first married. It is harder still to image the love that developed between them.  I asked my wife, Daphne, what she would do if I was jailed in a similar situation – she was not too keen on the idea of joining me!  Sorry, Andy, you’re on your own!  I don’t know if Lafayette and Adrienne’s marriage vows included the phrases, “for better or for worse” or “for richer or for poorer,” but their vows meant something, even made at such a young age and to someone they hardly knew at the time.  Really, it’s an amazing story of true, steadfast love.

*All quotations from Harlow Unger’s Lafayette, the biography on which this post is based.

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