Challenging Lafayette’s Legacy: Race and Republicanism in France and the United States

This post is a part of the “Race and Revolution” Series.

By Aurélia Aubert

In March 1825, Achille Murat, a recent settler in Florida and nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, heard that the Marquis de Lafayette was touring the United States.[1] He rode north to meet the old general during his visit to Savannah, Georgia. Murat arrived in the United States only a year earlier, but he was already convinced that no other country fit his love for political freedom. “It was the only [country] where [he] would be free from oppression,” he asserted.[2] He was determined to meet the national hero who had helped make this country possible through his service in the Revolutionary War—a fellow Frenchman, what’s more, with similar republican convictions and aspirations.  If they agreed that republicanism was, as Murat put it, “the best model of government,” the two Frenchmen soon realized during this meeting that they diverged on key issues, such as who got to partake in the republic, who qualified for natural rights, and more specifically, how slavery and race fit in the republic.[3]  Murat and Lafayette’s diverging understanding of how racially inclusive republicanism should be, whose vision endured in their lifetime, and whose name endured in public memory today, enlightens us about the legacy of the Age of Revolutions in France and the United States, both in the nineteenth century and in 2018.

By inviting Lafayette to the United States, President Monroe and Congress hoped to repay him for his Revolutionary War service. As American towns and citizens celebrated the Marquis wherever he went with parades, banquets, and military salutes, the tour was also an exercise in the shaping of public memory. It would create national unity around a positive legacy of the American Revolution embodied by the old General. As Murat explained, “his name, his person, bring back dear and glorious memories to this country.”[4] By celebrating Lafayette, Americans celebrated themselves. Yet, more than that, in 1824, the celebrations around the Marquis became symbolic of the Franco-American republican efforts – of the two nations’ common cause for political liberty in the late eighteenth century.[5] Little did most Americans know that by the 1820s, because of his emancipationist views, Lafayette was no longer an apt personification of either American republicanism, or whatever had survived of French republicanism in the early nineteenth century. When it came to embodying the Franco-American republican spirit, a younger and, most importantly, pro-slavery republican Frenchman fit the job description better. At the turn of the century, both France and the United States departed from the revolutionary dialogue on abolition and universal republicanism to cement white supremacy by the early nineteenth century. If Lafayette embodied an era that had brought black civil rights and emancipation in some American states and in the French Caribbean, Murat was the face of the new century, of the white supremacist vision that prevailed in Napoleonic Europe and in the American republic.

Although forty years separated (the General was 67 and Murat was 23), both men were products of the French Revolution and shared a belief in republican institutions. Lafayette had fought in the American and French Revolutions, and Murat, as a member of the Bonaparte family, had been educated since a very young age in the Revolutions’ foundational ideas.[6] What’s more, both Murat and Lafayette were runaways from the Counter-Revolution. Bonaparte’s defeat in 1815 led to the restoration of monarchies in most of Europe, forcing Murat and his family to live in house arrest under the authority of the Austrian government. From then on, he had been looking at the United States as a beacon of liberty. “Only in America can I be absolutely free in my person,” he wrote before leaving Europe in 1823.[7]  During the Restoration, Lafayette, deeply dissatisfied with the Bourbon monarchy, had lent his support to several republican conspiracies in France and abroad.

In spite of their common love for freedom, Murat and Lafayette realized they disagreed on who, depending on their race, deserved to be free. Lafayette thought slavery was a stain on republicanism, and abolitionism would be a lifelong project of his.[8] On the other hand, Murat had been really quick to embrace the peculiar institution after his arrival in the United States. By the end of his life, he owned over a hundred slaves, and had owned four plantations at different times in Florida and Louisiana. He also wrote multiple essays and book chapters in defense of slavery.[9] To Murat, only white people were fit for republicanism, while the black race was “undeniably an inferior race […] that does not seem capable of the same intelligence.” When left to their own devices, Murat was convinced that black people “go back to being savages […] the way that it is happening right now in Haiti?”[10] “Their happiness,” Murat insisted, “is limited to the happiness of an animal, and they can enjoy it better as slaves than they would if they were free or savages.” Two visions of republicanism were at odds when these two Frenchmen met in the United States. Yet, only one of them—Murat—got to live by his vision of republicanism, as exclusive to white people and complementary with black slavery.

French people and Americans, in 1825 and 2018, have looked at Lafayette as the embodiment of the Franco-American republican cause. Yet, he best embodies what we wish this cause to be and what it attempted to be in the 1790s—a universalist narrative, deprived of the stain of slavery. In reality, we know that once the American Revolutionary War was over, many states continued to enslave black people and exclude them from the new political institutions. As for Lafayette’s homeland, the abolition of slavery by the Revolutionary French government was essentially a pragmatic move to keep control of Saint Domingue during the slave revolt that would become the Haitian Revolution. Lafayette saw this legal decision reversed when Murat’s uncle, Bonaparte, restored slavery in the remaining French colonies. If Bonaparte had championed individual rights and civil liberties in Europe with his Code Napoléon, it was to the exclusion of black people. Almost immediately after the Age of Revolutions, economic pragmatism came to prevail over liberal ideals. Both revolutionary France and the United States would decide that republican rights were the exclusive privilege of the white race, and the black race was to remain enslaved and disenfranchised.

Lafayette would be saddened throughout his life that slavery persisted in both his home and adoptive nations. His republican dream remained unfulfilled. While public memory remembers him as one of the main figureheads of the American and French Revolutions, Lafayette belonged to a minority among white revolutionaries in the Atlantic World. He believed that every man, regardless of race, was entitled to the freedom he had defended during the American and French Revolutions. Murat, on the other hand, felt like African Americans were simply side casualties to white men’s natural rights to property and prosperity. He embodied the racism that prevailed in the Franco-American republican cause in the first half of the nineteenth century. The fact that we celebrated and still celebrate Lafayette shows that both France and the United States are still struggling to acknowledge in their public commemorations the racial limitations of what came out of their Revolutions. When we remember Lafayette, we should remember also how he tried to convince George Washington to join him in his efforts toward a gradual abolition of slavery.[11] We should remember him as an oddity, rather than a figurehead.

Aurélia Aubert is a PhD candidate in American history, working under the supervision of William Link at the University of Florida. Her research uses the life of Achille Murat, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte and planter in territorial Florida, to examine the relationship between slavery and republicanism in both the United States and France, from the Age of Revolutions to the mid-nineteenth century. She has presented her work at a number of academic conferences including the Southern Historical Association, the Florida Historical Society, the Southeastern Council of Latin American Studies, and the British American Nineteenth Century Historians’ Association.

Title image: Matthew Harris Jouett, Portrait of General Lafayette, 1825.

Further Reading:

Cohen, William B. The French Encounter with Africans: Whites Responses to Blacks, 1530-1880. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.

Crosby-Arnold, Margaret B. “A Case of Hidden Genocide? Desintegration and Destruction of People of Color in Napoleonic Europe, 1799-1815. Atlantic Studies 14, no. 3 (2017): 354-381.

Hanna, A.J. A Prince in their Midst: the Adventurous Life of Achille Murat on the American Frontier. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1946.

Levasseur, Auguste. Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825, Journal of a Voyage to the United States, trans. Alan R. Hoffman. Manchester: Lafayette Press, 2006.


[1] Achille Murat, born in 1801, was the son of Joachim Murat, a grand marshal in the Napoleonic Army, and Caroline Bonaparte, Napoleon’s youngest sister. During his territorial expansion in Europe, Bonaparte put the Murats on the throne of the kingdom of Naples in 1808. In the 1815 post-Waterloo debacle, Joachim was executed by Neapolitan nationalists, and Caroline surrendered to the Austrians with her four children. She, Achille, and his siblings would live under house arrest in Austria for several years. With Napoleon’s death in 1821, the Austrian authorities no longer feared a Bonapartist plot to liberate the former emperor and only then did they agree to grant Achille a passport to leave Europe. He embarked for the United States in 1823 where he would join Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s oldest brother, living in New Jersey since his escape from Europe in 1815.

[2] Achille Murat to Caroline Murat, July 7, 1824, box 4, “Murat letters to his family” file, Prince Achille Murat Papers, Stanford University Special Collections.

[3] Murat, A Moral and Political Sketch of the United States of North America: With a Note on Negro Slavery (London: E. Wilson, 1833), xxxvii.

[4] Murat to Antoine Claire Thibaudeau, January 12, 1826, MS 276, Achille Murat Papers, 1822-1841, University of Florida Library.

[5] It seemed all the more important to keep this transnational struggle for freedom alive, at least in the American public memory, as the Bourbon restoration of absolute monarchy had crushed republicanism in France. The French ambassador to Washington at the time, the Baron de Mareuil, was perfectly aware of the political implications behind Lafayette’s tour. He feared the celebrations to the Marquis would reflect the “democratic spirit and the opposition to European doctrines that [was] animating the [American] nation” at that time. See Joseph Alexandre Jacques Durant de Mareuil to Joseph de Villèle, August 19, 1824, Box 1, “Washington D.C” file, The Alfred Jackson Hanna Papers of Prince Charles Louis Napoleon Achille Murat, 1814-1948, Rollins College Library.

[6] He had been tutored by Antoine Claire Thibaudeau, a veteran politician of the French Revolution, regicide, and one of the authors of the 1795 Constitution. As Murat put it, Thibaudeau had “guided [his] young reason in the study of the theory of liberty.” See A.J. Hanna, A Prince in their Midst: the Adventurous Life of Achille Murat on the American Frontier (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1946), 30.

[7] Albert Lumbroso, Le Roi Joachim Murat et sa Cour (Cahors: J. Girma, 1899), 24.

[8] Ironically, to promote the abolition of slavery, Lafayette became a slave-owner himself. In 1785 and 1786, he bought three plantations in Cayenne, French Guiana. Seventy slaves were living on the plantations. The Marquis intended to eventually free them and put in practice his belief in gradual emancipation, or what he described to George Washington as “this experiment which you know is my hobby horse.” Tragically, Lafayette never formally freed the slaves and when his property was confiscated by the Terror government, the sixty-three people on the plantations were sold by the colonial state in 1795.

[9] Murat published multiple books on the United States: Lettres sur les Etats Unis, par le Prince Achille Murat, flis de l’Ex-Roi de Naples, a un de ses Amis d’Europe (Paris: Librarie de Hector Bossange, 1830); America and the Americans (New York : William Graham, 1849); The United States of North America (London: Effingham Wilson, 1833); A Moral and Political Sketch of the United States of North America: With a Note on Negro Slavery (London: E. Wilson, 1833); and Exposition des Principes du Gouvernement Républicain, Tel Qu’il a été Perfectionné en Amérique (Paris: Paulin, 1833). He openly defended slavery and in every one of his publications.

[10] “Le nègre est incontestablement une race d’hommes inférieure au blanc, et qui ne semble pas capable des mêmes jouissances intellectuelles. Pourquoi sont-ils restés sauvages depuis le commencement du monde jusqu’à ce jour? Pourquoi redeviennent-ils sauvages dès qu’ils sont abandonnés à eux-mêmes, comme cela arrive dans ce moment à Haïti. Leur félicité se borne à la félicité animale, et celle là ils en jouissent plus librement dans l’état d’esclaves, qu’ils ne le feraient libres ou sauvages.” Murat, Lettres sur les Etats Unis, 134.

[11] Laura Auricchio, The Marquis, Lafayette Reconsidered (New York : Vintage Books, 2014), 116.

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