By JAMES HUTSON
In 1956 Americans were greeted with front page newspaper stories, reporting that the Count and Countess Ren‚ de Chambrun, exploring La Grange, a 15th century chateau that they had recently acquired in the countryside east of Paris, had discovered a large cache of papers of the count's ancestor, the Marquis de Lafayette.
This news made headlines because Lafayette was one of those rare figures in history who decisively influenced the affairs of two great nations, the United States and France.
The story of the 20-year-old Lafayette, defying French authorities to fight for American independence, leaving "the bosom of home, of happiness, of wealth, of rank to plunge into the dust and blood of our inauspicious struggle," has never lost its grip on the imagination and gratitude of the American people. Soon after returning to his native country, Lafayette was at the center of an even greater cataclysm, the French Revolution, which destroyed one of Europe's oldest monarchies and threw the continent into turmoil for 25 years.
At 73 years of age, Lafayette rode the whirlwind of yet another revolution in France, which again set Europe on edge. Throughout his life he promoted, sometimes at fearful personal cost, the ideas of liberty, equality, human rights and national self-determination that continue, to this day, to inspire people throughout the world.
What might the archives of such a towering figure contain?
The "hero of two worlds," as Lafayette was called, was on intimate terms with many of this nation's Founding Fathers, with Washington, Jefferson and Monroe in particular. Surely his papers would yield secrets about the American Revolution and the establishment of the new national government. Lafayette was present at the creation of the French Revolution and acted with or against every major French political figure from Louis XVI to Louis Philippe. New information about these men and their measures must also, it could be assumed, be contained in his archives.
But if there were hopes for the Lafayette papers at La Grange, there were also fears. During the French Revolution, Lafayette's properties and at least some of his papers were confiscated by the state. His wife burned and buried part of his remaining papers to deprive political enemies of incriminating evidence. Imprisonment and exile from 1792 to 1799 impeded Lafayette's ability to keep records. During the Napoleonic Wars the British Navy interdicted his correspondence with the United States.
Then, during the second half of the 19th century, Lafayette's descendants removed thousands of his papers from La Grange and sent them to another family property, Chavaniac, in Auvergne (where they were eventually acquired by Cornell University in 1964). Did this transfer gut an already crippled collection?
Balancing these anxieties were assurances from the Count de Chambrun that the Lafayette papers at La Grange were extensive and that he and his staff were carefully organizing and preserving them. But no information was released about the contents of the collection. For 40 years, from 1955 to 1995, only one person, the French writer Andr‚ Maurois, was given access to the papers to write a biography of Lafayette's saintly wife, Adrienne. Otherwise, the collection has remained inaccessible to historians and archivists. Thus it remains one of the great scholarly mysteries of the 20th century.
But a mystery it will remain no longer. As the result of an agreement concluded by the Count de Chambrun and Dr. Billington, the Library began microfilming the Lafayette papers on July 11, 1995. When the project is completed in 1996, the film will be available for public examination in the Reading Room of the Library's Manuscript Division.
The Lafayette archives at La Grange are much larger and more comprehensive than could have been expected. They contain as many as 18,000 items, comprising more than 50,000 individual sheets. As the Count de Chambrun promised, the papers have been lovingly preserved, organized and described.
They are divided into different series, among them: United States, French Revolution, "miscellaneous political," and various family series, including finances, farm and estate management and personal correspondence. There is a large series, assembled by a relative, containing extensive political correspondence of Louis Philippe, Guizot, Sir Robert Peel, Lord Aberdeen and other important French and British political figures of the 1840s. Documents relating directly to the United States comprise approximately 25 percent of the collection, although references to American events and personalities occur everywhere.
There is substantial documentation on the War for American Independence, including such striking items as a secret code used by Lafayette and Washington and Lafayette's handwritten accounts of his 1781 campaign in Virginia and of the siege of Yorktown. There are also important documents concerning the participation of the French navy in the latter stages of the war.
Missing from these early years and from the collection as a whole is extensive correspondence with leading American political and military leaders. There are some original letters from Monroe and a poignant one from John Adams, written just after he was defeated by Jefferson in the presidential election of 1800, expressing the "lamentable Truth that Mankind have always been ill treated by Government."
There is an even more poignant letter from Martha Washington to Lafayette, reporting her husband's death and enclosing a leaf that had fallen on his grave, fashioned by Washington's step- daughter into Lafayette's likeness. From Washington himself, considered by Lafayette to be his "father and friend," there are only a few holograph letters.
But there are substantial numbers of copies of letters of Washington, Jefferson and other Founding Fathers. A preliminary comparison of these copies with the papers of the founders in the Library's Manuscript Division suggests that some of them may be the only extant record of lost original letters.
There are also extensive copies of Lafayette's letters to the political and military leaders who directed French policy during the American Revolution. Some of these copies may also be unique records. There is, for example, a copy of a 27-page memoir written by Lafayette in 1779 to the French foreign minister, Vergennes, containing Lafayette's ideas on the conduct of the American war that does not appear in the standard work on Lafayette and the American Revolution. Comparisons of these copies with originals in the collections of Lafayette's French and American correspondents will be necessary to evaluate fully the importance of the materials at La Grange.
Fears that there would be few documents relating to Lafayette's activities in the early years of the French Revolution are unfounded. There is substantial material documenting Lafayette's work in the National Assembly, including one of the prizes of the entire collection, a handwritten draft, with Lafayette's final corrections, of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which he introduced into the National Assembly on July 11, 1789. There is also a surprisingly large amount of documentation of Lafayette's stormy days as commander of the French National Guard.
Human rather than political interest radiates from the documents preserved during Lafayette's years of imprisonment in Prussian and Austrian jails from 1792 to 1797. There is a letter smuggled into prison from James Monroe, informing the Marquis that the American government would provide financial support during his duress. There are the records of the Austrian interrogation of the American medical student, Francis Huger, who with a companion tried to rescue Lafayette from the dungeon of Olmtz, because, Huger told his jailers, "I would have a chance to free a man who at my age [Huger was 21] had risked everything for me."
And there is the magnificent letter from Lafayette's wife telling him that she herself had just been released from a French jail and was on her way with her two daughters to join him in his cell at Olmtz and share his fate in that fetid dungeon. Smuggled to Lafayette in the cover of a volume of Buffon's Histoire Naturelle, which also survives in the collection, Adrienne told her husband that "I am on my way to you. That hope alone gave me a renewed sense of life when I was almost at the foot of the scaffold."
Lafayette returned to France and La Grange in November 1799 and settled into an orderly existence that had eluded him for years. From this time forward his collection begins to swell in size. Although Napoleon ostracized him from public life, Lafayette did not -- indeed, could not -- suppress his interest in politics, and his papers reflect his restless political curiosity. But the collection after 1799 is as much as anything a record of the private Lafayette, of Lafayette the husband, the father and grandfather, the farmer, the estate manager; as such, it will be a delight to social historians.
Lafayette reentered politics after the fall of Napoleon, and the collection will be a rich source for documenting his activities from 1815 to 1830. It is especially strong on Lafayette's role in the Revolution of 1830, when as the commander of the National Guard he was once again a kingmaker in France.
Lafayette's celebrated trip to the United States in 1824-25 is well documented. As the "Nation's Guest," he traveled from one end of the land to the other, making speeches and receiving the homage of a grateful citizenry. More than 100 of his handwritten speeches survive in the collection, including a draft of his famous "Farewell Address."
On his travels Lafayette visited old comrades such as Jefferson and reported that during conversations at Monticello the subject of slavery continued to preoccupy the third president. "We did not," Lafayette wrote a friend, "in those patriotic conversations, refrain from the anticipation, however remote, that in conformity with the noble feelings of Virginia, from her infancy to the present day, the only remaining evil of British entails upon her, Negro slavery, should be by herself gradually removed, a task which, difficult as it is, you know to have been the object of his constant tho considerate meditations."
Like many who participated in and survived the French Revolution, Lafayette was concerned that posterity know the "truth" about that great event and his role in it. Therefore, soon after he returned to La Grange in 1799 he began writing long sketches about his actions during the Revolution and correcting in equally long memoranda what he discerned to be errors in the published reminiscences of his contemporaries. He also began keeping files of note cards, containing anecdotes about the principal figures of the time.
He recorded evidence that the "incorruptible" Robespierre had taken bribes and fabricated anecdotes about Napoleon, as for example, Bonaparte's judgment on great men in history in which he placed a higher estimate on the calculating Augustus than on the "heroic" Caesar.
Lafayette's purpose was clearly to use this mass of documentation as an aid in producing his memoirs. There are several drafts of the memoirs in the collection, and it will test the ingenuity of scholars to sort these out and relate them to the other materials Lafayette prepared to assist in their composition. In the process, new light will certainly be shed on controversial episodes during the French Revolution.
There is much more in the collection that could be noted, such as significant correspondence with leaders of national liberation movements in Poland and South America, including Sim¢n Bol¡var, who thanked Lafayette for sending him a portrait of Washington by asserting that "Washington given by the hand of Lafayette is the crown of human awards."
What is the most surprising aspect of the collection?
The profusion of Masonic books, documents, diplomas and paraphernalia would certainly be one candidate. Obviously, Freemasonry had a major impact on Lafayette's life: During his American tour of 1824-25 he made frequent appearances "clothed in the masonic habiliments so often worn by the Father of his Country." But in this secular, group-averse age, it is difficult to appreciate what the attraction of Masonry was to Lafayette and his contemporaries and what its influence on them might have been.
Others will find their own surprises in the rich collection at La Grange. That our view of Lafayette and his times will be changed by scholarly access to the collection is certain. How great the change will be can only be evaluated after scholars begin using the microfilm in the Manuscript Reading Room next year.
James Hutson is chief of the Manuscript Division. Dr. Hutson was in France July 10-24, making arrangements for work to begin on the papers.