In Versailles, October 1789, in the midst of luxury, debt, hunger and violence, someone needs to stand up for bipartisan cooperation, to coordinate left hand and right.
Crowds with the rage of waves breaking down a storm-wall barrier burst into the palace grounds brandishing severed heads on pikes. The mob roars and seething surges, seeks to see the king and queen. Men and women, lawyers and bakers, fat and lean, side by side, knife and pitchfork, ready to carve the roast. Power to the people! These are the table manners of democracy in action.
The Marquis de Lafayette rushes in to protect the royal family. He sees a barefoot woman; the blood has drained from her face, yet her soft, dimpled chin is raised and does not shake. This is the woman who once ridiculed his manners and laughed at his dancing. This is the face of the queen, Marie Antoinette, facing a crowd ready to cut her to pieces.
Lafayette holds out his hand and gestures towards the balcony. Anger, fear and disgust spit out a silent No! That’s how her face reacts. His face does not flinch. These are the facts, he says: “Either you go to them, or they come for you. Step out, Madame.”
Her face frozen, she takes her children by the hands, steps out onto the balcony. “No children!” the mob call. The Queen drops the Dauphin’s hand; he and his sister are drawn back inside the room.
Antoinette stands alone. Lafayette steps out beside her, hoping to shield her with his body if the worst…and the people howl…and then he takes the Queen’s hand, he raises it, he bows low, he kisses her fingertips.
The mood shifts, shouts rise, “Long live Lafayette!” He shivers at their fickleness; shivers inside. “Long live the Queen!” someone calls, and then the crowd join in, “Long live the Queen!” That cry has not been heard in a decade. Her fists unclench, her jaw relaxes; he feels her lean against him, floppy with relief. A bodyguard steps out, in his hat a flourish of feathers red, blue and white—blood, sky, leadership. The Queen is handed back inside. The King declares he will go to Paris. He recognizes the Rights of Man.
This is the middle path Lafayette chooses: “I have the nation to protect from the King, and now the King to protect from the nation.” He bravely advocates for constitutional monarchy—under the circumstances an impossible path. Three years later, the radical elite issue a warrant for his arrest. He flees but is captured by Austrian troops who see in him the face of France, the enemy. Five years in prison he suffers for her, this brave, rejected knight in shining armor who strove to save his damsel in distress, his France.
These days we hear talk of the need for bipartisan cooperation. Politics as usual runs as current representatives conduct themselves toward their goal of winning re-election, by doing things to please the interests of those who elected them, by advertising their accomplishments and the failures of their opponents. Bipartisan cooperation would have to mean something exceptional: representatives from left and right working together not merely for particular, narrow, special interests, but for the common good of all.
But the phrase will remain empty without a common framework for discussing what is good. We may find a clue in the notion of patriotism—love of la patrie, the fatherland. The head of state is papa, pater, father to the family, to all the people who live together in the land they call home. The good of the family consists first in the health of their bodies, then in the development and exercise of their powers for understanding truth, noticing and producing beauty, and for cultivating togetherness, weaving threads of connection into a web of intimacy so that all feel cared for and cherished.
In the current state of things, no one occupies this place and no one can play this role because the culture of nobility, of chivalry, has withered away. Chivalry is the character of the cavalry, the soldiers on horseback, the men in shining armor, motivated by pure amour, men of the truest virile virtue: courageous generosity. Noblesse oblige, nobility obliges: “I am at your service. I bow to you, I kiss your hand.”
Our notions of political left and right come from the meetings of the revolutionary assembly: the monarchists (aiming for a British-style regime) sat on the right, the republicans (aiming for an American-style regime) sat on the left. Lafayette truly represented aristocracy—government by the best for the sake of all. He stood up, then fell down and suffered for the sake of bipartisan cooperation.
On the sixth of September, he will be 260 years old. Happy Birthday, noble nobleman!
Note: The historical material and some of the language for the dramatic scene of Lafayette’s chivalry towards Queen Marie Antoinette is based on Hilary Mantel’s historical novel about the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety (Picador, 1992), page 228.