Gilbert du Motier was born on September 6, 1757 in Auvergne, France. His full given name was Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier. His father died when he was 2 years old. When his mother and grandfather died 11 years later, he inherited a large fortune. Lafayette, who came from a long line of solders, studied at the Military Academy in Versailles and became a captain in the French cavalry at age 16.
In 1777, Lafayette purchased a ship, and with a crew of adventurers set sail for America to fight in the revolution against the British. Lafayette joined the ranks as a major general, assigned to the staff of George Washington. He served with distinction, leading America forces to several victories. On a return visit to France in 1779, Lafayette persuaded the French government to send aid to the Americans. After the British surrender at Yorktown, Lafayette returned to Paris. He had become a hero in the new United States of America.
At home, Lafayette cooperated closely with Ambassadors Benjamin Franklin, and then Thomas Jefferson on behalf of American interests.
After 1782, Lafayette was absorbed with questions of reform in France. He was one of the first to advocate a National Assembly, and worked toward the establishment of a constitutional monarchy during the years leading up to the French Revolution. These efforts cost him much of his support from the French nobility. As commander of the French National Guard, Lafayette was compelled to use force to put down crowd violence. By 1791, he had lost most of his popularity with the people.
In 1792, Lafayette tried unsuccessfully to curb radicalism against the monarchy. The King and Queen would not accept his assistance. The troops he tried to turn on the Paris mob would not follow his orders. Lafayette was denounced as a traitor and fled the country. He returned to France in 1800 to find that his personal fortune had been confiscated. In 1815 he was elected to the Chamber of Deputies. As one of its vice presidents, he worked for Napoleon’s abdication after the Battle of Waterloo.
Lafayette became a focal point of resistance to the Bourbon kings. In 1830, he became the leader of a Revolution that dethroned the Bourbons. He refused the popular demand that he become president of the new republic, and instead helped make Louis Philippe the constitutional monarch of France. Just before his death in 1834 he began to regret his support of Philippe and supported the move to a pure republic in France