|This Week in History
September 13 - 19, 1797.
Lafayette Gains His Freedom from the Prison of Olmutz
"We left for Hamburg on September 19th, 1797. It was five years and one month since my father's arrest and twenty-three months since we joined him. The prisoners were accompanied by an Austrian major till they arrived at Hamburg, who usually drove in a carriage ahead. Our road, particularly at Dresden, Leipzig, Halle, and Hamburg, was one continual triumph. Throngs gathered to see my father and his companions. The prisoners, who at first could not bear [being] outdoors, grew stronger every day, but my mother's health prevented any real joy. The fatigue of the journey was too great in her state of exhaustion and illness; nevertheless, she made efforts to take part in the general joy and to respond to the numerous marks of respect shown to her."
So wrote one of Lafayette's daughters of the events which followed the release of the famous "Prisoners of Olmutz." Lafayette's incarceration as a political prisoner had become the cause célèbre of Europe and America, but the heavy hand of British Prime Minister William Pitt kept the hero of the American Revolution and his two companions incarcerated in Austrian dungeons for as long as could possibly be managed. British vengeance against Lafayette had begun to bear fruit in August of 1792, when the British-sponsored Jacobin faction in France succeeded in charging Lafayette with rebellion and treason, and put a price on his head, dead or alive. Lafayette and a group of his officers who supported the ideals of the American Revolution fled north toward Holland, hoping to sail to America.
But they were captured by the Austrians, and Lafayette was shifted from prison to prison, so that his friends and supporters would not know where to find him. When it was finally learned that he and two fellow officers were held at Olmutz, an unsuccessful rescue attempt was made. After that, Lafayette's conditions of imprisonment became even more stringent and unbearable. The two would-be rescuers, American medical student Francis Huger and German doctor Erich Bollmann, after themselves suffering eight months' captivity at Olmutz, sailed to America and briefed George Washington on the terrible conditions at the prison.
Lafayette's wife, Adrienne, who remained in Paris, was targetted by the Terror. She sent their son, George Washington Lafayette, to America to be protected by President George Washington, who sent the boy to live with Alexander Hamilton in New York. After retiring from the Presidency, Washington brought his namesake to live at Mount Vernon, and tried to help Adrienne by sending money to her via Holland, but it never reached her.
Adrienne managed to send her two daughters to safety with relatives before she was arrested and imprisoned by the Terror in November of 1793. Her mother, grandmother, and sister were sent to the guillotine, but even then, the name Lafayette gave her captors pause. The American Minister to France, the future President James Monroe, worked unceasingly to have her released. He and his wife Elizabeth, whom Paris had dubbed "La Belle Americaine," designed an operation to gain the good will of the fickle Parisians in Adrienne's favor. They had a coach painted with bright colors, and Elizabeth dressed in her most stylish clothes. She set out for Adrienne's prison, but took a long, slow route to attract attention. When she arrived, followed by a curious crowd, she asked for Adrienne to be brought out to see her, and when the two greeted each other, the onlookers applauded and wept at the sight.
Sentiment in Paris gradually turned in favor of Lafayette, and Adrienne was released in January 1795 after more than a year in prison. The Monroes took her into their home and nursed her back to health. Once recovered, Adrienne's goal was to reach Olmutz and share her husband's captivity in order to protect him against possible assassination. Accordingly, she and her two daughters boarded a ship, ostensibly for America, but the ship turned north according to plan and landed them in Hamburg.
No French citizen was allowed to enter Austria, because a state of war existed with France. But the American Consul in Hamburg, John Parish, issued a U.S. passport to Adrienne in the name of Madame Motier, a resident of Hartford, Conn. During the Revolution, Lafayette had been granted citizenship by a grateful City of Hartford, and Motier was one of his family names. Travelling under this passport, Adrienne and her daughters reached Vienna and remained incognito until Adrienne could obtain an audience with the Emperor Francis II. This was possible because Adrienne's family, the de Noailles, had served as French Ambassadors to the Austrian Court.
When she asked the Emperor if she could share her husband's captivity, he replied that she could, but "as to his liberty, that I can not give, my hands are tied." He was referring to pressure from the British Empire not to release such an ardent republican and international figure as Lafayette had become. On Sept. 29, Lafayette's family left Vienna for Olmutz.
His daughter described their journey: "We arrived at Olmutz the next day but one, at eleven o'clock in the morning, in one of those open carriages that one finds at all post houses, for ours had broken down. I shall always remember the moment when the postillion pointed out to us the far-away steeples. My mother's emotion is still visible before me. For some time she was suffocated by sobs, but when she could speak, she blessed God in the words of the canticle of Tobias: 'Blessed be God that liveth forever, and blessed be his Kingdom.'
"We got out at the house of the commandant of the city. We did not see him. He sent the officer who was charged with keeping the prison, to conduct us. After we had gone through the first gate we passed down long corridors to two padlocked doors that opened into my father's room. 'I don't know,' my mother said the night before, 'how I can support what we are going to feel.'
"My father had not been notified of our coming. He had been given no letter at all from my mother. Three years of imprisonment, the last passed in complete solitude (for since his attempt at escape he had not seen his servant), anxiety for all he loved, sufferings of all kinds, had deeply affected his health. The change in his looks was frightening. My mother was hard hit by it; but nothing could diminish the delirium of her joy except the bitterness of her irreparable losses.
"My father, after the first happiness of reunion, did not dare to ask any questions. He knew of the reign of terror in France, but he did not know the names of the victims. The day passed without his daring to question her concerning his fears or her being able to muster strength to tell him. Only in the evening, after my sister and I had been shut into the next room, not connected, did she tell my father that she had lost on the scaffold, her grandmother, her mother, and her sister."
For the next two years, the Lafayettes shared the rigors of prison life. They were forced to eat filthy food, for which they had to pay. Adrienne was forbidden to write to her son, because "they did not wish any news concerning the prison to reach the United States." The stench from the latrines next door was unbearable, and then Adrienne fell ill. Her arms and legs became painfully swollen and she suffered from a constant fever. She asked permission to visit a physician in Vienna, but was told that if she left the prison she could not return, so she stayed with her husband.
Finally, the German republican movement, which the Emperor greatly feared, succeeded in getting in touch with Lafayette through the Rector of the University of Olmutz. He smuggled news to the prisoners, and arranged for correspondence to be smuggled across the Austrian frontier, and returning letters to be delivered to the prisoners without inspection by the jailers. Thus the outside world received news of the prisoners' status and the international pressure on the Austrian Emperor and the British Government continued to mount.
George Washington wrote a personal letter to Emperor Francis, telling him that Lafayette would be welcome in America. Consul John Parish and Gouverneur Morris also worked to obtain Lafayette's release. Lazare Carnot, on behalf of the French Directory, advised Napoleon that the Emperor should be urged to free the Prisoners of Olmutz. Napoleon added a codicil to the final agreement, stipulating that Lafayette should not be allowed to return to France.
Finally, the prison doors opened and the famous prisoners made their way through the German states to Hamburg. When they arrived, all the American ships in the harbor were flying their flags and pennants in celebration, and the Lafayettes were invited to dine aboard an American ship. They were then rowed across the river and moved slowly through the great crowd of people who had come to cheer them, reaching at last the home of John Parish.
Parish wrote that "An immense crowd of people announced their arrival. The streets were lined, and my house was soon filled with them. A lane was formed to let the prisoners pass to my room. Lafayette led the way and was followed by his infirm lady and two daughters. He flew into my arms, his wife and daughters clung to me. A silencean expressive silence, took place. It was broken by the exclamations, of 'My friend! My dearest friend, my deliverer! See the work of your generosity! My poor, poor wife hardly able to support herself!'
"And indeed she was not standing, but hanging on my arm imbued with tears, while her two lovely girls had hold of each other. The scene was extremely affecting and I was very much agitated. Again the Marquis came to my arms, his heart overflowing with gratitude. I never saw a man in such complete ecstasy of body and mind. He is a very handsome man, in the prime of life, and seemed to have suffered but little from his confinement."
As part of the release agreement, the Lafayettes were only allowed to stay in Hamburg for 12 days. Because of the precarious state of Adrienne's health, it was impossible to make a winter voyage to America. So the family went to stay with relatives in Holstein, and Lafayette began to reestablish his contacts with the republican movement in America and Europe, against the day when he would be able to return to France.