Lafayette by Harlow Giles Unger is a fascinating and detailed exposition of the life of Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette. I highly recommend this work; however, it is not without its flaws. This is mostly a serious, informative and thoughtful book. It is highly readable and it is a page - turner. This is also an intricately researched biography that is heavy with the actual writings and correspondence of Lafayette and his contemporaries. With all that said, like many biographers I found that Unger is a little too enamored with his subject. At times the author reminds us a bit too much about the French nobleman’s bravery and virtue. In addition, Unger sometimes goes a little overboard in excoriating historical figures to the point of near name calling; at one point he refers to Jean – Paul Marat as “ a foul, ill kempt Swiss dwarf” and repeatedly and unnecessarily refers to Louis XVIII as “obese.” These are unfortunate exceptions, however, as more often the author creates relatively accurate and fair representations of his subjects. For all his admiration for Lafayette, Unger openly confronts the man’s flaws. Unger is also honest about his intentions; in his introduction he declares that the purpose of him writing the book is to dispel some of the attacks upon Lafayette’s character and actions that have been leveled by certain historians over the past few years.
SUMMERY OF LAFAYETTE'S LIFE
My summery of Lafayette’s life is more detailed then I am usually inclined to present. This is because I think that the particulars of the connections that he established with other persons are vitally important to understanding the man and his times, as well as with some points that I would like to touch upon.
In 1757, Lafayette was born into French nobility and privilege. Orphaned at a young age, he began his military career in French army while in his teens. In 1774, he married Marie Adrienne Françoise de Noailles, the daughter of another powerful French noble family. Though the marriage was arraigned and initially emotionless, in time the couple developed a deep love for one another and Adrienne became an important partner in Lafayette’s endeavors and pursuits.
When the American Revolution broke out, like many young French nobleman, Lafayette traveled to America to join the fight. The motivations of these men included the chance at fame, glory and adventure, as well as the opportunity to take on their historical enemy, Great Britain. Joining the continental army, Lafayette quickly proved his bravery under fire as well as his military acumen. The Marquis soon rose to a top leadership position on the continental army, became one of George Washington’s most trusted advisers and conducted several brilliant military campaigns.
It was at this time that Lafayette and Washington established an extremely close bond; Unger and many other historians describe it as a farther-son relationship. Lafayette even named his son Georges Washington de La Fayette. He also built enduring lifelong friendships with other personages as Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Monroe, as well as numerous other Americans. These friendships would come into play time and again over the course of Lafayette’s life. Significantly, during this period he became a true believer in republicanism and what I would describe as a reasonable and measured revolutionary ideology. It was during this stage that Lafayette and the nation of America developed what can only be described a lifelong love for each other.
Lafayette was not just a military leader. During the American Revolution, he played an instrumental political and diplomatic role, first, in helping to convince the various reluctant American States to support the war effort, and later in helping to convince his native France into supporting the American War for Independence. Eventually traveling back and forth across the Atlantic, he helped to persuade both France and Spain to come into the War on America’s side ensuring British defeat. Shortly after the conflict’s end, he joined John Madison’s expedition into the deep wilderness of New York State to establish a treaty between the Iroquois Nation and the United States. Lafayette turned out to be instrumental in the successful negotiations.
Returning to France, the Marquis was hailed a hero. He and Adrienne become ingrained in the business and society of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and the Court of Versailles. As the French Revolution developed, Lafayette was a key player. He advocated for a major reform of French society and the establishment of a constitutional monarchy that had characteristics of a republic. He also was a champion of individual rights. He became the leader of a moderate wing of the revolutionaries.
As the Revolution developed Lafayette was appointed commander of the Garde nationale, which was essentially the Revolutionary Militia. In terms of popularity, power and influence, he was for a time the most powerful man in France. As the revolution became more violent and fell under the control of radicals and extremists, Lafayette attempted to maintain a balancing act. He endeavored to erode but not completely destroy the power of the monarchy. At the same time, he was protecting Louis XVI and the royal court from mob violence, as they were essentially surrounded and unable to leave the Tuileries Palace in Paris. Thus, he was also in a way the monarchy’s jailor.
With time, radicals such as Maximilien de Robespierre began to seriously erode Lafayette’s popularity and power. At this time, France began to become engaged in war with various European powers. Lafayette was placed in command of a French army. Eventually, the Marquis finally decided to move against the radicals but it was it was too late. As he was preparing to March in Paris, his troops mutinied and he was forced to flee into the Netherlands. He was subsequently imprisoned by Prussia for being the catalyst of a dangerous revolution.
In the meantime Adrienne and much of Lafayette’s family were imprisoned as The Reign of Terror descended upon France. They all barley escaped the guillotine, thanks largely to the efforts of James Monroe, Lafayette’s old comrade in arms, who was now the American Ambassador to France. As time passed, more moderate forces took control in France. Adrienne and family were eventually released and were allowed to leave France.
In a seemingly bizarre decision after sending her son, Georges Washington de La Fayette, to safety in the care of his namesake in America, Adrienne took her two daughters to live with Lafayette in Olomouc prison. The family was finally released after several years. Eventually resettling in France, Lafayette mostly avoided public life but maintained a somewhat hostile relationship first to Napoleon Bonaparte’s regime, as well as the subsequently restored Bourbon monarchy. These were not the republics that Lafayette envisioned. In 1815, the Marquis did step into the spotlight again when he helped to arrange the exile of Napoleon.
In 1825-1826, Lafayette returned to America for a sentimental thirteen-month tour. At this time, he was reunited with his surviving American Revolutionary friends. Historically, Lafayette had enjoyed enormous popularity on America. The adulation that the American public poured upon Lafayette was astounding as crowds of tens of thousands greeted him from coast to coast.
This could easily have been the final act of a monumental life, but Lafayette was not yet finished. Seemingly reenergized upon his return to France, Lafayette became an even more outspoken critic of the French King Charles X, whom he saw as more oppressive than his predecessors. The seasoned revolutionary attracted a host of young followers. When revolution broke out once again in Paris, Lafayette was propelled to lead it. In short order, Charles X was overthrown. A constitutional monarchy with the seemingly liberal and pro revolutionary King Louis Philippe I was instituted with Lafayette’s blessing.
In the next several years Louis Philippe I becomes more and more autocratic and used massive force to quell street demonstrations. As a result he fell out with Lafayette, who once again became the leader of a vocal opposition. Relatively active until the end, Lafayette died peacefully in 1834.
SOME THOUGHTS ON LAFAYETTE
There is so much both of this book as well as of the French nobleman’s life worth exploring. I want to devote a few words concerning just one of many intriguing issues. As the French Revolution became more and more radicalized and chaos and killing erupted in the streets of Paris, Lafayette made major efforts to damp down on the violence and keep order. Yet, while he possessed enormous power and influence, he hesitated to move, politically or militarily, against radicals who were sowing violence, undermining order and attacking and slandering him personally.
As Unger puts it,
“In rejecting political and military power, Lafayette's political ineptitude was matched only by that of the king, who was a past master of the art"
What was the cause of this unwillingness to take decisive action? On the surface it seems like a puzzle. Up until this point, Lafayette had shown that he possessed both physical and moral courage. Furthermore, he was a bold man of action who did not shy away from what he believed to be right. According to Unger, the answer lies in his formative years and involves a terrible misreading of the situation in Revolutionary France.
Lafayette was perhaps the most important member of Washington’s inner circle during the American Revolution. During this time, Continental forces were perpetually short of material, funds and manpower. These shortfalls almost cost America the war. They led to lost battles, the starvation, freezing and death of troops and left soldiers without pay for years at a time. These depredations were partially the result of greed, profiteering and incompetence in both the American Congress and the state governments. On numerous occasions, Washington was urged to use his power and popularity to take over the American government to put an end to these outrages. Again and again he refused, arguing that virtuous republican ideals dictated that he not intervene in government militarily or even through demagoguery. Later, when the war was over, Washington could have simply declared himself King of America. There would likely have been little opposition to such a power grab and several military officers urged him to do so. Once again he demurred, citing republican idealism. Lafayette was present for all of this. Washington was his mentor. When he saw terrible outrages occurring in France during that revolution, he judged the situations to be similar and that, like in America, republicanism itself would sort things out.
“Lafayette, of course, was simply following the chivalric example of his "beloved general" in America by ceding military control of the nation to civil governance. "I hope our work will finish at the end of the year," he wrote to Washington, "and your friend ... will rejoice in abandoning all power and political duties to become a simple citizen in a free constitutional monarchy. On July 20, he gathered the fourteen thousand citizen soldiers together to send them home to their provinces. Still clinging to his fantasy of an American Utopia in France”
While I do not feel that I know enough to unabashedly embrace Unger’s analysis, it does seem plausible and his take on Washington, his motivations and his impact on Lafayette during the American Revolution seem to be mostly on target.
Lafayette fascinates me. The man’s life story epitomizes the connection between the American Revolution and the French Revolutions. If ever a famous person was of both France and America, it was the Marquis. The American Revolutionary era has been a great interest of mine since childhood. The French Revolution and its aftermath is one of the most momentous events in the history of the West and at times for me presents something of an enigma in its complexities and contradictions. As a bridge between these two events, Lafayette will likely always intrigue me.