Friday, September 27, 2013

For Liberty and Glory: Washington, Lafayette, and Their Revolutions by James R. Gaines

For Liberty and Glory: Washington, Lafayette, and Their Revolutions by James R. Gaines is a parallel biography of both George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette with an emphasis on the relationship between the two men. The book also presents the author’s take on both the American and French Revolutions. At times, Gaines’s viewpoint is original and insightful. His writing is also very good. Where this work falls a bit short is in the relative scarcity of in-depth analysis on the relationship between both men as well as on both revolutions. While these connections are explored, I hungered for more. If the book had devoted fewer words to details that are generally known already and spent more words examining and discussing these facts, this would have been a stronger work.

For those unfamiliar with the details of Lafayette’s life, my summary is included along with my commentary on Lafayette by Harlow Giles Unger. For those unfamiliar with the details of Washington’s earlier life, before becoming the first President of the United States, he led the Continental Army for year after year in arduous battles against both the British and the natural elements. It was during the war years of the American Revolution that the teenage Marquis de Lafayette, having volunteered for service in the American Army, distinguished himself as one of America’s most capable generals as he engaged in vitally important diplomacy between the United States and France and established an extremely close, lifelong friendship with Washington.

On some of the incongruities of the relationship between the two men, Gaines writes,

“The friendship of Washington and Lafayette seems in some ways as implausible as the French-American one, almost like the setup to a joke: What does a Virginia frontiersman and grade-school dropout have in common with a moneyed French aristocrat who learned his horsemanship in the company of three future kings? Or what do you call a bumptious optimist whose best friend is a moody loner? Lafayette threw his arms around people and kissed them on both cheeks. Washington did not.

Later, Lafayette became a pivotal player in the French Revolution. Though he was an early leader, he was later forced to flee its excesses and was later imprisoned in Prussia and then Austria, having been accused of being a dangerous revolutionary, for a period of five years. During most of this time, he and Washington engaged in a steady stream of correspondence.

As for the connections between the revolutions, Gaines touches upon numerous points. The American Founders and French Revolutionaries drew upon similar intellectual roots. Debt, incurred by France in its support of the American cause, was likely the primary spark that ignited the French Revolution. The ideals of the American Revolution spread to France and encouraged revolution there. French officers who served in the American Revolution helped bring revolutionary ideology to France. As the French Revolution raged, the two primary American political factions each took sides. At least in the early years, Thomas Jefferson’s Republicans strongly supported the French Revolution and its ideals as Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists vehemently opposed it.

When Gaines does dig deep, his analysis is very well thought out and perceptive. One of just several really interesting tracks he takes is a look into the motivations that drove both men. The author concludes that the lifelong inspiration for both of these figures can be boiled down to regard for their own reputations.

Gaines argues that both men were obsessed with what the public and what history thought about them. Of particular importance was to act in away as to be remembered as honorable and virtuous.

In the 18th century—in America, France and Britain alike—the ultimate test of personal success was called "fame," "glory" or "character," words that signified neither celebrity nor moral courage but referred to a person's reputation, which was also called his "honor." This sort of acclaim was not a cheap popularity divorced from achievement, as it would be in an age when people could become famous for being well known. Fame and its synonyms meant an illustrious eminence, a stature accrued from having led a consequential life.”

Later Gains goes on,

Washington and Lafayette started out by striving to create for themselves the image of the people that they wished to be, a lifelong endeavor to act well. If their motives for doing so were mixed, their commitment for doing so were not, and somewhere along the way, in a kind of political and moral alchemy, their urgings for fame and glory were transmuted into finer stuff, their lives became enactments of high principle. They lived such a life, did such deeds, even remained friends, in part, to stake their claim on immortality, which meant to have their story told; and the audience they cared must to hear it was posterity….”

I have read somewhat extensively about Washington. At least in terms of America’s first President, Gaines is right on the money (as is Washington). His argument that Lafayette’s motives were similar is also very convincing. The argument that certain men of this era were obsessively preoccupied with reputation and virtue is very much in line with the thinking and writings of Gordon Wood, who has written extensively on the American Revolutionary generation’s belief system concerning self-image. My commentary on Wood’s Radicalism and the American Revolution is here and his Revolutionary Characters is here.

It is fascinating to examine how Lafayette took this belief system into his later years when he was immersed in the tumultuous and, at times, morally ambiguous setting of the French Revolution. Lafayette consistently took a moderate position and advocated for a constitutional monarchy in France. As Harlow Giles Unger does, Gains concludes that had Lafayette acted more decisively against radicals when he had the chance, his popularity and control of military forces would have been enough to prevent the French Revolution from descending into chaos and mass executions (I do not have a thorough enough grasp of the French Revolution to have a serious opinion on the validity of this theory). Gaines actually points out that Napoleon Bonaparte also reached the same conclusion when writing about the events of the French Revolution. The Marquis’ hesitance to do so resulted from his revulsion against the use of military force as a means to reach political ends. Such action would have destroyed his reputation as a lover of liberty and revolution in a moderate form.

There are other very astute and worthwhile points made in this book. It is also a very engaging read. However, there are more complete biographies of both Washington and Lafayette and more complete histories of both Revolutions. Thus, this book is recommended, but only for those who are already interested in the subjects covered and are just hungry for more. Readers who fit this bill will, however, find this book very engaging.


James said...

This sounds like a fascinating account of aspects of the two revolutions. The discussion of Lafayette reminded me of The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough in which Lafayette's return visit to the United States is highlighted.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - I had heard that McCullough's book was very good. I did not know that it touched upon Lafayette but it makes sense that it does.

Lafayette's return visit to the United States in 1825 was an amazing thing. He may have been the most popular man in America at that time.

Ryan said...

What an awesome idea: a parallel biography. It's a fascinating way to reinterpret history and probably made for a fascinating read. I'm going to have to find this one, somehow.

Naida said...

sounds like a good one for those who are familiar with Washington and Lafayette already. Interesting that these men were so preoccupied with reputation and virtue. It would be nice if people thought that way today. Nowadays most people could care less about their reputations.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Ryan - I know that you that you mentioned that some books are hard to come at at your location. This one is fairly popular and fairly recent. I have seen it highlighted in book stores here in the USA.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - Things are really different today. However, at least according to Gordon Wood and a few other historians, folks cared a lot less about private reputations in this era.

Many famous people at this time, including those who were very concerned with public reputations, were relatively uncaring when their extramarital affairs were exposed. The public also seemed to be less interested in these private matters.

Sharon Henning said...

Great review, Brian. I am going to put this book on my Amazon wish list, along with the one about Lafayette that you reviewed before.

I believe that some men did feel obligated to uphold a certain moral code in public.

But I also know, at least based on what I've read, that there were men who cared about how an omnipresent God viewed their actions-even more than the approval of men. And I believe George Washington was one of them.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - Without a doubt there were all kinds of motivations, then as now, to behave ethically and morally. Of of course both Washington and Lafeyette were influences by other factors. I think that it is interesting just how big a part that reputation played to this generation.

I always saw Washington as more of a pragmatist in terms of ethics and his belief in God. That is, he followed a code without much thought (or writing) about how God would percieve it. There seemed to be an underlying assumption, that if he did so, everything would work out and fall into place.

....Petty Witter said...

A dual biography, how unusual. Whilst most of us know something about Washington I suspect many will know little or nothing about Lafayette.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Petty - To some extent folks today do not know much about Lafayette. On the other had, if one looks at any map of an American State or city, it is astounding how many cities, street, squares and parks are named Lafayette, Fayetteville, or La Grange (the name of his estate). He once enjoyed enormous popularity in America. He also played a very important part in European history.

Guy Savage said...

I can remember professors connecting the two revolutions, so a book that does the same thing would be interesting--too bad though that it's not as in depth as you would have liked.

stujallen said...

sounds like an informative book on us history ,all the best stu

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - I tend to love comparative history so I often never get enough of these connections.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stu - I would say if one did not know that much on the revolutions or the men, and wanted to read just one book, then this would be a great pick.

Harvee said...

Fascinating history of Lafayette and Washington and Lafayette's part in the French Revolution.

JaneGS said...

Absolutely great post, Brian. I really enjoyed the quotes and your analysis and review. I find the relationship between these two leaders interesting, and it is a shame that the book didn't deliver on its promise of providing insights into their interaction rather than simply comparing them to each other.

Nonetheless, sounds interesting. Have you visited Mt. Vernon. It's high on the list of places I really want to go to.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - I do really find the story of Lafayette to be fascinating. Perhaps because he was connected to so many things that upon first glance seem tenuously connected.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - Thanks so much.

Indeed the connection between these two is such food for thought.

I have not been to Mt. Vernon but I too really want to visit.

Lucy said...

Great post. This sounds fascinating, particularly as it's a parallel biography (I don't think I've ever read one before!)

I know bits and bobs about each person, but I'd really love to know more. This book sounds great for this purpose. I'm still doing my summer re-read of War & Peace, and it would be interesting to move on from Tolstoy's commentary on Napoleon onto other aspect of European/French history.

I haven't read a biography for a while, but I always find them so engaging. I'll let you know if I choose to read this one!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lucy - Thanks for your kind words.

Lafayette and Napoleon have an interesting history. Napoleon helped Lafayette get released from prison. Later Lafayette decried Napoleon' s curtailment of civil liberties. Finally Layette helped to arrange the deal that let to Napoleon's final exile.

There are better biographies on Washington and I suspect the same is true about Lafayette, but this is a nice encapsulation of multiple topics.

So many books, so little time said...

Now this is the kind of novel I don't often go for but end up really enjoying and learning a thing or two aswell. Fabulous review, I am your newest follower :)


Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - Thanks for stopping by and following.

Indeed the life of these two is more interesting then many historical characters that I think they would interest many who would not otherwise be interested in history,

Parrish Lantern said...

loving the premise of this book.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Parish - I find that the relationship between these two characters is in itself a fascinating premise.

Maria Behar said...

As usual, you present a highly interesting and thorough analysis of the book you're reviewing!

I can see that you're a passionate lover of biography and history! Both are fascinating subjects, and I should really try to read more such books. ("So many books...." you know the rest.)

My knowledge of American history is woefully inadequate; I only studied it in high school. So I should really do something about that! As for the American Revolution, I do know the basics, but don't remember much more than that (you know, George at Valley Forge, Paul Revere, the Boston Tea Party). And all I know about the French Revolution I got mostly from reading "The Scarlet Pimpernel" and "A Tale of Two Cities". Lol.

I will definitely put this book on my TBR pile. Also, I'd really appreciate it if you would recommend more such books to a fantasy & science fiction addict like me. You see, I've mostly preferred imaginary worlds to this one we happen to inhabit.... Good for you that you're able to enjoy reading about both!

Live long and prosper!! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - Thanks for your kind words.

I am kind of a geek when it comes to the American Revolution. As I think that you can tell I like biographies. But a generally good book about the Revolution is the Glorious Cause by Robert Middlekauff. This book is covers multiple topics but a fair amount of it is military history and not everyone wants that in a book. Everything that I read by Gordon wood was really good especially Radicalism of the American Revolution. He tries to at the underlying causes and results, but he is a bit wonky and dry.

As for the French Revolutions I still consider myself sketchy on the subject, but I liked Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama. I really do not know if there is better out there however.

I will send you some thoughts on more books shortly.

Live long and prosper!