Thursday, June 20, 2013

Lafayette by Harlow Giles Unger

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.


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 Fran├žoise 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.


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. 

Unger writes,

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. 


Felicity Grace Terry said...

A historical figure I knew next to nothing of until now, thanks for your useful summary. I would like to read up on Lafayette some more but alas feel that this probably isn't the book I'd choose.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Petty - I guess that he is more well known among American and French Revolutionary buffs. This is actually a very readable book.

Suko said...

This sounds like a compelling book, Brian. Thanks for your terrific review!

(P.S. I tried to comment earlier. Please delete either comment if both arrive--thanks!)

Guy Savage said...

The name calling is hilarious! I think most biographers are vulnerable to going overboard. After all they have to be really interested in their subjects to be willing to spend years of their lives investigating the life of someone else.

I read a biography of a film star once whose live was soaked in scandal. The biographer very cleverly went around and asked those still living their opinion about various events, and in that way was able to piece together a better grasp of the subject, I think. Of course, this biographer didn't have that luxury. Still that name calling is hilarious. Can't help but wonder if biographers go through some sort of identity crisis unless they come up for air.

Andrew Blackman said...

Thanks for the summary, Brian. Very interesting reading. It's a fascinating period of history, and Lafayette is a key figure to connect the French and American revolutions.

You make a good point about biographers being too enamoured with their subjects. I think it's a common danger, and understandable when they spend so much time researching the intricacies of a person's life. Sometimes I think biographers also have an impulse to convince us that the subject is an important one, and that can lead to going overboard. I don't mind strong opinions, but the "Swiss dwarf" thing seems way over the top!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - Thanks for the good word!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy -Yes Unger can be very amusing. In balance it detracted from the book but kept it lively. I have found that some biographers are worse then others.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Andrew - I have read a fair amount of biographies of historical characters lately. Of the top of my head I would say that Joseph Ellis's American Sphinx, a biography of Thomas Jefferson was the most balanced.

Heidi’sbooks said...

After studying the American Revolution with my daughter, she fell in love with Lafayette. She cheered when we saw his statue in Lafayette Park in DC. I know much less about his involvement in the French Revolution. I bet this was interesting to read.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Heidi - I also, as an American Revolutionary war buff knew a lot about Lafayette's American Revolutionary experience. years later, when I began to read about the French Revolution I was vey surprised to learn that he played such a prominent part.

Violet said...

I have never read much about American history, but this sounds really interesting. I think it's sometimes hard for a biographer to strike a balance between hagiography and disdain. The description of Marat is amusing, but I agree with you that a writer injecting their own personal bias can be off-putting. I find it equally disconcerting when a biographer obviously dislikes his or her subject: Benita Eisler, I am looking at you for your portrayal of Byron. :)

Sharon Wilfong said...

Brian, this is a wonderful review. I never knew anything about Lafayette, (except that a city in Louisiana was named after him). You make him sound like an intriguing character that I want to know more about.
The American and French revolutions are worthy of analysis-why one succeeded and the other turned into a blood bath. I did not realize that a French man served in the American Revolution and then participated in the French one;was successful in the one but not the other.
Very interesting. I am going to read this book.
Have a good day!

The Bookworm said...

Hi Brian, fantastic post. I really don't know anything about Lafayette but your post makes him sound like a fascinating historical figure.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - I am OK with biographers and historians injecting opinions and views as it is part of the way we look at subjects. I do think that it is important that they make clear that they are expressing opinions and also keeping to a high standards of research, scholarship and presentation.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - Thanks for your kind words. The contrasts and similarities between the Revolutions are indeed fascinating. Unger does actually delve a bit into why each Revolution began in a similar circumstances but ended so differently. One of his interesting contentions was that it was in part related to the difference in literacy rates between the two nations at the time.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - Interesting how to some degree Lafayette is not all that remembered. One thing that strikes me, look at any map of large part of America, so many places are named after him. Not just towns but streets, parks, squares, etc.

Ryan said...

Do you supposed that LaFayette has been white-washed from American history because he didn't fit the revolutionary, go-it-alone-all-by-ourselves narrative? I've always suspected so. Had he been an American, he'd be on money.

On a side note, it has always struck me as odd the modern American hate for France given their common (and entirely intertwined) revolutionary history. Both America and France think their revolutions occurred in a historical vacuum but that couldn't be more from the truth.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Ryan - I think that your points are related. Though I would not go to far as to overgeneralize about American opinion as a whole, there is a segment of American society that expresses a bigotry towards all things French. The downplaying of Lafayette's and French influence in the American Revolution is undoubtedly a symptom of that.

This is a complicated issue however, there are countertrends. When it comes to historians, there is a generalization that has some truth behind it, that American historians pour uncritical love upon Lafayette' where European historians have been much more critical of him. I say there is truth to this based upon my own readings.

As to French attitudes toward the French Revolution, I just do not know enough to have an opinion.

Caroline said...

Strange enough, I knew nothing of Lafayette. I never associated him with the French Revolution. So that was quite interesting. That he has been so close to the inner circle of Washington.
Many biographers tend to get carried away. Some are very hostile towards their subject which is weird as well.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi caroline - It seems that these days he is not too well remembered in either nation. Though a look at US map shows how popular he was in America.

I actually have not read too many hostile biographies, even when I read one on Pol Pott!

Maria Behar said...

Hi, Brian!

Another EXCELLENT post on a major historical figure!! I congratulate you on choosing this book and sharing your thoughts on it with us!

The American Revolution certainly is a topic that should be of paramount importance to every American, so I have been inspired by your example, and will add this book, as well as others on this subject, to my TBR shelf on Goodreads.

From the quotes you've presented here, t seems that Unger has the wonderful ability to make Lafayette and his times come alive! History, after all, need not be dull. In the right hands, it can become as exciting as the best fiction!

Thanks for your terrific analysis of this book!! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria.

Lafayette was an important figure, but I think that one gets more out of the exploration of his life after one has become versed in the lives of America's other Founders. At least for me, much of his connections to those people are the most interesting. The same is probably true in regard to Lafayette and the major characters of the French Revolution and Lafayette. I admit that I am little weak in regard to those figures.