The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered by Laura Auricchio is the third biography of Lafayette that I have read. This is a really good history book that is well written and researched. It contains much insightful analysis of its subject. Though the book falls a little short due to its brevity, I would recommend this as a first read over other the other works that I have read on the Marquis.
Auricchio’s book is less biased in favor its subject than Unger’s work. Though perhaps unfair to compare with Gaines’s work, not pairing Lafayette’s life with the more famous Washington has obvious advantages in a biography.
Having played an important role in the American Revolution and a key role in the French Revolution, Lafayette is a unique figure in history. He is a fascinating character for me. I summarized his life as part of my commentary on Unger’s book here.
One thing that distinguishes this as a very good history book is a combination of astute analysis and really good writing of the type not always found in works like this. This book could have been longer. While certain aspects of Lafayette’s life are closely examined, other parts are presented in a way that seem a little rushed. Fortunately, as the book begins to describe the early days of the French Revolution, the pace slows down and the narrative begins to focus more tightly upon specific details. This is the period of the Marquis’s life that the author spends the greatest number of words exploring. Auricchio is at her best when describing and analyzing this period of Lafayette’s life. In fact, the explanation of the early French Revolution’s events may be presented here in a clearer way than in any other history book that I have read.
Lafayette fascinates me, and I could talk about many points that are addressed in this book. One of Auricchio’s main themes is an issue that is particularly interesting to me. It is based on a stereotype, but I think that this is a stereotype that is somewhat true. The issue centers on the opinion that Lafayette has remained so popular in the United States, both in the eyes of the public and by historians, yet at best, the French are lukewarm to him.
In America, we remember his triumphs; in France, few outside of his native Auvergne see him as a hero. So little does France love Lafayette that the monumental Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, published by a leading team of French historians in 1988, states flatly that “the man has drawn few eulogies.”
Auricchio tries to answer why this is so. She writes,
Part of the answer is that Lafayette succeeded so completely in cultivating an American identity that, even in France, he remains a distinctly American hero.
Elsewhere the author comments,
Although Lafayette was an indefatigable champion of righteous causes, he did not always meet with success. During the French Revolution, he failed spectacularly.
Lafayette’s popularity in America dates back to his lifetime. When he returned to America in 1820 for a Grand Tour he was met by enormous and adoring crowds. Based on other readings that I have done, it might be argued that at that moment, he may have been the most popular person in an America.
Why did the celebrations in honor of Lafayette loom so large in people’s minds? In part, the phenomenon reflected a genuine outpouring of affection and appreciation for a man who had come to our nation’s aid at a moment of need and whose dramatic life story had unfolded in the pages of American newspapers, books, magazines, and prints for the better part of fifty years. Words of gratitude and admiration for the French hero of the American Revolution filled the songs and poems written in his honor.
I can attest to Lafayette’s popularity with Americans, at least those who are interested in the American and French Revolutions. I have been reading and discussing the American Revolutionary era since I was a teenager. We Americans tend to gush over Lafayette. Personally, though I recognize his flaws, I admire him more than I do most historical figures. The reasons for such esteem are numerous. He relentlessly strived, despite severe obstacles, for liberty in both America and France, he was an unwavering moderate, he was a never-say-die optimist, even under terribly adverse conditions, by all accounts he had a sunny, optimistic personality and, contrary to many of his cotemporaries, he was anti-slavery, to name some of his virtues.
There is a lot more on the subject of Lafayette’s dichotomy of popularity in America and France contained in this work. It is one of many reasons that this book is well worth reading.
Despite its relative brevity, this is a very good biography of an intriguing historical figure. The writing is well crafted and the book is engaging. Auricchio has a knack for explaining complex historical occurrences in an understandable way while not straying into the simplistic. This book will work for those who initially know little of Lafayette and his era as well as those who are already well versed on the subject and are looking for more.
I previously posted about Lafayette by Harlow Giles Unger here, and For Liberty and Glory: Washington, Lafayette, and Their Revolutions by James R. Gaines here .