A Romantic in America
Few foreigners have captured the American imagination quite like the Marquis de Lafayette, the French-born aristocrat who became a hero of the American Revolution and protégé of General George Washington. Across America, his fame is immortalized in the more than 600 cities, towns, villages, counties, squares, parks, ships and submarines named after him. In homage to him, even American pilots volunteering to fly for France in World War I proudly called themselves the Lafayette Flying Corps. Yet few Americans realize the paradoxes of Lafayette’s life and legacy and how tarnished his efforts to lead his own nation’s revolution turned out to be. In France there is little memorialization of Lafayette, despite the leading role he played in the initial phase of the French Revolution. This striking discrepancy in American and French historical memory is the springboard for Laura Auricchio’s superb new biography, The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered. She contrasts his dual experiences in the American and French revolutions and offers fresh insight into how Lafayette came to be hailed in America as a true patriot, but in France escaped the guillotine by being imprisoned by the Austrians until 1797.
Auricchio first examines the motivations and circumstances that led Lafayette to join with the American colonists in their fight against the British. As she shows, it was a bold and defiant action. He was only 19 when he chose to outfit a ship at his own expense and sail across the Atlantic, leaving behind his newly-wed wife, Adrienne de Noailles, whose family had brought him wealth and high connections, and defying a last-minute royal directive for him to turn back. Auricchio sees Lafayette as a romantic driven by idealism and determined to achieve the glory that seemed to elude him in France, where he felt out of place, particularly at the capricious court of Versailles. Though enormously wealthy and raised in a world of noble privilege, Lafayette found American society, with its direct and frank manner, more appealing.
To explain his success in the American context, Auricchio points to a combination of factors: youth, luck, some degree of military and political acumen, his wounding at the Battle of Brandywine and of course the significant sums of money that he was willing to invest in the American cause. His actions earned him both popular acclaim and access to Washington, Franklin, Jefferson and Adams.
After his return to France, he continued to work for the American cause, and helped to sustain the flow of French financial and military support all the way through the final battle of Yorktown. At its end, Lafayette had won the lasting devotion of the American public, and he likewise never lost his enthusiasm for all things American. The love affair was mutual: Lafayette had gained the distinction he craved, and Americans had found a dashing affirmation of all they stood for, an Old World aristocrat who valued their liberty.
Why then was Lafayette not able to become a hero of his own revolution? Auricchio looks for the answer in both the volatility of politics in France and in the character of Lafayette. She sees him as one who welcomed revolution, but only in order to reform the monarchy, not abolish it. Events, though, moved more quickly than he could keep pace with, and the mood in France did not long favor that stance. He played a prominent role early on and as a member of the National Assembly helped write the famous Declaration of the Rights of Man. His popularity among the Parisian masses led to his appointment to head the new National Guard. He helped calm the mob that marched in October of 1789 to Versailles to force King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette to return to Paris.
But Lafayette soon found himself under fire from all sides. Auricchio reveals the tragic irony of Lafayette’s situation. He defended the king, but neither Louis XVI nor his entourage trusted him. Neither did the radicals, who despised Lafayette’s monarchism and feared his ambitions. Lafayette, so devoted to the ideal of democracy in America, refused to advocate the same for France; he felt that monarchy was too deeply entrenched in French tradition and that the French were not ready for a republic. His role in the revolution came to an ignominious end when he was forced to flee the country and was seized by the Austrians after crossing their border.
He spent five miserable years as a prisoner, until finally the French government bowed to international pressure and negotiated for his release. Following the restoration of the monarchy, Lafayette was able to revive his political life and served in the legislature. But he never regained national prominence. Only in America, where he toured in 1824 to huge crowds and national acclaim, did he continue to enjoy heroic status.
Auricchio’s portrait of Lafayette will appeal to lovers of biography and history alike. She artfully weaves Lafayette’s story into a rich account of the interconnections between 18th-century France and America, recreating in vivid detail the worlds he occupied, from the salons of the Enlightenment to the battlefield and public squares of the New World. This is a book of remarkable historical depth, yet is very accessible to a general reader. Her analysis is grounded firmly in prodigious research, and she includes numerous quotations, pictures and commentaries from Lafayette’s personal papers and from the correspondence of prominent individuals like Washington, Franklin, Adams and Jefferson.
Readers will find particularly fascinating the author’s examination of French Revolution pamphlet literature and political cartoons published by Lafayette’s opponents that lampooned and criticized him, some bordering on the pornographic. At times her account reads like a thriller, especially when she immerses the reader in the intrigues that ran through both revolutions and that repeatedly ensnared Lafayette. Her engaging style brings Lafayette vividly to life, revealing him as he appeared to contemporaries and as he saw himself.
Anyone who reads this book will come away with a much more nuanced understanding of this complex man and his remarkable encounters with history. Auricchio deftly explores the rather complicated psychology behind his irrepressible enthusiasm for the fledgling American republic and identifies the deficiencies in character and judgment that undermined his efforts in the French Revolution. Yet, to a certain degree the reader is still left wanting a more decisive analysis as to whether Lafayette’s character was the ultimate determinant of his fate or whether it was the circumstances he encountered.
Some might question whether the author is completely objective about her subject. She seems decidedly sympathetic to Lafayette and suggests to the reader that his high-minded goals, work ethic and pursuit of public good outweighed the personal mistakes he made. The underlying sentiment of the book is that Lafayette deserves more recognition from his own countrymen for his aspirations and for his attempts, however unsuccessful they were, to steer France away from bloodshed and extremism.
Finally, it would have been interesting to have learned more about Lafayette’s wife, Adrienne, and about the source of the remarkable fortitude she revealed during the darkest days of the French Revolution. Auricchio presents only a limited portrait of this woman, whose family wealth made it possible for Lafayette to support the Americans so generously. She appears in the book mainly through the letters that Lafayette wrote to her; yet after 1792 it was she who fought relentlessly for Lafayette’s freedom, even while her sister and mother fell victim to the guillotine. When her efforts came to naught, she voluntarily joined him in prison, only to suffer a fatal decline in health from the horrendous conditions.
These quibbles pale, though, in the light of the author’s achievement as a writer and historian, and this book is a valued addition to our understanding of Lafayette and to the expanding field of Atlantic world studies.