I have read books about the American and French revolutions, but in all my reading it was never made clear why exactly Lafayette was imprisoned by the Austrians. It's clear that he angered the radical Jacobins in France, but it wasn't the Jacobins nor the French who imprisoned him. Wikipedia states that the Austrians feared he would lead Austrians to revolution given his participation in the American Revolutionary War. But it was a well-known fact that Lafayette was vastly more moderate than the French revolutionaries (Jacobins), so what did the Austrians fear exactly? And why not just deport him? Why a lengthy prison sentence?
Lafayette was a noble who had helped start the French Revolution, and had also participated in the American Revolution. Those facts made him a "revolutionary," (and a repeat offender) which counted for more than the fact that he was a moderate one. ("Degrees of badness" wasn't operative to Austrian royalists.)
He was imprisoned or detained, the Austrians believed, until a rightful French king could be restored to the throne, at which time he would be handed back to said king. The Austrians didn't believe or realize that it would be years until there was another French king (even one of non-royal birth like Napoleon Bonaparte), which is why Lafayette was detained for so long.
The Marquis de Lafayette
The Marquis de Lafayette was born in Chavaniac Auvergne, France on September 6th, 1757. He was baptized Marie, Joseph, Paul, Yves, Roch, Gilbert du Motier, Marquis du Lafayette, Baron de Vissac, Seigneur de St. Romain.
His father had died at the Battle of Minden in 1759 during the Seven Years War. In 1768, he moved to Paris with his mother, and entered the college du Plessis. Then, in 1770, Lafayette's mother and grandmother died in the same week. As a result, Lafayette inherited a great deal of wealth. The next year, he joined the Royal Army as a Sous-lieutenant in the Kimip Musketeers, and two years later, at age 16, he married the 14 year-old Marie Adrienne Francoise de Noalles, who came from one of the most powerful families in France in a pre-arranged marriage.
Later, he became interested in the American cause. In 1776, he signed an agreement with Silas Dean, the American Army Commissioner in Paris, to serve as a Major General in the Continental Army. The next year, Lafayette bought his own ship and sailed for America accompanied by Baron Johann de Kalb. They landed in South Carolina, and Lafayette arrived in Philadelphia at the end of July. On July 31st, he was commissioned a major general but was given no command.
After he recuperated from a wound he received at Brandywine for two months in Bethlehem, he rejoined the army. In December, he was given command of division of Virginia troops. He then fought at Monmouth in 1778 and then returned to France. In 1779, he returned to America with secret news that Rochambeau's forces would be sent to America. He commanded a third of the army during the Siege of Yorktown in 1781.
Two months later, he returned to France. Louis XVI appointed him as a member of the Assembly of Notables to advise on the financial crisis in 1787. Lafayette then called for a national assembly. In 1789, he was elected to Estates General from Auvergne and presented the first European Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens. He was also named Commander of the Paris National Guard and given the title: "Hero of Two Worlds."
In 1790, Lafayette supported the decree abolishing titles of nobility and presided over the Fete de la Federation. Then, in 1791, Lafayette resigned his military post upon acceptance of the New Constitution. When France was at war with Prussia and Austria, he took command of the center army at the front. During the French Revolution in 1792, Jacobins under Robespierre attacked both the monarchy and Lafayette as a tool of the king. Louis XVI was deposed and the Assembly passed a bill of impeachment against Lafayette. Lafayette fled France and was captured and imprisoned by the Austrians in Olmutz. His wife, Adrienne, was arrested in France. In 1795, Adrienne was released from a French prison and joined her husband in Olmutz with their two daughters. Their son, George Washington Lafayette, was sent to America to live with General Washington.
Finally, in 1798, Napoleon arranged the release of Lafayette and his family. Lafayette returned to France in 1799 and moved to LaGrange Blenau. He voted against life consulship for Napoleon in 1802 and his wife died in 1808. In 1815, he was elected to the Chamber of Deputies during the Hundred Days War. After Waterloo, he proposed Napoleon's abdication, while threatening to overthrow him otherwise.
In 1824, he returned on a visit to the United States and visited all 24 states over a fourteen month period. After returning to France in 1830, he reestablished the National Guard and participated in the July revolution. Lafayette then accepted Louis Philipe as king after he promised a monarchy with republican institutions. He died on May 20, 1834 and was buried at the Picpus Cemetery in Paris.
Lafayette's daughter, Anastasia, was born in 1777 and in 1779, their son, George Washington Lafayette was born. In 1782, a daughter, Virginia, was born.
Early life and the American Revolution
Lafayette was born into an ancient noble family in the Auvergne region of central France. Orphaned in his early teens, he had already inherited an immense fortune by the time he married Adrienne de Noailles, the daughter of the influential duc d’Ayen in 1774. He joined the circle of young courtiers at the court of King Louis XVI but soon aspired to win glory as a soldier. Hence, he traveled at his own expense to the American colonies, arriving in Philadelphia in July 1777, 27 months after the outbreak of the American Revolution. With no combat experience and not yet 20 years old, Lafayette was nonetheless appointed a major general in the Continental Army, and he quickly struck up a lasting friendship with the American commander in chief, George Washington. The childless general and the orphaned aristocrat seemed an unlikely pair, but they soon developed a surrogate father-son relationship. It was as thus that Lafayette distinguished himself among a large colourful group of European soldiers of fortune and idealists—among them Frederick William, Freiherr von Steuben, of Prussia and Tadeusz Kościuszko and Kazimierz Pułaski of Poland—who had joined the Continental Army to fight for American independence. The more Washington saw of the young Frenchman, the more impressed he was and the closer the two became.
Lafayette served on Washington’s staff for six weeks, and, after fighting with distinction at the Battle of the Brandywine, near Philadelphia, on September 11, 1777, he was given command of his own division. He conducted a masterly retreat from Barren Hill on May 28, 1778. Returning to France in February 1779, he worked with American emissaries Benjamin Franklin and John Adams to help persuade the government of Louis XVI to send additional troops and supplies to aid the colonists. Lafayette arrived back in America in April 1780 with the news that 6,000 infantry under the command of the comte de Rochambeau, as well as six ships of the line, would soon arrive from France. He was given command of an army in Virginia, and in 1781 he conducted hit-and-run operations against forces under the command of Benedict Arnold. Reinforced by Gen. “Mad” Anthony Wayne and milita troops under Steuben, Lafayette harried British commander Lord Charles Cornwallis across Virginia, trapping him at Yorktown in late July. A French fleet and several additional American armies joined the siege, and on October 19 Cornwallis surrendered. The British cause was lost. Lafayette was hailed as the “Hero of Two Worlds,” and on returning to France in 1782 he was promoted to maréchal de camp (brigadier general). He became an honorary citizen of several states on a visit to the United States in 1784.
The Captivity of the Marquis de Lafayette in Prussia and Austria, 1792-97Tompkins Harrison Matteson, Lafayette in Prison at Olmütz, 1795-97, 1850.
Courtesy of the Lafayette College Art Collection
Political Turmoil in France
A decade after his important contribution as a nineteen-year-old Major General in the American Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette became a pivotal player in a democratic uprising in his native France–the French Revolution. With the fall of the Bastille in July 1789, Lafayette was chosen to head the newly-formed Paris citizen’s militia. This he subsequently converted into the Paris National Guard which he commanded until October of 1791. As the Revolution gained momentum, Lafayette found it increasingly difficult to maintain order and protect the royal family. Lafayette’s affairs reached a crisis in August of 1792 after the deposition of Louis XVI, when the Legislative Assembly passed a decree of impeachment against him. At the time, Lafayette was serving with the Army on the northern French border in the newly-declared war against the Coalition (Prussia and Austria). Knowing he would face the guillotine if he remained in France, Lafayette fled on August 19, 1792 with hopes of returning to America.
When Lafayette tried to pass through Austrian-controlled territory on his way to a Dutch port, he was quickly challenged. Although Lafayette insisted that he was no longer a French general, but an American citizen—he had been given citizenship by several states after the American Revolution—the Austrian and Prussian rulers were unsympathetic and took him captive. They were fighting their own wars against this idea of democracy of which Lafayette himself was a major proponent. Imprisoned first in a Prussian fortress at Westphalia in 1792, Lafayette was transferred several times in Prussia before his final imprisonment at Olmütz in Austria in 1794.
The Revolutionary Sword
One of the most remarkable artifacts associated with the Marquis de Lafayette in the College’s collection is the sword shown here. This is the sword taken from Lafayette by his Austrian captors in August, 1792. Almost all of Lafayette’s personal effects, which were confiscated by his captors, were returned upon his release in 1797, except this sword. Lafayette himself provided clues to the reason for this in a letter of 1828, describing it as having “as a pommel, a cap of liberty.” The revolutionary nature of this sword made it desirable as a trophy of war and it was eventually purchased from the Austrians by a Prussian diplomat and put on display in Berlin. In 1932, the diplomat’s family presented it to Lafayette College.
The Austrian Fortress of Olmütz
At Olmütz prison in Moravia, Lafayette was reduced to a common prisoner. His few remaining possessions were taken from him—his watch, razor, and his final books pertaining to democracy. He was unable to send or receive letters, and, by this time, his friends did not know his whereabouts. George Washington and other prominent Americans wanted to have Lafayette released as an American citizen, but America had declared her neutrality in the war between France and Austria and Prussia. They feared that America would be pulled into the French Revolution and other entanglements of politically unstable Europe.
The Failed Escape
Word of Lafayette’s imprisonment angered Americans, who revered the boy hero of their revolution. In particular a group of Americans and others in London began to work to secure Lafayette’s release, first through diplomatic channels, then, when that did not work, by planning a rescue attempt. The group hired Erich Bollman, A German adventurer, who was able to locate Lafayette and pass him secret messages through the prison doctor. The two worked out an escape plan to be activated when Lafayette was taken for a carriage ride by his guards. The plan, unfortunately, went awry. Lafayette’s guards could not be completely overpowered, and, although Lafayette did escape on horseback, he was soon recaptured and returned to Olmütz.
Lafayette’s Wife and Daughters Arrive at Olmütz
During Lafayette’s last two years of captivity he was joined by his wife, Adrienne, and two daughters, who chose to endure the deprivation of prison at his side. Adrienne had lost her mother, grandmother, and sister to the guillotine in 1794. She was spared only because of American diplomatic warnings to France about what the death of Madame de Lafayette would do to American public opinion.
Madame de Lafayette’s Memoir
During the years that she shared her husband’s captivity in 1795-97, Madame de Lafayette secretly composed a life of her mother, the Duchess d’Ayen, a victim of the French Revolution’s guillotine in 1794. She wrote the manuscript in the margins of another volume using toothpicks and China ink. When she returned to France in 1799, she arranged for a clandestine printing of a few copies of the work on a hidden printing press in 1800. Unbound copies were distributed to family members. The Lafayette College copy of this work is one of two known copies in the United States six copies are accounted for in France. It was a gift to the College by William and John Avery Crawford in 1990.
Lafayette’s Son Takes Refuge in America
Before Madame de Lafayette and her daughters went to Olmütz, she made arrangements for her son, George Washington Lafayette, to go to America where she hoped he would be taken in by his namesake, George Washington. The trip to America, though, proved to be difficult. Because the French government would not permit the trip, all the arrangements had to be made in secret. Madame de Lafayette enlisted the aid of James Monroe, who secured an American passport and George set sail on April 20, 1795. Because of America’s position of neutrality toward France and her enemies, Washington then in his final years as president, was placed in an awkward position with regard to George Washington Lafayette’s presence in America. At first, he arranged for the youth to live in New York under the oversight of Alexander Hamilton, but eventually brought him to live at the president’s house in Philadelphia.
This letter, at left, was written to Washington by his namesake after the president’s retirement to Mount Vernon, only days before word was received of the Lafayette family’s release from prison. In fact, in the letter young George speaks of an attempt to get news of his family: “We have seen at Alexandria the captain of the ship Saratoga, who could not give us any information concerning my father and family.” By October, George was on his way back to Europe to be reunited with his family, carrying with him a letter from Washington to Lafayette, which began: “This letter will, I hope and expect to be presented to you by your Son, who is highly deserving of such Parents as you and your amiable Lady…His conduct, since he first set his feet on American ground, has been exemplary in every point of view.”
Lafayette’s Release from Olmütz
When Napoleon Bonaparte and his revolutionary armies had conquered Austria in 1797, a clause was added to the Treaty of Campo Formio for the release of Lafayette. John Parish, an American diplomat in Hamburg, was Lafayette’s host the night of his release on September 19, 1797. After two subsequent years in exile in Holland, Lafayette was finally able to return to France in 1799.
All images, except the title painting, are from the Marquis de Lafayette Collections, Skillman Library, Lafayette College.
Exhibit curated by Emelie George . Redesigned by Alena Principato .
Hamilton: What Happened to Lafayette After He Returned to France?
Lafayette disappears from the second act of Hamilton, so we look at what happened next to everyone’s favorite fighting Frenchman.
He’s one of the most endearing characters in Hamilton. Introduced as bashful and vaguely awkward due to his struggle with the English language, the only major character in the musical with aristocratic titles—besides the King of England, of course—is strangely modest when standing next to the likes of Alexander Hamilton or Aaron Burr. But the Marquis de Lafayette doesn’t stay that way. Soon enough good-natured modesty gives way to spitting English rhymes faster than anyone else on stage. Actor Daveed Diggs may have even secured his Tony award before playing Thomas Jefferson with Lafayette’s rapid fire verbal assault in “Guns and Ships.”
Yet the thing about the same actor portraying Jefferson is it means we see nothing of Lafayette after the American Revolution is won in Act One. In “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down),” Lafayette promises he’ll go back to France and “bring freedom to my people if given the chance.” Later the ramifications of that are only opaquely hinted at in Act Two when Jefferson, fresh from helping Lafayette draft a declaration, returns as France’s fiercest advocate… and faces opposition from Lafayette’s biggest American pal. But other than Hamilton telling Jefferson that “Lafayette’s a smart man he’ll be fine,” we don’t actually learn how things transpired for our favorite fighting Frenchman. But that might be because while he survived the French Revolution… to say he was “fine” is wishful thinking on Hamilton’s part.
The truth is Lafayette tried to bring freedom to his people when given the chance, but he lost his own freedom for more than five years in the process (and almost his head). And these horrors were only beginning to reign as Hamilton and Jefferson were rapping about possible American intervention.
In reality, Lafayette and Hamilton’s friendship began a little later than the 1776 meet-and-greet at the bar in Hamilton. Alexander was already Gen. George Washington’s aide-de-camp (secretary) by the time Washington semi-adopted the Frenchman as much as an enlisted man. Washington knew to look for Lafayette in Philadelphia because Benjamin Franklin personally wrote him about how good-natured the young nobleman of only 19 was—Franklin even feared he’d be taken advantage of for his congeniality. Well, that and because Lafayette and his wife had deep roots in French aristocracy.
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Like Hamilton, Lafayette became an orphan when he was 13. Unlike Hamilton, he did not suffer from a lack of funds or prestige. Technically named Gilbert du Motier, Lafayette inherited his title after his father was killed fighting the British in the Seven Years’ War (known as the French and Indian War in the U.S.). Some historians believe the death even inspired a strong anti-British sentiment in Lafayette. But then he may also have been driven by notions of his chivalrous lineage that earned him a role in France’s mounted infantry of Dragoons while still a teenager.
No matter the exact reason, he was soon taken by the cause of the American Revolution and speeches of liberty. So much so that he disobeyed his king and father-in-law to cross the Atlantic. Indeed, after marrying Adrienne de Noailles at age 16 (she was 14), Lafayette was forced by the father of the bride to go to London two years later since he wanted to join the American Revolution. Instead he spent three weeks at British court where he was presented before King George III. Lafayette obeyed but then after returning to France, he hid from his in-laws and purchased his own sailing ship the Victoire, which eventually carried him to South Carolina.
By the time Lafayette arrived in America, the Declaration of Independence was almost a year old, the British had carved Manhattan up, and Hamilton was Washington’s right-hand man. Washington met Lafayette at a dinner in August 1777. While the general was told to keep an eye out for the well-connected Lafayette, Washington was nonetheless taken with the boy’s natural fervor for gaiety and democratic ideals. The Continental Congress was also smitten with Lafayette—his refusing payment for his service and instead offering to purchase weapons for the revolutionaries has that effect—and they awarded Lafayette the title of “major general.” While it was an honorary title, Lafayette expected to one day lead a division of men after Washington thought he was ready.
Initially Washington balked at the idea, but eventually did put Lafayette in charge of American soldiers, most famously at the Battle of Yorktown where Lafayette’s men cut off the British’s ability to retreat. The general also thought so highly of the young Frenchman that after Lafayette was wounded in battle, he wrote the surgeon to think of him as Washington’s own son.
Lafayette also formed an extremely personal friendship with Hamilton. To the degree that some still speculate the pair—like rumors about Hamilton and John Laurens—might have had a romantic relationship. They certainly wrote of each other fondly, with Hamilton’s own grandson characterizing the three as “a gay trio” who resembled the Three Musketeers in the early years of Washington’s officers camp. Near the end of the war, Lafayette wrote his wife, “Among the general’s aides-de-camp is a [young] man whom I love very much and of whom I have occasionally spoken to you. The man is Colonel Hamilton.”
After the war, Lafayette returned to France where he became a vocal advocate for a democratic republic that maintained a constitutional monarchy. He’d named his first and only son Georges Washington Lafayette and one of his daughters, at friend Thomas Jefferson’s urging, Marie-Antoinette Virginie. He was promoted high among the French Army and the royal Order of Saint Louis and quickly became a chummy hunting buddy with King Louis XVI. Despite nestling himself further into the royal aristocracy, Lafayette also welcomed what seemed to be an inevitable French Revolution.
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Like Jefferson (and most Americans), Lafayette saw his homeland following in the United States’ example and building a republic that valued the rights of individuals. In some ways, he was further along in those aims than Jefferson, as Lafayette was a member of the abolitionist group the Society of the Friends of the Blacks, and called for Black slaves to not only be freed but given farmland. He even wrote Washington in 1783, pushing his father figure to free his slaves. Washington declined.
The revolution that came to France turned out to be anything but what Jefferson had suggested to James Monroe in a 1788 letter. At the time, Jefferson predicted France would soon have “a tolerably free constitution” without “having cost them a drop of blood.” While Jefferson had grown from appraising King Louis XVI as “a good man” to a do-nothing who spent half the day hunting and the other half drinking, Jefferson believed a constitutional monarchy with a strong legislature was possible. After all, for the first time since 1614, France’s Estates-General was gathering in 1789 to create a new general assembly. What emerged was the National Assembly, though in it Lafayette found himself among a minority of aristocrats who believed the upper legislature should be determined by “head” (population) as opposed to “estate” (amount of land owned).
Jefferson—who once fretted 19 of France’s 20 million people lived worse than the most destitute (white) Americans—took this as grand news. He wrote the king would soon allow “freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of commerce and industry, freedom of persons against arbitrary arrest,” and a variety of other freedoms he was simultaneously beginning to lobby for in the U.S., eventually resulting in the Bill of Rights.
In this vein, Lafayette presented on July 11, 1789 his Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen to the National Assembly. While none of the aristocrats at the time knew that it was at least edited by Jefferson (if not co-written), there was no mistaking it was intended to be seen as a French version of the Declaration of Independence. But it was perhaps already too late since the Storming of the Bastille occurred three days later on July 14. Ironically, Lafayette’s attempt to ensure a peaceful transition to a true republic might’ve helped speed along the bloodshed that soon followed. While the National Assembly eventually approved Lafayette’s Declaration on Aug. 26, King Louis rejected it outright on Oct. 2.
Three days later, a mob stormed Versailles, demanding Louis return to rule from (and be imprisoned at) his Parisian palace. By this time, Lafayette was the popular commander-in-chief of the National Guard of France, an armed force intended to maintain the National Assembly’s peace. He used this position to deescalate violence from a crowd now chanting for Marie Antoinette’s blood. Instead Lafayette appeared on the balcony with the French queen and king, kissing Marie Antoinette’s hand and squashing the bloodlust. Gestures such as these, or his order to allow Louis XVI to attend Catholic Mass in Paris (an order his men disobeyed), led to him being painted as a monarchist, or at least a soft moderate who the radical Jacobin extremists now rising to power suspected of being weak.
Around this time, Hamilton wrote to Lafayette, “I have seen with a mixture of pleasure and apprehension the progress of the events which have lately taken place in your country. As a friend to mankind and liberty, I rejoice in the efforts you are making to establish it, while I fear much for the final success of the attempts, for the fate of those I esteem who are engaged in it.” At this point in 1789, Hamilton was among a minority of Americans who believed the French Revolution could turn ugly most preferred an optimistic view of Jefferson who predicted the goodness of human nature would reign.
George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette
George Washington met the nineteen-year-old Marquis de Lafayette on August 5, 1777, less than a week after the Continental Congress appointed the young Frenchman to be a volunteer Major General in the Continental Army. Lafayette was assigned to serve on Washington's staff. Lafayette, one of the richest young men in France, left his home country on March 25, 1777, filled with desire to fight against the British in the American Revolution. His father, also known as the Marquis de Lafayette, had been killed in the Battle of Minden fighting the British in 1759, two years after the young Lafayette was born. He was raised to despise the British and to revere his father and other military forbearers.
The Marquis was recruited to serve in the American cause by Silas Deane, who headed an American effort in Paris to enlist French Army officers in the cause. Lafayette was not recruited for his military acumen&mdashthe young man had yet to see combat. Instead, Deane believed that Lafayette would be valuable to the American cause because of his connections to the Court of Louis XVI.
Lafayette&mdashgoing against the wishes of the king and of his father-in-law, the Duc D'Ayen&mdashpurchased his own ship for the voyage, which he named the Victoire. The ship landed off the coast of Georgetown, South Carolina, on June 13, 1777, after fifty-six days at sea. Lafayette and the other French officers on board then rode to Philadelphia to volunteer for the Continental Army. The nineteen-year-old received his Major General's sash on July 31. Five days later, he met George Washington who travelled to Philadelphia to brief members of Congress on the precarious state of military affairs at a dinner the British were on the move toward the city.
The two men bonded almost immediately. The forty-five-year-old Washington, who had no natural children of his own, was taken by the young man's ebullience and profound dedication to the American cause, as well as by the fact that he was a fellow Mason. Lafayette simply stood in awe of the American commander-in-chief. Writing in his memoir about the pair's first encounter, Lafayette explained, "Although he was surrounded by officers and citizens, it was impossible to mistake for a moment his majestic figure and deportment nor was he less distinguished by the noble affability of his manner." 1
After dinner Washington, to Lafayette's delight, asked the young Frenchman to accompany him on an inspection of the city's defenses, and welcomed him to the cause. Lafayette later wrote in his memoir about that moment in the third person: "The majesty of his figure and his height were unmistakable. His affable and noble welcome to M. de Lafayette was no less distinguished, and M. de Lafayette accompanied him on his inspections. The General invited him to establish himself in his house [on his staff, that is], and from that moment he looked upon it as his own. It was with such simplicity that two friends were united whose attachment and confidence were cemented by the greatest of causes." 2
Lafayette served the cause without pay and actually paid the equivalent of more than $200,000 of his own money for the salaries and uniforms and other expenses for his staff, aides, and junior officers. He first saw action on September 11, 1777, at the Battle of Brandywine. Although Washington did not wish the young Frenchman to be exposed to harm, Lafayette pushed hard to be involved in the fight, and when things were not going well on the right flank, Washington sent him into battle.
Lafayette, fought fearlessly under the command of Major General John Sullivan. He was wounded in the leg but continued to fight and did not seek treatment until after the Continental Army&rsquos orderly retreat. Washington was impressed he cited Lafayette for his courage under fire and recommended him for divisional command. After his recovery, Lafayette took over Major General Adam Stephen's division and fought in New Jersey under Major General Nathanael Greene.
The more Washington observed of the young Frenchman the more impressed he was and the closer the two became. Washington's "trust in me is deeper than I dare say," Lafayette wrote to his wife on January 6, 1778, from Valley Forge. "In the place he occupies, he is surrounded by flatterers and secret enemies. He finds in me a trustworthy friend in whom he can confide and who will always tell him the truth. Not a day goes by without his talking to me at length or writing long letters to me. And he is willing to consult me on most interesting points." 3
In May 1778, Washington sent Lafayette with 2,200 men toward Philadelphia. He led his men faced off against 5,000 British troops at the Battle of Barren Hill where Lafayette made a tactical retreat. The French aristocrat later saw action at the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse, and then petitioned Washington to allow him to return to France to try to smooth out recently strained relations between the two nations. Lafayette accomplished that mission,while wearing his Continental Army uniform in Paris.He helped convince the King in 1779 to send the French fleet north from the Caribbean to fight the British, as well as send additional troops. Washington reported on these efforts to Congress, explaining,"During the time he has been in France he has uniformly manifested the same zeal in our affairs which animated his conduct while he was among us, and has been, upon all occasions, an essential friend to America." 4
Sent to Virginia in 1781 by Washington, Lafayette brilliantly conducted hit-and-run guerrilla operations against forces led by the then British-aligned Benedict Arnold, and then shadowed the army of Cornwallis. The young French general played a crucial role in the Siege of Yorktown and was present at the British surrender that effectively ended the war and brought independence to the rebellious colonies.
Lafayette and Washington remained close friends after the war. Lafayette named his only son George Washington Lafayette. When the Marquis came back to the United States in 1784, he visited Washington in retirement at Mount Vernon in August, where the two men had an emotional reunion. Lafayette stayed with the Washington family at Mount Vernon for ten days.
In July 1789, shortly after the start of the French Revolution, Lafayette was named Commander of the French National Guard. One of his first acts was to raze the Bastille, a symbol of the French monarchy's excesses. After doing so, he sent the key to the Bastille's west portal to George Washington that key today still is hung in the hallway at the Mount Vernon mansion.
Washington and Lafayette corresponded regularly until Washington's death in 1799. When word of Lafayette's death reached America in 1834, segments of the nation went into mourning. President Andrew Jackson ordered that the French Marquis receive the same funeral honors that President John Adams had ordered for George Washington in 1799. As explained by John Quincy Adams during a three-hour eulogy in Congress, "The name of Lafayette shall stand enrolled upon the annals of our racehigh on the list of the pure and disinterested benefactors of mankind." 5
2. Lafayette and the Age of the American Revolution: Selected Letters and Papers, 1776-1790, Vol. I, eds. Stanley J. Idzerda, et al (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1977), 91.
3. "Marquis de Lafayette to Adrienne Lafayette, 6 January 1778," The Marquis de Lafayette Collection, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections, Reel 23, Folder 202, Christine Valadon, translator.
4. The Writings of George Washington, Vol. VII, ed. Jared Sparks (Boston: Ferdinand Andrews, 1838), 31.
Washington & Lafayette
Thanks to a rich historical record, we do not have to imagine the reaction of Gen. George Washington when, on July 31, 1777, he was introduced to the latest French "major general" foisted on him by the Continental Congress, this one an aristocrat not yet out of his teens. Virtually since Washington had taken command of the Colonial Army some two years before, he had been trying to sweep back a tide of counts, chevaliers and lesser foreign volunteers, many of whom brought with them enormous self-regard, little English and less interest in the American cause than in motives ranging from martial vanity to sheriff-dodging.
The Frenchman now presenting himself to George Washington in the Colonial capital of Philadelphia was the 19-year-old Marquis de Lafayette, who was in America principally because he was enormously rich. Though Congress had told Washington that Lafayette's commission was purely honorific, no one seemed to have told the marquis, and two weeks after their first meeting, Washington shot off a letter to Benjamin Harrison, a fellow Virginian in Congress, complaining that this latest French import expected command of a division! "What line of conduct I am to pursue, to comply with [Congress'] design and his expectations, I know no more than the child unborn and beg to be instructed," the commander fumed.
The success of the American Revolution was then very much in doubt. For more than a year, apart from two militarily insignificant but symbolically critical victories in Trenton and Princeton, Washington's army had succeeded only at evasion and retreat. His depleted forces were riddled with smallpox and jaundice, there was not enough money to feed or pay them, and the British, emboldened to dream of an early end to the war, were on their way toward Philadelphia with a fleet of some 250 ships carrying 18,000 British regulars—news that Washington had received with that morning's breakfast. At the dinner where he met Lafayette, Washington had to address the urgent fear of congressmen that Philadelphia itself could fall to the British, and he had nothing of much comfort to tell them.
So a pushy French teenager would seem to have been the last thing Washington needed, and eventually the general was told that he was free to do as he liked with the impetuous young nobleman. How then to explain that before the month of August 1777 was out, Lafayette was living in Washington's house, in his very small "family" of top military aides that in a matter of weeks he was riding at Washington's side on parade that by early September he was riding with Washington into battle that after he was wounded at Brandywine Creek (a defeat that indeed led to the fall of Philadelphia), he was attended by Washington's personal physician and watched over anxiously by the general himself? "Never during the Revolution was there so speedy and complete a conquest of the heart of Washington," his biographer Douglas Southall Freeman wrote. "How did [Lafayette] do it? History has no answer."
Actually, Lafayette's biographers have settled on one: that Washington saw in Lafayette the son he never had, and that Lafayette found in Washington his long-lost father—a conclusion that, even if true, is so widely and briskly postulated as to suggest a wish to avoid the question. In any case it is unsatisfying in several ways. For one, Washington rarely expressed regret at not having a child of his own, and though he had many young military aides, he hardly treated them with fatherly tenderness. His adjutant Alexander Hamilton, who like Lafayette had lost his father in infancy, found Washington so peremptory that he demanded to be reassigned.
Perhaps most discouraging to the father-son idea is that the relationship between Washington and Lafayette was not one of unalloyed affection. The elaborate 18th-century courtesies in their correspondence may be easily read as signs of warmth they could also disguise the opposite. The two men differed on many things and are sometimes found to be working against each other in secret, each to his own ends. Their interaction reflects the always problematic relations between their two countries, an alliance of which they were also the founding fathers.
It is difficult to imagine a supposedly friendly bilateral alliance fraught with more tension than that of France and the United States. In 1800, when Napoleon brought years of outrageous French attacks on American shipping to an end with a new commercial treaty, he dismissed the long, acrimonious conflict as a "family spat." In 2003, during their bitter confrontation over war in Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell reassured France's distraught ambassador to the United States, among others, by reminding him that America and France had been through 200 years of "marriage counseling, but the marriage. is still strong," an analysis that was widely appreciated and brought not the shortest pause in the exchange of diplomatic fire.
Others have described the French-American relationship as that of "sister republics" born during "sister revolutions." If so, it is not hard to find the source of Franco-American conflict, since the parents of these siblings deeply despised each other. Never has a national rivalry been more spiteful than the one between the old regime of the Bourbons and Hanoverian England, though they did share a belief in the profound insignificance of the American colonies. As colonial overlords, Washington's mother country and Lafayette's patrie saw North America mainly as a tempting place to poach and plunder, a potential chip in their war with each other and a small but easy market of primitives and misfits who lived in forests and dressed in animal skins. For their part, the American settlers saw the British as their oppressors, and were inclined to see the French as prancing, light-minded land-grabbers sent by the pope to incite Indian massacres.
Given these and later perceptions, one may well wonder why there is a statue of Washington in Paris' Place d'Iéna, and what one of Lafayette is doing on Pennsylvania Avenue across from the White House, in. Lafayette Park. At a time when Western civilization faces a geopolitical challenge that requires more than casual Franco-American cooperation, the question is not frivolous.
The answer begins with the fact that the French and American revolutions were more like distant cousins, and that the French Revolution was incomparably more important to the United States than American independence was to France. To the revolutionary governments of France, America was relevant chiefly as a debtor. In American politics, however—just as the newly united states were struggling toward consensus on forms of government and their common character as a nation—the French Revolution posed the central question: whether to follow France's egalitarian and republican model of society or some modification of the mixed British constitution, with king, lords and commons. It was in the crucible of debate over whether to go the way of Britain or France that the citizens of the United States would discover what it was to be American.
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. Alexander Hamilton once offered to buy Gouverneur Morris dinner if he would clap Washington on the shoulder and say how great it was to see him again. When Morris complied, Washington simply, and without a word, removed Morris' hand from the sleeve of his coat and froze him with a stare.
Washington and Lafayette shared one characteristic of overriding importance, however: they were aristocrats in a monarchy—Washington self-made and Lafayette born to the manor, but both men links in a chain of favor and patronage that extended ultimately from a king, in a world where status could not be earned but had to be conferred. Both men were in this sense raised to be courtiers rather than patriots. Washington's flattery in his early letters to the royal governor of Virginia and other high officials is sometimes painful to read, and though Lafayette spurned one offer to take a place at court and complained of the cringing, fawning behavior he saw there, that was his world and background. In their time, the notion of equality was almost literally unthinkable. Distinctions of rank were implicit in the unspoken language of everyday life, embedded too deep to be much remarked on even when they were pointedly felt, as they often were. Freedom, too, was a strange concept. In both the Colonies and in France, the word "liberty" usually referred to a traditional or newly granted privilege, such as an exemption from tax. The model of "independence" that Washington held before him was that of the Virginia gentleman, whose property and wealth liberated him from dependence on anyone, even powerful friends. To declare one's independence was to declare oneself an aristocrat.
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. The pursuit of fame was not particularly Christian—it called for self-assertion rather than self-abnegation, competition rather than humility—but neither Washington nor Lafayette nor most of their fellow revolutionaries were serious Christians in fact, even if they were by denomination. (Asked why the Constitution failed to mention God, Hamilton supposedly said, "We forgot.") This was in the intellectual spirit of the times, which were marked by the Enlightenment's confidence in observation, empirical experiment and the rigorous application of reason grounded in fact. Discredited along with faith and metaphysics was the certainty of an afterlife, and without the prospect of spiritual immortality, the best hope of defying oblivion was to secure a place in history. In the world in which Washington and Lafayette lived, fame was the closest thing to heaven.
Finding themselves leading the struggle for the right to become something other than what birth ordained, Washington and Lafayette, in very different ways, had to win their own independence and to watch them as they did so—making their way from courtier-subjects to patriot-citizens—is one way to see a radically new world being born, one in which the value of a life is not extrinsic and bestowed but can be earned by one's own effort.
Like other founding fathers of this new world, Washington and Lafayette started out by striving to be seen as the men they wished to be. If their motives for doing so were mixed, their commitment was not, and somewhere along the way, in a kind of moral and political alchemy, the urgings of fame and glory were transmuted into finer stuff, and their lives became enactments of high principle. This transformation hardly happened overnight—indeed, it was incomplete even at the end of their lives—but it began not long at all after they met.
Washington always said that the book from which he learned most about training an army was Instructions to His Generals by Frederick the Great, the ultimate handbook for the management of an army with officer-aristocrats. In such an army, soldiers were cannon fodder. Officers were expected to work for the love of glory and out of loyalty to the king, but their men—mostly mercenaries, criminals and ne'er-do-wells—were not to think about the cause they were fighting for (or about much of anything else, for that matter) because thought led to insubordination. Maintaining sharp social distinctions was considered essential for an army whose men would go to battle only if they feared their officers more than they feared the enemy. Not surprisingly, Frederick's manual begins with 14 rules for preventing desertion.
From the beginning of the Revolutionary War, Washington adopted Frederick's proscriptions. "A coward," Washington wrote, "when taught to believe that if he breaks his ranks [he] will be punished with death by his own party, will take his chance against the enemy." Even Washington's most high-minded calls to battle included a warning that cowards would be shot.
This attitude began to change only at Valley Forge, in early 1778, with the arrival of one Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, a veteran of Frederick's officer corps but a man who clearly saw beyond his own experience. Washington appointed him inspector general of the Continental Army in the hope that Steuben would shape his ragtag mass into a fighting force, and so he did, but not at all in the way that Washington had expected. In the manual Steuben wrote for this American army, the most remarkable theme was love: love of the soldier for his fellow soldier, love of the officer for his men, love of country and love of his nation's ideals. Steuben obviously intuited that a people's army, a force of citizen-soldiers fighting for freedom from oppression, would be motivated most powerfully not by fear but, as he put it, by "love and confidence"—love of their cause, confidence in their officers and in themselves. "The genius of this nation," Steuben explained in a letter to a Prussian officer, "is not in the least to be compared with that of the Prussians, Austrians, or French. You say to your soldier, 'Do this,' and he does it but I am obliged to say, 'This is the reason why you ought to do that,' and then he does it."
When Washington took command in Boston in 1775, he had been shocked by the egalitarian behavior of New England officers and men: they actually fraternized! "[O]fficers of the Massachusetts part of the Army," he wrote in disbelief to a fellow Virginian, "are nearlyof the same kidney with the Privates." He had moved aggressively to put a stop to that. Under Steuben's influence, though, Washington began to soften his attitude. The change was reflected in a new policy announced six weeks after Steuben began his training: henceforth, Washington declared, officers would ride when their men marched only when absolutely necessary, it being important for every officer to "share the fatigue as well as danger to which his men are exposed."
Motivating soldiers through affection and idealism had important practical advantages. With less danger of desertion, the Continental forces could be broken into the smaller units necessary for guerrilla fighting. It also encouraged longer enlistments. During inspections, one of Steuben's instructors would ask each man his term of enlistment. When the term was limited, he would continue his usual inspection, but when a soldier exclaimed, "For the war!" he would bow, raise his hat and say, "You, Sir, are a gentleman I perceive, I am happy to make an acquaintance with you." A soldier and a gentleman? This was a new concept for a new kind of military.
Two years later, in the run-up to Yorktown, Washington ordered the troops of "Mad Anthony" Wayne and Lafayette to move south to defend Virginia. Both men immediately faced mutinies, Wayne because his men had not been paid for months, Lafayette because his had been told they would be on the march for only a few days. Wayne responded by holding an immediate court-martial, executing six of the mutiny's ringleaders and making the rest file past the corpses—which they did, "mute as fish," a witness would recall—on their way to Virginia.
Lafayette told his men they were free to go. Ahead of them, he said, lay a hard road, great danger and a superior army determined on their destruction. He, for one, meant to face that army, but anyone who did not wish to fight could simply apply for leave to return to camp, which would be granted. Given the option of fighting or declaring themselves to be unpatriotic cowards, Lafayette's men stopped deserting, and several deserters returned. Lafayette rewarded his men by spending 2,000 pounds of his own money to buy desperately needed clothing, shorts, shoes, hats and blankets. But it was his appeal to their pride that mattered most.
The idea would not have occurred to Lafayette even a year before, in the spring of 1780, when he had proposed a foolishly intrepid attack on the British fleet in New York. The Comte de Rochambeau, commander of French forces in America, told Lafayette it was a rash bid for military glory (as it was). Lafayette learned the lesson well. In the summer of 1781, he managed to corner British forces in Yorktown precisely because he did not attack, while Lord Cornwallis painted himself into the corner from which there would be no escape.
When the admiral of the French fleet arrived in the Chesapeake Bay off Yorktown, he insisted that his forces and Lafayette's were sufficient to defeat Cornwallis by themselves. (He was probably right.) Lafayette, several ranks and decades the admiral's junior, was well aware that he would gain more glory by not waiting for the forces of Washington and Rochambeau, and equally aware that he would be just a third-tier officer once they arrived. But he rebuffed the admiral and waited. Confessing "the strongest attachment to those troops," he asked Washington only to leave him in command of them. He recognized that there was more at stake than his personal glory and that glory was a more complex alloy than he had known before.
After Washington assumed the presidency of his new nation, his goal was the emergence of a uniquely American character, of a distinctive and respected Americanism that was respected as such at home and abroad. Lafayette, returning to France after Yorktown, began advocating American principles with the fervor of a convert. But at the end of Washington's life, the relationship between the two men nearly foundered on an issue that, two centuries later, would divide France and America over the war in Iraq: the wisdom of trying to export revolutionary ideals by force.
The France of Napoleon was making that experiment, and while Lafayette despised Bonaparte's authoritarianism, he was thrilled with France's victories in the field. Washington, who exhorted his country never to "unsheath the sword except in self-defense," was furious with France's military adventurism, coming as it did at the expense of American shipping (the "family spat," Napoleon had called it). His letter excoriating France for such behavior was the last to Lafayette he ever wrote. Lafayette's defensive reply was Lafayette's last to Washington.
When Washington died, in 1799, his refusal to let America be drawn into the sanguinary politics of Europe stood as one of his most important legacies. As much as he believed American principles worthy of export, he recoiled at the idea as a matter of principle as well as pragmatism. His policy of neutrality toward England and France—which was widely interpreted as favoring our enemy at the expense of our ally and monarchic rule over egalitarian government—robbed him of the universal acclaim he had long enjoyed and led to the severest criticism he was ever to endure. Benjamin Franklin Bache's Aurora, Washington's fiercest critic, called him everything from a weak-minded captive of his cabinet to a traitor. Thomas Paine, famously, said: "[T]reacherous in private friendship. and a hypocrite in public life, the world will be puzzled to decide, whether you are an apostate or an impostor whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any." For a man as intolerant of criticism as Washington, such abuse must have been unbearable.
Still, his policy of neutrality saved Americans not only from involvement in the war between Britain and France but also from supporting either of them as models of government. In the course of years, Washington had found a greater glory, or something greater than glory, that allowed him to achieve his final victory in a campaign for peace, without which American independence might never have been secured.
In time, Napoleon's misadventures would bring Lafayette closer to Washington's view about exporting revolution by force, but he never gave up support for liberation movements around the world. At home he was an early leader of the pre-revolutionary reform movement, and he was named commandant-general of the National Guard of Paris on July 15, 1789. The preeminent leader of the "moderate" first two years of the French Revolution, he wrote the first draft of France's Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and invented the tricolor cockade, which combined the colors of Paris with Bourbon white to create the symbol of France's republican revolution. But he never changed his view that the government best suited to France was a constitutional monarchy, which put him at odds with Robespierre and eventually contributed to his conviction in absentia for treason. At the time, he was the general of one of three French armies arrayed against an invasion by Austrian and Prussian forces. Lafayette had already returned to Paris twice to denounce Jacobin radicalism before the National Assembly, and rather than return a third time to meet certain death at the guillotine, he crossed into enemy territory and served the next five years in prison, followed by two more in exile.
Lafayette returned to France in 1799 but stayed out of politics until 1815, when he was elected to the National Assembly in time to put the weight of his revolutionary-era credentials behind the call for Napoleon to abdicate after Waterloo. When the emperor's brother, Lucien Bonaparte, came before the assembly to denounce the attempt as that of a weak-willed nation, Lafayette silenced him. "By what right do you dare accuse the nation of. want of perseverance in the emperor's interest?" he asked. "The nation has followed him on the fields of Italy, across the sands of Egypt and the plains of Germany, across the frozen deserts of Russia. The nation has followed him in fifty battles, in his defeats and in his victories, and in doing so we have to mourn the blood of three million Frenchmen."
Those who were there said they would never forget that moment. Some younger members of the gallery were surprised that Lafayette was still alive. They would not forget him again. Fifteen years later, at the head of yet another revolution at age 72, he installed the "republican monarchy" of Louis-Philippe by the simple act of wrapping him in a tricolor flag and embracing him—"coronation by a republican kiss," as Chateaubriand called it. Soon he would oppose what he saw as a return of authoritarianism, for which Louis-Philippe never forgave him. When Lafayette died, in 1834 at age 76, he was carried to his grave under heavy guard, and no eulogies were permitted.
Though his reputation in America has been secure, his reputation in France has varied with every change of government since 1789 (three monarchs, three emperors, five republics). To this day he is blamed by right-wing historians for having "lost" the Bourbon monarchy and by left-wing historians for a lack of revolutionary rigor. The fairest measure of his impact on France, though, would seem to be the Constitution of the Fifth Republic, which has been in effect since 1958 and which begins with these words: "The French people solemnly proclaim their attachment to the Rights of Man and the principles of national sovereignty as defined by the Declaration of 1789. The national emblem shall be the blue, white, and red tricolor flag. Its principle shall be: government of the people, by the people, and for the people. National sovereignty shall belong to the people."
James R. Gaines has edited Time and People magazines and written several books.
Copyright © 2007 by James R. Gaines. Adapted from the book For Liberty and Glory: Washington, Lafayette and Their Revolutions by James R. Gaines, published by W. W. Norton & Company Inc.
Marquis de Lafayette
Portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette in the uniform of an American major general, by Charles Willson Peale, circa 1780.
Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, was born on September 6, 1757 at the chateau de Chavaniac in Auvergne, France. His father, Gilbert, Marquis de Lafayette, and his mother, Marie Louise Julie de Riviere, were both descendants of ancient French nobility. Lafayette’s father was also a colonel in the French Grenadiers, and was killed during the Seven Years’ War at the Battle of Minden on August 1, 1759. Lafayette’s mother died on April 3, 1770, and his grandfather died as well several weeks later. When Lafayette inherited his grandfather’s estate, it swelled his already considerable fortune to an income of 120,000 livres per year. He greatly desired a military career, and at the age of thirteen he entered the King’s Musketeers on April 9, 1771. He was transferred to Colonel Noailles’s regiment in 1773, where he was made a second lieutenant. A year later, on April 11, 1774, Lafayette married the colonel’s daughter, Adrienne Frangoise de Noailles. The marriage, which had previously been arranged by their parents, sealed Lafayette’s political connections to one the most powerful families of the regime.
Lafayette first learned of the American Revolution at a dinner on August 8, 1775 given by the Comte de Broglie for the Duke of Gloucester. The Duke spoke openly and favorably of the American revolutionaries, and Lafayette became intensely interested. He saw in the American struggle the opportunity for avenging France’s defeat in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) in which his father had lost his life. Lafayette had also read the works of the French philosophes, and the idea of the American Revolution fired his sensibilities. As a young man, he found the opportunity for glory intoxicating and resolved to help in the cause of independence.
At first, Lafayette concealed from his family his intent to aid the Americans. On June 11, 1776, he resigned from the French army and began actively conspiring with Silas Deane and Arthur Lee, two of the Continental Congress’s agents to France. In agreements drawn up in December 1776 and February 1777, Lafayette received a commission in the Continental Army, but reserved the right to return to France if called by his king or family. He disembarked for America on April 20, 1777 he arrived in Georgetown, South Carolina on June 13 of the same year. After a long journey to Philadelphia, he secured from Congress a commission as a major general on July 31, 1777, but was given no active command. Soon after, at a dinner given by several members of Congress, George Washington met the nineteen year-old general. This began a lifelong friendship between the two men. In Washington, Lafayette found his hero, his mentor, and his model of republican virtue. Lafayette eventually named his son George Washington du Motier, and named his youngest daughter Virginie, after Washington’s home state. The American commander-in-chief greatly admired the patriotic enthusiasm of the young French aristocrat, and placed Lafayette on his private staff.
Lafayette received a trial by combat at the Battle of Brandywine in September 1777. Wounded in the leg, the young French aristocrat immediately became a patriot in the eyes of the American revolutionaries. He recuperated quickly at a Moravian hospital in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and rejoined Washington in October 1777. Congress finally gave Lafayette his own active command on December 1, appointing him major general of a division of Virginia infantry. Lafayette spent the winter of 1777 with Washington’s army at Valley Forge, which further endeared the young general to the Americans. The enlisted men began referring to Lafayette as “the soldier’s friend.” The campaigns of 1778, however, proved frustrating to the French adventurer. In January 1778, the Board of War placed Lafayette in charge of a ridiculous scheme to invade Canada. Lafayette accepted the position with great enthusiasm, but upon reaching Albany, he discovered that no preparations had been made and no attack was possible. Enraged, Lafayette returned in April to Valley Forge. He served well but without distinction at the Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey in June 1778, and acted as liaison officer to French Admiral d’Estaing in the disastrous joint French-American attack on Newport, Rhode Island in August. Disappointed, Lafayette asked for and received a furlough from Congress. He returned to France on January 11, 1779.
King Louis XVI of France, 1786, Antoine-Francois Callet, Image by © Archivo Iconografico, S.A./CORBIS
While in France Lafayette’s fortunes turned around. He became the toast of Paris, and was received by King Louis XVI, and the Queen, Marie Antoinette, as a returning hero. Using his new-found prestige, Lafayette consulted with Louis XVI’s ministers, and floated plans for various kinds of expeditions against Great Britain. He proposed hiring the Swedish navy to fight against the British, securing a loan from Holland for the United States, as well as plans for an invasion of Ireland, an invasion of Canada, an invasion of England, and sending a French army to America. The French government adopted the last two proposals. The invasion of England, a joint operation with Spain planned for August 1779, had to be abandoned, but the second idea met with more success. Lafayette was disappointed not to be given command of the army sent to America, which was instead led by the Comte de Rochambeau. In March 1780, Lafayette sailed for America to prepare for the arrival of the French expeditionary force.
Upon reaching the United States, Lafayette travelled to Morristown, New Jersey to meet with Washington about coordinating an attack with the French army and fleet. In July 1780, he met with the Comte de Rochambeau, who had arrived with a French army at Newport, Rhode Island. Lafayette proposed an offensive campaign, but Rochambeau rejected the plan. In September 1780, when Washington met Rochambeau for the first time, Lafayette served as an intermediary. Soon after, Lafayette returned with Washington to West Point, New York, where they learned of Benedict Arnold’s treason. At the court martial of Major Andre, the British spy who conspired with Arnold, Lafayette voted for the death penalty. Major Andre was subsequently hanged.
In early 1781, Benedict Arnold, now a British general, invaded Virginia with a British army. Washington gave Lafayette command of 1,200 New Englanders, and charged him with the responsibility of defending Virginia and capturing Arnold. Although Arnold eluded him, Lafayette later successfully defended Richmond, the new capital of Virginia, against an attack by British General Phillips. British General Lord Cornwallis’s army posed the next major threat to Virginia. After a costly victory over American General Nathanel Greene at Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina, Cornwallis hoped to rally Loyalist support in the Old Dominion. Cornwallis entered Virginia in May 1781. Lafayette had been reinforced with General “Mad Anthony” Wayne’s Pennsylvania troops, and the combined force shadowed General Lord Cornwallis’s army as it eventually moved back east towards Portsmouth, Virginia. Lord Cornwallis subsequently removed his army to Yorktown. Generals Washington and Rochambeau had already begun marching their armies south to trap Lord Cornwallis, and Lafayette joined the main French-American force for the siege of Yorktown. The allied victory at Yorktown proved the decisive battle of the Revolution, a fact which Lafayette grasped immediately. In a letter to the Comte de Haurepas following the battle, Lafayette proclaimed that “the play is over, the fifth act is just ended.”
Portrait of Adrienne Noailles Lafayette, Marquise de la Fayette (1759-1807), late 18th century, artist unknown.
Lafayette left for France in December 1781. He was once again received by crowd and court alike as a conquering hero. After his return, Lafayette espoused a new vision for France. He wished to have a charter of liberties established, called for the abolition of slavery and civil rights for Protestants, and attacked the tobacco monopoly of the French Farmers-General. During the early years of the French Revolution, Lafayette was one of the most popular figures in France. He became an outcast, however, when extremists gained control of the French government and started the “Reign of Terror.” Fleeing France, he was captured by the Austrians and languished in prison in 1792-1797 despite the efforts of the U.S. Congress and President Washington to gain his release. Lafayette finally obtained his freedom partly through the intervention of the recently victorious general Napoleon Bonaparte.
Lafayette at first saluted the rise of Napoleon, but later broke with the French Emperor. Throughout his later life, he upheld the United States as a model for the rest of the world. In 1824, President James Monroe invited him to visit America. Lafayette, now in his mid-sixties, arrived at Staten Island on August 15. He toured throughout the United States and was greeted with unprecedented celebration. In France’s July Revolution of 1830, Lafayette hoped to finally establish the French Republic. Unfortunately, his actions ultimately helped Louis-Phillips assume the French throne, and his last public speech attacked the reactionary politics of the new king. Lafayette, the hero of two revolutions, died on May 20, 1834, at the age of seventy-eight. His grave at Picpus Cemetery in Paris is covered in earth taken from the site of the Battle of Bunker Hill. His son, George Washington du Motier, succeeded him as the Marquis de Lafayette.
Source Documents: Marquis de Lafayette
The following passages are taken from Stanley Idzerda, ed., Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution: Selected Letters And Papers. 1776-1790, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), volumes 1-4.
Letter of the Marquis de Lafayette to his wife, Adrienne de Noailles de Lafayette, May 30, 1777, aboard La Victoire, en route for America from France.
I am writing to you from very far away, dear heart, and to this cruel separation is added the still more dreadful uncertainty of the time when I shall hear from you. I hope, however, that it will be soon . . . So many fears and so many worries are added to the intense grief of leaving everything that is most dear to me . . . Your grief, that of my friends, your pregnancy, Henrietta [his eldest daughter]–all came to my mind with a terrifying vividness. It was then that I could find no more excuses for myself. If you knew everything that I have suffered, dear heart, during the sad days I passed in flight from everything that I love in the world!
Letter of the Marquis de Lafayette to his wife, Adrienne de Noailles de Lafayette, June 19, 1777, upon Lafayette’s arrival in Charleston, South Carolina.
. . . When I arrived here, everyone told me that my vessel had surely been taken, because two English frigates blockaded the port. I even sent orders, by land and sea, for the captain to put the men ashore and burn the ship, if there was still time. Well, by inconceivable good fortune, a squall had momentarily driven off the frigates, and my vessel arrived in broad daylight without encountering either friend or foe . . . And now, my dear, I shall tell you about the country and its inhabitants. They are as likable as my enthusiasm has led me to picture them. A simplicity of manners, a desire to please, a love of country and liberty, and an easy equality prevail everywhere here. The richest man and the poorest are on the same level, and although there are some immense fortunes in this country, I challenge anyone to discover the slightest difference in their manners toward each other . . . Everything here rather resembles the English fashion, but there is more simplicity, equality, cordiality, and courtesy here than in England. Charleston is one of the most beautiful and well built of cities, and its inhabitants are among the most agreeable people I have ever seen. American women are very pretty, totally unaffected . . .
Letter of the Marquis de Lafayette to his wife, Adrienne de Noailles de Lafayette, September 12, 1777, after being wounded at the Battle of Brandywine.
I send you a few lines, dear heart, by some French officers, my friends, who came here with me but have not obtained positions and are returning to France. I shall begin by telling you that I am well, because I must end by telling you that we fought in earnest yesterday, and we were not the victors. Our Americans, after holding firm for a considerable time, were finally routed. While I was trying to rally them, the English honored me with a musket shot, which wounded me slightly in the leg. But the wound is nothing, dear heart the ball hit neither bone nor nerve, and all I have to do for it to heal is to lie on my back for a while–which puts me in a very bad humor. I hope, dear heart, that you will not worry on the contrary, you should be even less worried than before, because I shall be out of action for some time . . .
Letter of the Marquis de Lafayette to his wife, Adrienne de Noailles de Lafayette, November 6, 1777, from Whitemarsh Pa. during the British occupation of Philadelphia.
You may receive this letter, my dear heart, in five or six years, for I as writing you by an indirect route, which I don’t know much about. Just look at the journey my letter is going to make: an army officer will carry it to Port Pitt, 300 miles through the hinterlands of the continent it will then be shipped down the great Ohio River, through countryside inhabited only by savages once it arrives at New Orleans, a small ship will transport it to the Spanish islands then a vessel of that nation will take it (God knows when) when it returns to Europe. But it will still be very far from you, and it is only after having been fouled by the dirty hands of all the Spanish postmasters that it will be permitted to cross the Pyrenees it may be opened and resealed five or six times before reaching your hands . . .
Letter of the Marquis de Lafayette to George Washington. February 19, 1778. from Albany about the abortive invasion of Canada.
Why am I so far from you, and what business had that board of war to hurry me through the ice and snow without knowing what I should do, neither what they were doing themselves? . . . I defy your excellency to conceive of any idea of what I have seen since I left the place where I was quite near my friend, to run myself through all the blunders of madness or treachery . . . G[eneral] Shuiller [Schuyler], G[eneral] Lincoln, G[eneral] Arnold had writ[t]en before my arrival to G[eneral] Connway [Conway] in the most expressive terms that in our present circumstances there was no possibility to begin an enterprize into Canada . . . I have been (shamefully) deceived by the board of war. They have by the strongest expressions promised to me, three thousand, and (what is more to be depended upon) they have assured to me by wraiting [writing] two thousand and five hundred combattans [combattants] at a low estimate. Now, sir, I do not believe I can find in all twelve hundred fit for duty . . .
I am affraid [afraid] it will reflect on my reputation and I schall [shall] be laughed at. My fears on that subject are so strong that I would choose to come again only a volonteer unless Congress offers me means of mending this ogly [ugly] business by some glorious operation . . . For you, dear General, I know very well that you will do every thing to procure me the only thing I am ambitious of. Glory.
Letter of the Marquis de Lafayette to the Comte do Vergennes, July 30, 1779, on sending a French army to the United States.
. . . I am convinced that there is no time to be lost for the measures I propose, and the love of my country makes me perhaps so impatient as to be importunate. But you will excuse a fault whose cause is dear to every virtuous citizen . . . While waiting until we can begin combined operations with a squadron next year, why not drop off in Boston 3,000 men (or even 2,000 with 300 dragoons) who would be joined in the spring by warships and a ground reinforcement? This detachment would be convoyed by two fifty-gun vessels, a West India Company vessel as a transport . . .
Letter of the Marquis de Lafayette to George Washington, May 4, 1781, after Lafayette’s defense of Richmond.
. . . It is not without trouble I Have Made this Rapid March. [British] General Phillips Has Expressed to an officer on Flag the astonishment He felt at our Celerity, and when on the 30[th] when He was going to give the Signal to atta[c]k He Recconnoitred our position Mr. Osburn who was with Him Says that He flew into a Violent passion and Swore Vengeance Against me and the Corps I Had Brought with me . . . [Phillips] Had Every advantage over me–that a defeat would Have scattered the Militia, lost the few arms we Have and knocked down this Handfull of Continental troops . . . Under these Circumstances I thought it Better to fight on none But My own grounds . . . Had I gone on the other side, the ennemy would Have given me the Slip and taken Richmond, leaving Nothing to me But the Reputation of a Rash Unexperienced young man . . .
Letter of the Marquis de Lafayette to George Washington. May 24, 1781, while shadowing Lord Cornwallis’s army in Virginia.
My official letter a copy of which I sent to Congress, will let you know the situation of affairs in this quarter. I ardently wish my conduct may meet with your approbation. Had I followed the first impulsion of my temper, I would have risked some thing more. But I have been guarding against my own warmth [eagerness], and this consideration, that a general defeat, which with such a proportion of militia must be expected, would involve this State and our affairs into ruin, has rendered me extremely cautious in my movements. Indeed, I am more emba[r]rassed to move, more crippled in my projects than we have been in the Northern States.’ . . . I don’t believe it prudent to expose the troops for the sake of a few houses most of which are empty. But I am wavering betwe[e]n two inconveniences. Was I to fight a battle, I’ll be cut to pieces, the militia dispersed, and the arms lost. Was I to decline fighting, the country would think herself given up. I am therefore determined to scarmish [skirmish], but not too engage too far . . . Was I any ways equal to the ennemy, I would be extremely happy in my present command. But I am not strong enough even to be beaten.
Letter of the Marquis de Lafayette to the Comte de Maurepas, October 20, 1781, after Lord Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown.
The play is over, Monsieur le Comte the fifth act has just ended. I was a bit uneasy during the first acts, but my heart keenly enjoyed the last one, and I have no less pleasure in congratulating you on the successful conclusion of our campaign. I shall not give you the details of it, Monsieur le Comte, but rely on Lauzun to do so. I wish he may cross the ocean as speedily as he ran over the body of Tarleton’s Legion.
For Further Reading:
Laura Auricchio, The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered (2015).
Marc Leepson, Lafayette: Lessons in Leadership from the Idealist General (2011).
Summary of French Revolution
The French Revolution that took place from 1789 to 1799 was a crucial period in the history of French, European and Western Civilizations. The uprising that brought the regime of King Louis XVI to its end is known as the French Revolution. This was the phase, when absolute monarchy was overthrown and Republicanism took its place. During the French Revolution, the Roman Catholic Church also underwent a radical restructuring.
The First Republic fell to a coup d'etat. A coup d'Etat is the sudden overthrow of the ruling government through unconstitutional means. The part of the state establishment overthrows the government and replaces just the high-level figures.
After the fall of the First Republic, France oscillated among Republic, Empire and Monarchy.
The French Revolution was a crucial turning point in the history of Western democracy. From the age of absolutism and aristocracy.
It brought the transformation from the age of absolutism and aristocracy. The French Revolution brought the age of the citizenry as the dominant political force.
French Revolution launched the slogan "Liberté, égalité, fraternité, ou la mort!" meaning "Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death!". This slogan was very popular. It was to popular to such extent that later it became the rallying cry for activists. These activists who promoted democracy and were aggainst oppressive governments could identify with the slogan.
CAUSES OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
In 1789, France was facing many economic difficulties. Despite of this fact, it was one of the richest European nations of that time. Louis XVI was very popular at that time and was known as the Estates-General of 1789. However, the nobility and many of the king's ministers were not very popular.
There are many factors that led to the political and socioeconomic upheaval of the French Revolution. The ancien regime had an old aristocratic order. The aristocratic order succumbed to the ambitions of the rising.
Why Marquis de Lafayette Is Still America’s Best Friend
In her new book, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, writer Sarah Vowell tells the story of the American Revolution through the life and experiences of Marquis de Lafayette, the French aristocrat who joined the Continental Army as a teenager, convinced King Louis XVI to ally with the rebels, and became a close friend of George Washington.
Lafayette symbolizes many things for Vowell: the ideals of democratic government, the hard reality of those democracies, the tremendous debt early Americans owed to France and the importance of friendship. Like her previous books, such as Assassination Vacation, Lafayette strikes witty blows against the stodgy sorts of U.S. history taught in classrooms. It's less a history book than a collection of stories. I spoke with her last week about her work, her opinion of Lafayette, why she doesn't consider herself a historian, and what she admires about the hit Broadway musical Hamilton.
The interview was edited and condensed.
Why did you decide to write a book about Marquis de Lafayette?
That question always stumps me. There are so many answers to that. I lived near Union Square in New York City for about 10 years. There's a statue of Lafayette in the square and it's right next to the sidewalk, so I walked by him pretty much every day. He was one of my neighbors so I was always thinking about him. And also, I had written a shorter piece a number of years ago about Lafeyette's return trip to America in 1824
Was that the story that appeared on This American Life?
Yes, yeah. It was for a show about reunions and that piece was a very kind of sentimental journey, literally, about how he came back in 1824. He was invited by President Monroe, he stays for over a year and the whole country goes berserk for him. It's just Lafayette mania. Two-thirds of the population of New York City meets his ship. Every night is a party in his honor. And I guess the reason that story attracted me was because of the consensus that the whole country embraced him. By 1824, the Civil War is pretty much a foregone conclusion. But because he was a Frenchman and because he was the last living general from Washington's army, the whole country—north and south, left and right—he belonged to everyone and that seemed so exotic to me.
Lafayette in the Somewhat United States
From the bestselling author of Assassination Vacation and The Partly Cloudy Patriot, an insightful and unconventional account of George Washington’s trusted officer and friend, that swashbuckling teenage French aristocrat the Marquis de Lafayette.
So Lafeyette comes back to America in 1824, just shy of 50 years after the revolution. Eighty thousand people meet him at New York Harbor. It's an enormous crowd.
Totally. Yes. Only 4,000 met The Beatles in 1964.
So why was Lafayette universally beloved when he returned?
I think there are a few reasons. He is, basically, the most obvious personification of America's alliance with France in the war. And Americans back then were still grateful for French money and gunpowder and soldiers and sailors. The help from the French government was the deciding factor in the revolution. Lafayette was the most swashbuckling symbol of that. There was also, then and now, a great reverence and almost a religious love for George Washington. Lafayette had served with Washington and became his de facto adopted son—Lafayette was an orphan and Washington had no biological children of his own—so their relationship was very close. And so, he was so identified with Washington.
The visit also coincided with the presidential election of 1824, which is basically the first election when Americans had to vote for a non-founding father. There was this nostalgia, this kind of national moment of reflection about how the country had to continue on without its fathers. Lafeyette's secretary kept a diary during that whole trip. He marveled that these newspapers would be full of bile about presidential candidates, then Lafayette would show up, and the day's paper would be all like, "We 'heart' Lafayette." Those two things are related a little bit, nostalgia and reverence for that very singular past and nervousness about the future.
And what happened? Why don't we feel that way anymore?
Well, he has been a little bit forgotten, but I think you could say that about many, many figures in American history. I think the forgetting of Lafayette is just a symptom of the larger cultural amnesia. When I was starting my research on this book, there was this survey done by the American Revolution Center that said most adult Americans they didn't know what century the Revolution was fought in. They thought the Civil War came first. They didn't know the Bill of Rights was part of the Constitution. So yes, Lafayette is a little bit forgotten, but so are a lot of other things more important than him.
You mention in the book this idea that Lafeyette is no longer a person. His name is a bunch of places now.
The most practical effect of his visit in the 1820s was that everything started getting named after him. When I was at Valley Forge, I was with this friend of mine who had lived in Brooklyn. There was a monument to the generals who had been at Valley Forge: Lafayette was one of them, and General Greene and DeKalb. And I remember my friend just calling it "that big monument thing with all the Brooklyn streets." A lot of these people just become street names. It's natural that these people leave behind their names and their stories are forgotten, I suppose. But for me, every time I would walk, say, past the statue of Lafayette down towards Gansevoort Street, the whole city came alive. If there's any practical effect of learning about this stuff, it just makes the world more alive and interesting. And it certainly makes walking around certain cities on the eastern seaboard more fascinating.
Let's rewind five decades. Lafayette crosses the Atlantic in 1777, at age 17. He abandons his pregnant wife—
He leaves behind a comfortable aristocratic life. His family doesn't even know what he's doing and it's all to fight in someone else's war.
When you put it like that it does not seem like a good idea.
Plenty of 19-year-olds have bad ideas.
Oh, for sure. I would distrust one who only made good decisions. There are a few reasons for his decision to fight. Lafayette married quite young. He's a teenager. He's the richest orphan in France, and he's kind of pounced upon by this very rich and powerful family, then he marries their daughter. His father-in-law wants him to get a cushy boring job at the French court and be a proper gentleman, but Lafayette is the descendant of soldiers. His ancestors are soldiers going back to the Middle Ages. One of his ancestors fought with Joan of Arc. His father, who died when Lafayette was almost two years old, was killed by the British in battle during in the Seven Years War.
There's a grudge there.
That's one reason he's pretty gung ho to fight the British in America. He wants to be a soldier like his father before him and all the fathers before that. He's just one of many European soldiers who flocked to the American theater of war to volunteer with the rebels, some of them not for particularly idealistic reasons, but because they were out of a job. The defense industry in Europe was downsizing. Lafayette is one of these Frenchmen who are coming over to fight.
The other thing is, he got bitten by the Enlightenment bug and was enamored with ideals about liberty and equality. The letters he writes to his poor, knocked-up wife while he's crossing the ocean are incredibly idealistic. He says that the happiness of America will be bound up with the happiness of mankind, and then we'll establish a republic of virtue and honesty and tolerance and justice. He's laying it on a little bit thick because he has just abandoned her. But it's still very stirring, and I do think he believed it.
So after all of your research, after writing this book, spending a lot of time trying to get into his head, how do you feel about Lafayette? Do you like him?
Do I like him? Yes, I do like him. I am very fond of him. He's a very sentimental person I think part of that was his youth, maybe his being an orphan. Jefferson complained of his canine appetite for affection. Lafayette has this puppy-dog quality.
He was kind of a suck-up.
Yeah, he was. But I like puppy dogs. And when push came to shove, Lafayette got the job done. For all of his French panache, he really did roll up his sleeves and set to work on behalf of the Americans. Maybe it was bound up with his lust for glory.
Washington was constantly dealing with desertion crises. His soldiers are deserting him in droves throughout the whole war. And who can blame them? They're not getting paid. They're not getting fed. There's frequently no water. A lot of them don't have shoes. It's a really crummy job. But then this kid shows up like a football player asking his coach to put him in the game.
In his first battle, the Battle of Brandywine, he's wounded and barely notices because he's so busy trying to rally all the patriot soldiers to stand and fight. He never turns down an assignment. He's always ready to get in the game. And then, when he goes back home to Paris after the war, he's constantly helping the American ministers, Jefferson and Monroe, with boring economic stuff. There's not much glory in that. But Lafayette lobbied to get the whalers of Nantucket a contract to sell their whale oil to the city of Paris. That's real, boring, grownup friendship. And then to thank him, the whole island pooled all their milk and sent him a giant wheel of cheese. What was your question?
Do you like him?
Yes, I do like him. The thing I like about nonfiction is you get to write about people. The older I get, I feel I have more empathy for people's failings because I've had so much more experience with my own. Yes, he was an impetuous person. But generally, I think he was well intentioned. And he also really did believe in these things that I believe in. So, yes. Is he a guy that I want to have a beer with?
Yeah, of course. Who wouldn't want to meet him?
In this book, you describe yourself as "a historian adjacent narrative nonfiction wise guy." Self-deprecation aside, how does that—
I don't think of that as self-deprecation. You're thinking of that as self-deprecation in the sense that a proper historian is above me on some hierarchy. I don't think that way at all.
I meant that, in the book, it's played a little bit as a joke. You're teasing yourself, right?
I am, but I'm also teasing Sam Adams, because he says, ["If we do not beat them this fall will not the faithful Historian record it as our own Fault?"] I don't think of myself as an historian and I don't like being called one. And I also don't like being called a humorist. I don't think that's right, partly because my books are full of bummers. I reserve the right to be a total drag. I just consider myself a writer. That's one reason I don't have footnotes. I don't have chapters. I just want to get as far away from the stench of the textbook as I can. I inject myself and my opinions and my personal anecdotes into these things in a way that is not historian-y.
Given how you describe your work, and the empathy you've developed towards peoples' flaws, what can you write about that historians can't?
For one thing, empathy can be really educational. If you're trying to look at something from someone else's point of view, you learn about the situation. You might not agree. But as I go on, I become maybe more objective because of this. Ultimately, there's something shocking about the truth.
I'll give you an example. My last book was about the American takeover of Hawaii in the 19th century. It's the story of how native Hawaiians lost their country. It's a big part of their lives and it's a huge part of their culture. And if you go back to the historical record, there are kind of two narratives. There's the narrative of the missionary boys and their descendants, how these New Englanders took over these islands. Then there's the native version of those events, which is necessarily and understandably upset about all of that.
You're trying to parse complicated histories. There's one line early in the Lafayette book that seems related to this: "In the United States there was no simpler, more agreeable time." Why do you think it's so hard for us to recognize dysfunction within our own history? And where does this temptation to just indulge nostalgia come from?
I don't know. I just loathe that idea of the good old days. Immoral behavior is human nature. So I don't know why there's this human tendency to be nostalgic about the supposedly superior morals of previous generations.
Why is it so difficult to recognize and acknowledge the role that dysfunction has played?
I think it has to do with this country. History is taught not as a series of chronological events, but as adventures in American exceptionalism. When I was growing up, I was taught America never lost a war because "America is God's chosen nation." I started kindergarten the year the helicopters were pulling out of Saigon.
It's funny, one reason why Americans loved Lafayette was because of how much he loved them. In 1824 or 1825, he's speaking before the joint houses of Congress and he says, "America will save the world." What European thinks that? We love to think about ourselves as helpful and good.
Yeah. And sometimes, the historical record doesn't back that up. That's true of every country. But unlike every other country, we have all of these documents that say we're supposed to be better, that say all men are created equal. All of the great accomplishments in American history have this dark backside. I feel very reverential of the Civil Rights Movement. But then you think, well, why was that necessary? Or all of these great amendments we're so proud of. It's like, oh, everyone can vote? I thought we already said that.
So how do you—
Let me say one more thing. You know that scene in Dazed and Confused where the history teacher tells the class that when you're celebrating the Fourth of July, you're celebrating a bunch of like old white guys who didn't want to pay their taxes? I'm not one of those people. I don't think it's all horrors and genocide and injustice. I do think it's still valuable to celebrate those founding ideals. And there are some days that the idea that all men are created equal, that's the only thing I believe in. I think those ideals are still worth getting worked up about.
Just because Jefferson owned slaves, I don't think that completely refutes the Declaration. I think you have to talk about both things. I'm not completely pessimistic about it. That's what I love about nonfiction: if you just keep going back to the truth, it's the most useful and it's the most interesting. I don't want to be a naysayer or a "yaysayer." I want to like say them both together. What would that word be?
So what's next? Do you have plans for another book?
It's what I do for a living so I would hope so. I have a few ideas floating around but I was actually so late.
With this one?
Yeah. And I still haven't recovered. My books, I think they seem breezy to read. I write them that way purposely. But it's incredibly time consuming to put all that together and edit out the informational clutter. I just hate jargon and pretentious obfuscation. This book, which seems like a nice romp through the Revolutionary War, was actually tedious and life sucking to put together. So, yes, I'll write another book when I get over writing this one.
Have you seen Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton musical [which features a rapping, dancing Marquis de Lafayette]?
What did you think of it?
Well, it's not about Lafayette.
No, it's not about Lafayette. That is my one complaint about Hamilton. It has too much Hamilton sometimes. The thing I loved about it most, honestly, was aesthetic. It so perfectly utilized every aspect of theater. It just milked the meaning out of everything. And the nonstop force of the narrative and the rhythm is so effusive and hilarious. I love how alive it is and how alive the people onstage are.
Daveed Diggs, yes. Daveed Diggs and his hair. He has so much swagger and joie de vivre. I do love how funny it is. But I also like how it doesn't run away from all of these people and their foibles and how they didn't get along.
What would happen if you and Lin-Manuel Miranda went head-to-head, high school debate style?
I'm glad it's high school debate style and not a rap battle because I'm pretty sure he would kick my ass.
Hamilton versus Lafayette. The battle of American heroes. Who wins?
That's the thing. You don't have to choose. I mean, basically, it's going to be Washington. That's even one of the songs, "It's good to have Washington on your side," I think. They each have their contributions. I mean, probably, ultimately, the banking system is more important day-to-day.
We're lucky we don't have to choose.
It'd be a pretty interesting choice to have to make. But, obviously I hope I never have to debate that guy.
The musical is very concerned with the legacies of historical figures. We talked a bit about this already, the idea of what Lafayette has become. What do you think his legacy is today, aside from the statues and the colleges and the towns? What does he represent?
More than anything, he represents the power and necessity and joys of friendship. I think of him as America's best friend. The lesson of the Revolutionary War in general, and of Lafayette in particular, is the importance of alliance and cooperation. A lot of my book is about how much bickering was going on, but I still call it the "somewhat United States" because the founders were united enough. Britain loses because Britain was alone. America wins because America has France. It's easier to win a war when you're not in it alone. And it's easier to live your life when you're not in it alone.
The friendship among those men is one of their more enduring legacies. It's why we call them, we think of them, we lump them together as "the Founding Fathers." Even though they didn't really get along, and maybe they didn't even like other a lot of the time, but they were in it together.