Why Don't the French Celebrate Lafayette?Historians in the News
tags: American Revolution, French history, Lafayette
Lafayette, like Betsy Ross and Johnny Appleseed, is so neatly fixed in the American imagination that it is hard to see him as a human being. Betsy sews stars, Johnny plants trees, Lafayette brings French élan to the American Revolution. He is, in the collective imagination, little more than a wooden soldier with a white plume on his cocked hat. In the original production of “Hamilton,” Daveed Diggs portrayed him affectionately, with a comically heavy French accent and an amorous manner—a hero, yes, but of the cartoon kind, a near relation of Pepé le Pew.
In France, where Lafayette played an even larger historic role, he has come to be a more contentious figure. He is a kind of transposed Jerry Lewis, someone whose high reputation in one country is baffling in the land of his birth. So, while a pleasingly informal new biography by the American podcast host Mike Duncan, “Hero of Two Worlds” (PublicAffairs), shows the officer as a hero tout court, the recent French biography “Lafayette” (Fayard), by Laurent Zecchini, a longtime Le Monde journalist, makes it clear that he has been quarantined as a largely American hero. This is in part, Zecchini explains, because Lafayette, despite having played a central role in two revolutions, was too non-ideological to attract much analysis. Unlike Tocqueville, Zecchini notes, Lafayette “never theorized his experience”—a terrible thing to say about a Frenchman. It has been suggested that he never earned a reputation in France equal to his reputation in America because he never wrote a proper book. Not long ago, his statue, put up by American subscription, was moved out of the Louvre and into the nearby wooded Cours-la-Reine, where it is nearly invisible among the trees.
Yet both books show Lafayette to be a man of action, without the philosopher’s luxury of judgment at a distance—one of those rare people who, having taken on the weight of the world, almost never put a foot wrong. In the crazy turnings of his time, he fought—physically fought, not merely protested with strong tweets or, anyway, with pamphlets—against absolutist monarchy, Colonial bondage, left-wing revolutionary terror, right-wing Bonapartist militarism, incipient imperialism, and then renewed Royalist reaction. He loved American freedom and came to hate American slavery. This had less to do with ideology than with amiability and instinct. He liked good people, and good people liked him. Where, among his closest friends, Hamilton had the quickest pen in the West, Benjamin Constant philosophized subtly, and Washington held to an ideal of Roman republican virtue, Lafayette himself ran on an emotional motor. “Excited and excitable,” Duncan calls him. Lafayette sorted good people from bad people by how they struck him on first encounter. The odd thing is that he so often got it right.
Duncan’s biography is written in a loose, colloquial style that sometimes startles with its informality but more often delights with its directness—a quarrel between Hamilton and Washington is likened to a marriage dissolving “over an unwashed stack of dirty dishes piled high on a mountain of accumulated resentment.” Zecchini’s book, on the other hand, has the tense, disabused, elegant style of good French journalism. Read together, they remind us that the United States and France have very different accounts of the American Revolution. In America, it is a local struggle in which the British are interchangeable redcoats and the French, like Fortinbras’s army at the end of “Hamlet,” appear merely to tidy up. In France, the Americans are referred to as “insurgents,” in a way that recalls the proxy battles of the Cold War, and the insurgency is simply an episode in a larger eighteenth-century contest between France and England. It surely occurred to some people within the government of Louis XVI that offering French support for a revolution against absolutist monarchy might encourage French support for a revolution against absolutist monarchy closer to home—but it didn’t occur to them enough. The urgencies of a confrontation between great powers were irresistible.
Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette, was only eighteen and of no particular military distinction when, in 1776, he began lobbying the French government for an American commission. Tall, handsome, and innocent, he was the scion of an ancient but not very wealthy family, and had already been married off for money. (He was sixteen, his bride, Adrienne de Noailles, only fourteen; the affectionate marriage was a success.) He was known in his circle for his enthusiastic manner and for his desire for glory. He cast himself, throughout his life, as an Enlightenment idealist who had set out on a New World adventure after hearing tales of the revolution.
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