By Laura Auricchio
Knopf. 409 pp. $30
“Lafayette was born on September 6, 1757,” Laura Auricchio tells us at the beginning of “The Marquis,” but for whatever reason she neglects to tell us his full given name, an odd omission in an otherwise excellent book. She does refer to him as Gilbert on the following page but never gives us the entirety, which really should be accompanied by ruffles and flourishes: Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette. By contrast with the simple name of the man whom he admired more than any other in the world — George Washington — that is a veritable symphony.
In this country he is known simply as Lafayette. He came to the American colonies in the late spring of 1777, three months before his 20th birthday, and after a bit of wrangling was given the rank of major general in the American Army and put in command of three brigades, a total of 3,000 men. He acquitted himself with distinction in the War for Independence and was on hand at Yorktown in October 1781 when the British surrendered. Though his military leadership was helpful in the American cause, his real importance was symbolic. He embodied the nascent alliance between the colonies and France, and his friendship with Washington, a generation his senior, became an essential part of the mythology of the United States. In the minds of the American people, he was and to this day remains “the French aristocrat who had risked life and limb on behalf of their freedom.”
We know that part of his story, but as Auricchio — dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies at the New School — makes clear in abundant detail, there is a great deal more that we do not know. For one thing he was a considerably more complicated man than mythology suggests; for another, he lived more than half a century after the surrender at Yorktown and his subsequent return to France. A great deal happened during those many years, not all of which was consistent with his reputation on this side of the Atlantic as an uncompromising friend of liberty.
From boyhood to the end of his life, Lafayette was an enthusiast, a characteristic out of fashion in the France of the Enlightenment, but he “made no attempt to hide his zeal.” He thirsted after the greatest prize available — not money (he had plenty of that until he frittered it all away) but reputation. Auricchio writes:
“The ‘love of glory,’ Lafayette recalled in his memoirs, inspired him to excel at school, where he vied for academic prizes bestowed in public ceremonies. The urge to escape ‘a life without glory,’ he explained to his wife in 1777, compelled him to sail for America. ‘Glory,’ he assured George Washington in 1778, was his only ambition. To be clear, the glory Lafayette sought was quite divorced from notions of splendor. In 1762, a French dictionary defined glory as a ‘reputation’ garnered through ‘virtue, merit, great qualities, good actions and beautiful works’; synonyms included ‘honor, esteem, praise.’ Once earned, glory was its own reward. Many men of Lafayette’s generation hoped for glory, but Lafayette was single-mindedly devoted to its pursuit.”
The glory he won in America brought him back to France as a hero, and for a while it seemed that would be his lasting distinction, but complications intervened in the form of what ultimately became the French Revolution. In France he hoped to introduce “some of the liberal social and economic measures he had first encountered in the United States,” and he “established himself in his native land as a champion of the downtrodden and a defender of human rights, much as he had already done abroad.” He “wanted to improve conditions in the nation’s prisons, introduce greater leniency in the criminal code, and increase rations for His Majesty’s soldiers.” But the central complication lies right there in those two words, “His Majesty’s.” Lafayette was a small-d democrat in America, but in France he “saw constitutional monarchy as the form of government most likely to ensure liberty in an Old World nation.” It was “a dilemma that would hound Lafayette throughout the French Revolution: while partisans on the right deemed him too radical, partisans on the left found him too conservative.” He told Thomas Jefferson “that the Americans who collaborated on the Constitution enjoyed ‘the advantage to work a new ground, uninfluenced by all the circumstances which in Europe necessitate calculations very different,’ ” because in France “privileges and grievances had deep roots in centuries of history that could not be easily dismissed.”
This was not, for its time and place, an unreasonable position, but it ran almost diametrically opposed to the sentiments coursing through the lower levels of French society. Lafayette wanted to expand the rights and liberties of ordinary people, but he also wanted to keep Louis XVI on the throne, and he believed that “an empowered and conscientious nobility was the surest protection against an overreaching monarchy.” In other words, he wanted ordinary people to have better lives, but he did not want to turn over control of the nation to them; he believed that the aristocrats knew best, scarcely an uncommon view among the nobility in France or elsewhere in Europe.
In the summer of 1789, shortly before the storming of the Bastille, he was put in command of the French national militia; one of his supporters called him “a storybook hero who, thanks to the éclat of his adventures, his youth, his bearing, and his renown, could enchant . . . the imagination and rally all of the popular interests to his side.” For a time that seemed possible, but the tide of revolution was too strong. His position may have been moderate by the standards of the day, but leftism was giving way to radicalism, and his efforts to stabilize the country met with derision. After various dramatic encounters he was relieved of his command by the Provisional Executive Council and accused of “plotting against liberty and of treason against the nation.” He was ordered to Paris to face the charges against him, but “he understood that entering Paris alone would mean facing certain death.” He tried to go into exile but was captured in Austria and imprisoned there for five years.
He might well have died there had it not been for the heroic efforts of his wife, Adrienne, who overcame shattering personal loss — her mother, sister and grandmother were all sent to the guillotine during the Reign of Terror — to lobby incessantly on his behalf. She went to Austria and, with their two young daughters, joined her husband in prison there in 1795: “For all of the public and private diplomacy that had gone into obtaining Lafayette’s liberty since 1792, nothing did more to further the cause than the outpouring of international sympathy prompted by Adrienne’s self-imposed incarceration.” Still, two more years passed before he was finally released.
The rest of his life was spent at La Grange, a chateau on a 700-acre estate that Adrienne had inherited. He was restored to financial health and in 1824 made a triumphal return to the United States, where he was feted in every one of the 24 states: “He was a celebrity. And yet he was more than that. He was a living embodiment of the nation’s founding principles, and his enduring vitality augured well for the future of his adopted land.” He returned to La Grange and lived for another decade, dying peacefully there on May 20, 1834, at the age of 76. His funeral in Paris drew a “large but muted crowd,” but in America “President Jackson declared a national state of mourning, flags flew at half-mast, government buildings were draped with crepe, and legislatures around the country heard speeches in honor of Lafayette.” It was a poignant reminder that the best years of his life were those he lived in America between 1777 and 1781.
By Laura Auricchio
Knopf. 409 pp. $30