Hero of Two Worlds
By: Jake Weatherill
Hey there all! Here I am, dusting off my History and REDACTED degree for the second time in less than a year. Not going to lie, it’s slightly weird that it’s getting semi-regular use of late given it has largely been redundant in all my employment post university.
Anyway, before I get side tracked by my employment history showcasing a failed historian, if all has gone well you should be reading this on July 14th July, the 234 years after The Storming of The Bastille during The (First) French Revolution. Given that not so clumsy Segway I am pretty confident that you think you have an idea of where this is going. So, let’s see if you’re right, shall we?
For a long time I had always considered myself to have a half decent working knowledge of The Age of Revolution. At a young(ish) age I knew the big names from the American, French and Russian Revolutions. I had a reasonable knowledge of The English Civil Wars and the following dabbling in republicanism by Britain. I found them interesting but had yet to fully fall into the rabbit hole of Revolutionary History. Even going into University my own self-professed specialist areas of history sat at towards the start (Napoleonic Wars), and end (Inter-War Europe, largely through the eyes of British Foreign Policy, Germany and The USSR) of The Age of Revolution. What I knew of these subjects had encompassed a peripheral understanding of the events, including the revolutions, which had led to them, but was still incredibly focused on the two aforementioned time frames.
Yet as I grew older, and my intellectual interests expanded beyond just history I would find myself starting to gain an inkling of the significance of the Age of Revolution. Just how much that happened from its start (regardless of when you consider it starting, it’s largely accepted that The American Revolution marks it’s beginning, but there are arguments to be made that The Wars of The Three Kingdoms between Charles I and Parliament in the 1640’s marks it’s start, while I would even go so far as to argue that The Dutch Revolt/Eighty Years War is its true starting point) to its ‘end’ would shape the direction of events to come. In the words of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (although his usage was admittedly in description of other, more recent events) The Age of Revolution was a Zeitenwende. An epochal turning point which left the path of the world forever changed.
Over lockdown I had decided to look at some areas of my historical knowledge I felt were lacking, starting off with the Roman Empire. When it came to the Age of Antiquity I had very much been a Hellenic fan boy. Ancient Greece was a world of wonder to me. From the Mycenaean Greeks traveling to Troy, to the militaristic Spartans, the foundations of Athenian democracy, and Alexander The Great rampaging over the known world, Greece kind of ticked a lot of my ancient world boxes. It was after consuming vast amounts of Roman documentaries on YouTube that one of my favourite channels would point me in a direction that would forever influence my tastes (a shout out here to Extra Credits.) One video in particular would introduce me to Mike Duncan, and heavily recommended his History of Rome Podcast. With little else to do besides take my daily exercise having a complete podcast series was perfect. Once the final episode had played on my Google Podcasts (over providers are available) I was expecting the silence of dead air when you can’t be bother to put something new on. Instead I got an extra little bit. Mr Duncan had another Podcast he was launching. Revolutions.
Now dear reader, I would like to think you have an inkling of me enough to know I don’t believe in fate, or signs from the universe. Yet the coincidence that I was being presented with a podcast on Revolutions by this exceptional podcaster, just as I had recently finished watching a series on The Napoleonic Wars on YouTube to which The (First) French Revolution is intrinsically linked, I thought what the hell? Let us go down the podcast/revolutionary rabbit hole! A little under two years on it’s a decision I haven’t regretted.
One particular person who I found particularly interesting as I went further along the path of revolutionary history was The Marquis De Lafayette. The Hero of Two Worlds. When I found out Mike Duncan had written a book on Lafayette I was definitely interested in finding out more. While Lafayette had come up regularly in the series covering the American, and the First & Second French Revolution, I had a somewhat sparse idea of his life and times, especially given that being called Revolutions, the podcast focused much more on the event that the series was focusing on rather than diving deep into the lives of the individuals involved. For a person to be at the centrifuge of history not once, not twice, but thrice is rare enough. It also found me being drawn to how such a figure who seems relatively obscure to most of the world, beyond having a few places in the US named in his honour, could become such a key player in these epochal events? With my need for answers requiring satisfying I had to read the book.
Given the breadth of Lafayette’ career it seems no surprise that Duncan decided it was best to break the book into three parts, with two bridging interludes covering the times in between the events that would define The Marquis’ life.
The first part, Cur Non, takes us through the early years of Lafayette, from his birth up to his departure for France after the conclusion of The American War of Independence/The American Revolutionary War. With an early life blighted by tragedy marked by the passing of both parents, it’s hard not to feel sorry for the young orphan Marquis. Yet it is difficult to argue it would not have played some part in the forming of this future revolutionary. Raised largely by aunts and cousins the young Lafayette would prefer to roam and explore the surrounding countryside, although he showed a clear aptitude for his studies. While most young nobleman may have been thinking of the glories of Charlemagne and the Franks, or the knights of The Hundred Years War, Lafayette would be enraptured by antiquity. Yet in these early days it wasn’t the Legions of Rome he admired, but their implacable Gaulish foe, Vercingetorix. He would spend his days reading of the Gallic Wars, and play fighting imaginary legionnaires.
I should note at this point that Lafayette, while young and orphaned, was a considerably wealth member of the nobility. This would lead him to the attention of De Noailles family. Also nobility, although slightly more impoverished than the young marquis, the De Noailles were well connected at court, and to the inner circle of the French Royal Family. What they lacked in financial firepower was made up for in influence within the Ancien Regime. When the De Noailles were informed of this fabulously well off, young member of the rural aristocracy a match was made with between Lafayette and their daughter Adrienne (the lack of a dowry for the De Noailles you suspect was a positive bonus for the family). Yet this would see Lafayette rise in stature, and brought to court at Versailles, seeing him in the same class as the youngest of the three brother who would go on to sit upon the French throne, the future Charles X.
Lafayette’ career however starts to take him in the direction you would expect for someone I have sort of hyped as one of the great revolutionaries. Despite his promising early military career being somewhat kyboshed, Lafayette would attend a dinner in 1775 that would unarguably change his life forever. At this dinner talk of the rebellion in North America by British Colonists crept in to the conversation. Something about this would clearly trigger something in Lafayette, feeling a deep sense of wonder at the Americans fighting for liberty which reflected his truest beliefs. This nobleman was already sold on the cause, and after subtle entreaties by American diplomats to The French Government at the time it was decided that France would, albeit initially covertly and limitedly, support the American cause. This would see ex-officers of the French army heading over to take up positions of command in the Continental Army fighting the British, while hopefully training these rebels up to the European standard of warfare. In 1777 Lafayette would board a boat across the pond, and his career would be set on a route he never could leave.
During his time in North America Lafayette would cross paths with countless historical figures such as Alexander Hamilton (his first friend in the New World), John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Yet there was none who would impact him so heavily as George Washington. While the Orphan Marquis had lacked a paternal figure from a young age, Washington would have no biological children of his own. Whether it was the young man’s sincere zeal and idealism, the older man’s duty and honour, or merely two men filling an absence the other might feel, Lafayette would become the son Washington never had, while Washington would be venerated like a father by Lafayette. Lafayette’s path through North America takes him via Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, and ends at Yorktown. One of my favourite anecdotes about The Marquis, which I think shows a glimpse of the personality of this idealistic young nobleman, comes from the Siege of Yorktown. As The British left the fallen town they attempted to keep their eyes firmly fixed on the French Army involved. Lafayette though, still serving with the America Continental Army, would ensure that these once rebels and now victors would get the respect due to them. On his encouragement he got the drummer boys to start up a rendition of ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ forcing the British to turn their heads in acknowledgement to face the other half of their foe. It strikes me that even here, with his own countrymen across from him, Lafayette was still wholeheartedly an American in all but name. This slight mischievousness ensured that Britain quite literally had to acknowledge their ex-subjects as a now free people, whether they liked it or not.
As we reach our first interlude it becomes increasingly clear that even if Lafayette may have gone over wrapped in dreams of glorious service to a noble cause the conflict he now left behind, and the new nation found in its wake really did effect Lafayette deeply. He clearly felt something beyond the attachment one gets for another country. The ideas of liberty, freedom, and equality were now scrawled across the soul of The Marquis. What the interlude between parts one and two does very well, is not just highlight this transition within Lafayette, but the way it had opened his eyes once he returned to France.
Part two, unsurprisingly, focuses on The (First) French Revolution. Here Duncan takes us over how French support for The American Revolution led to economic collapse, and the societal effects that would have. This, combined with a bubbling resentment towards the Bourbon monarchy, would ferment into a volatile mixture that would ultimately blow up in an unexpected, and increasingly volatile manner. This is when we see how Lafayette’ experiences an ocean away equipped him for handling the revolutionary tumult that was about to engulf the European continent. In the early days he would undoubtedly be at the forefront of efforts to overhaul the French system from that of an Absolute Monarchy, to the system of Constitutional Monarchy that had been introduced in Britain after The Glorious Revolution. If the Revolution were to have ended at the 1790 Fête de la Fédération, the year after the Storming of The Bastille there’s possibly a good chance that we would be talking of Lafayette as the great hero of this Revolution.
Yet, as observed by Georges Danton at his own trial “The revolution like Saturn devours its own children”, and this would apply to the highborn Lafayette as much as to the lower born Girondins, and the countless others who would be caught up in the fanatical zealotry of The Terror. Although the Marquis would ultimately avoid the fate of his some of his family, friends, and sovereign, by his crossing of the lines to leave the French Army representing the revolution he had gone from loving to loathing into the arms of the waiting anti-French Coalition. Yet just because he kept his head (quite literally) Lafayette’ continual imprisonment after leaving France would see him be a source of ridicule in the press, and a feared prisoner by the absolutist powers of Europe, it would only be after many years, due in no small part to the intervention of a general named Napoleon Bonaparte, that Lafayette could return to his homeland. Although he would remove himself from matters of Politics, Lafayette would become a resolute opponent of Bonaparte, from the moment the latter trashed the principles of the revolution Lafayette held so close to his heart to install himself as a military dictator, to Napoleon returning from Elba after his first exile, and the subsequent 100 Days Campaign that would decide the fate of Post-Revolutionary Europe for the next half a century.
The final part of Duncan’ book focuses on the latter life of this fascinating man. With Lafayette a free man in Restoration France, and feeling the politics of the time could undermine the things that himself and others had worked so tirelessly to secure during The First Revolution the Marquis accepted an invitation from the US President James Monroe and Congress to visit the nation for a Grand Tour to mark the US’s 50th Anniversary. In his time in his other homeland Lafayette would tour the sites of the Revolutionary War, while celebrating Independence Day in New York, even meeting a child called Walt Whitman (the man who would become known as America’s Poet). As he disembarked home Lafayette would take various gifts with him, as well as some dirt from Bunker Hill.
The France Lafayette would return to though would still be a simmering pot of intrigue and dissatisfaction with the regime. Regardless of whether they were now a monarchy again, the ideas that were borne by The Revolution still resonated in French society. Once concepts of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity are out of the bottle it’s hard to put those back in after they been exposed to the consciousness. Here (in an unrelated note) The English Civil Wars/The Cromwellian Quasi-Republics/The Stuart Restoration/The Glorious Revolution highlight the historical folly of the returned Bourbon to think such a return to life before the Revolution was even remotely possible.
After just over five years on the throne Charles X was determined to restore the status quo of the Ancien Regime, while gutting the alternate ideas of governance The Revolution had put forth. In July 1830 the kings Prime Minister, Jules Polignac, would issue The Four Ordinances, stripping away civil rights and press freedoms in an effort to curtail criticism of Charles Government. Yet to do such a thing in a country that had risen up in Revolution a little under 40 years ago was asking for trouble. The Second French Revolution (more commonly referred to as The Revolution of 1830 or The July Revolution) was here. At this stage Lafayette had gone from young idealist in America, to the scorned revolutionary of the original Revolution, to an old hero of clear principles and convictions. Given Lafayette’ could characterise his life up to this point as having been in the service of liberty it is entirely unsurprising he was just as repulsed by Charles and Polignac as everyone else. Lafayette would be at the forefront of trying to undermine The Bourbon power play, with even talk of the old Marquis becoming a revolutionary dictator as an interim. However one thing that is very clear is Lafayette eschewed the idea of obtaining vast political power for himself. As he styled himself General in his later years, it’s clear he saw himself as a soldier of the revolutionary cause, rather than the man to lead it. Even when he did accumulate power in the past he was always reluctant to hold on to it himself. For The General the idea that had started to form in his head in the 1780’s had a clear shape. For Lafayette France needed to become a monarchy ‘surrounded by republican institutions’. Given that Lafayette had the loyalty of the National Guard as not only its Captain-General, but its founder the Marquis on paper bore massive military influence. As a member of The Chamber of Deputies as well Lafayette also wielded immense political influence. It would be fair to say that he would be one of the key architects of Charles downfall, and the ascension of Louis-Phillippe as The Last King of The French.
As he entered the final twilight of his life Lafayette’ belief in the rights of man, to liberty, to equality, were never dimmed. Even after Louis-Phillippe was installed as king and Lafayette would find his hopes of a republican inspired monarchical system being undermined by another slip towards autocratic tendency by Louis-Phillippe and his ministers, The General would not yield on his principles, nor retreat from being a persistent voice in opposition to what he considered royal infringements on the people’s lives. When Lafayette would finally pass away aged 76 in 1834, he would be surrounded by his loved ones, although the people would be denied a chance to mourn him, with Louis-Phillippe giving Lafayette a military funeral so as to stop mourners coming to pay their respects to the revolutionary Hero of Two Worlds.
In his biography of Lafayette, Mike Duncan showcases what makes him an exceptional historian as he chronicles the Marquis life from beginning to end. I have often thought that when writing about history and politics in a non-fiction format that there are many more parallels between those subjects and fiction than are first acknowledged. In politics the obsession of any political theory or figure is often about ‘controlling the narrative’, which when you think about it is no different from the observations of Churchill and Napoleon that history is decided by the victor.
While the observation of Churchill and Bonaparte may well be an oversimplification of the reality of this, it is also not so simplified that it can be dismissed as a ludicrous idea. At the risk of getting myself in trouble here the history of The British Empire, and the debates currently being had around it are signifiers of the narrative control of history. Other side is reluctant to fully embrace the history of the empire, instead emphasising the ‘positives’ of imperialism, while others feel that the duty of history is to unflinchingly tell the truth. The fact is that history is often told in terms of the emotive story of what happened rather than as a cold, impassive regurgitating of events, and all tales that play on emotion require a well-constructed narrative.
Duncan (in the focused terms of Lafayette and his Revolutions) subscribes to the latter theory of unflinching honesty, while also being able to compile a compelling narrative about the life of one of the worlds most involved revolutionaries. Yes, Lafayette is presented as a largely sympathetic, forward thinking figure, but this doesn’t make Duncan pull his punches on the shortcomings of Lafayette (or the American Revolution that launched the Marquis career). For example rather than sidestep the awkward truth that The American Revolutionary War was a job half done, granting freedom and liberty to some while keeping others either in shackles in the case of the slaves, or when it comes to the Native Americans forcing them from their land under the obsessions of ‘Manifest Destiny’ and expansion to the Pacific. Likewise Duncan refuses to paint Lafayette as a saint of the highest order, despite a clear admiration for the subject from the author, this can be best illustrated in Duncan’s focusing on Lafayette, abolitionism, and emancipation of the enslaved. While the Marquis (although not initially) would become a firm believer that the ideas of Equality, Fraternity and Liberty by which he lived his life were deeply incompatible with the institution of slavery, Duncan highlights the fact that despite these seemingly sincerely held abolitionist belief of the Marquis he actually did relatively little to help bring this about, and would fail to emancipate even his own slaves in Saint-Domingue before the revolutionary sparks would journey to the colony. This dedication to truth telling of the historical figures he covers is something that has been emblematic of Duncan since his podcasting days, and is what pushes this biography from being merely historical fanboying/fangirling to a balanced and fair accounting of Lafayette, the man.
And speaking of Lafayette the man this book has shown why, for me at least, Lafayette should be lauded as one of history’s most influential figures. From orphan marquis to revolutionary colossus. A nobleman who was at heart a republican. While he may not have been perfect, it seems to me that Lafayette is one of the ‘purer’ (morally rather than politically, and very much for want of a better term) Revolutionaries from its great age. Lafayette was principled, and a firm believer that a life without liberty was not really a life at all. Most interestingly though, and what has largely led me to the conclusion that Lafayette should sit higher in the revolutionary pantheon, is the fact that Lafayette’s views, beliefs, and principles evolved over his long and varied career upon contact with new information and experiences. When so many of history’s ‘great’ revolutionaries are lauded for their zeal for the cause, and inflexibility about their principles around said cause Lafayette showed a very modern thinking that, god forbid, opinions and principles can change as new info comes to light. That maybe, just maybe, they shouldn’t be so firmly entrenched that they become merely repetitive mantras rather than ideas to live your life by.
I absolutely eschew the ‘Great Person’ theory of history. That one man or woman, through either fate, chance, or sheer force of will can write the future singlehandedly is a gross misrepresentation of history. While Napoleon may have been a great general who was able to use the situations of the time to his advantage in a rise to power, he did not singlehandedly achieve this, just as his many campaigns displaying his tactical astuteness (such as The Battle of Austerlitz) was won by many soldiers fighting, bleeding and dying on the field of battle, not by Napoleon on his lonesome battering every Austrian and Russian soldier in his path that day with grapeshot. Likewise, while in this country Churchill would be at the forefront of the war effort during WW2, made some very charismatic speeches, and had before war broke out identified the threat of Fascism to Europe, he did not alone save Britain from Hitler’s wrath. It was the pilots of the RAF, the generals in North Africa and Greece, those they commanded, as well as hefty financial and logistical support from across The Pond. Sure, Churchill played an important role but again, like Napoleon, he did not alone turn the tide of history.
I do however believe that history is littered with great people, and Lafayette is certainly one of those.