Whenever a French president visits Washington and White House speechwriters need to come up with something nice to say about France, Lafayette is cited as the man who came to America’s aid in its war of independence. Whether this produces the intended emotional echo in the visitor’s mind is a different matter: While in the United States his statues are liberally scattered up and down the East Coast, in his home country Lafayette is almost forgotten. The Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution (1988) notes tersely that “the man has drawn few eulogies,” and only Americans visit his grave at Paris’s Pipcus Cemetery. In this absorbing biography, Laura Auricchio sets out to explain why.
In 1776, the American Revolution was the hot topic in the salons of Paris: When Arthur Lee and Benjamin Franklin arrived in the French capital “like republicans from the time of Cato and Fabius,” the comte de Ségur reflected on the inherent paradox in a situation where “the monarchs were inclined to embrace the cause of a people in revolt against their King” and “independence was spoken of in the camps, philosophy at the balls, morality in the boudoirs.” Louis XVI himself was aware of the irony, but at Versailles, the hatred of Britain after France’s defeat in the Seven Years’ War was such that courtiers wore maps of England on their backsides.
Among those inspired by the American cause was the young Marquis de Lafayette. He was born in 1757 at the Château de Chavaniac in rural Auvergne, and though his family was only minor military nobility, a large, unforeseen inheritance and an advantageous marriage had landed him at Versailles. Among the court vipers and sycophants, where a breach of etiquette could banish you forever, he was hopelessly out of his depth. The comte de La Marck, one of Marie Antoinette’s favorites, stated that Lafayette “danced without grace [and] sat badly on his horse” and that his performance in the quadrille was such that “the queen could not stop herself from laughing.” For Lafayette, an idealistic young man raised on the exploits of his ancestors—his father had been killed by a cannonball in the Battle of Minden in 1759—this suffocating atmosphere of cynicism and petty intrigue was not his idea of honor and lasting fame.
For French officers, America provided the opportunity for payback for the loss of France’s Canadian colonies in the North American theater of the Seven Years’ War. But while many of his colleagues were soldiers of fortune, Lafayette, well schooled in the ideas of the Enlightenment and the writers of republican Rome, was a true believer. Out of his own pocket he equipped a ship for the cause. Asking no money for his service, but demanding a high rank, he became a major general at the age of 19. Though George Washington was less than enthusiastic about the foreign troops that necessity had forced upon him, Lafayette’s dedication, charm, and sincerity won him over. Thus, writes Auricchio, in America
Lafayette was surrounded by people who saw his sincerity as a virtue, not a flaw. . . . The same nation that rejected Old World traditions of hereditary privilege rejoiced to find a highborn nobleman on its side, as if his interest in the American cause proved its universal appeal.
For such a young commander, mistakes were inevitable; but Auricchio details how Washington carefully prepared him, gradually adding to his responsibilities. Having functioned as a crucial link in smoothing relations between American and French forces, Lafayette played a key role at Yorktown, where his men overran one of the last British positions. On his triumphant return to Paris, he dedicated his Rue de Bourbon townhouse to the American Revolution, with a copy of the Declaration of Independence in golden letters occupying the place of honor. As Auricchio notes, in these tasteful neoclassical surroundings, even Abigail Adams, with her New England disapproval of excess, could not but enjoy herself.
Against this background, it would be natural to assume that Lafayette would be ideally suited to play a leading role in the French Revolution. But though both the American and French revolutions based themselves on the Enlightenment concept of universal natural rights, the French version proved a far more radical and violent affair—and thus a toxic environment for someone like Lafayette, who had a natural abhorrence of mobs and demagogues. “Rarely has a man held to moderate principles with such tenacity,” thereby incurring the wrath of both the right and the left, Auricchio writes.