While on one of my 5 1/2 mile walks the other day the music from the Broadway show “Hamilton” reverberated in my ear buds. After having taught a course trying to discern the historical accuracy of the musical with numerous references to the Marquis de Lafayette I decided to digest Mike Duncan’s latest work, HERO OF TWO WORLDS: THE MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE IN THE AGES OF REVOLUTION. Since 2013 Duncan has recorded about 150 hours for his podcast Revolutions, a chronological blow by blow account of ten historical revolutions between the 17th and early 20th centuries and in his new book he expands upon three seasons of his podcast. In terms of historical depth and important insights I found Duncan’s work satisfying and at times insightful. If one compares Lafayette’s character in the musical to his actual life, apart from artistic license there is an acceptable degree of accuracy in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work if one delves into the lyrics surrounding the American Revolution. However, Lafayette’s life story is more than his key role in the American Revolution and his relationship with George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and John Laurens as he was a focal part in the Age of Revolution that encompassed the latter part of the 18th century and the first third of the 19th.
It is an understatement to say that Lafayette lived a remarkable life. In Duncan’s somewhat hagiographic approach to biography the hero of the American Revolution is presented in a mostly positive lens, sprinkled in with a few errors and foibles that Lafayette succumbed to. The key to understanding the time period in which Lafayette lived is to familiarize the reader with the socio-economic and political structure of pre-revolutionary France. Duncan avails himself of every opportunity to explain the three estate structure of the French political system highlighted by the fact that the first two estates which made up most of the wealth of the French kingdom could not be taxed. Instead of the nobles carrying their fair share of the tax burden, the monarchy relied upon taxing the third estate made up of laborer’s, peasants, educators, and the petit bourgeoisie to make up the budget shortfall as the monarchy edged toward bankruptcy. However, before Duncan turns to events in France he explores Lafayette’s early years that culminated in a major-generalship in the Continental Army under General Washington by age 24.
Duncan is very perceptive in his approach to Lafayette’s upbringing and educational training. He was left fatherless as his father was killed in battle in 1759. By 1770 his mother had passed, and Lafayette inherited a great deal of wealth as a member of the lower nobility. The key for the then teenager was his marriage into the de Noailles family where his father-in-law turned his education away from the countryside and book learning to a military career and the life of a privileged nobleman. Lafayette rejected this career plan and based on his diaries and his letters to his wife Adrienne which Duncan integrates throughout the narrative vowed to make a name for himself and pursue what he believed should become a just society.
Duncan argues that the summer of 1775 was the turning point for Lafayette as he seemed to latch on to the ideas of “liberty, equality, and the rights of man” probably developed while he was exposed to Freemasonry and his Masonic brethren. After learning about the Battles of Lexington and Concord across the Atlantic he secured a position on a list of French officers who were sent to the English colonies to assist the revolutionaries as a means of revenge for the Treaty of Paris of 1763 which resulted in defeat for France at the end of the Seven Years War by the British. Duncan does an admirable job explaining the French characters that were key to aiding the revolutionaries, men like the French Foreign Minister Charles Gravier, Count of Vergennes and Pierre Beaumarchais, an arms trader and financier who helped finance and supply weapons and other materials that fueled French assistance.
Perhaps the most interesting relationship that Duncan develops is between Washington and Lafayette. At first the Colonial commander was not impressed with Lafayette seeing him as another privileged French general who strutted around and knew little about military tactics and commanding men. However, after the Battle of Brandywine in 1777 Lafayette proved himself in battle with his ability to improvise his command and his remarkable bravery which at times bordered on personal recklessness. Soon Washington would become a surrogate father for the newly minted French general and he a “son” to his commander.
Duncan reviews the most important aspects of the American Revolution, the political and military factions it spawned, and the most important characters involved. Written in a workman like manner there is little that is new here as the author rehashes Lafayette’s positive contributions, his own wealth, leadership, and connections with the French government to lobby support for greater French support which culminated in the British defeat.
Duncan does not neglect Lafayette’s weakness as a father and husband. While he off seeking glory and developing a heroic persona he left his wife and children, one of which dies while he was away in America. Duncan is correct by emphasizing his wife Adrienne’s love for her husband but also her sense of abandonment and loneliness.
Lafayette’s experience in America reinforced his views about the corruptibility of the nobility and their lack of social consciousness. As he evolved into a social reformer he overlooked the hypocrisy of his compatriots in America concerning slavery as he adopted abolitionism, worked for prison reform, religious freedom, freedom of speech and the press all in the name of the betterment of the masses. Later as the French Revolution reached its pinnacle he would prepare a list of reforms called the Declaration of Rights of Man which he offered the new National Assembly in1788 which would become the basis of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen a year later. Over a five year period after the Treaty of Paris with England in 1783, Lafayette transitioned from an adventurous soldier to a liberal benefactor of humanity, particularly starving peasants, oppressed Protestants, and enslaved Africans.
Duncan’s insights into Lafayette’s precarious position as the French Revolution approached are important as he delves into his attempts to follow a middle course. He remained loyal to Louis XVI as long as the king did not go back on promises to implement reforms particularly when the king was forced to leave Versailles for Paris once the revolution took hold. Lafayette was appointed the commanding general of the 30,000 man National Guard to protect the city from violence and any threats that might prevent the writing of a constitution. To many, particularly on the left, men like Jean-Paul Marat, Camille Desmoulins and George Danton he was a tool of the monarchy. However ultra-royalists saw him as working to undermine the nobility as he worked for a constitutional monarchy. As Lafayette tried to hold the center he seemed to offend everyone.
Eventually as the French Revolution turned increasingly violent with the Reign of Terror, Lafayette fled to Austria and was treated as a dangerous revolutionary and would be imprisoned for five years. Duncan carefully crafts Lafayette’s plight as a prisoner under the auspices of Francis I, the Habsburg Emperor. He would spend the last year in the Austrian prison at Olmutz enduring horrible conditions. Towards the end of his imprisonment, he would be joined by his wife Adrienne and three daughters who would suffer along with their husband and father. Finally, as the French rebuilt their military might to counter the English, Prussian, and Austrian armies they would free Lafayette when a young Napoleon Bonaparte liberated the prison. By 1814 he would reenter the political fray as the Bourbon restoration after the Congress of Vienna turned reactionary. He would be instrumental in the overthrow of the Bourbon Dynasty in 1830 that placed Louis-Phillipe on the throne, but the new monarch would only disappoint him.
Duncan does an admirable job reflecting on Lafayette’s career and the causes he was drawn to. Duncan is up front when discussing his subjects’ limitations seeing him as a man dominated by an overwhelming amount of energy, but he lacked the intelligence of many of his important contemporaries. It is clear that Lafayette’s lack of personal ambition was key as it limited his ability to engage in the cutthroat politics of France during his lifetime, and the hero worship that he was graced with never really matched concrete accomplishments once the gains of 1789 were made.
Overall, Duncan is a masterful historical storyteller who has made an important contribution to the literature that surrounds Lafayette’s life. He dissects all of the major aspects of his personal life and career, and one could only conclude that Lafayette lived a remarkable life that saw him engage in important aspects of two of the three most important revolutions in history (the Russian Revolution being the third) of what British historian, Eric Hobsbawm has labeled the “Age of Revolution.”