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Book Review: The Marquis

By (October 28, 2014) No Comment

the marquis coverThe Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered

by Laura Auricchio

Knopf, 2014

Laura Auricchio, in The Marquis, her robust, hugely satisfying new biography of Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette, hits on the kind of log-splitting wedge biographers lay awake at night dreaming of concocting. Lafayette, who came to the American colonies at the age of 19 in order to join General Washington’s staff and fight for the success of the Revolution, has been a staple figure in American civic folklore for two hundred years, the brightest star in the contingent of such foreign guest-stars that also includes the stern drillmaster Baron von Steuben and the dashing military adventurer Tadeusz Kosciuszko. Auricchio gives a spirited and entirely accurate account of how the colonies embraced the young French nobleman:

In America, Lafayette found glory and more. Here, for the first time since leaving [France], he was surrounded by people who saw his sincerity as a virtue, not a flaw. The public welcomed him immediately – Lafayette was the only marquis in the American army, and his title all but guaranteed his renown. 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. And if Lafayette’s rank opened doors, his personality won hearts. As news of Lafayette’s unaffected charm made its way through the colonies, even the most hardened anti-French feelings began to dissolve. Then as now, Americans prided themselves on plain dealing, and those who met Lafayette were pleasantly surprised to discover that this exceptional Frenchman shared their sensibility.

And there’s the prize gimmick, the aforementioned wedge: that “then as now.” Because, as Auricchio dramatizes right at her book’s outset, the French don’t like Lafayette. They tend to disdain his memory, not because of his whole-hearted support of the American Revolution but because of his decidedly lukewarm reaction to the French Revolution. Although Lafayette was commander of the National Guard in Paris at the beginning of the Revolution, he quickly broke with the Jacobins, espousing a reformed monarchy rather than the more American-style attempt at republican government. He fled the country, spent years in prison in Austria, kept a wary, distasteful distance from Napoleon Bonaparte, and bridled at the authoritarian overreach of restored monarchs Louis XVIII and Charles X, even as his renown grew in the new United States (a renown firmly cemented by a prolonged and deeply silly grand tour of the country in 1824). Although he privately maintained a much more sardonic view of the Marquis, when Lafayette died in 1834, John Quincy Adams gave him a long and fulsome eulogy, referring to him as a benefactor of mankind. But the assessments of French historians have always been less star-struck. For centuries, they’ve tended to point out some American colonial leaders had been pointing out long before Yorktown: that in addition to being a brave and disinterested benefactor of mankind, the man was a vain, opportunistic, and sometimes flighty popinjay.

Disjunctions like these are pure gifts to writers of popular biography, and Auricchio makes the most of it. Her book follows Lafayette’s life and career with greater sympathy and in greater detail than any previous account in English that I know of, and the infectious zest of her character descriptions is by no means limited to her illustrious hero. Even far less central figures, like quarrelsome colonial Major General Charles Lee, are brought wonderfully to life:

Lee’s disdain for Washington was not personal; he regarded nearly everyone in the same imperious manner. An eccentric character, Lee took pride in his misanthropy and openly admitted preferring the company of dogs and horses to that of humans; in a letter to a friend, Lee promised that he would turn philanthropic “when my honest quadruped friends are equaled by the bipeds in fidelity, gratitude, or good sense.” Exhibiting a fine disregard for military protocol, he treated orders like unwelcome suggestions – which is to say, he generally ignored them.

The complications of post-Restoration French politics are smoothed out with enviable ease, and the picture of Lafayette that emerges is of a figure the Americans were right to revere even though they didn’t understand and that the French were wrong to disparage even though they did understand. It’s a tricky balancing act, and Auricchio does it well.

“I have been reproached all my life for giving in too much to my hopeful disposition,” Lafayette wrote to a friend at one point, “I will respond that it is the only way to do something out of the ordinary. One would, indeed, never try anything extraordinary if one despaired of success.” And whatever else his countrymen might say of him – either set of countrymen (in 2002, he was granted the status of an honorary American) – Lafayette was always very firmly out of the ordinary. He’s always been far more deserving of a first-rate popular biography than either the General he worshipped or the Tyrants he opposed, and now at last he’s got one.