Amidst the recent salutary revival of interest in, and rehabilitation of, the Founders one figure has been sorely lacking: the Marquis de Lafayette. This oversight seemed particularly acute to me because of the really central question of why the results of the two revolutions in which he played a key role should have diverged so profoundly. Where the American Revolution ended in the Republic based on the vindication of God given liberties, the French has spawned a series of generally mass murderous attempts to govern men according to Reason alone and to impose egalitarianism via the institution of a strong, even totalitarian, central state. In the absence of a contemporary life of Lafayette we've neither been able to give the good Frenchman the credit he deserves for aiding in the former, nor been able to understand his failures in the latter. Happily, this new dual biography of George Washington and Lafayette more than fills in the gaps. Author David A. Clary also manages to cast Washington in a new light by advancing and then rather conclusively defending the argument that Lafayette was essentially a surrogate son to Washington. The resulting portrait of Washington is maybe the most human we've yet seen. Add in Mr. Clary's deft histories of the two revolutions and you've got one of those books where once you've read it you can't imagine how we did without it.
Pride of place should be given to Mr. Clary's--to the best of my knowledge--original thesis: that Washington and Lafayette filled for each other the vital emotional roles of, respectively, father and son. Having read a fair bit about Washington in recent years that idea seemed absurd to me at first, both because of the reserve for which Washington was famous and because other authors have not made Lafayette as central a player in Washington's life. But Mr. Clary uses not just the incidents of their lives but their correspondence to make it clear that for each man his friendship with the other was unique. As importantly, Mr. Clary demonstrates the way in which this relationship came to influence the course of events. Not only did Lafayette become an officer who Washington could depend on to a degree that he often couldn't his other subordinates, but once the French Revolution began to eat its own, America sought, successfully, to protect Lafayette and even to restore the wealth he lost. He was treated like the Son of the country of which Washington was the Father.
What I was really interested in though was seeing why, even with Lafayette on hand to help lead, the French fouled up their revolution so horribly and so lastingly. Mr. Clary gives an excellent account of events, though less of an explanation for why they occurred that way. A quote from Gouverneur Morris, who was representing America in France at the time, may come closest to the mark when he observes that they had not "the mildness of our manners." But to note that the French model, of forced egalitarianism, is driven by hatred and envy because the French were/are spiteful and jealous rather begs the question. In the absence of analysis, Lafayette's own verdict on events will have to suffice:
Our American Revolution had left my mind as it were in a state of maidenhead. It was not acquainted with the ways of man as it is now. I have fought the same battles for the same cause with the same spirit and success at the head of the right angels against the wrong ones. But the scene of the one action was in Heaven, the other in Hell.But we might ask whether he wasn't actually on the wrong side and fighting for something quite different in the nation he tragically helped make a Hell. I suspect that the problem can be traced directly to the manner in which the Declaration grounded human rights in the Creation of Man, while Lafayette's own Declaration of the Rights of Man--which was subsequently rewritten considerably by the French Assembly--asserted that such rights were "natural." This may seem a subtle difference but is instead determinative, for good on the one side and evil on the other.
Finally, if Lafayette tried to model himself upon Washington's example to some considerable degree, not least in surrendering military power once a constitution had been written in France, there was also one profound way in which Washington followed his example. Lafayette advocated for freeing America's slaves more passionately than any other Founder, to the point of trying to raise an army of slaves during the Revolution and backing such projects as buying a plantation in the West Indies in order to free the slaves and see if they could work it as free men. Though he was unable to convince Washington that abolition was doable on a country-wide scale during his lifetime, the great man did famously manumit his own slaves upon his death. Had Lafayette done nothing more than lead Washington to this redemptive act, he'd have been a worthy son. That he did so much more and that Washington did so much for him makes for a marvelous book.
-BOOK SITE: Adopted Son: Washington, Lafayette, and the Friendship That Saved the RevolutionBy David A. Clary (Written Voices)
-BOOK SITE: Adopted Son (Random House)
-PODCAST INTERVIEW: with David Clary (Written Voices)
-REVIEW: George Washington's Indispensable Friend: a review of Adopted Son (David Rapp , American Heritage)
-PROFILE: Author tells a tale of triumph (Don Worthington, 3/02/07, Fay Observer)
-AUDIO: George Washington, Staying in Character (Robert Krulwich, February 17, 2007, Weekend Edition)
-REVIEW: of Adopted Son
-REVIEW: of Adopted Son (Marc Schulman, History Central)
-REVIEW: of Adopted Son (Robert Finn, Bookreporter)
-REVIEW: of Adopted Son (W. J. Rayment / ConservativeBookstore)
-REVIEW: of Adopted Son (John Davis, Decatur Daily)
-REVIEW: of Adopted Son
Book-related and General Links:
-American Friends of Lafayette
-Lafayette: French Soldier & Statesman (Lucid Cafe)
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd