The Marquis de Lafayette is one of eight honorary citizens of the United States. His grand return to the United States in 1824 was the equivalent in popularity to today’s Taylor Swift concerts. Thousands of American citizens flocked to each town he visited. There are dozens of cities, parks, schools, and streets named after Lafayette. He is known as the “Hero of Two Worlds” because of his role in both the American and French Revolution. His revolution in America was a success. On the other hand, the French Revolution turned on him.
To write a biography about Lafayette is a massive undertaking. While I credit the author, Mike Duncan, for writing an easy to read and all encompassing overview of the great Frenchmen, his book, Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution, leaves a lot to be desired. In fairness, the subject of Lafayette should probably include multiple volumes and stretch over one thousand pages. Duncan’s book is only 436 pages (in paperback before notes). Lafayette participated in two revolutions, lived through the Napoleonic era, and was at the center of twenty years of power struggles in France. To get a complete picture of the man and his life needs to be more thorough.
Lafayette’s Early Life
The Marquis de Lafayette was born into the French aristocracy. Although he had the silver spoon in his mouth from birth, he did suffer loss as both of his parents died when he was young. After the death of his parents, powerful forces in French high society directed the young man’s life to include his marriage. It is hard for a modern American reader to comprehend the type of life that Lafayette would have lived in luxury and with strict societal expectations for his life and conduct. Nevertheless, during his late teenage years, he decided to forsake all of the privileges of his aristocratic upbringing to participate in the American revolution.
Lafayette’s decision to join the American revolution was a defining moment that the author could have explored deeper. Every aspect of Lafayette’s thought process should have been dissected. What were his religious beliefs? Where did he get his political ideas? How is it that he became so enthralled with republican ideas? After all, he had it made as a French aristocrat.
The author discusses that he was awkward in French society and did not fit in. At one point, Marie Antoinette laughed at him for being a clumsy dancer. It is strongly suggested that it was this inability to conform that led him to desire something more. Perhaps he was drawn to the American Revolution by a young man’s sense of adventure. That could have been 99% of his decision making. But, in writing about a man like Lafayette, there should be no stone left unturned.
Lafayette in the American Revolution
It is remarkable that Lafayette became a Major General at the age of 19. Clearly the Americans were desperate for French support. The author asserts that Lafayette’s wealth and connections caused him to stick out above other ambitious Frenchmen that were seeking battlefield glories in the Americas. However, the treatment of Lafayette as a historical figure is really unfair. On multiple occasions, Lafayette is referred to as “boy.” This is by design. Duncan wants to impress upon the reader Lafayette’s youth and inexperience. The author paints the picture of a young boy playing soldier. Meanwhile, George Washington, the father figure, figuratively pats him on the head and treats him like a rascally albeit endearing young son.
This portrayal of Lafayette does not take him seriously. In fact, Lafayette’s service in the American Revolution should be at least an entire volume. However, there is not much depth to Lafayette’s leadership, decision making, and even the details of his more consequential battles. For example, one of the most daring assaults of the war during the Siege of Yorktown is given only a couple paragraphs. Lafayette helped seize one of the critical redoubts, Number 9, to help break the siege and force the British to surrender. Yet the author spends little time on it and glosses over Lafayette’s leadership.
How did Lafayette’s military mind develop? We don’t know. Was he student of military history? Did he have mentors? The reader is left to wonder how Lafayette became a great soldier.
Too Much Taken for Granted
Hero of Two Worlds breezes over Lafayette’s development as a soldier and a statesman for many reasons. It is a book that does not take ideas seriously. Furthermore, it fails to wrestle with the complexities of history. On the other hand, the author has no issue offering moral condemnation from a 21st Century perspective. We know slavery was wrong. But, even Lafayette did not think slavery was wrong until later in his life. What happened that led him to his abolitionist stance? There is no serious exploration of the principles of America’s founding that led Lafayette and others to see how an institution like slavery was incompatible with the new nation’s values. Instead the author is content to accuse the founders of “hypocrisy” and claim that Lafayette was a hypocrite until later in his life.
The author also makes an absurd claim that the founding fathers like George Washington committed genocide against the Native Americans. This is a totally baseless not to mention a historically inaccurate assertion. Consider your typical pioneer on the American frontier. They have escaped religious persecution and economic hardship. American settlers want to live a free and independent life. They want to cultivate the land, raise their families, worship God, and build communities. After escaping persecution in their home countries, they are subject to often vicious attacks by Native Americans. Has anyone ever accused the Indians of being xenophobic? Don’t they know diversity is our strength? Shouldn’t asylum seekers be welcomed with open arms like America’s current immigration system? The people who want open borders today lament the same open border system that existed in colonial America. In any case, it is another example of the unseriousness of this book.
Lafayette and the French Revolution
Lafayette’s service in the French Revolution is one of the most interesting parts of his life. This book will make readers want to dive deeper into the French Revolution. It is an incredibly complex period with a series of events, which are hard to follow for those not well-versed in the history of the French Revolution. In the big picture, Lafayette wanted reform and a more republican form of government. But, he did not want to abolish the monarchy. He was practical and fought to preserve the King’s status as a national figurehead, but not a political ruler.
From the French Revolution through the rest of Lafayette’s life, the author paints the picture of a man who was a gifted soldier with lofty ideas. However, he was not an adept politician and crafty statesmen. Lafayette survived the French Revolution while others were not so lucky. His wife, Adrienne, survived thanks in part to American diplomatic efforts. It is hard to believe that Lafayette spent almost five years rotting in a jail cell as a political prisoner until Napoleon Bonaparte’s ascendance to power.
Lafayette’s relationship with Napoleon is another area where we get a high level overview of the tension between the two Frenchmen. Lafayette viewed Napoleon as a dictator and authoritarian. To Lafayette, Napoleon’s imperial reign was anathema to the republican principles that animated both revolutions.
More to Discover
I am curious what Lafayette thought of George Washington versus Napoleon. Washington was a man that led a revolution and handed power back to Congress. Obviously this is one of the many reasons Lafayette admired Washington. But, there is so much more to cover on this incredibly important topic than what the book provides. Like so much of the shallow historical narrative, the author talks about slavery and yet ignores so much substance. Lafayette saw something in Washington that he loved. What made him different than Napoleon? Did Lafayette offer nothing in his life that spoke to Washington’s virtues relative to that of the French emperor?
Hero of Two Worlds takes us on a brief journey through the remarkable life of one of the most brilliant men in history. As the bicentennial of Lafayette’s return to the United States approaches (1824-2024), I hope that other people will be inspired to go deeper. While the chapter on Lafayette’s return to America was fine, the theme of Lafayette as a unifying figure should have been explored more fully. After all, Lafayette united Americans during a politically contentious time. Certainly as we prepare to celebrate the bicentennial of Lafayette’s return, Lafayette has the potential to unite America again. However, that unification will only come from a common understanding of the ideas that drew Lafayette to America’s shores in 1777. Sadly this biography flirts more with the 1619 interpretation of America’s founding than that of 1776. Thus, it is a book that does not take seriously what Lafayette and so many Americans fought to achieve during the American Revolution.