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A Simple Facilitator

As has often been said, the French Revolution is still with us, and we feel it still matters to us, indeed quite deeply, what opinion we finally come to about Mirabeau or Danton or Robespierre. They continue to pose problems or, which comes to much the same, to suggest mysteries. I do not think one would say the same, though, about the Marquis de Lafayette. In a way this is a sign of his character. He was too straightforward and transparently honorable to offer much in the way of mystery, and it does not seem all that important historically, though of course satisfying in other ways, to decide what we think of him as a person.

Of recent years, though, there has been a movement to refurbish his somewhat battered reputation. How it began is rather curious. In 1935 Louis Gottschalk published the first volume (Lafayette Comes to America) of his biography. The work, amazingly detailed and very impressive, ran in the end to five more volumes and even then only covered Lafayette’s life up to 1792. By that year, at thirty-five, Lafayette had fought with Washington’s forces, had returned to France and, in 1789, hugely popular as the “hero of two worlds,” had been given command of the National Guard. He succeeded for a time in acting as moderator between the contending revolutionary factions before being forced into exile by the Jacobins and suffering imprisonment in an Austrian jail. He was liberated by Napoleon in 1797 and was to live for another thirty-seven years.

The opening volume stated an important thesis: that when in 1777 Lafayette made his bold gesture of sailing for America and joining Washington’s army it was not because he was a champion of liberty. It was, rather, because he felt humiliated and out of place at home, had an overweening desire for personal glory, and bitterly hated the English, who had killed his father at the battle of Minden, in 1759, during the Seven Years War when the English and Hanoverians defeated the French. Further, in organizing this venture, he was the unwitting tool of a sinister conspiracy on the part of the Comte de Broglie to oust Washington from the command of the American rebel armies. Lafayette would indeed become a great champion of liberty, but this was the result, not the cause, of his involvement with America, and it would be a slow process.

Gottschalk’s theory held sway for forty years but was eventually challenged by Stanley J. Idzerda in an influential article, “When and Why Lafayette Became a Revolutionary.”1 There is much that one could say about the Gottschalk-Idzerda controversy. Idzerda does not find it hard to prove that Lafayette, like a number of his friends among the French nobility, was extremely vocal on the subject of liberty before he ever left for America. Also, as he shows, Gottschalk overweighs Lafayette’s hatred for England, which seems to have been a later development. (It had not prevented him from having a fine time in London and saying what a delightful place it was.) But Idzerda is trying to prove that the nineteen-year-old Lafayette was not merely a liberal and champion of democracy but a revolutionary, and here one is less convinced—if for no other reason because, after all, the American Revolution had begun, and the Declaration of Independence had been promulgated, before he ever arrived on the scene.

Gottschalk is not a debunker of Lafayette, merely skeptical toward the older Lafayette’s account of his youthful self. He may never apply the term “revolutionary” to Lafayette, but he does not attempt to minimize his extraordinary influence during the first years of the Revolution when, as commander of the National Guard and master of the fate of the royal family, he became a sort of uncrowned king of Paris. At times Gottschalk’s tone is positively affectionate; and there is one fact that makes me think his picture of an exalted-minded but self-deceived Lafayette is not far off the truth. Two days after his first arrival in America, Lafayette is already writing to his wife that “the manners of the people here are simple, honest, and in every way worthy of this land where everything proclaims the beautiful name of liberty“; and no more than four days later his judgment on the nation has been passed once and for all.

A simplicity of manners, a desire to please, a love of country and liberty, and an easy equality prevail everywhere here. The richest man and the poorest are on the same level, and although there are some immense fortunes in this country, I challenge anyone to discover the slightest difference in their manners towards each other.2

If ever there was a case of seeing what you want to see, do we not have one here? One gets the impression that Lafayette never actually looked at America and the Americans as Tocqueville, or even Mrs. Trollope, plainly did.

I mention the Idzerda intervention because Lloyd Kramer, the author of the present book, worked for a time with Idzerda on the latter’s great edition of the Lafayette papers and evidently to a large extent goes along with his views. Thus his book is an attempt to rescue Lafayette from his critics, old and new. Plunging into the vast mass of letters from and to Lafayette, Kramer soon came to realize, so he says, that his hero’s life had been “far more varied and complex than the ironic, historical narratives suggested.” It made him wonder “how the simple mediocrity who appeared in modern history books could be the same man whom his contemporaries sought out in a wide variety of political, personal, and revolutionary crises from the 1770s to the 1830s.”

The fault, he decided, lay with the general twentieth-century trend in historiography. Here he cites Hayden White who claims, in his Metahistory (1973), that ever since the “crisis of historicism” at the end of the last century, historical writing has been locked into an “Ironical” perspective. The term “Irony” has a rather special and wide meaning for White. He posits a quaternary cycle of historical perspectives, associated with, respectively, the four tropes of Metaphor, Synecdoche, Metonymy, and Irony, a cycle exemplified in the sequence of historians beginning with Michelet and continuing through Ranke, Tocqueville, and Burckhardt. “Ironic vision” in Burckhardt, according to White, goes along with anti-Romanticism, anti-Heroism, and a skepticism about the whole possibility of history-writing. White considers the choice among these perspectives to be purely aesthetic and to have nothing to do with the concept of historical “truth.” Nevertheless, not quite logically, he regards twentieth-century historiography as a comedown after the “golden age” of the preceding century and a scene of “theoretical torpor.” This gives Kramer his cue. His account of Lafayette is to be “Postironic.”

This, however, raises a certain obvious problem. For Lafayette, who was the object of hero-worship from an early age, also throughout his career had a fatal propensity to attract not just irony but ridicule—sometimes even from his closest friends. His great friend Jefferson convicted him of “a canine appetite for popularity.” Gouverneur Morris, in 1789, wrote that he meant ill to no one but suffered from the besoin de briller (the need to shine),3 and in the same year the epigrammatist Rivarol satirized him, under the name of “Philarète,” most unmercifully.

Philarète has come to believe himself the author of the American revolution and is taking steps to be a chief actor in the revolution in France. He mistakes noise for glory, an event for a success, a sword for a monument, a compliment for titles to immortality, favors for rewards and valor for heroism.

He does not like the Court because he feels awkward there, the “world” because he loses distinction there, and women because they are a danger to one’s reputation when they do not lead on to fortune; but he likes the clubs because he can borrow other people’s ideas there and pass them off as his own, he likes outsiders because they are not so keen-eyed, and fools because they listen to him and even admire him….4

Later, Napoleon, who had a certain respect for Lafayette, described him as a niais (a simpleton).5

Nor did the historians of Hayden White’s “golden age” show Lafayette all that much reverence. Michelet wrote of him as a “mediocre idol” whom the Revolution raised higher than he deserved, and Carlyle saw in him a “thin constitutional Pedant; clear, thin, inflexible, as water turned to thin ice; whom no Queen’s heart can love.”6

Needless to say, Lafayette also received magnificent eulogies, especially during his old age—for instance the one, quoted by Kramer, which John Quincy Adams delivered in a memorial oration.

Pronounce him one of the first men of his age, and you have yet not done him justice…. Turn back your eyes upon the records of time; summon from the creation of the world to this day the mighty dead of every age and every clime—and where, among the race of merely mortal men, shall one be found, who, as the benefactor of his kind, shall claim to take precedence of Lafayette?

Even more striking, because more spontaneous, is Heine’s evocation of the elderly Lafayette in the French Chamber of Deputies following the Restoration.

Whenever the discussion refers to one of the great questions of humanity, Lafayette invariably rises to his feet, as eager for combat as a young man. Only the body is weak and trembling,…and when he arrives at his old post [he] takes a deep breath and smiles. This smile, the manner of speaking, and the whole appearance of the man in this moment are indescribable. There is so much kindness and so much delicate irony at the same time that you feel enchained by a magic curiosity or a sweet enigma. You do not know if these are the cultivated manners of a French marquis or the direct, open simplicity of an American citizen.

In America the language used about him would have befitted a demigod, and the toasting and tributes to him on his triumphal return there in 1824- 1825 were on an unbelievable scale.7 For all this, though, to attempt a “Postironic” portrait of Lafayette is to take on a pretty staggering task.

It is worth pressing this point home even a little further. Under the Empire, Lafayette lived in discreet retirement on his estates, but with the Bourbon restoration he became a restless political activist and a leader of the French branch of the Carbonari, the Italian conspiratorial movement, narrowly escaping arrest, and perhaps the guillotine, as leader of an abortive coup d’état. His country mansion La Grange and his hôtel in Paris thus became the headquarters of liberals of every hue, and it was at this time that Stendhal drew a brilliant portrait of him.

  1. 1

    See The Consortium on Revolutionary Europe, 1750-1850, Proceedings, 1977, edited by J.C. White (University of Georgia Press, 1978), pp. 34-50.

  2. 2

    Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution, Vol. 1, edited by S.J. Idzerda et al. (Cornell University Press, 1977), pp. 60-61.

  3. 3

    Peter Buckman, Lafayette: ABiography (Paddington, 1977), p. 158.

  4. 4

    Quoted in the Duc de Castries, La Fayette: pionnier de la liberté (Hachette, 1974), p. 9; my translation.

  5. 5

    De Castries, p. 384.

  6. 6

    Carlyle, The French Revolution, Book III, Chapter 4.

  7. 7

    When Tocqueville and his friend Beaumont went to America seven years later they were in agonies at formal dinner parties, knowing that the toast to “General Lafayette” would infallibly come up and they would be expected to respond.

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