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.
A tall figure whose big body ended in a cold, imperturbable face as vacuous as an old family portrait, the head surmounted by a badly made short-haired wig… this was General La Fayette in 1821…M. de La Fayette was quite simply a hero out of Plutarch. He lived from day to day, without too much mental vivacity, quite simply doing great deeds as the opportunities arose, like Epaminondas. In the meantime, in spite of his age [he was born in 1757, like the friend with whom he used to play royal tennis in his youth, Charles X] he was entirely occupied in grabbing the petticoats of some pretty girl from behind [in vulgar parlance, feeling her bottom]…M. de La Fayette is extremely polite and even affectionate towards everybody but polite as a king is…M. Dunoyer, the editor of Le Censeur, and two or three other men of the same calibre, ceaselessly surrounded the chair of the general, gaping with admiration. To their shocked amazement he would leave them in the lurch as soon as he could in order to admire at very close quarters and with eyes aflame the pretty shoulders of some young woman who had just come in.8
Kramer softens one or two of the details in this description, and I think loses by doing so, for it is the extremes in Stendhal’s portrait—the indisputable grandeur of the man and the strip-cartoon comedy of his everyday existence—that make it so alive. “Irony,” it would seem, is indispensable to doing Lafayette justice.
Kramer makes a lot of play with the word “narrative.” As he rightly points out, the story of Lafayette’s heroic doings in the new world very quickly became a legend, being retold constantly in books, speeches, poems, paintings, and political campaigns. This prompts him to speak, in postmodern fashion, of Lafayette’s actually becoming a “narrative” or “symbolic text.” It leads him to represent his achievements in the first years of the French Revolution as the success of the text “Lafayette,” and his defeat and exile in 1792 as a matter of “deconstructing a text”—of this text becoming “historically shredded,” i.e., no longer carrying conviction, and requiring Lafayette to rewrite it.
As phraseology this is by now conventional enough, but something in it brings one up short. I mean the question, is it actually true that, during his imprisonment in Austria, Lafayette rewrote (or “reconstructed”) his “text”? The point about Lafayette and in a way his strength—so at least his “Ironic” witnesses seem to agree—is that after America he never changed or wanted to change an iota. When in 1830, dressed in his old National Guard uniform, he kissed the tricolor and the Guard officers and embraced and blessed the new king-to-be Louis-Philippe, his words were: “Rest assured, my conduct at the age of 73 will be the same as it was at the age of 32.”9
Kramer once or twice refers to his book as a “narrative.” This, one feels, it cannot be in any literal sense, for an analysis of a “narrative” can hardly itself be a narrative; and indeed he is explicit that he is not writing a biography. What he wants instead is to perform a historical exercise:to use the text “Lafayette” to illustrate “how the meaning of a particular life is always changing in conjunction with the evolving experiences and perspectives of other people.” The sort of biography a historian could properly write, he says, would have to be more like a Cubist painting than a Renaissance portrait.
Thus his book is a discussion, not in narrative form, of Lafayette’s relations with various groups of thinkers he was in contact with, in particular liberal theorists (the “Ideologue” Destutt de Tracy, Jeremy Bentham, and Benjamin Constant), Romantic novelists (Lady Morgan and Fenimore Cooper), and women writers in general (Germaine de Staël, the anti-slavery campaigner Frances Wright, and the liberal activist Cristina Belgiojoso). To this it adds a comparison between Lafayette’s tour of America with the later one by Tocqueville. It is thus an essay in cultural history, dealing mainly with the duller stretches (or at least what most people have thought to be such) in Lafayette’s stirring career, and it can certainly claim to be a serious and innovative venture, carried through with commendable persistence. But does it succeed? Or, shall we say, could it ever have hoped to succeed? The trouble lies in the point I have already mentioned, the claim that the meaning of “Lafayette” changed over the years. Of course this claim is ambiguous—does one mean changed for others, or for Lafayette himself? But taking it either way one’s instinctive answer is “no.” Splinter his features as cubistically as one may, the dear fellow’s face shines through changeless like the head on a dollar bill.
This point was made by Chateaubriand (“M. de la Fayette had only one idea and, luckily for him, it was the century’s idea too”10 ), and Benjamin Constant, in a passage quoted by Kramer, clothed it in a beautifully suggestive phrase. In 1819 liberal critics were accusing the group known as the “Independents,” to which Constant and Lafayette belonged, of inconsistency and of having flirted with despotism, and Constant, as irrefragable proof to the contrary, cited his friend. “M. de Lafayette was an independent in 1789. In 1819, he is still an independent…. His opinion carries its certificate of antiquity; and the words sudden conversion and zeal of novice cannot be applied to him.”
Kramer gives a long and circumstantial account of this friendship between Lafayette and Constant, quoting police reports on their movements and describing their brushes with authority when they visited their constituents. What he cannot do, however, is find much food for thought in their intellectual exchanges—and for good reason, for Lafayette’s outlook, based on his American experience, was simple, transparently clear, and had been formulated once and for all thirty or more years before. He believed above all in Liberty (however that might be defined)and in the abstract and universal Rights of Man; also, in the sphere of practical politics, in democracy (whether in a republic or a constitutional monarchy), a two-chamber legislature (both of the chambers to be elective), and a separation of powers on the English model. For the wildly divagating Constant this polestar-like fixity was Lafayette’s great value, but this, one feels, was more for ethical reasons than political ones.
Theirs was, moreover, an association based on a real identity of interests. Food for thought becomes even scarcer when it comes to Lafayette’s friendships with Romantic novelists or philosophers. Kramer is very fond of the word “mediation,” seeing Lafayette’s great forte as lying in “cross-cultural mediation.” Now most certainly, when he was drafting a Declaration of Rights for the National Assembly, drawing closely on Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, Lafayette was a “mediator” between two cultures—history hardly offers a better example. It is the only occasion, however, when the term seems apt. His friendships with Lady Morgan or Bentham or Mrs. Trollope were warm; they loved their sojourns at his chateau La Grange and found him the most lovable and admirable of men. But what he said or wrote to them, or they to him, was…”nothing” would be too harsh a word, but most certainly, one has to say, “predictable” and not really of any very great interest.
The appropriate word for him, one feels, is not “mediator” but “facilitator.” He was a dependable friend, a tireless encourager and creator of contacts, a great writer of letters of introduction and sender-on of books and messages, as well of course as being a monument to look up to. When his friends the philosophers Destutt de Tracy and Pierre Cabanis asked him to send copies of their books to President Jefferson, he gladly obliged, though one may wonder whether he had read them himself. It was an excellent thing to do but hardly merits the description “cross-cultural exchange.”
His devotion as a facilitator comes out in his relations with that extraordinary figure, the Scottish-born reformer Frances Wright, author of a pioneering Views of Society and Manners in America (1821) and impassioned advocate of free love and slave-emancipation. Here especially biography, that is to say narrative, seems the right way to understanding. Lafayette was greatly in love with Fanny; and for her, as she told him, he was “the best and greatest man that lives.” His family, however, had come to regard her and her sister as a menace. Things came to a head in 1824, when he received an invitation from President Monroe and Congress to revisit America, at the nation’s expense. He was deeply flattered but felt that at all costs Fanny Wright must come with him; and when she, momentarily losing her nerve, wrote to say she could not come, he had a sort of seizure. At this, his family swung round and now insisted vociferously that she must accompany him; and in the end a quaint compromise was arrived at, by which she and her sister came (from France too) but in a different ship. Following him around America, she provoked much salacious comment in the press. But eventually, thanks to his support and highly placed contacts—he even engineered for her a stay with Jefferson at Monticello—she was able to fulfill her ambition and set up a utopian colony for slaves in Tennessee (the “Nashoba” to which Mrs. Trollope would make a brief and appalled visit).
This meant a parting of the ways for her and Lafayette, who was a “gradualist” over the slave question—half his American friends being in fact large slave-owners. Nevertheless six years later, when Nashoba had collapsed and it was a question what should be done with her negro protégés, a letter of introduction from Lafayette to the President of Haiti performed magic. She was able to ship the blacks to Haiti, where they received grants of land, and she herself was given red-carpet treatment like visiting royalty.
As for Kramer’s chapter comparing Lafayette with Tocqueville, it reveals the problem besetting his book particularly starkly. The comparison is carried through knowledgeably and sympathetically, but before long one finds oneself wondering why it was ever undertaken. Both men belonged to the French nobility, and both of them visited and were deeply impressed by the United States; but there the likeness seems to end. Tocqueville was an original thinker; Lafayette, frankly, was not, indeed he was not even an intellectual—any more than, I suppose, Regulus or Cincinnatus was. It is not, after all, required of heroes that they should be intellectually adventurous. Kramer’s formula is that “although nobody ever calls Lafayette an intellectual, he actually devoted much of his life after 1800 to the activities that intellectuals pursue,” and this confirms the point rather neatly. But given this fact, what we seem much of the time to be getting in this Lafayette/Tocqueville chapter is not so much a comparison as a pair of quite unrelated stories. Here, as elsewhere, the laudable aim of enlarging our idea of Lafayette and showing him as “complex” and “varied” seems to run head-on against brute fact.
July 11, 1996
See The Consortium on Revolutionary Europe, 1750-1850, Proceedings, 1977, edited by J.C. White (University of Georgia Press, 1978), pp. 34-50. ↩
Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution, Vol. 1, edited by S.J. Idzerda et al. (Cornell University Press, 1977), pp. 60-61. ↩
Peter Buckman, Lafayette: ABiography (Paddington, 1977), p. 158. ↩
Quoted in the Duc de Castries, La Fayette: pionnier de la liberté (Hachette, 1974), p. 9; my translation. ↩
De Castries, p. 384. ↩
Carlyle, The French Revolution, Book III, Chapter 4. ↩
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. ↩
Stendhal, Memoirs of an Egotist, translated by D. Ellis (Chatto and Windus, 1975), pp. 65-68. ↩
See Simon Schama, Citizens: AChronicle of the French Revolution (Knopf, 1989), p. 10. ↩
Quoted by De Castries, La Fayette, p. 385; my translation. ↩