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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.