For most soldiers, a single six-year revolution would provide action enough for a lifetime. For one wealthy French aristocrat, the Marquis de Lafayette, however, the American Revolution was merely Act I in a turbulent era. A hero of the American Revolution, Lafayette nearly lost his life in the French.
His story is now told in a short biography by American historian Marc Leepson, whose book is part of the Palgrave Macmillan studies of prominent commanders.
The death of his mother in 1770 left Lafayette, at the age of 13, in possession of a large fortune. He chose to enter the army, but suffered a setback in 1776 when an army reorganization put him on the inactive list. This was a blessing in disguise, for Lafayette had been following the early years of the American Revolution from afar and was a passionate supporter of the American cause.
Lafayette approached the American representative in Paris, Silas Deane, about a commission in Washington's army. Influenced by Lafayette’s family wealth, Deane offered him an appointment as a major general. This did not sit well with Washington, but the 20-year-old Frenchman emphasized his willingness to serve as a volunteer and won the heart of the austere army commander. It was the beginning of a friendship that would last for Washington’s lifetime.
Lafayette saw his first action at the Battle of Brandywine, where he was slightly wounded. When Washington gave him command of a division, Lafayette proved a capable tactician. He spent his own money to buy uniforms and arms for his ill-equipped soldiers. His forays into grand strategy, however, were less rewarding. He pressed for campaigns against Canada and the West Indies, operations that far exceeded American capabilities.
Lafayette maintained an extensive correspondence with his powerful friends in France, lauding Washington and the American cause; his letters may have contributed to France’s entering the war in February 1778. After participating in the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, Lafayette returned to his homeland to lobby for the Americans. One nobleman complained that Lafayette would “sell all the furniture at Versailles to underwrite the American cause.”
When he returned to America in April 1780, Lafayette was put in charge of the Virginia military district. He was present at the siege of Yorktown, and rejoiced at Cornwallis’ surrender. Much lauded in America, Lafayette returned to his native France in 1783.
Notwithstanding his own aristocratic lineage, Lafayette sympathized with the poor in his country. He soon gained a reputation as a reformer, a renegade nobleman among his own class. He served as commanding general of the National Guard of Paris and as a member of the National Assembly; in the latter capacity, he supported religious toleration, the emancipation of colonial slaves and freedom of the press.
As commander of the National Guard, Lafayette had the impossible task of maintaining order in revolutionary Paris, including protection of the much-despised royal family. Then he was sent to the Franco-Austrian border to defend against an invading Austrian army. Bent on rescuing the royal family, Lafayette was clearly conflicted; at one time, he tried to lead some troops toward Paris to restore Louis XVI, but the soldiers would not follow him. Unwelcome in his own country, Lafayette chose exile, and became a prisoner of the Austrians for five years. He returned to France in 1797.
Largely forgotten in his homeland, Lafayette remained an icon in the United States. He made a triumphal tour of the young republic in 1824-25, an occasion that led to the naming of towns in his honor in every state he visited.
Mr. Leepson notes that Lafayette was far from perfect: “He was sometimes vain, naive, immature and egocentric.” But, the author points out, he “consistently stuck to his ideals, even when doing so endangered his life and fortune.”
Biographer and historian John M. Taylor lives in McLean, Va.
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