- - Tuesday, March 3, 2020

The saddest words in Tom Chaffin’s “Revolutionary Brothers” are to be found on page three of the introduction: “While most Americans possess at least an inkling of knowledge about Thomas Jefferson’s life, fewer know Lafayette’s story.”

Sad because, until some time in the 1960s, the heroic story of the American Revolution was a basic part of American history as taught in most American primary and secondary schools. Back then, we all knew who Lafayette was and we venerated his memory as the idealistic young French aristocrat who came to America at his own expense to fight alongside us against his hereditary foes, the British.

While here, he also picked up a few ideas about the rights of man which he later tried to apply in his native France. Lafayette’s failure — and that of other civilized moderates in a country with a large urban under class, a feudal rural society and no shortage of demogogues — guaranteed his replacement by bloody radicals like Robespierre and, ultimately, an old-fashioned military dictator-turned-emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte.

The other half of Mr. Chaffin’s suggested “brotherhood,” Thomas Jefferson, needs no introduction. Jefferson was a gifted writer who always wrote well about his favorite subject. To this day, much of our image of him is based on what he wrote about himself, as opposed to how he conducted his public — not to mention his private — life. Mr. Chaffin adds little to what we already know.

Much of the author’s labor is spent sorting and stitching to build a book based on an interesting but debatable premise: The “friendship” of Jefferson and Lafayette and the extent to which it “helped forge two nations.” The problem with the premise is that, while both men were major players in history, their interaction was not central to the roles either of them played.

And the “friendship” was largely one way, Lafayette sincerely respecting Jefferson and taking him on faith, while Jefferson is manipulative throughout, benefiting from Lafayette’s connections in France while serving as American minister there, while looking down on him and commenting — behind his back — on his “canine appetite for popularity.”

Jefferson did, indeed, advise Lafayette during the brief period at the beginning of the French Revolution, when Lafayette was the foremost popular figure. And Lafayette welcomed his advice, especially when it came to editing his draft declaration of “The Rights of Man.”

But Jefferson who, as a diplomat with immunity from arrest, had no skin in the game in France’s bloody upheaval, was always unctuously in favor of revolutionary terror, even when it led to the deaths of some of his closest French friends.

Lafayette, a much more straightforward man, tried to keep the revolution on a civilized course, risked his life and nearly lost it, and ended up a prisoner of Austria and Prussia while Jefferson never looked back to his time in France, and subsequently pontificated about how the “tree of liberty” must be watered by “the blood of patriots” although he always made sure it wouldn’t be his.

Given the somewhat contrived nature of Mr. Chaffin’s pairing, he does an excellent job of stitching together a narrative that tells us a lot about both Jefferson and Lafayette even if it doesn’t convince us that theirs was “the friendship that helped forge two nations.”

Readers who want to really understand Lafayette should read Laura Auricchio’s “The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered,” which I reviewed in these pages in 2014. As for Jefferson, there is nothing really new here but, given the historical amnesia of recent generations, perhaps we should be grateful for any and all reminders of things we should already know but are no longer being taught.

“Revolutionary Brothers” is a well-written, handsomely-produced volume, which makes it all the more disappointing that various factual errors were never caught and corrected in the editing.

To cite a few, the Comte d’Artois, King Louis XVI’s younger brother, appears both under his correct designation and then as the “Duke of Artois” (a non-existent title) both in the index and text. British Gen. William Phillips, a subordinate officer, is described as surrendering “his” forces at Saratoga when the surrendering British army was commanded by John Burgoyne.

And Gen. Friedrich von Riedesel is described as a “Hessian general” when, in fact, he was commander of a contingent of German mercenaries from Brunswick (one of five other German principalities that leased mercenaries to the British during the American Revolution beside Hessen-Kassel).

Whatever became of copy editors?

• Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

• • •


By Tom Chaffin

St. Martin’s Press, $29.99, 529 pages

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