Lafayette, the Great Mediator

If Americans were asked to name a French person, Lafayette would be one of the first to come to mind. But while he is nicknamed “the hero of two worlds,” his role in the American War of Independence has actually been scarcely documented. And his political career in France after returning from the United States is even less so. However, two books looking back at his exemplary life have recently been published. In the U.S., Mike Duncan has written Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution, and in France, Laurent Zecchini has released Lafayette, héraut de la liberté. Zecchini, a former journalist for Le Monde, has had the advantage of being able to access the Marquis’ personal archives. He sat down with France-Amérique to explain why Lafayette is so underestimated in France.
© Sylvie Serprix

France-Amérique: Why did you spend several years researching Lafayette, who is not seen as a central character in French national history?

Laurent Zecchini: My book aims to correct this perspective. Lafayette was at the forefront of the first phase of the 1789 Revolution, then devised Napoleon’s abdication and the crowning of Louis-Philippe during the 1830 Revolution. He was the symbol and standard-bearer of so many liberation movements in Europe. He embodied French support for America during the War of Independence. If he is not an important character in our national history, then who is? You are right, however: Lafayette is a little-known and misjudged figure, which is why I believe the time has come for history to do him justice. Yet he is still a household name, despite this historical indifference. All French people know about him, and are aware that he played a meaningful role in the 18th century, although they are unable to describe it precisely.

In the United States, he is an icon, almost comparable to the Founding Fathers. In France, he is seen as an adventurer without much intellectual standing. He appears to have held moderate views on everything, which is not well regarded in France…

I believe that Lafayette is reviled by many French historians. This is largely due to French historiographic tradition, which for many decades was inspired by the Jacobin vision of the French Revolution, which in turn was influenced for years by the Marxist school of thought. In short, you are either republican or you are not. From the Storming of the Bastille to the Terror and from the execution of Louis XVI to the abolition of the monarchy, the Revolution must be taken as a whole. Of course, Lafayette’s moderatism, hesitations, scruples, but above all his refusal of radicality, is suspicious. Was he a moderate? Certainly. He was a centrist who sought to make the king and the revolution work together. As for his “intellectual standing,” we can indeed say that Lafayette was no thinker. However, does that make him insipid? That opinion was apparently not shared by people such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison in America, and Rochambeau, Condorcet, and Madame de Staël in France.

Lafayette was initially drawn to the United States by the prospect of military glory and the chance to fight the English – more so than to contribute to the birth of a republic. But when he arrived, he became a staunch supporter of the insurgents. Did meeting Washington cause this change of heart?

Lafayette lost his father to an English cannonball just before his second birthday, and Washington never had children. It is probable that Lafayette was like the son the commander of the American army never had. Their meeting also changed the course of history in other ways. The insurgents’ charismatic leader gave the young Frenchman – who was just 19 – increasing military responsibilities that helped grow his reputation, both in America during the war and then in France, as he returned to the court of Versailles as a hero. However, meeting Washington was not what inspired Lafayette to take part in the War of Independence. He had read a number of stories about the American revolt against English colonial rule in August 1775, and that pushed him to travel to America. At the time, he had little intention of participating in a diplomatic experiment on the other side of the Atlantic. But who in France was talking about a republic at the time? No one! Lafayette immersed himself in the ideals of freedom in America, but this did not convince him to adopt a republican institutional model. And he accepted this apparent contradiction: His principles were republican, but he believed that France was not ready for a republican regime.

Was Lafayette’s contribution decisive for American independence, or is this inaccurately exaggerated on both sides of the Atlantic?

Today, Lafayette is a convenient figure precisely because he remains an icon and is easy to brandish when French-American relations are stretched. From this point of view, he is a diplomatic gimmick. American and French presidents cannot resist the temptation of regularly putting him front and center to celebrate the historical – and supposedly unfailing – friendship between France and the United States. As for his historical role, it should be recognized but not exaggerated. Lafayette inspired the French to support the Americans’ uprising against England. He was brave and fought in the major battles of the War of Independence. But he was also supported by Vergennes, then secretary of state for foreign affairs, and France during the reign of Louis XVI wanted revenge against the English.

© Sylvie Serprix

How did Lafayette react when he discovered slavery in America?

He didn’t react. When he arrived in South Carolina on June 13, 1777, he was welcomed by Benjamin Huger, a rich plantation owner in the South, and his slaves. Lafayette discovered an America of slavery, but this concept meant little to French officers and aristocrats of the time. His realization probably came in September 1777. After being wounded at the Battle of Brandywine, he was hosted by Henry Laurens, a rich plantation owner, slave trader, and… abolitionist. Later, in 1781, General Lafayette employed spies, most of whom were Black. One of them, James Armistead, who later became James Lafayette, was freed in 1787. However, Lafayette’s anti-slavery convictions developed slowly. He most likely read Condorcet’s Réflexions sur l’esclavage des nègres, published in 1781. That being said, he seems to have come to a conclusion in the famous letter he wrote to George Washington on February 5, 1783, asking him to experiment with the gradual freeing of Black slaves. Washington politely declined the suggestion – as did Thomas Jefferson. Lafayette therefore saw this project through alone by acquiring the La Belle Gabrielle estate in French Guiana. In this light, he is undeniably a precursor of emancipation.

In 1824-1825, Lafayette went on a celebrity tour of the American states of the time. This led to the naming of towns and other places in his honor, and is probably the reason for the reputation he still enjoys today. Why did he agree to this tour? For glory, or nostalgia? Or to become more famous in France?

This fourth and final trip was above all driven by a period of political stagnation in France. The liberal opposition, of which Lafayette was a member, was crushed in the elections of February 25, 1824. It was the right time to take a step back and accept the invitation extended by his American friends. It was a triumphant tour, comparable to George Washington’s in 1781 and 1789. The national event was widely covered by both the Americans and Lafayette himself. Newspapers of the time shared the story, and enabled the Marquis to make a political comeback after returning to France.

Six years after Lafayette, Tocqueville spent seven months in the United States and returned with a vision of America that still holds sway today. Lafayette, on the other hand, had little to say about American society, as if he had idealized it without ever seeing it. Is this an overly harsh criticism?

It is tempting to compare him to Tocqueville, who was tasked by the French government with studying the U.S. penitentiary system while visiting America in 1831. He returned ten months later having written the masterful Democracy in America. The United States was a functioning democracy at the time and the philosopher analyzed this political system. Lafayette’s situation was very different. He traveled to America to fight a war, not carry out sociological research. It is true that he spent little time observing American society, yet he idealized it for many years. However, Lafayette returned with fundamental intellectual baggage in the form of the ideals of freedom and human rights – ideals that would later spread across the world.

Lafayette, héraut de la liberté
by Laurent Zecchini, Fayard, 2019.

Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution by Mike Duncan, Public Affairs, 2021.

Interview published in the November 2021 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.