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When Washingtonians think about the Marquis de Lafayette, how many simply picture Lafayette Park, directly opposite the White House? Or, how many of us know more about him beyond what we assume is his “walk on” role as a French patriot assisting the cause of American independence during our revolution? In For Liberty and Glory, Washington, Lafayette, and Their Revolutions, writer James R. Gaines presents a fascinating portrait of Lafayette, highlighting both his contributions to the American Revolution and his less well-known efforts to achieve for the French people an equivalent freedom from their dependence on monarchy. Gaines effectively contrasts the features of the two revolutions and the roles that George Washington and Lafayette played in them. For Gaines, examining their friendship opens a window on “the first act in the great psychodrama of French-American relations.” After our revolution began, young French military officers, many of noble lineage, eagerly volunteered to join, but often with strings attached — the guarantee of high rank and a major leadership role in the Continental Army. The promises made to the French exasperated Washington, who understandably wanted men of experience and mettle, not glory seekers or dilettantes. Lafayette, however, due in part to his less aggressive personality and his amiability, endeared himself to Gen. Washington. Lafayette quickly became an official aide and, over time, rose in responsibility, even to independent command of Continental forces. By the time of the defeat of the British at Yorktown in 1781, Lafayette was a principal commander in Washington’s army. While many people have assumed that the Washington-Lafayette relationship was akin to father and son — with Washington assuming the role of an adoptive father — Gaines dismisses that thinking as simplistic. Beyond the popular images of the fall of the Bastille, and the guillotine’s bloody work described in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, Americans do not know much about the intricacies of the French Revolution. Gaines does a very commendable job in outlining its progress, stopping on the way to describe how the French government’s vital financial assistance to the American Revolution contributed to its own bankruptcy. It was only natural that, after the success of our revolution, Lafayette eagerly participated in the intellectual ferment that helped start the French Revolution. For example, Lafayette drafted — with some assistance and advice from Thomas Jefferson — the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the founding document of the French Revolution. ONLY FOUR AT ONCE Gaines is most effective in his detailed, insightful comparison of the deliberations of our 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and the various French assemblies created as that country divorced itself from the monarchy. The French were at a clear disadvantage, not having had the benefit of local self-governance or the practical experience of vigorous colonial legislatures. In fact, the deliberations of the French Assembly of Notables were so chaotic that one member proposed a rule that only four individuals could speak at the same time. Lafayette boldly tried to create a constitutional government out of the chaos that accompanied the 1789 revolution in France. Unfortunately, his heroism and reputation could not stop what may have been an inevitable slide into extremes of violence and reaction, concluding with Napoleon’s seizure of power. Lafayette alienated both the ultra-revolutionaries and the royalists. He was even imprisoned by the Austrian government when he left France, fleeing from the Jacobins. After a monarchy was restored in 1815, Lafayette withdrew from the political scene. He had a triumphal tour of this country in 1824. Ultimately, much like George Washington, he was called back to civic life. He tried to reconcile the ideals of a constitutional monarchy with the realities of France’s revolutionary experience and the pent-up frustrations of its people. Lafayette considered briefly becoming France’s chief of state, but his democratic sentiments caused him to pull back from what could have been a tempting assumption of power. What is Lafayette’s legacy? Gaines notes that many commentators were not kind to Lafayette — Alexis de Tocqueville blamed him for the fall of the Bourbon monarchy, and French historians dismissed Lafayette as not having had any positive role in the French Revolution. His reputation in this country, of course, is quite different. Yet, in 1989, on the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, the French people named him the most popular revolutionary figure. After reading this book, we can understand why that reputation is well-deserved, and how our own revolutionary experience contributed to that legacy.
Ted Hirt is a Washington, D.C., lawyer.

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