For Liberty and Glory: Washington, Lafayette, and Their Revolutions by James R. Gaines is a parallel biography of both George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette with an emphasis on the relationship between the two men. The book also presents the author’s take on both the American and French Revolutions. At times, Gaines’s viewpoint is original and insightful. His writing is also very good. Where this work falls a bit short is in the relative scarcity of in-depth analysis on the relationship between both men as well as on both revolutions. While these connections are explored, I hungered for more. If the book had devoted fewer words to details that are generally known already and spent more words examining and discussing these facts, this would have been a stronger work.
For those unfamiliar with the details of Lafayette’s life, my summary is included along with my commentary on Lafayette by Harlow Giles Unger. For those unfamiliar with the details of Washington’s earlier life, before becoming the first President of the United States, he led the Continental Army for year after year in arduous battles against both the British and the natural elements. It was during the war years of the American Revolution that the teenage Marquis de Lafayette, having volunteered for service in the American Army, distinguished himself as one of America’s most capable generals as he engaged in vitally important diplomacy between the United States and France and established an extremely close, lifelong friendship with Washington.
On some of the incongruities of the relationship between the two men, Gaines writes,
“The friendship of Washington and Lafayette seems in some ways as implausible as the French-American one, almost like the setup to a joke: What does a Virginia frontiersman and grade-school dropout have in common with a moneyed French aristocrat who learned his horsemanship in the company of three future kings? Or what do you call a bumptious optimist whose best friend is a moody loner? Lafayette threw his arms around people and kissed them on both cheeks. Washington did not. “
Later, Lafayette became a pivotal player in the French Revolution. Though he was an early leader, he was later forced to flee its excesses and was later imprisoned in Prussia and then Austria, having been accused of being a dangerous revolutionary, for a period of five years. During most of this time, he and Washington engaged in a steady stream of correspondence.
As for the connections between the revolutions, Gaines touches upon numerous points. The American Founders and French Revolutionaries drew upon similar intellectual roots. Debt, incurred by France in its support of the American cause, was likely the primary spark that ignited the French Revolution. The ideals of the American Revolution spread to France and encouraged revolution there. French officers who served in the American Revolution helped bring revolutionary ideology to France. As the French Revolution raged, the two primary American political factions each took sides. At least in the early years, Thomas Jefferson’s Republicans strongly supported the French Revolution and its ideals as Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists vehemently opposed it.
When Gaines does dig deep, his analysis is very well thought out and perceptive. One of just several really interesting tracks he takes is a look into the motivations that drove both men. The author concludes that the lifelong inspiration for both of these figures can be boiled down to regard for their own reputations.
Gaines argues that both men were obsessed with what the public and what history thought about them. Of particular importance was to act in away as to be remembered as honorable and virtuous.
In the 18th century—in America, France and Britain alike—the ultimate test of personal success was called "fame," "glory" or "character," words that signified neither celebrity nor moral courage but referred to a person's reputation, which was also called his "honor." This sort of acclaim was not a cheap popularity divorced from achievement, as it would be in an age when people could become famous for being well known. Fame and its synonyms meant an illustrious eminence, a stature accrued from having led a consequential life.”
Later Gains goes on,
Washington and Lafayette started out by striving to create for themselves the image of the people that they wished to be, a lifelong endeavor to act well. If their motives for doing so were mixed, their commitment for doing so were not, and somewhere along the way, in a kind of political and moral alchemy, their urgings for fame and glory were transmuted into finer stuff, their lives became enactments of high principle. They lived such a life, did such deeds, even remained friends, in part, to stake their claim on immortality, which meant to have their story told; and the audience they cared must to hear it was posterity….”
I have read somewhat extensively about Washington. At least in terms of America’s first President, Gaines is right on the money (as is Washington). His argument that Lafayette’s motives were similar is also very convincing. The argument that certain men of this era were obsessively preoccupied with reputation and virtue is very much in line with the thinking and writings of Gordon Wood, who has written extensively on the American Revolutionary generation’s belief system concerning self-image. My commentary on Wood’s Radicalism and the American Revolution is here and his Revolutionary Characters is here.
It is fascinating to examine how Lafayette took this belief system into his later years when he was immersed in the tumultuous and, at times, morally ambiguous setting of the French Revolution. Lafayette consistently took a moderate position and advocated for a constitutional monarchy in France. As Harlow Giles Unger does, Gains concludes that had Lafayette acted more decisively against radicals when he had the chance, his popularity and control of military forces would have been enough to prevent the French Revolution from descending into chaos and mass executions (I do not have a thorough enough grasp of the French Revolution to have a serious opinion on the validity of this theory). Gaines actually points out that Napoleon Bonaparte also reached the same conclusion when writing about the events of the French Revolution. The Marquis’ hesitance to do so resulted from his revulsion against the use of military force as a means to reach political ends. Such action would have destroyed his reputation as a lover of liberty and revolution in a moderate form.
There are other very astute and worthwhile points made in this book. It is also a very engaging read. However, there are more complete biographies of both Washington and Lafayette and more complete histories of both Revolutions. Thus, this book is recommended, but only for those who are already interested in the subjects covered and are just hungry for more. Readers who fit this bill will, however, find this book very engaging.