‘The Marquis’: praised in America, panned in France
Laura Auricchio’s “The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered” is a new look at the Revolutionary War hero, who was revered in America but scorned at times in his native France.
Seattle Times assistant features editor
‘The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered’
by Laura Auricchio
Knopf, 416 pp., $28.95
One of the most ardent patriots who ever lived — a man who owned a copy of the Declaration of Independence engraved with gold lettering — was not American at all. Anyone who sat through at least one middle-school history class knows of the Marquis de Lafayette, the French aristocrat who came to the badly needed aid of the American colonists in 1777 and again in 1780, endowed with a fortune and an undying belief in liberty.
Laura Auricchio, a scholar of 18th-century art and history and chair of humanities at The New School for Public Engagement, provides us with more of a college-level seminar to better understand what made the man and the marquis tick. “The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered” pulls together the usual threads: Lafayette’s early life in the Auvergne; his burning military ambitions; his socially advantageous marriage; his admiration of George Washington; his foray into French governance.
Auricchio also sheds light on the more ordinary facets of Lafayette’s life, proving that no one is a hero all the time. He spent too much money and earned several admonishing lectures, illustrated with charts, from his attorney. He charmed Benjamin Franklin with his youthful enthusiasm, but ran afoul of John Adams; the marquis, Adams wrote, “had gained more applause than human Nature at 25 can bear ... this Mongrel Character of French Patriot and American Patriot cannot exist long.”
Is that really deserving of a “reconsidered” title? What comes amid those chapters makes it so. When most of us left Lafayette, he was handing out blankets at Valley Forge. Auricchio takes us on the return journey to France, where the tale of the “storybook general” took a downward turn.
His contributions to the battles of Brandywine and Yorktown quickly faded as his countrymen grappled with a revolution of their own. His efforts to institute a constitutional monarchy, and to remain calm amid the madness, earned him scorn at every turn. His refusal to let the militia run amok made him suspect as a monarchist. Marie Antoinette was certain he was after Louis XVI’s throne. “My very ardent wish is for the return of order, calm and for the establishment of the public force,” he wrote to a cousin. Few wanted to grant his wish.
In the purview of public opinion, things went from bad to worse. Lafayette was repeatedly parodied in books and pamphlets (many pornographic) as a bumpkin besotted with his horse and sleeping with the queen. (Warning: The author goes into great detail for many pages, complete with engravings.) By August 1792, he was stripped of his military command and forced into exile; he was imprisoned in what is now Belgium and accused of being the root “of all the disgraces” that befell the king of France. His letters to supporters in Europe and the U.S. went unanswered. After his release, Napoleon banned him from Paris.
By the time Lafayette died in 1834, he’d made one more trip to America, where he had never been forgotten. It was America that truly mourned him, as well. Flags flew at half-staff and buildings were draped in black, honoring decades of public life. By contrast, a month after his burial in France under soil from Bunker Hill, an American noted that in the Marquis’ native land, “The name of Lafayette is not heard.”