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The effect of liberty to individuals is that they may do what they please; we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations which may be soon turned into complaints. Prudence would dictate this in the case of separate, insulated, private men, but liberty, when men act in bodies, is power… Edmund Burke

George Washington and Marquis de Lafayette on horseback at winter quarters in Valley Forge, Pa.; soldiers huddled around campfire in background.

George Washington and Marquis de Lafayette on horseback at winter quarters in Valley Forge, Pa.; soldiers huddled around campfire in background.

In a previous age history examinations frequently included two parallel events and called on the student to explain how these things are not alike. The American and French Revolutions would have been high on the list for any review of knowledge of the 18th century. While Washington and Lafayette may have enjoyed some common attitudes to suggest that either of them ever sympathized with the Jacobins is to slander both.

Print shows George Washington, full-length portrait, standing, facing left, wearing military uniform, gesturing with right hand holding a swagger stick, left hand resting on cannon barrel, military camp in the background.

Print shows George Washington, full-length portrait, standing, facing left, wearing military uniform, gesturing with right hand holding a swagger stick, left hand resting on cannon barrel, military camp in the background.

Lafayette ‘s part in the American Revolution began at the behest of Benjamin Franklin who was trying to play the French against the British. Serving as an honorary aide to Washington even though he wore the uniform of a major-general he had no place in the command structure [not unlike the French in both World Wars]. His service at Yorktown may be his most important contribution where, in titular command, he provided a successful  delaying action against the British although it was (Mad) Anthony Wayne who did the actual fighting and his “command” was reunified under Washington as soon as he arrived. To say that Lafayette was a place keeper until the armies of King Louis XVI under the command of General de Rochambeau,  and the King’s fleet under Admiral de Grasse, and Admiral de Latouche Tréville prepared for battle against the British and forced the capitulation of Cornwallis is more accurate than unkind.

Print shows the Marquis de Lafayette, full-length portrait, in uniform.

Print shows the Marquis de Lafayette, full-length portrait, in uniform.

Upon his return to France his service saw him received at Versailles, witnessed the birth of his daughter – named Marie-Antoinette Virginie upon Thomas Jefferson’s recommendation and was promoted to maréchal de camp over many senior officers. The real riot that began the French Revolution occurred on the 5th of October 1789 and far from being the great leader of men after he failed to discourage the march he accompanied it only when it became evident that his men were going whether he led them or not. Blamed by Danton and called a traitor by Robespierre his leadership continued to fail and his opposition to them would see him accused of fostering a coup d’état. By the 19th of August 1792 the Revolution declared Lafayette a traitor –  which would have seen him guillotined – unless he could escape France which he attempted. He had the great good fortune to be arrested at Rochefort, Belgium by forces seeking to restore the French king only to find himself in prison charged with fostering the Revolution. Only after a long and convoluted history was Lafayette able to convince Napoleon – whose actual  coup d’état of the 9th of November 1799 effectively put France under his dictatorship – that he had no aspirations to power and wanted only to retire to his wife’s estates in the countryside.

Rochambeau, Commander of the French Allies, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front

Rochambeau, Commander of the French Allies, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front

Lafayette was liked and admired both by George Washington and the American people but his real contributions to the American Revolution are on par with Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand von Steuben – who was closer to Washington – and Kazimierz Michał Wacław Wiktor Pułaski of Ślepowron, a Polish noble who is not only credited as the father of American Cavalry but who also perished in the field at the Battle of Savannah. In a double irony Pułaski’s great champion was Horatio Gates – Washington’s chief rival for the American supreme command – and Pułaski’s death resulted from his attempt to rally fleeing French forces when he was mortally wounded by grape-shot.

General Anthony Wayne

General Anthony Wayne

There is not enough space on the hard drive of my computer – or should I know say on my cloud – to compare and contrast the American and French Revolutions. At the time of their roughly parallel occurrence it was Edmund Burke who best summed it up, Flattery corrupts both the receiver and the giver, and adulation is not of more service to the people than to kings. I should, therefore, suspend my congratulations on the new liberty of France until I was informed how it had been combined with government, with public force, with the discipline and obedience of armies, with the collection of an effective and well-distributed revenue, with morality and religion, with the solidity of property, with peace and order, with civil and social manners. All these (in their way) are good things, too, and without them liberty is not a benefit whilst it lasts, and is not likely to continue long. We know how it turned out – badly – and with the benefit additional information and of hindsight we can see that the American attachment to Lafayette is more of a sentimental indulgence than anything else.

Baron von Steuben

Baron von Steuben

For liberty and glory: Washington, Lafayette, and their revolutions New York: W.W. Norton & Co., c 2007 James R. Gaines United States History Revolution, 1775-1783 Hardcover. 1st. ed., later printing. viii, 533 p., [24] p. of plates: ill. (some col.), maps; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 487-498) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

Brigadier general Casimir Pulaski statue, Washington, D.C.

Brigadier general Casimir Pulaski statue, Washington, D.C.

They began as courtiers in a hierarchy of privilege, but history remembers them as patriot-citizens in a commonwealth of equals. On April 18, 1775, a riot over the price of flour broke out in the French city of Dijon. That night, across the Atlantic, Paul Revere mounted the fastest horse he could find and kicked it into a gallop. So began what have been called the “sister revolutions” of France and America.

Print shows Horatio Gates, three-quarter length portrait, facing left, wearing uniform, standing at table in tent, with tents and a flag with horizontal stripes in the background.

Print shows Horatio Gates, three-quarter length portrait, facing left, wearing uniform, standing at table in tent, with tents and a flag with horizontal stripes in the background.

This book tells the story of those revolutions and shows just how deeply intertwined they actually were. Their leaders, George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette, were often seen as father and son, but their relationship, while close, was every bit as complex as the long, fraught history of the French-American alliance. Vain, tough, ambitious, they strove to shape their characters and records into the form they wanted history to remember. James R. Gaines provides insights into these personal transformations and at showing the extraordinary effect of the two “freedom fighters” on subsequent history.

Print shows Major General O'Hara, surrounded by French and American soldiers handing his sword in surrender to General Lincoln.

Print shows Major General O’Hara, surrounded by French and American soldiers handing his sword in surrender to General Lincoln.

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