A major question one must face when studying the life of an important political person is whether that person is a product of the times or whether the times are a product of the actions of that person. With Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette, one must come down strongly on the side of the man as a product of the times, for without the American and French revolutions, Lafayette probably would be at most a minor footnote in some French historical tome. But Lafayette is definitely not a footnote in the history of the American war for independence. Even though he participated in only a few major battles, he symbolized better than any other single person the involvement of foreign powers in the revolutionary actions of the American colonists.
What is especially interesting to the American reader who is not familiar with French history and tradition are the seemingly opposite political views held by Lafayette. He was a leader, spiritually if not militarily, in the American fight against the English monarchy, but he was a staunch defender of the French monarchs against all attempts to create a republic in the years following the fall of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. In order to understand this apparent dichotomy, one must understand Lafayette’s background, and it is here that Peter Buckman, an Englishman, leaves something to be desired in his biographical presentation, at least in terms of the average American reader.
Lafayette was born into a military family, rich in a tradition of battlefield heroics. In fact, his father, Michel, and his mother, Julie de la Riviere, were married because “her connections promised a colonelcy in the grenadiers” for Michel. (It should be pointed out here that the “citizen” army was a unique aspect of the rebellious Anglo-Americans in 1776, but in the eighteenth century, Lafayette and most of the higher echelon foreign military leaders were members of the aristocracy.) When their son, christened Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de la Fayette, was born on September 6, 1757, Michel was involved in a military campaign and only saw his son once before being killed in 1759. (It should also be pointed out here, that before the revolution, the surname of the family was spelled “la Fayette,” but following the abolition of feudal privileges in 1789, the Marquis changed the spelling to what Buckman calls the “democratic” spelling of “Lafayette,” and it is this latter spelling which Buckman uses throughout the biography.)
When Lafayette’s widowed mother returned to more fashionable dwellings in Paris, he was left on the rural family estates to be raised by his paternal grandmother and her daughters. Although the author does not specifically discuss it as such, much of Lafayette’s later life would seem to be a result of these early years he spent with his grandmother and aunts. Buckman does comment that as a child Lafayette’s “horizons were limited to the skies and hills of the Auvergne, and his dreams of glory, so carefully implanted by his loving aunts, fulfilled only in fantasy.” It was because of these fantasies, these dreams of glory on the battlefield, that Lafayette and others of his class accepted as fact the idea that they were born to fight. They were not careless with their own safety, but military glories were the only path open for them to honor and prestige and advancement, unless they wished to become involved in the convoluted web of court politics, an avenue which never held much interest for Lafayette.
At that time, even with aristocratic birth and military academy training—both of which Lafayette had—the only way to acquire a military position with status was through family connections, and Lafayette’s maternal grandfather acquired a commission in the Black Musketeers for him. Unfortunately, it was a time of little military activity, and the sixteen-year-old Lafayette was forced to spend his time around the court at Versailles with his new bride but without the “patriotic sacrifice . . . expected of the nobility.” Buckman also attributes some of Lafayette’s displeasure with court life to his shyness, a shyness the author apparently believes was based upon feelings of inferiority resulting from the lack of opportunities for advancement. That is, there was no chance to gain “the respect of those he respected.”
Thus Lafayette had many reasons to listen to the talk among the court liberals about the revolution in the English colonies. Involvement in the American cause offered the always welcome opportunity to harass the English; there was the possibility of furthering French political and economic interests; and, for Lafayette, there was the chance to find glory in battle. Although such a view of Lafayette’s desires does not support the commonly held romantic picture of the man, Buckman’s somewhat oblique presentation of the facts is nevertheless more realistic. Such a reading of history in no way demeans Lafayette, however, for once he became part of the American cause, he was a firm supporter of independence and of the citizen troops he commanded. In fact, he even went so far as to outfit his own men and attempted to supplement their meager food supplies with his own funds.
In the beginning it was no easy matter for Lafayette even to acquire troops to command, for although the Continental Congress was at first reluctant to accept any foreign aid for fear of complications—especially from the French, who had been bitter enemies only a few years before in the French and Indian Wars—Silas Deane, the American representative in Paris was authorized to offer commissions to French officers on the basis of their experience. Lafayette had had...
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