Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 664

Eaton’s biography of the young Lafayette’s involvement with the American Revolution is significant for young readers in several ways: It presents a picture of a young person of great wealth and high ideals, introduces the social and political life of eighteenth century Europe and America, and details the sacrifices made by many in the struggle of the American colonies for independence from Great Britain.

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Lafayette’s boyhood in the rural Auvergne region of France made him aware of the great disparity between the lives of the peasants and the lives of the nobles. During the years of his adolescence in Paris, he was insulated from contact with the poor, but his introduction to the works of Voltaire and Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais strengthened his egalitarian beliefs. In 1775, after hearing of the American Revolution and meeting with Silas Deane, who was sent from America to seek aid from France, Lafayette determined to live his ideals in supporting this cause. Eaton shows that, while Lafayette certainly was seeking adventure, he also had a sense of honor and responsibility toward his family that checked his actions and made him mature for his years. She cites an example of his sense of honor when he visited England shortly before sailing for America. As a young military officer, he was invited to Portsmouth to observe the details of a new expedition being sent to fight in America. He refused the invitation, not wishing to abuse the hospitality of his hosts, who did not know he would soon be joining Washington’s staff, and not wishing to be accused later of spying.

Eaton describes the world of both the poor and the privileged in eighteenth century France in great detail. In her account of Lafayette’s visit to England, she shows the contrast between the British and the French monarchial governments of the time and the greater political liberty of the English commoners. When Eaton writes of Lafayette’s first impressions of America, the even greater differences between the colonists and the Europeans, whether French or British, are made plain. The author quotes from the many letters that Lafayette wrote to his wife, his friends, and French officials in which he shared his observations about this new country and its people. Although Eaton’s representation of the African-American people Lafayette met is stereotypical, she clearly shows the pangs of conscience suffered by those who embraced egalitarian ideals in a country that still maintained the institution of slavery.

Although this biography focuses on Lafayette and his role in the American Revolution, the author includes the sacrifices made by both the renowned officers and the common soldiers during the war. Lafayette endured long separations from his wife and young children and spent freely from his great fortune to equip, clothe, and feed American soldiers. He shared with Washington and his soldiers the extreme hardships of the winter encampment at Valley Forge in 17771778. The soldiers suffered from inadequate food, clothing, and shelter during that terrible winter, but Washington and Lafayette shared their privation and did everything in their political and financial power to improve the situation.

Washington also endured long separations from his family and his beloved Mount Vernon, and he was never free from worry and responsibility during the long war. Outwardly, he remained calm and dignified, but he often shared his feelings with Lafayette, which Eaton shows in her quotations from his letters. Lafayette was with Washington at West Point in 1780 when Benedict Arnold’s treason was revealed, and, knowing his general so well, he grieved at the pain that this discovery caused the man whom he loved and respected as a father.

The author’s accounts of the sacrifices made by Washington, Lafayette, the soldiers of the Continental army, and others such as Baron de Kalb, Lafayette’s Prussian friend, are realistically written and contrast sharply with her references to self-serving individuals such as Arnold. This contrast subtly illustrates the author’s belief in the value of honor.

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Critical Context