An in-depth profile of Lafayette, “hero of two worlds.”
Many Americans, if they’ve heard of Lafayette at all, may recall a brief mention in history class of the young Frenchman who ably assisted George Washington during the Revolutionary War. In this engrossing work, Miller (Creatures of the Spirit, 2002, etc.) seeks to rectify that situation by providing a fuller account of the personal, political, and military intrigues surrounding Lafayette’s pivotal role in early American history. Notably, Lafayette maintained friendly relationships with the first eight American presidents. He considered Washington a paternal figure and also developed a close rapport with Jefferson, who, in a letter excerpted here, sent heartfelt condolences when Lafayette’s wife died. Miller’s concise style captures the essence of these amicable interactions: “Lafayette could chide his friend over slavery and the president could remind him that he might have prevented Burr’s treachery.” Furthermore, Miller skillfully reconstructs the turmoil in France that subsequently consumed Lafayette’s energies. At the heart of this work is an assessment of Lafayette’s leadership capabilities here and abroad: “Too often in this turbulent time he asked advice of others and found it difficult to make decisions, a fatal flaw when a leader must always be his own best counsel. Even though Lafayette seemed an ideal leader,” Miller says, “his record in France, unlike that in America, shows he was not. This explains why in France he does not hold the same esteem of his countrymen that he does in the United States.” Miller devotes a large portion of the text to the hero’s welcome Lafayette received in 1825 as he toured America in advance of the 50th anniversary celebration of Bunker Hill. In fact, some readers may feel overwhelmed by the great detail with which Miller describes the tour. However, as the author notes, Lafayette, then 67, impressively covered over 5,000 miles in under four months using the transportation modes of the era, and the emotional impact of the beloved general embracing former soldiers (or their children if they had since passed) along the route is undeniable.
Remarkably detailed portrait of a now-lesser-known icon.