Exciting, well-wrought narrative strikes a terrific balance between George Washington’s stoic endeavors to galvanize a new American republic and the Marquis de Lafayette’s efforts to foment ideas of liberty and equality in despotic France.
The pair enjoyed a close, lifelong relationship, notes Gaines (Evening in the Palace of Reason, 2005, etc.). The elder general of the ragtag colonial forces first met the effusive, wild-eyed and very rich 19-year-old Frenchman in 1777 and had to figure out what to do with him. Steeped in Enlightenment ideals, each would be profoundly changed by the American war for liberty. Washington, the taciturn man of honor, lent his immense gravity and dignity to the founding years of the new republic. Lafayette fought courageously for the patriots, most notably at the siege of Yorktown, and he aggressively foisted on Louis XVI’s moribund court the ideals of inalienable human rights and self-government. Indeed, the French became necessary allies in the war against England, and Gaines notes that numerous first- and second-rank leaders of the French Revolution besides Lafayette were veterans of the American revolt and “carried home to their tottering monarchy the ideal of an Arcadian society free from want and despotism.” The author also stresses the importance of playwright and royal spy Beaumarchais, who pushed Louis to help arm the American rebels by setting up a secret trading house funded by the French government. Gaines maneuvers deftly between developments in America and France, from Washington’s camp at Valley Forge and reluctant first presidency to Lafayette’s intervention at the French court and the monstrous violence unleashed by the revolution.
A marvelous reliving of history through the lives of two key players who were also devoted friends.