Q: It seems that most Americans associate the name Lafayette with a transit stop, a local park, a school in their district, and yet, the man himself was instrumental in the formation of our nation. What made you want to write about him?
A: Lafayette was the French hero of the American Revolution, but he was only 19 years old when he came over from France and joined Washington’s army. He lived another 55 years after the Revolution was wpm, during which he played important roles in major world events, took part in two more revolutions, and lived a tumultuous personal life. I wanted to tell his full story.
Q: Tell us about your research for this book. How did you go about it? How long have you been working on it? Was there anything you were surprised to learn?
A: In total, I’ve spent about seven years working on the book. Thanks to the digitization of printed materials by libraries around the world, I was able to immerse myself in newspapers, pamphlets and diaries to get a sense of the day-to-day experiences of men and women who were living in the period. The Library of Congress has microfilmed copies of about 25,000 letters, receipts, inventories, account books, and scraps of paper of all kinds related to Lafayette, so I spent a lot of time in DC. But I’ve also conducted research at archives, libraries, museums, and historic sites throughout the United States and France. I visited all of Lafayette’s residences and even toured a recreation of The Hermione, the ship that he sailed to America on. Traveling from Lafayette's rural birthplace in the Auvergne to his homes in Paris and Versailles to La Grange, the estate outside of Paris which he considered “American ground,” gave me insights into Lafayette’s world that no amount of reading could ever have provided.
Q: Did you find anything that shocked you?
A: Yes—pornographic prints created during the French Revolution that depict Lafayette and the French Queen Marie-Antoinette in obscene situations! In 18th-century France, pornography was often used as a political weapon. I knew that Marie-Antoinette was accused of all sorts of improprieties, but I had no idea that Lafayette had been portrayed in such a humiliating way.
Q: You touch in the book on Lafayette's upbringing in France, and how it affected his societal standing in an unusual way. How did his socioeconomic status set the stage for his voyage to America?
A: Lafayette was immensely rich. His ancestors had been ennobled for centuries, and he married into one of the most influential families at the French court. But he had grown up in the provinces, and his rustic manners marked him as an outsider at Versailles. He was constitutionally incapable of falseness or flattery, and his in-laws’ hopes that he might become an influential courtier were dashed when he publicly questioned the intelligence of one of King Louis XVI’s brothers, whom he disliked. Once army reforms began to force out his generation of young officers, Lafayette found himself with no clear path to a career in his native France. So while it is true that Lafayette joined the American army because he genuinely believed in the cause of liberty, he also came to America because—like countless others before and since—he wanted to reinvent himself in a place that he saw as a land of opportunity where he could get a fresh start.
Q: Of the many characters who came into Lafayette's life—from his early years in France, to his first voyage over, to his involvement in the French Revolution, to his tour of the States—are there any who stand out to you, and can you tell us a bit about them? Can you assess Lafayette's personality in relation to his contemporaries? Did he influence others, or was he a man influenced by others?
A: Lafayette was acquainted with most of the influential public figures in both France and America and was active in political, intellectual, and scientific movements of all stripes. But of all the men Lafayette knew, George Washington had the biggest impact on his life. For Lafayette, who lost his father before he was two years old, Washington represented the ideal of how an honorable man should live. And Washington embraced his role as Lafayette’s second father, instructing, protecting, and reassuring Lafayette through the travails of their military campaigns together. Lafayette expressed his devotion at every turn; he even named his son George Washington Lafayette. In later years, Lafayette maintained his close relations with the founding generation of American leaders. John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson regularly brought their families to Monday dinners at Lafayette’s Paris townhouse. And, in 1789, Lafayette worked closely with Jefferson to draft a Declaration of the Rights of Man intended as a preamble to a new French constitution. Lafayette did not develop new theories of his own, but he embraced progressive ideas—many of French Enlightenment origins—that he saw put into practical political applications in America and then adapted them as he saw fit during times of crisis in his native land.
Q: Americans championed Lafayette as a hero of their revolution; his fellow countrymen widely considered him a coward following his involvement in the French Revolution. Can you talk a bit about fame and respect, and how those two qualities in Lafayette were measured in quite different ways by Lafayette's fellow Frenchman and his American comrades? Was he aware of these opposing opinions in his lifetime? If so, what affect did it have on him?
A: The French and American Revolutions were very different events. When Lafayette served as Commander of the National Guard in revolutionary Paris, people said that he wasn’t living up to the example of George Washington, but the context of street violence, government-sponsored Terror, and class warfare that tore France apart had no parallel in the American Revolution. Lafayette charted a course of moderate reform because he saw the potential dangers in the violent disruption of all the societal structures that had held France together for centuries. Lafayette placed tremendous value on his American fame, and the great esteem that Americans held for him served as a source of enduring comfort that enabled him to keep his bearings in his most difficult moments.
Q: How do you see Lafayette fitting into the story of French/US foreign relations?
A: Lafayette deserves full credit for focusing the attention of the French state on the cause of the American Revolution. Although France had begun sending clandestine assistance to America before Lafayette crossed the Atlantic, Lafayette’s personal initiative and unstoppable determination pressured Louis XVI into sending the French forces that were instrumental to our victory over England. In the years that followed, Lafayette came to be seen as the very embodiment of French-American friendship, and that connection lives on to this day. On July 4, 1917, when Colonel Stanton underscored the arrival of American troops in war-torn France by declaring “Lafayette, we are here,” he was harking back to the founding moments of Franco-American cooperation. So fully does Lafayette represent the strength of that relationship that in 2002, with disagreements over foreign policy tearing at the fabric of our alliance, President George W. Bush signed into law a measure that made Lafayette only the sixth person ever to be named an honorary American citizen.
Q: What sets this book apart from others about Lafayette?
A: Lafayette was a living, breathing person, driven by a burning desire to make a difference in the world. The book encourages readers to empathize with Lafayette, to understand what compelled a nineteen-year old French aristocrat who had never seen battlefield action to volunteer to fight in the American Revolution, and to imagine what it was like for him to come of age in a glaring international spotlight. After being catapulted to fame in America, Lafayette saw his reputation dashed during the French Revolution when he refused to give up his ideals of moderate reform as events lurched in ever more radical directions. Hated by royalists as a traitor to his class, denounced by republicans as an enemy of the revolution, and tormented by his inability to stanch the violence in Paris in his role as Commander of the National Guard, Lafayette fled his homeland rather than face execution. He spent seven years in prison and exile and never regained the respect of his countrymen. Lafayette deserves to be commemorated in marble, but my book aims to depict him as a man of flesh and blood.
Q: What is the one piece of information you would want every American citizen to know about the man for whom the local park/transit station/school was named?
A: The love of the American people was the thing Lafayette cherished most in all the world—far beyond wealth or titles—and he was keenly aware that participating in the cause of American liberty was the great achievement of his life. He was grateful to have played a role in such momentous events and to have earned the trust and friendship of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and the other Founding Fathers, whom he revered. And I’m sure that he would be profoundly grateful to know that parks, streets, and schools all over the country still carry his name today and keep his memory alive nearly two centuries after his death.
Praise for Laura Auricchio’s
“Provincial aristocrat, American warrior, and primary author of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man, the Marquis de Lafayette is among the most fascinating characters to come of age during the era of Revolutions. In her engrossing biography of Lafayette’s bi-continental career, author Laura Auricchio is as adept at recounting the Marquis’s first, awkward moments negotiating the subtleties of Versailles as she is bringing to life his seemingly father-son relationship with George Washington. An impeccably researched and compelling portrait of a man whose complex legacy is still seen very differently on both sides of the Atlantic.”
-Andrew Curran, Dean of the Arts and Humanities, Wesleyan University
“In a sharp and moving biography, Auricchio captures the essence of the ‘French hero of the American Revolution—the Hero of Two Worlds, the Apostle of Liberty.’”
-Kirkus (Starred Review)
“Laura Auricchio has managed to bring the Marquis de Lafayette back to life, replacing the rather wooden figure of legend with the real man, a hero of two great revolutions, the American and the French, and man of great complexity and unfailing courage. An immensely rewarding book.”
—Michael Korda, author of Clouds of Glory
“[A] fine biography. . .Lafayette still deserves more attention in France, but he’s found just the right American biographer in Auricchio.”