Revolutionary Brothers: Thomas Jefferson, The Marquis De Lafayette, And The Friendship That Helped Forge Two Nations, by Tom Chaffin
The unfortunate truth of the matter is that the lives of Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis De Lafayette did not intersect often enough for this book’s title to really be borne out in its contents. To be sure, the author is seeking (like many writers do) to find a unique angle that has not been approached in order to sell books and win awards as a middlebrow popular historian of the Revolutionary period of both America and France, and this book is worth reading mainly to find out more about the fascinating and complex role of the Marquis De Lafayette in both the American and French Revolutions, which is not as widely known as it should be. That said, the friendship between Jefferson and Lafayette is not nearly as close or as obvious as the author wants it to be appear to those who judge a book by its title and cover, and aside from very limited times, the two simply did not interact in a way that was profound and impactful compared to their relationships with others. It would be easy to celebrate the friendship of Lafayette and Vergennes, but French history isn’t a big selling point in the United States, or Washington and Lafayette but that has already been explored by several historians. So we have this.
This book is a pretty hefty one at six parts, 63 chapters, and more than 450 pages. The author has clearly done his research on the revolutionary era as it relates to the writings and experiences of both Jefferson and Lafayette. The first part of the book, quite naturally, looks at the backgrounds of both Lafayette and Jefferson as both deal with the combination of privilege and the early loss of their fathers and make their way in the world. After that the second part of the book shows how the paths of both Jefferson and Lafayette converge for the first time as Lafayette comes to America to serve as a volunteer officer for the Continental Army while Jefferson serves as the governor for Virginia. Then the third part of the book looks at their first interactions as Lafayette leads a force in Virginia that seeks to protect the rather non-military Jefferson in the face of British invasion. After that the book moves to Paris where the next set of chapters discusses both Lafayette and Jefferson in their time as Parisians in late ancien regime France as both are involved in diplomatic efforts. The fifth part of the book then discusses the careers of both Jefferson and Lafayette in France from 1786-1789 as revolution approaches and both seek to provide a more moderate solution to France’s political and economic woes than ends up taking place. The sixth and last part of the book then looks at the diverging paths that happen after 1790, as Lafayette spends years in prison as a political prisoner while Jefferson is elected to various offices, and where both end up meeting again in 1824 as elder statesmen from a bygone generation.
Is this a bad book? No, not at all. There are many occasions where it feels like the author is grasping at straws and supposing interactions that simply have not made it into the historical record to show Jefferson and Lafayette as having worked together, especially in their time in France. And for large portions of the book Jefferson and Lafayette have their stories told in parallel fashion with a bit of interaction between them but with even the author recognizing that other relationships were more close and more important to both men. Lafayette was never as close to Jefferson as Madison or Monroe were, and Jefferson, even as an important American, did not share the sort of experiences that Lafayette shared with Washington and other leaders because of their shared military experiences. Yet in some ways this book works as well as it does as a history of the American and French Revolutions, and a look at why one was generally successful while the other was a scarcely mitigated disaster because of the very different experiences of both men in the face of both revolutions. Lafayette, for all of his vanity and ego, and Jefferson, for all of his self-deception, were the sorts of figures who should be viewed as being worthwhile figures in any nation’s political dramas, and the fact that Lafayette was viewed as a hero by the Americans despite their Francophobe tendencies while nearly being killed by his own radical countrymen and then imprisoned by Austria and Prussia when he tried to escape for his life tells you what you need to know about why it is foolish to support revolutionary leftists. That is, moreover, a very prescient contemporary lesson.