This week we sat down with Dean and Associate Professor of Art History at The New School Laura Auricchio who recently published a groundbreaking biography on the French Founding Father, The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered. Her book traces the French aristocrat’s life, from his tumultuous childhood overshadowed by the untimely death of his father through his formative adolescence that he devoted to the American Revolution, and finally his later years. To learn more about this seminal revolutionary figure, check out our upcoming special installation Lafayette’s Return opening May 29.
How did you first get interested in the Marquis de Lafayette?
As a specialist in the age of the French Revolution I was struck by the realization that Lafayette, who is universally acknowledged to be a hero of the American Revolution, is remembered far more ambiguously in his native France. How is it, I wondered, that a man who dedicated his life to pursuing liberty could have left behind such disparate legacies? What I learned is that Lafayette’s steadfast commitment to principles of moderation, and especially his belief that the French monarchy needed to be reformed but could not be abolished lest France descend into chaos, cost him the faith of both sides in the French Revolution, and left him standing nearly alone on a middle ground that rapidly eroded around him. The more I learned about Lafayette, the more I came to admire him as a man who steered his own path through tumultuous times and who clung to his beliefs without fail.
What is the significance of the Hermione? Why do you think the Hermione and not the Victoire was recreated this year? Was the former more memorable or meaningful to Lafayette’s story than the latter?
In 1780, the Hermione transported Lafayette to Boston bearing official word that the French Crown would be sending ships and troops to support General Washington in the War of Independence. Representing the height of French naval technology, the Hermione was a Concorde-class frigate that sailed “like a bird,” in Lafayette’s words, and went on to engage in several battles against the British. On a personal level, though, Lafayette might have felt a greater attachment to the Victoire–the optimistically christened ship that he purchased with his own funds and sailed across the Atlantic in 1777, when he set out to join the American cause against royal orders. Unfortunately, the Victoire is unlikely to be reconstructed: as an ungainly merchant vessel, it holds less appeal for sailing aficionados; and as privately built ship, its plans have not come down to us through the French Naval archives.
What’s the most surprising fact that you learned about Lafayette through your research?
I was shocked to stumble across pornographic prints and pamphlets 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.
Lafayette made four separate trips to the U.S. in his lifetime. Some of his stays lasted years on end. Was it his provincial upbringing and his thirst for adventure that contributed to his discomfort at the French court and his affinity for the United States?
Born and raised in the rugged Auvergne region of south-central France, Lafayette never felt entirely at home in the refined court society into which he married. Lafayette’s forthright demeanor and preference for action over banter placed him at a disadvantage in the games of intrigue that dominated life in the gilded halls of Versailles. In the United States, however, Lafayette’s matter-of-fact sensibility and self-deprecating humor won the hearts of Americans who recognized a kindred spirit in the earnest young nobleman.
Lafayette threw English-speaking Parisian dinner parties with American diplomats, including John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay. How did he harness these soirées to weave himself into the elite American circles?
After the American Revolution ended, most of the French soldiers and sailors who fought for the cause returned to France and to the careers they had left behind. Lafayette, in contrast, made the United States his career, doing whatever he could to advance the cause of French-American political and economic alliance. Establishing himself as the new nation’s foremost French friend, he filled his Left Bank townhouse with American objects—a plant that he found in Connecticut climbed the walls of his terrace, and a gold-engraved copy of the Declaration of Independence hung on the wall of his study—and he regularly invited the Adamses, the Jeffersons, the Franklins, and other American dignitaries to Monday dinners where his children (including his son George Washington Lafayette and a daughter named Virginie after Washington’s home) entertained visitors with songs in English. So closely did he associate himself with the new nation that, according to the explorer John Ledyard, Lafayette “planted a tree in America, and sits under its shade at Versailles.”
Although he had some English training and brought his dictionary with him to the U.S., Lafayette’s grasp of the language was rudimentary. So, Alexander Hamilton edited some of his more important correspondences. As two fatherless men who idolized Washington were they rivals? What was their relationship?
Hamilton and Lafayette developed a close friendship during the American Revolution. Although they hailed from very different circumstances—Hamilton was an illegitimate child born into poverty on the Caribbean island of Nevis—and had very different temperaments, both came to the American Revolution as outsiders of sorts yearning for glory and determined to do whatever they could to advance the cause of liberty. An able judge of character, the childless Washington took both men under his wing so that they might be said to have grown up together. Both played crucial roles in the Siege of Yorktown that marked the last major hostilities of the American Revolution and, although their final meeting was in 1784, they remained in correspondence until shortly before Hamilton’s untimely death some 20 years later.
Lafayette began referring to himself as an American in 1779: “When I say ours, I mean the Americans,” he wrote to Benjamin Franklin. And by 1784, he was granted citizenship in several states, making him a “natural-born” American with the 1789 ratification of the Constitution. So what prompted Lafayette to define himself as an American? Was it his military service during the American Revolution, or his affinity for the language—what made Lafayette distinctly an American?
Lafayette saw himself as part of a great American experiment. An eternal optimist who devoted his life to furthering ideals of liberty and improving the lot of all humankind, he saw the United States as the land where his dreams of freedom might be realized. Although he worked to institute reforms in his native France, where he advocated for such principles as religious toleration and electoral representation, he believed that the French people were too deeply entwined with their ancient traditions to engage in the kind of bold experimentation that would allow liberty to flourish. To him, the young United States beckoned as a land of opportunity where all things seemed possible. He considered his contributions to the cause of American liberty to be his greatest achievements, and he cherished the outpourings of affection that he received from the American people throughout his long life.