Monday, February 16, 2009

For Liberty and Glory: Washington, Lafayette and Their Revolutions by James R. Gaines

(Book Review)

This book recounts the relationship between George Washington and the marquis de Lafayette.

In my school days, I remember hearing about Lafayette's role in the American Revolution. However, with the typical American-centric education common to most schools, Lafayette's story ended there. It was not until the last 2 or 3 years that I started to realize Lafayette played an important role in the French Revolution as well.

If your education was similar to mine, you might find this book quite interesting. It traces not only Lafayette's friendship with Washington and his role in the American history, but also follows him through the events of the French Revolution.

As the subtitle to the book indicates, the author has clearly bitten off a lot to chew. In one single book he tries to cover the biographies of two different men, as well as two different revolutions.

And at times, you do feel like you are only getting glimpses at each man, instead of the full on biographical treatment. But like any good writer, Gaines posses the ability to skim through history and pick out the most interesting parts without getting bogged down in the details.
(James R. Gaines (w) is not a historian, but a journalist by and former magazine editor by profession, and he obviously brought those skills to bear in writing this book.)

Gaines has an eye for picking out interesting details and digressions. For example, you'd be surprised to learn how much the American Revolution was influenced by the the relationship between Pierre Beaumarchais (the author of the "The Barber of Seville and the Figaro plays (w)) and Chevalier d'Eon (w), a sexual confused French spy.

There are a lot of interesting tidbits about George Washington in this book as well.
Considering how much we revere George Washington in America, it's shocking how little the average American actually knows about him (apocryphal stories of Cherry trees and wooden teeth aside). Gaines book gives us a good look at the man behind the myth. It's a mostly reverential portrait of America's father, but he doesn't shy away from some of Washington's eccentricities and blunders.

For example, Gaines quotes from some of George Washington's early letters, and comments that given how great a man he was later to become the young Washington's letters show us more than we might wish to know about the man.
Gaines also writes about how Washington's first military command was to preside over a massacre at the outbreak of the French-Indian War.

There's a lot of biographical information in here about Lafayette as well. And again, if, like me, your knowledge of Lafayette kind of faded out after the American Revolution, it is interesting to read how Lafayette was for a brief time the most powerful man in France at the start of the French Revolution.
Once the Jacobins rose to power and the revolution started to eat its own children, Lafayette crossed the boarder and surrendered to the Austrian army. He spent six years in an Austrian prison, but survived to again become one of the leading figures in the 1830 Revolution.

There's a fair amount of overlap between this book and "The Great Upheaval" by Jay Winik (another book I've recently read). Both books cover roughly the same time period, and both authors were apparently mining the same material, because a number of the same quotes even appear in both books.

That being said, there's enough different material to make each book worth reading on it's own. (Jay Winik almost completely neglects Lafayette's role, while Gaines focuses on it exclusively).

Both books also contrast the chaos of the French Revolution with the stable government and peaceful transition of power that the American Revolution created. And to a certain extent it is a comparison worth noting. Comparing the American Revolution with the French Revolution makes you realize how unstable Revolutions inherently are, and how easily the new American government could have fallen apart, and how astonishing it is that the new American country managed to hold together.

At the same time, there's a fine line between simply noting this difference, and descending into a smug sense of inherent American superiority. Gaines prose, and the patriotic language he uses, seems to walk this line.

But Gaines is no reactionary patriot. Like Winik's "The Great Upheaval", Gaines uses historical parallels to subtlety criticize the Iraq War. Gaines praises the wisdom of America's founding fathers in wanting to stay out of foreign wars. He contrasts this with the French Revolution's disastrous attempts to bring republican governments into other countries by military force. Like Winik, Gaines never mentions the Iraq War directly, but his choice of language won't leave any reader in doubt about his meaning.

Link of the Day
Our Fabulous New Post-Partisan Era

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