The Marquis de Lafayette: A Resolute Figurehead of Revolution

A review of Mike Duncan’s celebrated historical narrative, ‘Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis’ de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution


Rossitsa Mina Petrova

Mike Duncan’s New York Times bestselling historical biography provides a wonderfully articulated narrative on the life and trials of The Marquis de Lafayette.

 Few historical figures are as synonymous with the glory and turmoil throughout the Age of Revolutions as the Marquis de Lafayette. His debut into the cataclysm that swept the late 18th and 19th centuries began with the American Revolution and continued past multiple French Revolutions, ending with his death in 1834. 

Historian, podcaster, and New York Times best-selling author Mike Duncan provides a captivating narrative and analysis of Lafayette’s daring military and political life. In his biography Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution, Duncan follows the Marquis through struggles for liberty, equality, and freedom both on the battlefield and on the political stage, the latter sometimes remarkably deadlier than the former. 

Hero of Two Worlds embarks on Lafayette’s journey from a naïve and spirited youth, blind to the hypocrisies of American independence, to an abolitionist, reformer, and zealous advocate for religious tolerance.  

Brimming with teenage dreams of military victory at the age of 19, Lafayette defied the wishes of his king and country; assuming a disguise, he boarded a ship to South Carolina to aid the rebel colonies in their emerging war against the British Empire. 

Although a Marquis, Lafayette grew up in provincial obscurity, running wild in the forests of Chavaniac, until multiple deaths in the family and a strategic marriage brought him to the center of French absolute power: Versailles. Lafayette, never able to fit in with the dandies and gossipers in the palace, took the first chance he got to sail to the rebelling colonies and to earn glory on the field of battle. 

Once there, Lafayette had to work hard to earn the trust of the Army and Continental Congress. He was believed to be one among the many disingenuous Frenchmen claiming to be a Marquis, each of whom wanted high officer titles and enormous salaries without believing in the colonies’ cause.

It was only after agreeing to serve without pay and putting himself in the line of danger in the battle of Brandywine that Lafayette won the hearts of the American rebels. He also made an effort to learn English, differentiating himself from his prideful countrymen who never dropped their aura of European superiority. The Continental Army had no use for snobbish French dandies, and Lafayette appeared to be as down to earth as the rebels themselves. Plus, he seemed to truly sympathize with their cause of rebellion against British oppression. 

After this one glorious adventure, everyone expected him to return home, but Lafayette stayed through the harsh winter at Valley Forge, the failed invasion of Canada, and the treason of Benedict Arnold; he felt truly committed to the American fight for liberty.

Following the Continental Army’s victory in the battle of Saratoga, the French finally felt secure enough to commit troops to the revolutionary cause. Lafayette was overjoyed by the alliance of his native and adoptive countrymen and begged to lead a battalion of French and American soldiers. 

Famously, he became the surrogate son of the Commander-and-Chief of the army, George Washington. Even after Lafayette sailed for France, they maintained a loving relationship, fulfilling voids in each other’s lives – Washington being sonless and Lafayette being fatherless. 

With the French economy spiraling out of control in the late 1780s, Lafayette used his newly gained popularity to champion the rights of his oppressed countrymen. In 1787 he eagerly participated in the Assembly of Notables, a gathering of high-ranking princes, clergymen, and nobles created to offer advice and direct the country in times of crisis. 

As a young and zealous representative, Lafayette set himself up as the champion of the people. He advocated for the immensely radical and unpopular idea of calling the Estates Generals, an assembly of France’s three estates, the clergy, the nobility, and the rest of the population. The assemblage functioned like a legislative body. Only they had the authority to enact major taxation and constitutional reforms. For that reason, the Estates Generals had not been called since 1614 and had been avoided at all costs by the absolute monarchy. 

The Assembly of Notables was dissolved, and while there seemed to be some progress toward liberty, it was not as fast as Lafayette would have wanted. The nobles seemed to be intent on defying Louis XVI but not on standing up for the people’s rights. Everyone gave the impression to agree that the King did not have the right to tax the nation. This consensus, however, was only an attempt for the nobility to preserve their own privileges and tax exemptions; the very exemptions that were starving the French people and stagnating the economy. The clergy and nobility owned half of the land yet paid virtually no taxes, making it the burden of the poor and hungry to work the other half of France dry to keep the state afloat. 

Still, some favorable legislation was achieved. Lafayette, a staunch supporter of religious tolerance, successfully steered the Assembly into passing laws aimed at decreasing persecution for Protestants. He also became a member of the Society of The Friends of the Blacks in France and was the first person to be a member of three different emancipation movements in different countries.

After championing the causes of liberty with his adoptive countrymen in America, Lafayette grew to detest the hypocrisies of slavery. How could Americans speak of oppression when so many prominent revolutionaries viewed other human beings as property? Lafayette made no secret of his desires for abolition and openly spoke of them to his compatriots in America, especially George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, whose fortunes were built on slave labor.

Lafayette was also sent to act as a delegate to the Iroquois tribes along the western border of America. He adopted two young boys and saw to their education back in France, so they could serve as political representatives between the Americas and Europe and their home communities. Unlike Lafayette’s awareness of the atrocities of slavery, his optimism in the intentions of the United States made him believe in a peaceful and cooperative future between the Iroquois and the States, seemingly unaware of the legacy of death at genocidal proportions and the loss of culture that surrounded the 13 colonies, and blind to the bloody disasters to come. 

Once the French financial crisis of the 1780s spiraled completely out of control, the declaration of bankruptcy forced conservatives to relent to the gathering of the three estates – the clergy, nobility, and everyone else. Radicalism began to take hold of France.

At first, the Third Estate, largely represented by bourgeoisie, was unable to push reform that conflicted with the desires of the First and Second Estates. Failing to pass the proposal to vote by head instead of by Estates, the delegates of the Third agreed to form a National Assembly that would govern France until a constitutional monarchy was established. The moment the King finally declared the merging of the estates into one legislative body of France, Lafayette eagerly joined his radical countrymen of the Third. 

From 1789 to 1791, Lafayette took center stage in the French Revolution. He championed the rights of the common people and deployed his military expertise to lead a newly formed organization of loyal patriots who replaced the army as the protectors and police of France known as the National Guard. 

He is also credited with creating the tri-color cockade, whose design remains in the French flag today. Combining the red and blue colors of Paris with the white of the Bourbons, Lafayette designed a symbol that connected revolutionary radicalism with the order of the new constitutional monarchy. 

In keeping with the growing hatred for nobility, Lafayette, along with his liberal aristocratic friends, dropped the noble title from their names. The Marquis de Lafayette became simply General Lafayette. 

However, Lafayette’s liberalism was unable to adequately match the growing tide of violent radicalism brewing in the Paris sections. He was rapidly losing authority in his post as commander of the National Guard. He was unable to prevent the guardsmen from turning to the side of the radical Parisians whenever conflict broke out. During the Women’s March on Versailles that brought King Louis XVI to Paris, Lafayette had to choose between leading his men to join their Parisian wives in their petition to the King or being hanged by the mutinous soldiers. With the circumstances dire, he marched, devoid of a plan, to the Palace of Versailles.  

In 1792, France found itself at war with Austria, Prussia, and soon all of Europe. Needing to escape the constant besmirching of his reputation, Lafayette volunteered to lead the war effort. He was joined by the commander-in-chief of the French army during the American Revolution, the Comte de Rochambeau.

Back in Paris, war paranoia enflamed the radicals in the government. Unable to blame their rush to war, the Assembly declared conspiracies and treason of the generals in the army to be the reason behind French defeats. Lafayette tried to march on the city and bring reason to the manic revolutionaries; he specifically denounced the hyper-radical Jacobin club, whose members made up the majority of opposition against him. 

Enraged that he abandoned his post, the government, now controlled by the Jacobins, declared Lafayette a traitor and called for his arrest if he ever returned to Paris. The final straw for Lafayette was when the Paris Streets, rallied by Georges Danton, a man more radical than the Assembly and who detested Lafayette even more, forced the king to abdicate the throne. Fearing imminent arrest and execution, Lafayette crossed the border into Austria, hoping to sail to America. 

While the Austrian army supported the defection of officers from the French Army, Lafayette was too closely tied with the revolution to be let free. Taken into custody in August, he spent the next five years as a state prisoner in various jails, all in solitary confinement. 

The Austrian prison, though detrimental to his health, likely saved Lafayette’s head from the hungry Parisian mobs. His fellow liberal nobles, who had done so much to defy the Ancien Régime and kick-start the revolution, were not so lucky, and many were killed by the blade of the guillotine. 

After years of solitary confinement in dark and dirty prison cells, Lafayette was freed by Napoleon’s conquest of Italy, achieving what years of diplomatic confrontation could not. As a promise to the power-hungry Napoleon, Lafayette retired from politics and reverted to farming and caring for visitors and his grandchildren at a new residence, La Grange near Paris. 

This never prevented him from publicly displaying his disapproval for Napoleon’s obvious attempts at dictatorship. When General Bonaparte did remove his veil of republican liberties and announce himself Emperor for Life, Lafayette made no effort to hide his disdain for all tyrants. The relationship between the two men quickly shifted to blatant animosity. 

Lafayette’s imprisonment did not mark the end of his political career. When Napoleon came back from exile in Elba after being defeated in a detrimental invasion of Russia, Lafayette joined the “representative” body of government in Napoleon’s new Empire to attempt to bring him down. Throughout what history has dubbed the 100 days, Lafayette worked tirelessly to force Napoleon to resign. 

When the Emperor was finally ousted from power, Lafayette’s house became a gathering point for liberals opposing the restored Bourbon king, Louis XVIII’s recent conservatism. The new King and the rest of the Great European Powers no longer believed Napoleon was to blame for the devastation of the wars, and were ready to fully blame and punish France. 

After the “white terror,” which enacted purges of liberalism at the behest of the Bourbon monarchy, Lafayette ran for a seat in the new charter of government. He was stopped the first time by threats and bribes but was elected provincially the second time, where it was too far for the Bourbons to rig the election. Throughout his time in office, he tried to push liberal reforms and limit the return to absolute monarchy. 

Lafayette continued to engage in revolutions at home and abroad. He sent letters of aid and support to radicals in Italy, Spain, and Greece. He assisted a French Carbonari – a secret society of revolutionaries – plot to remove Louis XVIII from power. Although the scheme failed and the leaders were executed, Lafayette managed to escape prosecution. The staunch turn towards conservatism and the crackdown on liberalism forced him to seek refuge in his adopted country, the United States of America. 

Lafayette engaged in a year-long tour of every state in the United States. Following his arrival, each city threw parties in his honor, naming schools, parks, and streets after him. Everywhere Lafayette went, he and his traveling party from Europe championed the end of slavery, which they saw as a contradiction to liberty. Even on trips to the South, Lafayette made no secret of his desires for abolition, delivering speeches that openly denounced slavery.

Back in France, Louis XVIII’s even more Conservative brother, the Come d’Arios became Charles X, the new King of France. From his new seat in power, Charles was determined to wipe out every achievement of the Revolutionary Era. 

He elevated a despised Conservative minister to power, and on July 26th, 1830 published four ordinances, which suspended freedom of the press and dissolved the legislative government. Many radicals believed this to be a coup to set up an absolute monarchy; enraged liberals took to the press to denounce the ordinances, and poor radical workers barricaded the city streets.

This triggered the July Revolution, where for three days Paris was in open revolt, until the liberal opposition raised the tri-color flag above the Hôtel de Ville, signaling a victory for the people. Lafayette, in his third revolution, donned his uniform, took control of the national guard, and inspected the insurgents at the barricades. 

The radical workers and students cried long live Lafayette and long live a republic, thrusting him back into the liberal spotlight. Lafayette, however, did not want a republic for France and rejected the idea of being the country’s first president.

Instead, Lafayette and other moderate revolutionaries decided to elevate the king’s liberal cousin, the Duc d’Orléans, to the throne. To ensure the radical insurgents, who had fought and died in the streets for a republic, accepted this change in power, Lafayette publicly displayed his support for the new king, legitimizing his rule with a “Republican’s kiss.” 

Duc d’Orléans did not uphold his end of the bargain and began slugging further into conservatism. Lafayette was forced to resign from the National Guard and Paris flew into another insurrection. In 1832, the radicals once again took to the barricades, fighting for a republic. Lafayette, still nursing dreams of a popular constitutional monarchy, played no part.

In 1834, Lafayette died at the age of 76. He is buried in Paris next to his wife with the dirt from Bunker Hill covering his grave, connecting the two home countries of the Hero of Two Worlds, even in death. 

Throughout his life, Lafayette constantly found himself in the center of political and military turmoil. In the midst of upheaval, Lafayette’s core ideology never faltered. Whether he appeared on the right or left of the government depended on the current regime. Under the conservative orders that ruled throughout his life, Lafayette appeared as a liberal champion of rights. In the French Revolution, he was portrayed as a counter-revolutionary whom the people’s liberties needed defending. 

Under King Louis X and young Louis XVI, Lafayette had to defy orthodox nobles to serve in the Revolutionary War in America. At the outbreak of revolution in France, Lafayette was the champion of the people, striving to free them from the chains of the Ancien Régime. 1792 then quickly swept Lafayette aside as an aristocratic swine who needed to be purged for the citizens of France to prosper. 

The Napoleonic Empire and the reactionary Bourbon restoration once again brought Lafayette to the far left. With Lafayette in his early seventies, the liberals who overturned Charles X immediately called on him to help lead the July Revolution. It was Lafayette’s Republican kiss that sealed Louis Philippe on the throne of France.

In his last years, Lafayette was a symbol for the radical workers and students of Paris in their fight against the July Monarchy. In the June Rebellion, they again implored him to become the first president of France. 

Still, Lafayette was not a Republican and always believed France would best be served by a constitutional monarchy that united the will of the people with the ancient history of France. Regardless of his admiration for the American Constitution, Lafayette was terrified by the bloodthirsty reign of terror by the First Republic of France. He witnessed firsthand how the will of the people could leave respectable men hanging dead from lanterns. 

His popularity also varied between nations. During the reign of Louis XVII and Lafayette’s tour of the United States, the French government was beyond eager to get rid of him, while in America, the people could not wait to host him. In France, Lafayette united factions in shared hatred for him; in America, he united them in a shared love for their adopted French Marquis.

While most biographies of Lafayette end with his imprisonment following his fall from grace during the French Revolution, Mike Duncan unveils Lafayette’s incredibly active and influential political career that terminated only at his death. At 72 he donned his military uniform to topple the Bourbon monarchy once and for all. More than any support from the common people or current politicians, it was Lafayette’s embrace that secured the Duc d’Orléans’ throne. 

Two years before his death, Lafayette was still a beloved and relevant rallying point for the radical streets of Paris in their 1832 insurrection. Up until his final moments, Lafayette held influential correspondence with revolutionaries stretching from Italy to Spain to Greece. 

The story of Lafayette, based on a groundbreaking and tumultuous time in history, is woven together by Mike Duncan. It serves both to enlighten and entertain. History cannot be comprehended through simple dates and facts but must combine these details with personal accounts and stories. Instead of telling the reader the Americans defeated the British in Yorktown in 1781 or that the French Revolution began in 1789, Duncan weaves a narrative of personal experiences and disorder. 

This allows the reader to learn how arbitrary and simplified these facts really are. Yorktown did not have to mean the end of the American Revolutionary War, and skirmishes in the South continued, leading to the death of John Laurens, who was one of Lafayette’s most beloved friends. The calling of the Estates Generals in 1789 was far from the first actions of unrest or revolution in France. Lafayette’s liberalism in the Assembly of Notables proves the brewing discontent that the people, clergy, and nobility all had for France’s absolute monarchy. 

The biography hides nothing, painting Lafayette not only in his glory but his mistakes and downfall. At 19, caring only for adventure and heroism, Lafayette was blind to the political turmoil he caused back in France, not to mention the distress he caused his wife and family. His love for America sometimes blinded him to the hypocrisies the nation was founded upon. 

Even in his later years, when fiercely advocating for an end to slavery, political disorder in France often kept him from embarking on any meaningful or long-lasting abolitionist movements. It was, in fact, only after Lafayette crossed the border into Austria in 1792 that the First Republic of France abolished slavery, only to be brought back with the Napoleonic Empire that freed Lafayette from prison. 

There is no perfect way of depicting history; difficulties arise in creating biographies that are not too lenient or do not tell the whole story. The biases of regions, time, and place are impossible to escape. 

Mike Duncan’s Hero of Two Worlds acknowledges this, and the journey through Lafayette’s life is filled with his youthful and adult blunders in both the military and political fields of battle. Above all, the biography is a narrative of one’s unwavering hopes and dreams for humanity throughout an era of upheaval against oppression. Even after wave after wave of attacks from conservatives, radicals, dictators, and tyrannical orders, Lafayette was, as Mike Duncan writes, a “tower among the waters.” 

Hero of Two Worlds embarks on Lafayette’s journey from a naïve and spirited youth, blind to the hypocrisies of American independence, to an abolitionist, reformer, and zealous advocate for religious tolerance.