On July 27, 1777, the Marquis de Lafayette and 14 other French military officers arrived in Philadelphia hot, filthy and exhausted. They had slipped past the British blockade in Charleston, S.C., and trekked for 32 days to the capital of the newly created United States of America to offer their services. Told to present themselves at the Carpenters’ Hall, where the Continental Congress was meeting, the men brushed off their frock coats and knocked on the door. After a long, humiliating wait, the French officers were dismissed, shooed away as “adventurers.” Lafayette and his men, as author James Gaines describes it, were astonished and chagrined—“left open-mouthed on Chestnut Street, fifteen French officers who had risked an ocean crossing and spent the worst three months of their lives for the pleasure of this moment.”
It seems sometimes that Franco-American relations must bridge an ocean of resentment and misunderstanding. Americans who cracked jokes about the French during the run-up to the Iraq War forget how much we owe France for our liberty. During the Revolution, George Washington’s Army was equipped largely with weapons smuggled in by the French. A French fleet bottled up the British to secure the American rebels’ decisive victory at Yorktown in 1781. Dozens of French military officers volunteered to fight for American independence. Still, Gaines writes in “For Liberty and Glory” (512 pages. Norton. $29.95), many of the Frenchmen were vain, condescending and obsessed with pay and rank—more of a burden than a blessing to the fledging republic.
Lafayette was not put off for long by his rude welcome. The sandy-red-haired, 19-year-old nobleman had fallen in love with his adopted country from the moment he arrived. While his aristocratic brother officers were complaining about the “horrible lodgings,” the “detestable water” and the “very sullen” women, Lafayette was writing his wife, “The manners of the people here are simple, honest, and altogether worthy of the country where everything re-echoes the beautiful name of liberty.” Thanks to some persuasive introductions (including one from Benjamin Franklin), Lafayette was eventually granted an audience with Washington.
A natural leader, the aristocratic Lafayette quickly became one of Washington’s top aides and almost a son to the childless American commander (Lafayette named his own son George Washington Lafayette). The two men were in some ways oddly matched. Reserved and cautious, Washington did not like to be touched. Effervescent and effusive, Lafayette loved to embrace and kiss on both cheeks, and his motto was “Why not?” But they shared one great idea—that all men should be equal and free—and the courage to fight for it.
Their egalitarianism should not be overstated. By “all men,” they meant white, male property owners. But they were true revolutionaries: they were intent on overthrowing a system that fixed status at birth and replacing it with a system that rewarded merit. Washington and Lafayette were more progressive than most of the Founding Fathers. After the Revolution, Lafayette suggested that the two men buy an estate together and free the slaves who worked there. The idea never materialized—Lafayette sailed home to agitate for liberty in his native France—but Washington’s will dictated that his slaves be freed after he and his wife died.
Gaines, a former editor of Time, writes about the two great republican revolutions of the late 18th century knowingly and, at times, elegantly, though readers may get bogged down in his dense forays into French thought and politics. His portrait of the relentlessly optimistic Lafayette, swept away by the excesses of the French Revolution and driven into prison and exile, is poignant. Lafayette was ultimately vindicated—the modern French Constitution invokes his Declaration of the Rights of Man—and he was a figure of adulation for the postrevolutionary generation in America. In 1824, at 67, he began a 13-month hero’s tour of the United States. (Today there are more than 100 Fayettes, Lafayettes and Fayettevilles in the United States.) Always a showman, Lafayette was not above pretending that a limp, caused by a recent fall, was the result of a war wound sustained at the Battle of Brandywine Creek in 1777. But he was no hypocrite. During France’s revolutionary upheaval of 1789, Lafayette, who had been appointed commander in chief of the National Guard, could have seized power as the classic Man on a White Horse (he rode an enormous white charger). But he remained faithful to an abiding principle: that government belongs to the people, and not to any one man, no matter how noble.