Books

TGON Reads: Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution by Mike Duncan

As far as podcasts go, The History of Rome was something of a classic, but creator Mike Duncan would not rest on his laurels, however, and followed that up with Revolutions, where he alludes more than once to his autobiography of Lafayette, Hero of Two Worlds, released August 2021. Hero of Two Worlds tells the story of the Marquis de Lafayette, who came to the American colonies to fight in the War of Independence, and would eventually lead France further into the conflict. However, Lafayette was nineteen years old when he arrived in Virginia, and he survived the war, which meant he had a long life to live after, through the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Duncan’s biography aims to cover all of it.

The emphasis on the later life of Lafayette does not detract from a detailed account of the action Lafayette saw in America, though. The friendships that rose up with figures like Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and especially George Washington move to fore early, often with quotations from personal letters, and shape Lafayette in the form of a surrogate family. Washington, in particular, appears as an unexpected father figure, and Duncan emphasizes “unexpected,” portraying a sometimes awkward relationship between Washington and Lafayette, even though readers with a general knowledge of Washington’s inability to have his own children may wonder how unintentional it would have been for Washington to encourage a padawan.

But while awkward, Duncan’s Lafayette focuses his energies on political and social causes and refuses to let social ineptitude get in the way. This quality may be absent in more eye-catching depictions, think Daveed Diggs in Hamilton, but Duncan once again uses letters from Lafayette’s contemporaries, notably Marie Antoinette, to come to this conclusion. The key figures in ancien regime France escape my American educated memory, but notable allies and later kings of France post-Louis XVI receive early introductions as Lafayette would have met them in his youth. Duncan ascribes a George McFly-Biff Tannen level of pettiness to the relationships Lafayette developed with Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Louis XVIII (who was XVI’s brother), and Charles X. Yet, Lafayette has no time for politics; he’s too busy finding new ways to wear his heart on his sleeve. While this might go a long way to explain the Bourbons’ later dislike of Lafayette, there’s still the historical tradition of a dashing cavalier surrounding Lafayette. There’s a reason why Lafayette’s, and not Baron von Steuben’s, modern cultural avatar is a wisecracking rapper.

Focusing on individual character traits will be no surprise to listeners of Duncan’s podcasts, though, nor will his decision to stray away from the minutiae and horrors of battle. Still, an appreciation for the mortality of infection gives one more sympathy for Lafayette’s wound at the Battle of the Brandywine. Duncan does provide the grimy details, and gets the scoop, on Lafayette through and after the Napoleonic Wars. A lot of time is spent with Lafayette and his comrades in prison. The awful, starving conditions are described, and it’s ascribed to hostility to the imperial Europeans toward a republican liberator. Additionally, once released from prison, the tenderness of Lafayette toward his myriad of children and grandchildren.

Perhaps most satisfying is Lafayette’s return to America for a victory lap. The war-torn revolutionary gets a hero’s welcome in America, where towns, counties, and innumerable monuments are named after him, so maybe I can’t quite see the wide-eyed idealist Duncan describes for the equestrian statues. But there is a ton of information contained here, so don’t be surprised if Duncan writes the Very Short Introduction.

Photo courtesy of Public Affairs Books

Three out of five stars.

Page count: 512

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