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Dynamic duality

For Liberty and Glory Washington, Lafayette, and Their Revolutions; James R. Gaines; W.W. Norton: 534 pp., $29.95

September 23, 2007|Charles Rappleye | Charles Rappleye is the author of "Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade, and the American Revolution."

It's hard to ignore the glaring and suggestive connections between the two great rebellions that closed the 18th century and ushered in the modern era: our own Revolution, which severed our bond with imperial Britain and installed a democracy in its place; and the French Revolution, which signaled, though it did not achieve, the end of monarchy as a viable mode of government.

Both uprisings shared the backdrop of the Enlightenment, both were directed against royal authority and both were fought in the name of a new conception of individual liberty. In addition, and crucially, the French upheaval derived much of its audacity, its idealism and even some of its leaders from the American struggle -- in particular, a dashing young aristocrat, the Marquis de Lafayette.

Yet as much as they had in common, the two revolutions were profoundly different, so much so that those actors at the time who made the mistake of conflating the two events paid dearly for their mistake. Thomas Paine, for example, traveled to France to join the insurgency and was elected to the National Convention, but he was jailed soon thereafter and narrowly escaped the guillotine. Many of the French comrades who served with Lafayette in America were not so lucky and lost their lives as the furor swept their homeland. The marquis himself was forced to flee, only to be imprisoned in Austria, and then to live in exile, before returning at last under the dictator Napoleon Bonaparte.

It's a bit disconcerting, then, to come across a historian two centuries later who builds a narrative around the supposed confluences of the two revolutions and the presumed bond between two actors in the transatlantic drama. But that is what James R. Gaines has offered in "For Liberty and Glory: Washington, Lafayette, and Their Revolutions."

It's easy to see how Gaines came up with his story line. Washington and Lafayette were indeed close, for a brief period, when the marquis was young and rich and sailed to America in search of adventure. There he found Washington facing his darkest hour, outmanned by the British and driven to frozen ground at Valley Forge, and for all the hardship -- indeed, probably because of it -- the two formed a friendship that became the stuff of legend.

From that foundation, Gaines spins his yarn as far as it will go, encompassing the lives of his two protagonists and the parallel but vastly different conflicts that infused each life with drama and meaning. Such extrapolations can foster insight and new knowledge, but they can also prove aimless and a little fatuous, as they do here. The frame of this book is a construct and, by and large, an unwieldy one.

Gaines admits as much in his introduction. For all their similarities, he notes, Washington and Lafayette were separated by a generation in age as well as by character, and, crucially, "Washington was a far more important historical figure than Lafayette." Gaines then discloses his true impetus. "Still, an account of their friendship opens a window on many things . . . including the first act in the great psychodrama of French-American relations, as well as the perennially tempting mystery of how struggles for the same noble and universal principles could have had such wildly different outcomes."

My instinctive reaction is to stop Gaines right there: There's really not much mystery as to why France veered into chaos and anarchy while America's new republic, for all its birthing pains, survived and then flourished. As Gaines himself illustrates in his meandering narrative, the presence of the ancien régime, with its legions of nobility and its traditions of entitlement, meant that the language of liberty and civil rights translated far more easily into the idiom of late-Colonial America than the French of Louis XVI.

Even Lafayette, a leader in the early commotions in Paris, held out in favor of a constitutional monarchy, a stance that made sense given his aristocratic heritage but one that nearly cost him his life. The revolution in France was probably inevitable, and the horrific bloodshed that attended it may have been as well, but it appears obvious -- certainly in hindsight -- that the French were not going to follow the more civil path that the Americans had charted a few short years before.

Despite the flaws of conception and structure, Gaines atones to some degree in his execution. He writes with energy and flair, has a keen eye for anecdote and demonstrates an easy facility with the historical terrain. In his wry diction, the elections of 1796 "ended by bottling two scorpions in the executive branch, arch-Federalist John Adams as president with the arch-Republican vice president Thomas Jefferson," while across the ocean, "The Assembly of Notables became so unruly that someone actually moved that only four people be allowed to speak at once."

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