A TALK WITH AUTHOR LAURA AURICCHIO ON LAFAYETTE’S ‘CUR NON’ SPIRIT December 9, 2014
Laura Auricchio is a specialist in eighteenth-century French history and art. She received her undergraduate degree from Harvard and her PhD from Columbia University. Auricchio has been the recipient of major fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the Whiting Foundation, and Columbia University. She is currently the Dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies at The New School in New York City. She is the author of The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered, published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.
LAFAYETTE WAS BORN AND RAISED IN THE CHATEAU OF CHAVANIAC. LOCATED DEEP IN THE MOUNTAINOUS, REMOTE REGION OF AUVERGNE IN CENTRAL FRANCE, THIS ANCIENT CASTLE IS HUNDREDS OF MILES FROM THE GILDED CORRIDORS OF THE COURT OF VERSAILLES, NEAR PARIS.
LAFAYETTE AT YORKTOWN, IN A PORTRAIT BY PAINTED BY JEAN-BAPTISTE LE PAON ABOUT 1783. WHILE HE IS LAUDED IN AMERICA TO THIS DAY, LAFAYETTE HAS A DECIDEDLY EQUIVOCAL REPUTATION WITH THE FRENCH.
COMMISSIONED BY AMERICAN PUBLISHER JOSEPH PULITZER IN 1885, FAMED FRENCH SCULPTOR FRÉDÉRIC AUGUSTE BARTHOLDI, CREATOR OF OUR STATUE OF LIBERTY, EXECUTED THIS EVOCATIVE WORK OF ART DEPICTING OF THE FRIENDSHIP BETWEEN LAFAYETTE AND WASHINGTON, AND SYMBOLICALLY BETWEEN FRANCE AND THE UNITED STATES. THIS STATUE RESTS IN THE PLACE DES ÉTATS-UNIS, IN THE 16TH ARRONDISSEMENT OF PARIS.
CHATEAU DE LA GRANGE IN ROZAY-EN-BRIE, LAFAYETTE'S RESIDENCE, IT SHOULD BE NOTED THAT WHILE IT IS ONLY 35 MILES OUTSIDE PARIS, IT WAS A UNIVERSE AWAY FROM THE LEVERS OF POWER WIELDED BY NAPOLEON. THE DESPOTIC EMPEROR ENFORCED A TOTAL EXILE FOR THE "HERO OF TWO WORLDS," WHO REMAINED AN AVOWED SUPPORTER OF A CONSTITUTIONAL MONARCHY HIS ENTIRE LIFE.
IN 1788, THOMAS JEFFERSON, ABOVE, SAT FOR A PORTRAIT BY JOHN TRUMBULL; A YEAR LATER JEFFERSON WOULD COUNSEL LAFAYETTE TO AVOID "THE APPEARANCE OF TRIMMING BETWEEN THE TOW PARTIES, WHICH MAY LOSE YOU BOTH." THIS WAS A DIRECT WARNING ABOUT THE DANGERS OF SEEKING A MIDDLE WAY AS THE FRENCH REVOLUTION TOOK ON EVER MORE EXTREME COURSE.
EXEMPLIFYING LAFAYETTE'S 'CUR NON' SPIRIT, THE COMMANDER AND CREW OF THE HERMIONE FRIGATE, PICTURED ABOVE, IN ROCHEFORT, FRANCE, SHOW THEIR COLLECTIVE 'WHY NOT" ENTHUSIASM. THE FULL-SIZE REPLICA, BEHIND THE CREW, IS BERTHED IN THE EXACT SPOT WHERE THE ORIGINAL HERMIONE WAS LAUNCHED ON ITS EPIC VOYAGE TO AMERICA IN 1`780. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ASSOCIATION HERMIONE-LAFAYETTE
Editor’s Note: Laura Auricchio is a specialist in eighteenth-century French history and art. She received her undergraduate degree from Harvard and her PhD from Columbia University. Auricchio has been the recipient of major fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the Whiting Foundation, and Columbia University. She is currently the Dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies at The New School in New York City.
The Friends of Hermione-Lafayette in America recently talked to Laura Auricchio about her new book, “The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered,” published by Alfred A. Knopf on October 14, 2014. Friends of Hermione-Lafayette in America wish to thank Brittany Morrongiello of Knopf for her help in arranging this interview.
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Question: In “The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered,” you document how Lafayette’s sheltered childhood informed a grandiose notion of self. His overweening pride is something contemporaries both in France and the American colonies very quickly picked up on. Tell us about this aspect of his personality, and how it came to be?
Answer: All children start out imagining that the world revolves around them, and Lafayette had reason to believe that it truly did. Born and raised at the chateau of Chavaniac in the rustic Auvergne region of south-central France, Lafayette, who inherited the title of marquis before his second birthday, grew up in a family that constituted the totality of the local elite. He recalled in his memoirs that people would travel many miles across volcanic hills to seek the advice of his grandmother and that, when he went to Paris at age ten, he found it odd that men he passed did not doff their hats in deference to his station. But any delusions of supremacy were short lived. Catapulted to the highest echelons of French society when he was presented to King Louis XV and married into the Noailles family of influential courtiers, Lafayette discovered that his rural upbringing marked him as an outsider and his family’s local influence mattered very little in the halls of Versailles.
Q: Was the fact that Lafayette was generally perceived as a ‘trimmer’ – a critical epithet that denoted a craven compriser – ultimately compromise his vision of a constitutional monarchy in France? (As for a working definition of a trimmer, see George Savile, Lord Halifax, 1633-1695, who coined the term, as a canny politician who could sail steadily in difficult currents and crosswinds. Today, if employed at all, it usually carries a pejorative connotation.)
A: In 1789, with divisions between the nobility and the Third Estate threatening to rip apart the Estates General (France’s traditional deliberative body), Thomas Jefferson warned Lafayette that taking a middle-of-the-road position among the divided representatives “may give the appearance of trimming between the two parties, which may lose you both.” Later, others would accuse him of double-dealing by acting as a friend of the people while carrying on intimate relations with the Queen Marie-Antoinette. But Lafayette was not a trimmer. Idealistic and straightforward, he never wavered from his belief that the best way to guarantee the liberty of France was to institute a constitutional monarchy. A moderate, but not a compromiser, Lafayette wrote later in life that “true moderation consists, not as many people seem to think, in always seeking the middle between any two points…but in trying to recognize the point of truth and holding to it.”
Q: Why is that Lafayette has a far more ambiguous reputation in France than in the U.S.A.? You describe in his lifetime how so many French had at best an ambivalent take on him.
A: Part of the answer lies in the different contexts of the French and American Revolutions and the different roles that Lafayette played in them. When Lafayette joined George Washington’s army he was only nineteen years old and, as he put it, he had come “to learn, not to teach.” Washington welcomed Lafayette into his circle, mentored him, and helped him to become the military leader Americans revere today. In 1789, when the Bastille fell, Lafayette was hailed as a French Washington, placed in command of the French National Guard, and expected to keep the peace in Paris while leading the nation to a new era of liberty. It was an impossible task. As politics became increasingly polarized, Lafayette continued unabated in his quest to establish a constitutional monarchy and, ultimately, lost the support of both the right and the left until he was forced to flee the country with a warrant out for his arrest.
Q: After his imprisonment, and when Lafayette was at nadir politically, was Napoleon correct in fearing his potential influence were he to return to Paris from La Grange?
A: Yes. Although Napoleon had been instrumental in securing Lafayette’s release from prison in 1797, and Lafayette initially welcomed Napoleon’s coup d’état of 1799, the men developed a deep enmity. In 1802, when Napoleon named himself Counsel for Life, Lafayette took it upon himself to send a letter to Napoleon expressing his disapproval. Napoleon did not reply. Writing to Jefferson in 1814, Lafayette explained how his views on Napoleon had changed over time. As Lafayette put it, “the strong powers and singular genius of Napoleon had been disharmonized…by the folly of his ambition, the immorality of his mind, and his grain of madness not incompatible with great talents, but which is developed by the love and success of despotism.”
Q: Lafayette and Washington both sought glory. Please give us a taste of what glory meant to each man?
A: In eighteenth-century France and America, military men shared a common ideal of glory that had nothing to do with notions of splendor or pomp. In 1762, a French dictionary defined glory as a “reputation” garnered through “virtue, merit, great qualities, good actions and beautiful works” Glory was synonymous with “honor, esteem, praise.” In a 1778 letter, Lafayette explained his ambitions to Washington by writing that “glory” was his only goal. Washington would have understood Lafayette’s meaning; twenty years earlier, he had written his own letter describing his yearning for glory, which he defined as “that laudable Ambition of serving Our Country and meriting its applause.”
Q: You amply describe how Washington advised, tempered and coached young Lafayette, but as the relationship evolved, do you know of any instances where Washington listened to and acted on Lafayette’s advice to Washington?
A: Throughout the 1780s, Lafayette and Washington had a poignant exchange on the subject of slavery, with Lafayette asking Washington to partner with him on an experiment in gradual emancipation. As Lafayette explained in 1783, he planned to purchase a plantation and slaves, to treat the slaves as though they were tenants, to educate them, and, when they were deemed prepared to live independently, to free them. Washington, a slaveholder with deep misgivings about the institution, commended Lafayette for the “benevolence of your Heart” and, some years later, wished that “a like spirit would diffuse itself generally into the minds of the people” of the United States. Although Washington ultimately declined Lafayette’s invitation, Lafayette’s influence is often cited as an inspiration for Washington’s decision to free his slaves upon his death and to arrange for the education of the younger ones so that they would be prepared to sustain themselves. Q: There is little doubt that one of Lafayette’s most appealing characteristics was his ‘Cur Non’ spirit – one certainly exemplified on his 1780 voyage to America on the Hermione and his unquestioned bravery at Yorktown – so what meaning today can this carry over to young people, who are not born wealthy, who are not modern-day aristocrats?
A: Although wealth and connections undoubtedly facilitated Lafayette’s American triumphs, his “Cur Non” (Why Not) spirit was actually quite unusual for a rich young man living among the court nobility. There’s an old adage that “dukes don’t emigrate,” and in some respects Lafayette was more like an émigré than a duke. Cast out of the French army by military reforms and ill suited to the life of a courtier that his in-laws envisioned for him, Lafayette refused to give up on the dreams of military glory that had inspired him since childhood. Like many of our ancestors, he sailed for America in pursuit of goals that were thwarted in his native land, and he never allowed the expectations of others to dictate his path.
Q: ‘Reconsidered’ is an apt title, so what is the most important aspect abou Lafayette that ought to be reconsidered, and is this implicit question directed at Americans, the French, or both?
A: Lafayette definitely deserves to be reconsidered in France, but my book is written first and foremost for Americans. My hope was to encourage Americans to see Lafayette not as a timeless statue cast in bronze, but as a man of flesh and blood who struggled to find the right way forward in a tumultuous time, who made some wise decisions and some tragic mistakes, and who clung to his principles despite their costs. In an 1815 letter to his friend and ally Benjamin Constant, Lafayette wrote “I have been reproached all my life for giving in too much to my hopeful disposition; I will respond that it is the only way to do something out of the ordinary. One would, indeed, never try anything extraordinary if one despaired of success.” I believe Americans should admire him not because he always triumphed, but rather because the experience of failure never stopped him from imagining his next success.