Book review: Lafayette: Lessons in Leadership from the Idealist General
by Marc Leepson (b.1945)
Palgrave Macmillan, New York 2011
I’m a first-time reader of Lafayette biographies, so I’ll acknowledge that Leepson entertains by re-stating the obvious: Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier de la Fayette was a national, military, political and, indeed, a paternal hero to millions in America and France during the American and (several) French revolutions.
There is no doubt that, despite the fact that he was one of the richest French nobles of his time, he was publicly and privately dedicated to republican government and a social/economic order that was far more egalitarian than the monarchical and aristocratic structures that prevailed.
Was Lafayette a great man? Leepson, like many of his biographers, says yes. Lafayette was a courageous battlefield leader, he was an enlightened manorial lord who enhanced the lives of his peasants, and he was both outspoken and fearless, repeatedly, in literally dangerous political situations for a couple decades in Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. Leepson amply demonstrates these lifelong characteristics of the man Americans called “our Marquis.”
I feel obliged to call attention to some countervailing factors that Leepson fully describes but does not adequately interpret.
Lafayette put his money where his mouth was. He repeatedly used his great personal wealth to pay and outfit the troops he commanded, when government funds and supplies ran low. I suggest a case could be made that the Marquis, almost uniquely among American commanders, paid for his military success in the Revolutionary War. Throughout the war, the options and operations of colonial commanders were significantly hindered by short funds and short supplies. If Lafayette had not been able to pay, feed, clothe and arm his troops with his personal resources, could he have been as winning a general as he was? I suspect the answer is “No.”
Some biographers refer to Lafayette as the “victor” at Yorktown in 1781. Leepson says that Lafayette’s campaigning in Virginia in the spring and summer of 1781 “led to the victory at Yorktown.” Lafayette was not the only American general at Yorktown, and he wasn’t the only French general. Lafayette did use his small force to isolate Cornwallis in Yorktown, but he had to wait until Washington, Rochambeau and others arrived with sufficient forces before he participated in the final assaults.
In France he repeatedly declined to step up to the plate and take executive leadership, during the revolutionary and Napoleonic convulsions, when the French people and the contentious military/political factions would have handed the throne or the presidency of France to him on a velvet pillow. The Marquis repeatedly risked his life to defuse explosive situations by his personal, courageous intervention. However, Leepson fastidiously details Lafayette’s repeated reluctance to take the final step and take control when, arguably, he could have stabilized dangerous situations, and forestalled or prevented catastrophic consequences, by doing so. Lafayette wasn’t responsible for the violence, but, time after time, he left a void that was unfortunately filled by lesser men.
Was Lafayette a great man? Yes. A successful general? Yes. Was he a really lucky guy? Yes. Did he and his reputation benefit immensely from great wealth and fortuitous circumstance? Yes. Did he live up to his potential in serving France and the French nation? Maybe not.
A final note: for my taste, neither Leepson nor Gen. Wesley Clark (in his Foreword) lives up to the promise of sifting “lessons in leadership” from Lafayette’s battlefield and political exploits, or his largely exemplary personal character. I think the fact is that almost all of the notable events in Lafayette’s public and private lift were as much circumstantial as anything else. Certainly, in the worst of times during the French Revolutions, when he could have demonstrated compelling leadership for the lasting benefit of his countrymen and nation, Lafayette came up short.
Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016