Washington & Lafayette

Almost inseparable in wartime, the two generals split over a vital question: Should revolutionary ideals be imposed on others?

Against the British, both Washington and Lafayette (left and right, at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-78) had to learn how to lead citizen-soldiers rather than mercenaries, motivating their men through affection and idealism rather than through fear. Library of Congress
Despite their differences, Washington and Lafayette quickly grew close. After being wounded in the Battle of Brandywine in September 1777, the Frenchman (being helped to his feet) was tended by Washington's personal physician and looked after by the general. Special Collections, David Bishop Skillman Library, Lafayette College
In its conflicted interdependency, the friendship between Washington and Lafayette reflects the relationship that the United States and France have maintained for more than two centuries. (the cover of a musical composition distributed in 1848.) Special Collections, David Bishop Skillman Library, Lafayette College

Thanks to a rich historical record, we do not have to imagine the reaction of Gen. George Washington when, on July 31, 1777, he was introduced to the latest French "major general" foisted on him by the Continental Congress, this one an aristocrat not yet out of his teens. Virtually since Washington had taken command of the Colonial Army some two years before, he had been trying to sweep back a tide of counts, chevaliers and lesser foreign volunteers, many of whom brought with them enormous self-regard, little English and less interest in the American cause than in motives ranging from martial vanity to sheriff-dodging.

The Frenchman now presenting himself to George Washington in the Colonial capital of Philadelphia was the 19-year-old Marquis de Lafayette, who was in America principally because he was enormously rich. Though Congress had told Washington that Lafayette's commission was purely honorific, no one seemed to have told the marquis, and two weeks after their first meeting, Washington shot off a letter to Benjamin Harrison, a fellow Virginian in Congress, complaining that this latest French import expected command of a division! "What line of conduct I am to pursue, to comply with [Congress'] design and his expectations, I know no more than the child unborn and beg to be instructed," the commander fumed.

The success of the American Revolution was then very much in doubt. For more than a year, apart from two militarily insignificant but symbolically critical victories in Trenton and Princeton, Washington's army had succeeded only at evasion and retreat. His depleted forces were riddled with smallpox and jaundice, there was not enough money to feed or pay them, and the British, emboldened to dream of an early end to the war, were on their way toward Philadelphia with a fleet of some 250 ships carrying 18,000 British regulars—news that Washington had received with that morning's breakfast. At the dinner where he met Lafayette, Washington had to address the urgent fear of congressmen that Philadelphia itself could fall to the British, and he had nothing of much comfort to tell them.

So a pushy French teenager would seem to have been the last thing Washington needed, and eventually the general was told that he was free to do as he liked with the impetuous young nobleman. How then to explain that before the month of August 1777 was out, Lafayette was living in Washington's house, in his very small "family" of top military aides; that in a matter of weeks he was riding at Washington's side on parade; that by early September he was riding with Washington into battle; that after he was wounded at Brandywine Creek (a defeat that indeed led to the fall of Philadelphia), he was attended by Washington's personal physician and watched over anxiously by the general himself? "Never during the Revolution was there so speedy and complete a conquest of the heart of Washington," his biographer Douglas Southall Freeman wrote. "How did [Lafayette] do it? History has no answer."

Actually, Lafayette's biographers have settled on one: that Washington saw in Lafayette the son he never had, and that Lafayette found in Washington his long-lost father—a conclusion that, even if true, is so widely and briskly postulated as to suggest a wish to avoid the question. In any case it is unsatisfying in several ways. For one, Washington rarely expressed regret at not having a child of his own, and though he had many young military aides, he hardly treated them with fatherly tenderness. His adjutant Alexander Hamilton, who like Lafayette had lost his father in infancy, found Washington so peremptory that he demanded to be reassigned.

Perhaps most discouraging to the father-son idea is that the relationship between Washington and Lafayette was not one of unalloyed affection. The elaborate 18th-century courtesies in their correspondence may be easily read as signs of warmth; they could also disguise the opposite. The two men differed on many things and are sometimes found to be working against each other in secret, each to his own ends. Their interaction reflects the always problematic relations between their two countries, an alliance of which they were also the founding fathers.

It is difficult to imagine a supposedly friendly bilateral alliance fraught with more tension than that of France and the United States. In 1800, when Napoleon brought years of outrageous French attacks on American shipping to an end with a new commercial treaty, he dismissed the long, acrimonious conflict as a "family spat." In 2003, during their bitter confrontation over war in Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell reassured France's distraught ambassador to the United States, among others, by reminding him that America and France had been through 200 years of "marriage counseling, but the marriage...is still strong," an analysis that was widely appreciated and brought not the shortest pause in the exchange of diplomatic fire.

Others have described the French-American relationship as that of "sister republics" born during "sister revolutions." If so, it is not hard to find the source of Franco-American conflict, since the parents of these siblings deeply despised each other. Never has a national rivalry been more spiteful than the one between the old regime of the Bourbons and Hanoverian England, though they did share a belief in the profound insignificance of the American colonies. As colonial overlords, Washington's mother country and Lafayette's patrie saw North America mainly as a tempting place to poach and plunder, a potential chip in their war with each other and a small but easy market of primitives and misfits who lived in forests and dressed in animal skins. For their part, the American settlers saw the British as their oppressors, and were inclined to see the French as prancing, light-minded land-grabbers sent by the pope to incite Indian massacres.

Given these and later perceptions, one may well wonder why there is a statue of Washington in Paris' Place d'Iéna, and what one of Lafayette is doing on Pennsylvania Avenue across from the White House, in...Lafayette Park. At a time when Western civilization faces a geopolitical challenge that requires more than casual Franco-American cooperation, the question is not frivolous.

The answer begins with the fact that the French and American revolutions were more like distant cousins, and that the French Revolution was incomparably more important to the United States than American independence was to France. To the revolutionary governments of France, America was relevant chiefly as a debtor. In American politics, however—just as the newly united states were struggling toward consensus on forms of government and their common character as a nation—the French Revolution posed the central question: whether to follow France's egalitarian and republican model of society or some modification of the mixed British constitution, with king, lords and commons. It was in the crucible of debate over whether to go the way of Britain or France that the citizens of the United States would discover what it was to be American.

The friendship of Washington and Lafayette seems in some ways as implausible as the French-American one, almost like the setup to a joke: What does a Virginia frontiersman and grade-school dropout have in common with a moneyed French aristocrat who learned his horsemanship in the company of three future kings? Or what do you call a bumptious optimist whose best friend is a moody loner? Lafayette threw his arms around people and kissed them on both cheeks. Washington did not. Alexander Hamilton once offered to buy Gouverneur Morris dinner if he would clap Washington on the shoulder and say how great it was to see him again. When Morris complied, Washington simply, and without a word, removed Morris' hand from the sleeve of his coat and froze him with a stare.

Washington and Lafayette shared one characteristic of overriding importance, however: they were aristocrats in a monarchy—Washington self-made and Lafayette born to the manor, but both men links in a chain of favor and patronage that extended ultimately from a king, in a world where status could not be earned but had to be conferred. Both men were in this sense raised to be courtiers rather than patriots. Washington's flattery in his early letters to the royal governor of Virginia and other high officials is sometimes painful to read, and though Lafayette spurned one offer to take a place at court and complained of the cringing, fawning behavior he saw there, that was his world and background. In their time, the notion of equality was almost literally unthinkable. Distinctions of rank were implicit in the unspoken language of everyday life, embedded too deep to be much remarked on even when they were pointedly felt, as they often were. Freedom, too, was a strange concept. In both the Colonies and in France, the word "liberty" usually referred to a traditional or newly granted privilege, such as an exemption from tax. The model of "independence" that Washington held before him was that of the Virginia gentleman, whose property and wealth liberated him from dependence on anyone, even powerful friends. To declare one's independence was to declare oneself an aristocrat.

In the 18th century—in America, France and Britain alike—the ultimate test of personal success was called "fame," "glory" or "character," words that signified neither celebrity nor moral courage but referred to a person's reputation, which was also called his "honor." This sort of acclaim was not a cheap popularity divorced from achievement, as it would be in an age when people could become famous for being well known. Fame and its synonyms meant an illustrious eminence, a stature accrued from having led a consequential life. The pursuit of fame was not particularly Christian—it called for self-assertion rather than self-abnegation, competition rather than humility—but neither Washington nor Lafayette nor most of their fellow revolutionaries were serious Christians in fact, even if they were by denomination. (Asked why the Constitution failed to mention God, Hamilton supposedly said, "We forgot.") This was in the intellectual spirit of the times, which were marked by the Enlightenment's confidence in observation, empirical experiment and the rigorous application of reason grounded in fact. Discredited along with faith and metaphysics was the certainty of an afterlife, and without the prospect of spiritual immortality, the best hope of defying oblivion was to secure a place in history. In the world in which Washington and Lafayette lived, fame was the closest thing to heaven.

Finding themselves leading the struggle for the right to become something other than what birth ordained, Washington and Lafayette, in very different ways, had to win their own independence; and to watch them as they did so—making their way from courtier-subjects to patriot-citizens—is one way to see a radically new world being born, one in which the value of a life is not extrinsic and bestowed but can be earned by one's own effort.

Like other founding fathers of this new world, Washington and Lafayette started out by striving to be seen as the men they wished to be. If their motives for doing so were mixed, their commitment was not, and somewhere along the way, in a kind of moral and political alchemy, the urgings of fame and glory were transmuted into finer stuff, and their lives became enactments of high principle. This transformation hardly happened overnight—indeed, it was incomplete even at the end of their lives—but it began not long at all after they met.

Washington always said that the book from which he learned most about training an army was Instructions to His Generals by Frederick the Great, the ultimate handbook for the management of an army with officer-aristocrats. In such an army, soldiers were cannon fodder. Officers were expected to work for the love of glory and out of loyalty to the king, but their men—mostly mercenaries, criminals and ne'er-do-wells—were not to think about the cause they were fighting for (or about much of anything else, for that matter) because thought led to insubordination. Maintaining sharp social distinctions was considered essential for an army whose men would go to battle only if they feared their officers more than they feared the enemy. Not surprisingly, Frederick's manual begins with 14 rules for preventing desertion.

From the beginning of the Revolutionary War, Washington adopted Frederick's proscriptions. "A coward," Washington wrote, "when taught to believe that if he breaks his ranks [he] will be punished with death by his own party, will take his chance against the enemy." Even Washington's most high-minded calls to battle included a warning that cowards would be shot.

This attitude began to change only at Valley Forge, in early 1778, with the arrival of one Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, a veteran of Frederick's officer corps but a man who clearly saw beyond his own experience. Washington appointed him inspector general of the Continental Army in the hope that Steuben would shape his ragtag mass into a fighting force, and so he did, but not at all in the way that Washington had expected. In the manual Steuben wrote for this American army, the most remarkable theme was love: love of the soldier for his fellow soldier, love of the officer for his men, love of country and love of his nation's ideals. Steuben obviously intuited that a people's army, a force of citizen-soldiers fighting for freedom from oppression, would be motivated most powerfully not by fear but, as he put it, by "love and confidence"—love of their cause, confidence in their officers and in themselves. "The genius of this nation," Steuben explained in a letter to a Prussian officer, "is not in the least to be compared with that of the Prussians, Austrians, or French. You say to your soldier, 'Do this,' and he does it; but I am obliged to say, 'This is the reason why you ought to do that,' and then he does it."

When Washington took command in Boston in 1775, he had been shocked by the egalitarian behavior of New England officers and men: they actually fraternized! "[O]fficers of the Massachusetts part of the Army," he wrote in disbelief to a fellow Virginian, "are nearlyof the same kidney with the Privates." He had moved aggressively to put a stop to that. Under Steuben's influence, though, Washington began to soften his attitude. The change was reflected in a new policy announced six weeks after Steuben began his training: henceforth, Washington declared, officers would ride when their men marched only when absolutely necessary, it being important for every officer to "share the fatigue as well as danger to which his men are exposed."

Motivating soldiers through affection and idealism had important practical advantages. With less danger of desertion, the Continental forces could be broken into the smaller units necessary for guerrilla fighting. It also encouraged longer enlistments. During inspections, one of Steuben's instructors would ask each man his term of enlistment. When the term was limited, he would continue his usual inspection, but when a soldier exclaimed, "For the war!" he would bow, raise his hat and say, "You, Sir, are a gentleman I perceive, I am happy to make an acquaintance with you." A soldier and a gentleman? This was a new concept for a new kind of military.

Two years later, in the run-up to Yorktown, Washington ordered the troops of "Mad Anthony" Wayne and Lafayette to move south to defend Virginia. Both men immediately faced mutinies, Wayne because his men had not been paid for months, Lafayette because his had been told they would be on the march for only a few days. Wayne responded by holding an immediate court-martial, executing six of the mutiny's ringleaders and making the rest file past the corpses—which they did, "mute as fish," a witness would recall—on their way to Virginia.

Lafayette told his men they were free to go. Ahead of them, he said, lay a hard road, great danger and a superior army determined on their destruction. He, for one, meant to face that army, but anyone who did not wish to fight could simply apply for leave to return to camp, which would be granted. Given the option of fighting or declaring themselves to be unpatriotic cowards, Lafayette's men stopped deserting, and several deserters returned. Lafayette rewarded his men by spending 2,000 pounds of his own money to buy desperately needed clothing, shorts, shoes, hats and blankets. But it was his appeal to their pride that mattered most.

The idea would not have occurred to Lafayette even a year before, in the spring of 1780, when he had proposed a foolishly intrepid attack on the British fleet in New York. The Comte de Rochambeau, commander of French forces in America, told Lafayette it was a rash bid for military glory (as it was). Lafayette learned the lesson well. In the summer of 1781, he managed to corner British forces in Yorktown precisely because he did not attack, while Lord Cornwallis painted himself into the corner from which there would be no escape.

When the admiral of the French fleet arrived in the Chesapeake Bay off Yorktown, he insisted that his forces and Lafayette's were sufficient to defeat Cornwallis by themselves. (He was probably right.) Lafayette, several ranks and decades the admiral's junior, was well aware that he would gain more glory by not waiting for the forces of Washington and Rochambeau, and equally aware that he would be just a third-tier officer once they arrived. But he rebuffed the admiral and waited. Confessing "the strongest attachment to those troops," he asked Washington only to leave him in command of them. He recognized that there was more at stake than his personal glory and that glory was a more complex alloy than he had known before.

After Washington assumed the presidency of his new nation, his goal was the emergence of a uniquely American character, of a distinctive and respected Americanism that was respected as such at home and abroad. Lafayette, returning to France after Yorktown, began advocating American principles with the fervor of a convert. But at the end of Washington's life, the relationship between the two men nearly foundered on an issue that, two centuries later, would divide France and America over the war in Iraq: the wisdom of trying to export revolutionary ideals by force.

The France of Napoleon was making that experiment, and while Lafayette despised Bonaparte's authoritarianism, he was thrilled with France's victories in the field. Washington, who exhorted his country never to "unsheath the sword except in self-defense," was furious with France's military adventurism, coming as it did at the expense of American shipping (the "family spat," Napoleon had called it). His letter excoriating France for such behavior was the last to Lafayette he ever wrote. Lafayette's defensive reply was Lafayette's last to Washington.

When Washington died, in 1799, his refusal to let America be drawn into the sanguinary politics of Europe stood as one of his most important legacies. As much as he believed American principles worthy of export, he recoiled at the idea as a matter of principle as well as pragmatism. His policy of neutrality toward England and France—which was widely interpreted as favoring our enemy at the expense of our ally and monarchic rule over egalitarian government—robbed him of the universal acclaim he had long enjoyed and led to the severest criticism he was ever to endure. Benjamin Franklin Bache's Aurora, Washington's fiercest critic, called him everything from a weak-minded captive of his cabinet to a traitor. Thomas Paine, famously, said: "[T]reacherous in private friendship...and a hypocrite in public life, the world will be puzzled to decide, whether you are an apostate or an impostor; whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any." For a man as intolerant of criticism as Washington, such abuse must have been unbearable.

Still, his policy of neutrality saved Americans not only from involvement in the war between Britain and France but also from supporting either of them as models of government. In the course of years, Washington had found a greater glory, or something greater than glory, that allowed him to achieve his final victory in a campaign for peace, without which American independence might never have been secured.

In time, Napoleon's misadventures would bring Lafayette closer to Washington's view about exporting revolution by force, but he never gave up support for liberation movements around the world. At home he was an early leader of the pre-revolutionary reform movement, and he was named commandant-general of the National Guard of Paris on July 15, 1789. The preeminent leader of the "moderate" first two years of the French Revolution, he wrote the first draft of France's Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and invented the tricolor cockade, which combined the colors of Paris with Bourbon white to create the symbol of France's republican revolution. But he never changed his view that the government best suited to France was a constitutional monarchy, which put him at odds with Robespierre and eventually contributed to his conviction in absentia for treason. At the time, he was the general of one of three French armies arrayed against an invasion by Austrian and Prussian forces. Lafayette had already returned to Paris twice to denounce Jacobin radicalism before the National Assembly, and rather than return a third time to meet certain death at the guillotine, he crossed into enemy territory and served the next five years in prison, followed by two more in exile.

Lafayette returned to France in 1799 but stayed out of politics until 1815, when he was elected to the National Assembly in time to put the weight of his revolutionary-era credentials behind the call for Napoleon to abdicate after Waterloo. When the emperor's brother, Lucien Bonaparte, came before the assembly to denounce the attempt as that of a weak-willed nation, Lafayette silenced him. "By what right do you dare accuse the nation of...want of perseverance in the emperor's interest?" he asked. "The nation has followed him on the fields of Italy, across the sands of Egypt and the plains of Germany, across the frozen deserts of Russia.... The nation has followed him in fifty battles, in his defeats and in his victories, and in doing so we have to mourn the blood of three million Frenchmen."

Those who were there said they would never forget that moment. Some younger members of the gallery were surprised that Lafayette was still alive. They would not forget him again. Fifteen years later, at the head of yet another revolution at age 72, he installed the "republican monarchy" of Louis-Philippe by the simple act of wrapping him in a tricolor flag and embracing him—"coronation by a republican kiss," as Chateaubriand called it. Soon he would oppose what he saw as a return of authoritarianism, for which Louis-Philippe never forgave him. When Lafayette died, in 1834 at age 76, he was carried to his grave under heavy guard, and no eulogies were permitted.

Though his reputation in America has been secure, his reputation in France has varied with every change of government since 1789 (three monarchs, three emperors, five republics). To this day he is blamed by right-wing historians for having "lost" the Bourbon monarchy and by left-wing historians for a lack of revolutionary rigor. The fairest measure of his impact on France, though, would seem to be the Constitution of the Fifth Republic, which has been in effect since 1958 and which begins with these words: "The French people solemnly proclaim their attachment to the Rights of Man and the principles of national sovereignty as defined by the Declaration of 1789.... The national emblem shall be the blue, white, and red tricolor flag.... Its principle shall be: government of the people, by the people, and for the people. National sovereignty shall belong to the people."

James R. Gaines has edited Time and People magazines and written several books.

Copyright © 2007 by James R. Gaines. Adapted from the book For Liberty and Glory: Washington, Lafayette and Their Revolutions by James R. Gaines, published by W. W. Norton & Company Inc.

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