The legendary Mike Duncan talks about his book Hero of Two Worlds and the incredible life of Lafayette.
My next guest needs no introduction but I’ll give him one anyway. Mike Duncan is one of the most influential and popular history podcasters in the world. His smash-hit series The History of Rome, which ran from 2007-2012, traced the history of the Eternal City from its founding until its fall in 476. After finishing the show he released the book The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic, which became an international bestseller. He currently is finishing his second podcast series Revolutions, with each season covering a different historical revolution. His new book and the subject of today’s episode is Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution, which debuted in the top 5 of the New York Times and Amazon.com’s non-fiction bestseller lists. His work has been the inspiration for many podcasts, including this, so I am so delighted to have him on the show.
Gary: Thank you so much for being on the show, Mike Duncan. This is such a special show. First off, because you’re here, it’s obviously special. And also this is the first episode that I have done since becoming a doctor as I actually defended successfully a couple of weeks ago. So, this is quite an opportunity to celebrate, and it’s the best way I can think of to celebrate. So, thank you so much for being on the show today. We are talking about your book Hero of Two Worlds and the Marquis de Lafayette. Over your career, covering the entire history of classical Rome to revolutions from the 1600s to the Russian Revolution, you become acquainted with some of the most fascinating characters of all time. Of all the people you could have written about. What made you choose the Marquis de Lafayette?
Mike: Well, it grows organically out of having done Revolutions, and it was sort of where I was at in Revolutions when it came time for me to write my second book because my first book, The Storm Before the Storm, did pretty well. And the publisher came around and said, “OK, well, what are your ideas for your next book?” And at this point, this is right when I was ending the sixth season of the show. And for, you know, if you’re not acquainted with the show, each season is a different discrete historical revolution. But I move chronologically through history, and the sixth season was about the Revolution of 1830, and Lafayette, as an old man, plays a very prominent and important role in the Revolution of 1830, as we all know. But then that by that point in season six, I was looking back on it. It was like this guy showed up as a 19 year old in season two, played a pretty prominent role in the Continental Army and in the American Revolution, then went on into the French Revolution and played a very major, like a much bigger role than even I anticipated him playing in the French Revolution because I knew he was around. I knew he was a part of the National Guard, but I think really 1789, 1790, 1791 Lafayette to be one of the most important and influential figures in the whole revolution. And then as I move forward, I’m talking about Spanish-American independence, and suddenly I’m reading this biography of Simon Bolivar in correspondence with old Lafayette, because he looks up to Lafayette. And then in trying to prepare for the 1830s, I find him involved in these secret underground Carbonari conspiracies, these liberal revolts in the early 1820s. And by this point, Lafayette had just been around so much. He’s around in the show more than anybody else. He appears in more episodes, he appears in a more series than any other figure. And so by the time he asked, “What would you like to write your next book about?” I was like, “I have this guy who’s around all the time and I can’t get rid of him. And I would really like to go back to the beginning of his life and just retell the whole story of his life from birth, but then also re-walking through all of these events the second time in the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Revolution of 1830 and walking through this 50 year period, which is of humongous importance not just for European history, but Atlantic history and world history generally.” And those things all came together. And then, of course, when I presented it, everybody was like, “Oh, the guy from Hamilton,” you can absolutely write a book about the guy from Hamilton. And here we are.
Gary: Yeah, and among other things, I mean, he just did so much that you couldn’t even mention it all, but he also wrote The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which has become one of the most important political documents in modern history. Truly a remarkable figure.
Mike: Sure. I mean, and he gives France the tricolour. You know, I think he was sitting around with a sketchpad in 1789, and that’s why the blue, white and red are a thing that comes directly out of Lafayette’s head.
Gary: So I have to ask this question after all the research you’ve done, can you say the Marquis de Lafayette’s full name from memory? And just know we won’t take points off of you if you can’t.
Mike: Oh no, I can’t do it from memory, but I do have it in front of me. It’s Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette.
Gary: All right, fantastic. You know, I tried doing it for one other show and I said it fantastically, but that’s because I did multiple takes. So there you go.
Mike: I am not in any way interested in committing his full name to memory. I mean, he even he cracked a joke about it, like right at the beginning of the book where he’s like, You know, I was baptized like a Spaniard. They just gave me every saint’s name to look after me. But he said that he always felt like some songs you bear did the most to look out for himself.
Gary: Absolutely, you know, but to anyone out there who’s listening, who really wants to get that authentic stuff down, just know that the Marquis de Lafayette name, that’s the intermediate level. And then once you get to Picasso’s, that’s when you’re the master. I’m not even going to try Picasso. I don’t know. I just know they mentioned it in an Epic Rap Battles of History. So in any case, Lafayette is one of those giants of history like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson that have had numerous biographies written about them. Were you intimidated by the thought of trying to place yourself among such great historians who have written on the Marquis? And since so much has been written on Lafayette, what is it about your work that you believe makes it stand out?
Mike: You know, in terms of my level of intimidation I have been working as sort of either a professional history podcaster or a writer for ten or 15 years. And I have always had a suitable level of humility about where I stand in, sort of in the in the profession of history. I am not a doctor of history, you know, congratulations on that, by the way. I’m a grad school dropout, and so I didn’t do that. I didn’t go for the credentialing process. And so I have always looked to the professional historians and academic historians with a great deal of respect bordering on reverence in terms of I am trying to take material and make it not palatable but digestible for a popular audience. So there are tons of great historians who have written about Lafayette, and I read all their books and enjoyed all of them. The thing that consistently came up to me when I was reading about Lafayette is that if you’re reading most biographies of him, they will take you through in pretty good detail the American Revolution. They will often take you in very great detail through the French Revolution, which gets you through about 1792. In terms of like word count or page count that’s often like 80 to 90 percent of the book is only getting you through Lafayette being about 30 years old and most accounts of his life, then just sort of fall off a cliff and they’re like, “OK, well, after the French Revolution, he was held prisoner for a couple of years by the Austrians. Then he retires to La Grange, and then he has this one sort of return as an old man in the 1820s to the United States. And then that’s about it. Maybe he played a role and then he dies. You know, that’s it.” It’s often wrapped up in like a single chapter, the whole second half of his life. And so what I was honestly trying to do with this book, and I do think I succeeded at it what sets Hero of Two Worlds apart from other recent biographies of Lafayette, especially is I take seriously the whole second half of his life. And you know, part one of my book is the American Revolution. Part two is the French Revolution, and then the whole final third of the book is everything that happens after he gets let out of prison. His experiences with the Napoleonic Empire, his experiences with Restoration politics, his activities among the Carbonari, trying to overthrow Louis 18th, his role in the July Revolution, his ongoing role as a politician and a political leader after the July Revolution because this notion that he just sort of like retired and went away for the whole second half of his life isn’t really true. He was a very active politician. He was a very popular politician. He was a very influential leader. And I think it’s the service I was trying to provide here was to really illuminate and take seriously the second half of his life.
Gary: Well, I hope that you don’t have too much humility and look, you know, too far up, at people who have gone through the system because I think that your book is truly fantastic. Obviously, you bring to it the incredible expertise you have as a storyteller so that it’s accessible to the general audience. But it is also, I think, a fantastic scholarly work that is going to enter into the pantheon of Lafayette. So I hope that you aren’t too humble moving forward. And actually=
Mike: I try to maintain an appropriate level of humility and I, you know, I don’t want to get a big head and I also don’t want to think I’m think I’m a big nothing burger. So, yeah, I will try to keep it appropriate.
Gary: OK, well, good. You know, I get a bit of humility every day because, you know, I was riding high for a bit once I got the doctor title. But every day on Twitter, somebody tries to school me about history or says, I’m doing it wrong. So you know that that doctor thing, it doesn’t mean as much as you’d think. So one thing that I really loved about your book and how it stands out, I think from other works about Lafayette is that a lot of other work focus on Lafayette’s successes, with his crowning achievements being his service in the American Revolutionary War, writing the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen and the French Revolution, and securing the transfer of power from Charles X to Louis Philippe during the 1830 Revolution. But your book, interestingly, devotes a fair amount of time to his failures and faults. You describe how, despite being in politics for half a century, he never developed much talent for it. You go into detail about his failed project to liberate African slaves, and talk about his strained relationship with his children who went years without seeing him having missed the death of his daughter on repeat and leaving his son George when he was 12, only to meet him again when he was 18. How do Lafayette’s faults and failures factor into your conception of this man?
Mike: I think that his faults and failures make him very human. And I don’t think that any, you know, any biography of any person is going to be accurate in any way if it only highlights, you know, the good stuff and we have a word for that, it’s hagiography. And in my encounters with Lafayette biographies, everything you described is true for him from some of these books that have been kicking around up there. Not recently, of course, but like over the last 200 years, there have been many a glowing, hungry hagiography of the good general there. There is also a fair number of books that treat him with exactly the opposite mentality, where they just dwell on what a failure the guy was and don’t want to give him credit for, like literally anything which is actually one of the things that I found really fascinating about him very early in sort of encountering him in the American Revolution in the French Revolution is that American historians and people who write about American history have a tendency to have a very positive outlook on life, yet people who write about French history and the French Revolution in particular, not just French historians, but also, you know, British historians or German historians have a tendency to be like, “Oh, Lafayette, here, you know, here he comes again, asleep at the switch,” or “Here comes Lafayette, the big failure.” And they don’t they don’t really treat him with very much respect. And what I was trying to do in this book is take these disparate conceptions of him. One is everything he did was right and he was great. And the other, everything he did was wrong and he was a failure and merge them into what he really was, which was a single human being who was living his life, who was trying to do what he thought was the right thing. And I generally think that Lafayette was always trying to do the right thing, whether he succeeded or failed. I don’t usually find him doing things for nefarious purposes or for cynical purposes or for really selfish reasons, right? I think he was a pretty good guy trying to do the right thing.
Gary: That would be Talleyrand, right?
Mike: Yeah, exactly. Talleyrand is a very is a very cynical figure. And if I was writing a biography of Talleyrand, Talleyrand has his successes and failures, but Talleyrand did lots of things for not great reasons. You know, Lafayette was different in that way, and I think that all of that deserves to be mentioned when it comes to, like, his relationship with his kids as he continues to run away from home as a 19 year old. But often that romantic story of him, which is often told, you know, by me in interviews or by others, he left behind a wife who who had a baby in her arms, he didn’t just run away from like his parents, he ran away from a wife and a kid, which doesn’t really reflect well on him. But also it comes down to there’s a time and a place and there are morals and mores and norms. And what he was doing might be considered by us to be very cruel and callous. But you know, in the context of the times weren’t quite that bad, but they were still pretty bad, and he did hurt his wife’s feelings quite a bit. And this is all to say that I just think that like he was a very human person and he’s very relatable human in the fact that he had his successes, he had his failures, the things he did write, the things he did wrong. And this this this makes him somebody who just was a person.
Gary: It reminds me of a quote by George Clemenceau where he said “A man’s life is interesting, primarily when he has failed. I well know; for it’s a sign that he tried to surpass himself.” I think, yeah, yeah, that might sum up Lafayette. Lafayette. So my favorite part of the book was the chapter on Lafayette’s imprisonment, since I knew virtually nothing about it, and you go into fantastic detail on his truly harrowing experience. What is your favorite part of your own book?
Mike: I think I have an answer to this, but I will just say like we were talking earlier about like, these, you know, my relationship was sort of like professional academic historians. You know, I going into this book, I also didn’t know the details of what Lafayette’s life was like during those five years of imprisonment. I knew that he was in prison. But the actual rich detail, a lot of that comes and I say, I say this in the book. I openly cite this. In the book, a guy named Paul Spalding wrote a book called Lafayette: Prisoner of State, where he traveled around and actually hit up because he speaks German and he speaks French and he speaks English. And I think he speaks a little Italian where he actually went around and was the one who dug through the archives, compiled all of this incredibly detailed information and wrote an entire book about the book’s like four hundred and fifty pages, which becomes, a part of what informs me being able to do just a single chapter in a detailed and digestible way, like my work is not possible without like what somebody like Paul Spalding went out and did. So I just want to make that point. My own personal favorite part of the book, there are so many. I have weirdly come around to being very proud of. The chapter that I wrote about is about the return trip to the United States because this is actually, you know, there are other parts of the book that I’m talking about things that aren’t usually covered in books. His relationship with Napoleon, his role, his activities in the Carbonari in the 1820s. But most of the accounts of his return trip this 18 month tour that he that he traveled through all 30 states is usually sort of a litany of: “He shows up. There’s a party.” There will be an excerpt from a speech that some prominent politician gave. Whether it’s, you know, whether it’s Henry Clay or, you know, he’s glad-handling Andrew Jackson or some mayor’s giving a speech about how thankful they are that he’s here. But what I discovered in researching that is that Lafayette and his party were traveling through the 1820s and produced out of it. He had a secretary that was there with him, who wrote this two volume account of Lafayette’s activities during this tour. That was far more of just a fascinating travelogue of what the United States was like in the 1820s. And they were talking about slavery. They were talking about the relationships between the whites, the free people of color and the slaves they were encountering, talking about and interacting with, you know, the Cherokee down in Georgia with various Native American tribes in, you know, out in Illinois and out on what we would call the far frontier, but was simply where these tribes were living and where white settlement was encroaching into. And so as I started to conceive of that chapter, I was like, “I’m sick of hearing these speeches over and over again, these same speeches over and over again.” I just left all that behind and started talking far more about just sort of like the the general social environment that they found themselves. And I think I look back on it and I’m like, that was a very successful chapter, in my opinion, and I like it quite a bit. For that reason. It was it was absolutely fascinating to read through because it’s very much it’s a it’s a bit of a precursor to democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville. And if anybody out there has read, you know, Democracy in America. I just love the volume account of Lafayette’s travels through the United States. It makes a very good companion piece to Democracy in America, and they actually talk a lot more about these things than Tocqueville talks about who is often just describing sort of the white part of society.
Gary: Well, that really is incredible, and I do like how you mention Lafayette’s interactions with Native Americans, which occurred during his initial visit to America during the Revolutionary War and then again when he revisits the United States. I had no idea that he was so involved with that because essentially he was someone who spoke French and they figured, Well, you can speak to these various tribes.
Mike: The Anglo-Americans, the colonials who then become the so-called “Americans” did not have the greatest relationship with any of these Native American tribes. The French always had better relations with those tribes in those communities than the American colonists did. And so, yes, sending Lafayette out there to be their front man was in the eyes of the Americans, a very positive thing. And you know, we were talking about what Lafayette’s mistakes are. There’s two great mortal sins at the heart of the United States of America as a political project and a historical entity. And one is African slavery and the other is Native American Genocide. And we find Lafayette very successfully…he has a very mixed record, but he at least what he’s trying to do in terms of African slavery is abolish slavery. He does not believe that whites are superior to blacks or that Europeans are superior to Africans in any meaningful way. He believes that slavery is bad and believes it needs to be abolished and spent his life working towards that project, however unsuccessfully, he’s able to do it. His relationship with the Native Americans, on the other hand, every time we find him talking to them, he’s like, “Oh, you know, the United States is a good thing. They all love liberty. They’re your friends. Don’t worry your project that you and them. You’re the same. You should all be friends.” And every time I hear Lafayette going off on one of these speeches to the Iroquois or to the Cherokee, I’m like, God, man, you are not right about any of this right? Like, like the Anglo settlers and the Iroquois were not friends. And in trying to tell the Iroquois, “Hey, you know these, these new Americans are actually good and they’ll be your friends,” I don’t think that he was telling them anything that turned out to be the historical truth.
Gary: No, I think you are right there. But I did just want to note how that was something that I had never heard of, Lafayette’s interactions with Native Americans, and so you bring that up was quite interesting. And on that note, when you studied Lafayette, I’m sure you came across something you were completely unaware of beforehand. So, for example, I was shocked when I got to the chapter in your book detailing how Lafayette was part of the French Carbonari and underground revolutionary group trying to overthrow the restored Bourbon monarchy. What did you discover about the Marquis that surprised you?
Mike: There are several things that surprised me about him. I think when I got to the very end of the book, there is this notion of Lafayette in the 1830 Revolution where he’s portrayed. He’s often portrayed in 1830s, just kind of a naive dunce who gets played by the Orléanists and they use him to get Louis Phillipe the crown. And then they push him aside, which is to some degree is true. But at the same time, I discovered in his writings, in his reflections on 1830 and then what people were saying about him at the time that he actually had a very sophisticated understanding of the various political forces at play in 1830. And he made a decision to back the Orléanists for what I think were very good reasons and that he didn’t actually have, you know, the other options that were available to him, he believed would lead to either civil war or a European invasion of France, which I don’t think is wrong because we forget sometimes how close events were in the past. We forget how far away things were. The 1830s [were] only 15 years after the fall of Napoleon, it’s only 15 years after the end of a generation long war between France and the rest of Europe, all of the French Revolutionary Wars, then into the Napoleonic, into the Napoleonic Wars, which is really just one giant conflict that unfolds over about 25 years, which in 1830 was only 15 years in the rearview mirror. It’d be like something that wrapped up in 2006 for us, which is not that long ago, at least in my mind. And so when he says, “we can’t do a republic because when people think Republic, they think terror and they think war. We can’t do another Bourbon because the Bourbons will screw things up again.” There were Bonapartists that were like, “We should bring back, we should bring back Bonaparte’s son and have him be emperor.” And he’s like, “No, if we do that, the allies will invade again. There’s no way that, like Britain and Prussia and Austria are going to let us put a Bonaparte back on the throne. That’s crazy.” So he had actually, I think, a very sophisticated understanding both of international politics and domestic politics in 1830 that led him to making this decision to back Louis Phillipe and support the Orléanists in 1830, which then ultimately, yeah, that he gets outmaneuvered by François Guizot and a couple of other sort of more conservative liberals around Louis Philippe. And he does wind up getting sort of tossed aside. But I don’t think it was the portrayal of Lafayette or the conception of him as merely being this naive old dupe did not hold true in my mind at all.
Gary: One thing that you do expertly in the Revolutions podcast is connect one revolution to another. Sometimes its ideas are transferred, or a battle occurs during one revolution that might impact another. When it comes to the age of revolutions, it seems like there is a “Six degrees of Lafayette” we’re in. The marquis is connected to nearly every major figure in some way or another. As you’ve mentioned, he’s obviously important during the American Revolution, and he becomes friends with virtually every important American politician. During the French Revolution, he seems to make enemies of every important figure. And as you mentioned at the beginning of this interview, he actually sends a gift to Simon Bolivar. Can you talk about some of the incredible connections Lafayette had with other figures and events?
Mike: Yeah. I mean, as you say, it’s it’s not even just like six degrees of separation. I mean, it’s it’s often like two or three and very often very direct, at least in the in the in many instances in terms of his correspondence, because from a very young age, you know, he is he’s the hero of two worlds. He is a he is a famous, he is an internationally famous figure from the time that he’s like 19 or 20 years old and remains a well-known famous figure for the next 60 years, like, like, really until his death. And so he’s George Washington surrogate son. We find him. I was I did not realize how much he was in direct collaboration with Benjamin Franklin, for instance, when it came to doing this sort of like not exactly good cop, bad cop, but like sort of eager cop, more cautious cop on the French, on the French government to try to get money for for the American Revolution with with Lafayette and and Benjamin Franklin. And then like the business about Benjamin Franklin Lafayette and John Paul Jones, like very, very nearly waging this like naval this like these like pirate raids on the British coast, which was absolutely something that was like about to happen. They were they were literally loading the ships to go off on this, like Lafayette was going to lead like a division of French troops, and John Paul Jones was going to be leading this like American naval squadron. And they were going to they were going to raid around the British coast. So yeah, every like who else? Who else is in there? He was. He’s on close personal terms with Bonaparte. You know, he’s not. This is not just somebody who is he’s removed from. This is somebody who’s he’s in direct contact with. He’s in direct contact with Madame de Staël, who is Napoleon’s great enemy and who becomes in her own right a very like a very famous literary figure. She is Lafayette’s close friend. And then you get to the end of his life and we find him in correspondence with the president of Free Haiti. We find him in correspondence with Greek revolutionaries and Polish revolutionaries. And so every place you turn to, you’re going to find people who are corresponding with him or coming to meet him like his, his all of his connections to the abolitionist movement with William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson. Those guys were in also direct communication with him and they were exchanging. They were exchanging money, they were exchanging letters, they were exchanging ideas about how to advance the cause of emancipation. There are very few figures in Atlantic history during this period between like 1775 and 1830, who Lafayette didn’t at least have a grazing and passing relationship with.
Gary: So the Marquis de Lafayette’s life, aside from being an incredible story in and of itself, it also lends itself well to alternate historical fiction since there are a number of times in his life that could have ended in a radically different way. You note how the marquee was sent to America by a clique of French nobles who were scheming to overthrow George Washington and make Charles-François de Broglie the leader of the United States. That probably wouldn’t have happened, but one can imagine what the Americans would think if their French allies actually tried to do that, or if they found out they were trying to do that. Then there’s the fact that President Thomas Jefferson offered to make the marquis the governor of the Louisiana territory, or at least part of it when you came across these near occurrences. Was there any particular one that made you wonder how different history would have been if only Lafayette’s life took a slight detour?
Mike: Yeah, in the in the biggest picture of his life, I think the great path not taken for him is that he didn’t wind up really living in the United States for a prolonged period of time. He he comes back in visits after that. Just really that one time after the American Revolution in 1784. And then you have to fast forward all the way to the 1820s to actually get him back on American soil. When he ran away from the French Revolution in in 1792 after the August after the August revolt in 1792, his plan was to make it to the coast, get on a ship and sail away and resettle in the United States. And there are a couple of different times that this could have happened, but it very nearly happened that he was trying to make it happen and all. And then even after he gets out of prison, he all through the 1790s, his basic long term plan is to move to the United States and settle there. So there’s a big sort of what what if when it comes to Lafayette moving to the United States and then being he because he wouldn’t have stopped wanting to be involved in politics, he would not have just retired peacefully and quietly. You know, where does Lafayette wind up in American politics and American history if he moves there in 1800, rather than merely coming back for just like one, one or two visits; that opens a very, very big can of worms in terms of what if if you go back to that moment in 1792 like the like, one thing that that did really hit me at the time was when the showdown is looming between sort of this populist faction, the Jacobins and the Cordelier club guys like Danton and Robespierre and Desmoulins, who in the summer of 1792 are aiming to now completely overthrow the monarchy, right? Not just have a constitutional monarchy, but overthrow and create a republic. And Lafayette is now serving as a general in the French army as opposed to just the leader of the National Guard. And he comes back that one last time denounces the Jacobins in Paris and says the Jacobins are they have become fractious. They are destroying the unity of France. They are undermining the war effort. They are probably going to try to overthrow the government in the Constitution, and we need to do something about it. And everybody in the Legislative Assembly who he’s saying this to, you know, greet him with like stony silence because everybody in the room was a Jacobin. And so he was denouncing them to their faces. The question is what happens if Lafayette more forcefully reassert his command over the National Guard at that moment instead of coming to Paris saying denouncing the Jacobins? And then somewhat meekly, I must say somewhat meekly, just returning to the front lines and being like, OK, while it didn’t work, and I guess I’ll just go back to the army. The National Guard was this force that he had organized. All the officers were men that he had trained and selected, and he, you know, he built the structure in the organization of the National Guard. If there was any sort of armed force in France that was Lafayette’s to command, it would have been the National Guard. And I just wonder what would have happened if he had said, No, I’m going to stay here. I am going to reassert my moral and legal authority over the National Guard, and I am going to use them to short circuit this. This very obviously looming Jacobin threat to the constitutional government that I myself am continuing to pledge to support because he he wanted to support the Constitution of 1791. Very likely. The end result of this is that like he loses and gets his head chopped off. But at the same time, like that, I think that was his moment more than any other moment, too, to really change the course of French history. And I think he I think he missed his, it missed his opportunity, maybe saved his life, which is, like I said, just as just as likely he dies as a result of everything I just advised him to do.
Gary: Right. Well, you know it. We have to be glad that he didn’t do that because otherwise we probably wouldn’t be getting the book. So talking about both. Alternate history, but also my previous question, which was about connections. One truly remarkable thing that you wrote was that the marquee to Lafayette’s father was killed at the Battle of Mendon when British artillery officer William Phillips ordered his men to fire on the French position. Then, during the American Revolution, our marquee to Lafayette faced off against Gen. William Philips in Virginia. In reality, Lafayette made a tactical bluff and tricked Phillips into a into a retreat. But if Hollywood had their way, I’m sure the two would have met each other in the midst of a pitched battle and had a sword fight. I don’t suppose there were any instances where you are writing and thought, Man, if only this event could have gone just a little differently.
Mike: Yeah, I mean, that’s that’s obviously a big one. And there were there were two times actually where I said, you know, history does not like, you know, pat narratives, and we’ll just betray all sense of dramatic tension. And then by having Phillips drop dead of a fever instead of getting Lafayette to find out that he was the man who killed his father. And then as you say, get to a duel in a battlefield. The other one is that like so so Lafayette and Alexander Hamilton were like great friends and
Gary: They did a play together.
Mike: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, they yeah, they rapped together all the time. It was a, you know, they were very ahead of their time. So they’re very culturally progressive dudes. But they’re at the Battle of Yorktown. Hamilton, after years of being desk bound to and sort of tied by a chain to Washington’s being Washington’s chief of staff. Hamilton had been itching to get in the fight and get in the war and make his own mark as a soldier because he really felt he was an ambitious soldier in the same way that Lafayette was. They were almost the same age they were trying to accomplish the same thing. And then at Yorktown, rather than get one when Lafayette had had command of this, of this moment where they’re going to take this specific route out in order to basically secure a final victory at Yorktown, he’d he passes over his friend Lafayette, his friend Hamilton. He Lafayette does not give Hamilton this opportunity to to lead the charge, and Hamilton then has to go over his head over Lafayette, head to Washington to in order to get this command. And I’m just reading this. I’m like, none of this makes any sense from like from a plot perspective. We’ve already established that they knew each other, that they were friends with each other. They were both trying to do the same thing. Lafayette knew that Hamilton was I was trying to win Marshall glory for himself. Like, Why is he sticking it to his buddy here? And so that’s that’s a little thing that I definitely would. I would to clean that up in the it’s like if I was giving notes for this script, I would’ve been like, Well, this doesn’t make any sense you. You got to clean this up. Laughs. It’s the good guy here. He’s supposed to be given his friend the command. Why didn’t he do that?
Gary: So over the course of the book, Lafayette holds a number of important relationships with huge historical figures. Lafayette took Washington as a surrogate father. He was possibly King Louis XVI’s most reliable ally, even though Louis hated him. He was a consistent enemy of Napoleon. Which relationship did you find the most interesting and why?
Mike: Well, besides his relationship with his wife, Adrienne, which I do think was ultimately one of the most interesting relationships that I wound up developing over the course of the book because of how close they were. And because of how much they complemented each other and worked together. So like I think in many ways, the official answer is, is Adrienne. But also like in terms of like the dynamic, just sort of like pathos of this relationship is his relationship with the future King Charles X, the Comte d’Artois. Begins when they are teenagers together, just going to school together. They are out of society and [the Comte d’Artois] Is this like dashing, handsome, well-loved, you know, very agile and very able young prince of the Blood and Lafayette is this sort of like bumbling provincial. They meet as teenagers and then their lives run parallel to each other. They’re both. They’re both born. They’re born within a couple of months of each other in 1757, and they die within a couple of years of each other in the mid-1830s. And obviously, you know, the Comte d’Artois is the archest of arch reactionaries. He is the first émigré after the fall of the Bastille. He is the one who is trying to roll back the French Revolution and everything that he wants to roll the entire thing back to 1788, or maybe even say, you know, like, let’s roll this thing back to like 1715 when things were good. And Lafayette, meanwhile, is constantly trying to push for reform and is a living symbol of the Revolution of 1830. And then so these two guys who met as teenagers who were classmates together then just keep running into each other in 1789 and then 1815 and then the 1820s and then 1830. And so they’re now they’re old men, like they’re both just a couple like stodgy old men. They’re in their 70s. And there’s Lafayette, like trying to overthrow his old classmate from literally 60 years ago. So, yeah, his his relationship with Artois is, I think it’s fantastic.
Gary: So far, this interview has pretty much all been about you, but let’s make it about me just to close it out because, because I did want to ask one question about your podcasting before we end the show. You made the History of Rome podcast between 2007 to 2012, which covered the history of classical Rome from the founding of the city to its fall and 476. Since then, it’s been recognized as one of the all time great history podcasts. In the past three years, a whole new generation has emerged, which I am part of that will trace the history of certain countries, cultures or geographic areas from their origins to present, such as the Podcast on Germany, The History of Aotearoa New Zealand, The History of Spain, A History of the Inca. My own podcast. And many more. Perhaps I should have asked you this before I got started on my project, which aims to cover the history of France from three million years ago to present. But do you have any words of advice or encouragement to give to this new generation of public historians who are trying to emulate and build on what you did with the history of Rome?
Mike: Yeah, I do, and it is, you know, it is a weird thing, when I started the history of Rome in 2007, I certainly, you know, did not do so any under any belief that like, Oh, I’m forging ground here and people will follow in my wake and we will have the history of this in the history of that, which is a thing that has happened and has been an enormously gratifying sort of byproduct of my life and my career and my work. And so the couple of pieces of advice that I have is if you’ve listened to any of these shows or if you’ve listened to my shows, you know, the History of Roman, Revolutions and are inspired to do something, the the trick to this and I think that you probably will agree with this. I won’t go out on a limb and just assume that you’re going to agree with me on this. Is that the the reward that you get from doing the podcast and the reward that I still get from doing the podcast, despite all of this like basically success that I’ve had is the work itself. I am remain fascinated with the work that I am doing, the books that I am reading, the scripts that I am writing, scripts that I am editing, the ideas I’m thinking about. What is rewarding about doing this work is that I’m so interested in it and that I am so passionate in it. And so whatever it is that if you’re inspired to do something like this, you need to pick a topic that is in and of itself going to keep you interested and keep you and keep you wanting to do it. Because podcasting can often be like a very lonely business, you’re just sort of uploading episodes and and then it goes out into the world and there’s no cheering or applause or anything that goes on. When you hit submit, you just hit submit, and then it’s time to move on to the next episode. And then also, you know, you’re going to be doing it a lot if you’re if you’re really into it, if you want to make like a weekly podcast or, you know, even a monthly podcast. So a lot of work. And so you can’t pick something that you think other people will like. You shouldn’t pick something that you think will make for a good show or is a good idea. What you need to pick is the thing that you can’t stop thinking about. You can’t stop writing about. You can’t stop reading about the thing that you are more passionate about than anybody else because we need that passion from you in order to continue to produce the work that you’re going to produce. So that’s the main thing, right? Is like, be incredibly passionate about your subject. Do you agree with me on that?
Gary: Oh, no, absolutely. I mean, OK, my my podcast is pretty much running entirely on passion. I do have I don’t have the success that you have, but I do have some loyal patrons and fans and they they help me push the boulder up the hill, so I want to give a huge shout out to them. But yeah, you’re completely right. I think that at my heart and I think at the heart of most people who try to be historians, is that we are storytellers and we want to impart something which is both interesting but also meaningful to our audiences. I mean, I really am not telling the history of France from three million years ago up until, who knows the financial crisis or maybe Macron. Maybe whenever I finish this, I’m not doing it just for the hell of it. I’m doing it because I think that there is something interesting and fascinating and important involved in it. And it goes beyond just France itself because I I assume that you are much too busy with baseball or whatever it is that you’re tweeting about recently. But I’m guessing you haven’t been listening to my podcast recently, but I just got done with Charlemagne. And if you look at all the things that Charlemagne influenced and how we’re using hit the calendar or at least a version of the calendar that he promulgated back then, you know, so much of the things that happened in not even just France, but France now impact us today. And I think that being able to tell people what the origins of their societies are from this is such a fascinating and interesting thing. And I’m sure you got that feeling during the History of Rome, because the number of ways that Rome impacts us today is just incredible.
Mike: Oh yeah, every everything runs through Rome, you know, in terms of like sort of European Mediterranean civilisation, everybody has their Roman period. It seems like and even if you’re talking about something like Germany, they were constantly in contact with the Roman Empire, even if they were never conquered by them. So, yeah, like I’ve been at this for 15 years and I just I constantly get to learn new things, talk about new things, talk about things that are interesting. To me, and that’s that’s I think the main thing don’t. Whatever it is that you’re doing, like, don’t do it for other people, do it for yourself. And if you’re doing it for yourself, then I think that other people will recognize the passion and the interest, and that is a compelling reason to listen to people. The other thing that I’ll say before we wrap this up is like, the other thing is there are so many podcasts out there, but some people say, like, there are so many podcasts, why? Why would anybody want to start a new podcast? There’s so many of them, like, don’t start a podcast, everybody has a podcast, and my advice on this front is, of course, you should start a podcast. If you’re passionate about something, there’s very few barriers to entry. And if you want to do it, I think that you should. And people who say, Oh, the field is saturated, there’s no way you’re going to be able to break through. That’s the same mentality as Tao as telling somebody, Oh, there’s so many bands out there that you shouldn’t start a band. Nobody says, Gosh, there’s so many bands, don’t start a band like, that’s crazy. Of course, you should start a band, even if even if all you’re doing is just gigging around your hometown like making music and playing music is fun, right? And maybe you’ll be really good and you will be the one who breaks through like you never know. Like, there are constantly new bands that come out. So I don’t think that anybody should be discouraged by, you know, the mass saturation of the market at this point. It was very different when I started in 2007, like, of course it was. But I think that we do this for the love and for the passion and for the rewards that we get out of doing the work more than anything else. And you shouldn’t let other people sort of saying there’s too many podcasts out there dissuade you from starting your own.
Gary: And, you know, just because there’s so many, I mean, obviously, there are some disadvantages because there are a lot of podcasts because to some extent you’re competing with them. Although I don’t think necessarily because I do think that when people listen to a longform podcast like the history of Rome, they start to look for other long-form podcasts. So we’re not quite competing. But also one thing that I think is so great about there being so many podcasts is that there is such a great community out there. I mean, I have personally, I interact with hundreds of different podcast on various things and in the history. I follow hundreds of different history, podcasts and also the the podcast, which I don’t follow if there’s anyone out there who has a smaller podcast. The only reason why I don’t follow you on Twitter is just because I don’t want my entire feed to just be, you know, a jumble. I want to be able to have close connections with people, but that doesn’t mean I don’t or won’t interact. I mean, I’m a pretty approachable person. So I mean, the the friendships that I’ve made with people from podcasting have really been incredible. So yeah, I mean, just just joining it for the community is great.
Mike: Yeah, it’s a it’s a glorious thing. And like I say, if you have the passion and want to do it, I would encourage you to just do it.
Gary: Well, thank you very much for this conversation, Mike. The this episode has been fantastic and so has your book Hero of Two Worlds. The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution is incredible. I cannot recommend this book more highly. It is the product of a master storyteller who has captivated millions over the past 15 years that is entirely accessible to a lay person, while simultaneously it is meticulously researched and an invaluable read for scholars. If you haven’t already checked out the book, then what are you doing? Get the book! Get it mainly. Yeah, and particularly Mike, I think has done. I mean, Mike is doing so many amazing things, pioneering so many things. I really appreciated how you were encouraging your followers to get it from local bookstores, support your local bookstores and get this book. So again, thank you very much for being on the podcast, Mike.
Mike: Thank you very much. Yes, and Jeff Bezos has enough of our money. Let’s give it to other people.