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Feb. 22, 2020

Revolutionary Brothers: Lafayette & Jefferson with Dr. Tom Chaffin

Revolutionary Brothers: Lafayette & Jefferson with Dr. Tom Chaffin

In this interview with Dr. Tom Chaffin, we discuss his new book Revolutionary Brothers: Thomas Jefferson, the Marquis de Lafayette, and the Friendship that Helped Forge Two Nations. We talk about Lafayette and Jefferson's work in founding America, writing the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, and their long friendship.


Gary: Hello everyone. Today’s special episode is an interview with Dr. Tom Chaffin about his new book: Revolutionary Brothers: Thomas Jefferson, the Marquis de Lafayette, and the Friendship that Helped Forge Two Nations. This fascinating new book is part dual-biography, part narrative history about these two men who helped found the United States of America and the First French Republic. From the battlefields of 1770s America it follows Lafayette and Jefferson back to Paris where the two collaborate to write the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. It’s a fascinating story, finally told.

Dr. Tom Chaffin received his MA in American Studies at New York University and his Ph.D in US History at Emory. He has worked as a journalist and a history teacher working in numerous universities. He has written a number of other books including Giant’s Causeway: Frederick Douglass’s Irish Odyssey and the Making of an American VisionaryMet His Every Goal? James K. Polk and the Legends of Manifest Destiny and numerous others. Please enjoy.

GaryAll right, well thank you very much for coming on the show Dr. Chaffin. I wanted to start by asking, why did you choose to write this book? It seems like such a huge topic that is part double biography, part history of America and France. But it also includes a decent amount in other countries such as Britain. What inspired you to take on this big task?

Chaffin: I lived for a year and in Paris a long time ago and ever since then I’ve had an affection or an interest in French subjects and then 20 years later I, or more actually, I was reading about Jefferson and Lafayette and their friendship. I was intrigued by their friendship. They seemed to come from such different worlds and then I discovered that there hadn’t really been a book on that friendship. And I started thinking about how a book on that could maybe illuminate both the revolutions of both countries. I found not that it’s my finding the subject, but the subject finds me.

Gary: It’s always the best thing. I only ask because it seems like such a huge endeavor. I know that I personally would approach such a huge subject with a bit of trepidation. But you really launched yourself into it and did such an amount of research. Did it take a long time to write.

ChaffinBasically I think, two full years of work and intermittently another two years. When the first two years I was working on it I was not doing it full time.

Gary: So let’s talk about your research for a moment. You didn’t just hop between archives but you visited the actual sites where these people worked and did their most important work. What effect did these experiences have on you and your work?

ChaffinThe main work of the historian is in archives so I don’t want to overstate the value of such travels. But that said, in my own books I found over the years that that visiting the sites of events to be depicted in a manuscript can help polish the narrative in certain general ways. It gives me a better feel for the place and its scale, you know, if it’s a building or mountains or whatever or its relationship to other places that are going to be depicted in the book. In other cases it can provide more tangible benefits. There’s a opportunity in some cases to correct errors in the primary source documents. I mean, there’s nothing mystical about primary source documents. They’re written by fallible human beings. I mean, one instance that comes to mind is my first book was on Fatal Glory. It was an attempted invasion of Cuba led by Narciso Lopez. Filibuster raised the armies, and the successive armies, expeditionary armies in the United States to invade Cuba. Toward the end of the research for that book I visited Cuba. I visited the National Archives Havana but I also tried to get out to some landing sites and there I discovered that in a document that I was relying on that the diarist had misstated the direction that the army turned. It wasn’t like the whole manuscript hinged on that but it was a significant error that I was able to correct. In this book though, Revolutionary Brothers, I’ll give you another example. I went, I visited, I managed to get into Lafayette’s final apartment in Paris. It’s privately owned and the owner invited me in. I visited some other sites in Paris and in the south of France. I went to a lot of places that Jefferson had visited. One of my trips to Paris. I made two during the research. I visited Versailles which I had been to before. At this point the manuscript was pretty much already written. I had finished a first draft but there’s a key scene in which Lafayette he’s trying to save Louis the 16th and Marie Antoinette. Trying to chart a middle course through the politics of that increasingly fraught politics of that day in 1789. And he visits Versailles. He speaks with the king and queen and he makes an appearance on the balcony with Marie Antoinette through his intervention. He’s speaking before a crowd that’s assembled beneath the balcony and he wins them over. When I was visiting Versailles, and I’d been there before, but years before. I went to that spot where the balcony that they had stood on. And I realized I had assumed that it was an exterior, but I realized it opened on an interior courtyard and then I dug into some more sources and I realized that it was not only done in an interior courtyard, but the crowd was there because the security had already been compromised in the palace. And so these mobs had managed to get into an interior courtyard that normally was accessible only to the royal family and their attendants. So I realized that the scene was even more fraught than I realized. So anyway, that was another, one more example of how such visits can be useful. That said, I mean I realize that it’s impossible to visit every place that an author is going to depict in a book. And so I don’t want to overstate that, I mean, I’ve known historians who I think to my mind overdo that. I mean it’s like the method Stanislaus school of writing history or method historical writing or equivalent of method acting. And I’m not a chameleon. I don’t try to do that. You can’t retrieve the past and you can’t really have every scene that you depict.

Gary: Right. Few of us are, although I do have to agree with you that there is something powerful to walk in the same places that many of these great people walked especially when the places are so inauspicious.

So let’s dive into the book itself. Starting with Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette who we will henceforward refer to simply as Lafayette since that name is absurdly long. Can you explain how the young Lafayette simultaneously supported the Enlightenment ideals behind the American Revolution with such enthusiasm that he sailed to America to fight in the war. Yet also supported King Louis the 16th as his monarch?

Chaffin: Lafayette’s education was focused on military affairs but it also included an emerging and the writings of Cicero, Plutarch, Virgil, Horace and other classical writers who celebrated the heroes of ancient Rome and Greece. With Lafayette, as for other students, of young man of his generation, those are emerging and those writers rarely produced a Republican but they rarely produced and monarchical activism. So, it was more more of a kind of an ornamental Republicanism. I should also add that Lafayette’s interest in military affairs was, at least initially, had more to do with a lifelong sort of quest for romantic adventure. He talks in one book, early on he wrote, he said he later recalled that he had grown up with a desire to wander the world in search of renown or something like that. 

A lot of his ancestors had been devoted to military service for the calls of France. Lafayette’s father was killed when he was 2 years old and so he grew up kind of revering his memory. If he had his brothers he would have gone to war against England to avenge his father’s death. Lafayette heard about this revolution that was going on a board independence in the United States and through a series of Paris agents was eventually recruited to that calls. But when he arrived on American shores he sort of talked the talk of Republicans. But it was really a kind of, again more ornamental than in this role. He really was at that point still motivated mostly by anti-British sentiments and a desire to avenge death of his father. His Republican sentiments later became more genuine but initially they were just, I there was a kind of hollowness to them. At that point he was just talking the talk rather than walking the walk.

GaryI was particularly interested among other things in your portrayal of Lafayette’s pedigree. I had no idea that Lafayette’s father was killed by a cannonball at the Battle of Mindanao in the Seven Years War. His uncle fought in the war of Polish succession. That was a pretty incredible thing to find out and I think it goes to your point that for him a lot of this was personal rather than ideological. I thought that was very interesting. So moving on to the actual American front. I think most Americans are vaguely familiar with the name Lafayette and might even know he was an important French general in the American War for Independence, but they don’t know just how crucial he was to the war. You recount that Lafayette was at Valley Forge. He was sent to Virginia to counter Benedict Arnold and was a major leader in the Battle of Yorktown the final large scale battle of the war. Can you tell us a bit how this Frenchman who was initially received very poorly by Americans as a vain glorious adventure became such an integral part of the American army after Lafayette arrived?

ChaffinHe arrived in, near Georgetown’s, South Carolina and eventually found his way overland to Philadelphia over the next few months. And soon he met George Washington and presented his credentials, and to the Continental Congress, and to the members of Congress that he met. He struck up immediately a bond with Washington on a personal level. But what Washington, like the members of Congress remained skeptical. I mean, he had been in the French army but had had no combat experience.

ChaffinFrance was not at war, but Washington as he soon wrote to one of his colleagues. I don’t want to decline this young man’s, I’m paraphrasing here, I don’t want to turn him down but because he’s very well-connected and they were already angling for French assistance or an expansion of French assistance. At that point it was kind of meager and clandestine and they were hoping that even then for a formal alliance. Lafayette and Washington realized that Lafayette was A) wealthy, he was very wealthy from his own family’s money. Washington recognized the value of those but he he initially refused to grant him a command. To make a long long story short, he eventually wins Lafayette’s confidence and is granted command and then he he delivers at Yorktown and some other earlier battles. That said, I think Lafayette’s main importance lies in the connections to the court and the French government. He comes to know, to have a wider array of correspondents and throughout the war he’s lobbying up until the alliance, for that alliance I think. And then he becomes a kind of symbol of that alliance. I think that’s it. That was his main importance.

GaryWell that’s too bad for Lafayette then. Here I was trying to build him up. But either way I’m sure he’ll be remembered pretty well. So during Lafayette’s assignment in Virginia he came into contact with Thomas Jefferson. They had a lot of similarities in that both were rich men who lived in the countryside and weren’t very adept in social settings with other notables. But both were idealists. Though you note that Lafayette was primarily a soldier whose many relatives served in the French military. Jefferson was a committed civilian and political theorist. Why do you think these two became such close friends?

Chaffin: Initially, their collaboration and eventual friendship was founded on circumstances in need. In other words mutual reciprocity. George Washington dispatched Lafayette to Virginia in 1781, the spring of 1781 to save then, Governor Jefferson the embarrassment of a second British raid on the state capital at Richmond. Jefferson needed his state capital saved and Lafayette needed to advance the cause of the American Revolution and improve his worthiness to Washington. They also shared a number of interests. Political Theory, women, and interest in indigenous cultures. Those things alone do not explain a friendship of four decades. I think a critical aspect of their friendship was the fact that they both were kind of provincial noblemen who came from places distant from their respective national capitals. And I think as a consequence of those backgrounds neither men were ever completely comfortable in their respective national capitals.

Gary: neither am I. So some of the best scenes in the book are of American diplomats in France like Adams, Jefferson and their wives. Can you tell our readers how strange it was for them.

Chaffin: Speaking of Jefferson, he before he ever arrived in France, it’s fair to say he was he was already a sort of a Francophile just from his education. His affections for things like, French manners and cuisine are quickly kind of confirmed. And also in Paris he soon becomes, sort of, through its friendships he begins to learn more about the painting and sculpture, The experience of living there also confirms his American cultural biases. To wit Jefferson would blush anytime a conversation took a risqué gambit.

Gary: And it does seem that he was pretty overwhelmed during his visit because early on he got to attend mass in Notre Dome with the king consecrating his son. There was a huge fireworks show. And at one point Jefferson says that there must be more people in the streets of Paris than in all of Virginia, which might be a bit of a stretch but probably not by much

Chaffin: Yeah, I think he was taken by the, I mean, Jefferson was not particularly religious but the religion he had known was primarily a Protestant denomination. So, I think he was really taken by, the sort, of parochial elements of Roman Catholicism. The incense and architecture and that sort of factors.

Gary: As the British might say bells and smells

Chaffin: But, also I think with the scene you’re talking about he’s like the Adams who also attended that he was really taken by the power that the monarchy seemed to have over the mass population.

GaryYeah it really is an incredible thing how, obviously Jefferson was opposed to the idea of absolute monarchy. And yet at the same time, the culture of Frenchness which he so admired was tied into that. Of course we’re gonna have to put that aside for just a moment.

ChaffinThere’s one thing I wanted to mention. It’s sort of not germane to anything we’ve talked about but, you know Lafayette strikes up a friendship with Franklin. One is very old and the other is very young but, they establish this this rapport and soon are collaborating on various projects one of which is kind of amazing. It was a children’s picture book devoted to the subject of British war atrocities. Amid Franklin’s papers there’s some text for this. The drawings were not commissioned, were never commissioned, but anyway I thought that was a kind of bizarre.

GaryWell I’m glad the two could bond over Anglophobia. So, all right, now let’s talk about one of the most important documents in French history and possibly world history. The declaration of the rights of man and of the citizen. One of the founding documents of the French Republic which later influenced the U.N. Declaration of Rights and many others. Can you explain how Lafayette and Jefferson developed this incredible work?

ChaffinWell let me say, that I don’t. I’m no expert on the declaration of the rights of man, but I do know that in 1789 in Paris there was a sort of Vogue for writing or writing of constitutions. Lafayette was working on one one that eventually became the Declaration of Rights of Man. Jefferson was working on one, and Governor Morris was working on one, it was there as a business agent many other figures were also working on constitutions for the soon to be established French Republic. We have very little evidence of the creation of that documents associate with the creation of Lafayette’s declaration of the Rights of Man. The evidence that we have suggests that Lafayette however was its principal author and that Jefferson was valued by Lafayette for his counsel and often sought that counsel while he was writing it. But it was really Lafayette’s work. And that said Lafayette drew on not only on Jefferson’s counsel but he others including Condorcet and other French thinkers as well as his own readings and Montesquieu etc..

GaryYeah. It was a particularly fascinating point because, I’ll admit, I am a modern French historian. I look primarily at World War One. So I had, I wasn’t aware that Lafayette was the primary writer. And the fact that Jefferson helped him write it, even if it was in a more minor position. That really struck me. I mean that was a pretty incredible connection.

ChaffinBefore we leave that topic though I just want to add that, Lafayette’s declaration of the rights of man, it does evoke a need for recognition of natural rights, inalienable and indescribable rights. But it also calls for, it’s about creating a constitutional monarchy by explicitly and by omission. And the other point I wanted to make it really…it was written to function as a sort of declaration of independence or the French equivalent the Declaration of Independence, announcing the creation of, the new French Republic. It sketched out what the government of that New Republic might be. So, it was like a preamble but it wasn’t a full blown equivalent of the U.S. Constitution. The French Assembly would only adopt that in 1791 and Lafayette was not involved in that. But I think its main significance for that day and for posterity is as you suggest. It’s serving as inspiration for and I monarchical and Republican movements around the world.

GaryYeah. And one thing which you mention but which isn’t necessarily integral to the story itself is how later on some of the other French revolutionaries added in the active vs. passive citizenship question to this which really changed the meaning of the document. I think it’s worth mentioning although we probably shouldn’t go down that road because that could lead us to who knows where. So, on that note so far we’ve talked about similarities between the two men but now we need to talk about the big difference between them which is the enslavement of Africans. You note in the book that Lafayette was an idealist and committed abolitionist while Jefferson remained as you describe a Virginia planter. How did this difference affect their relationship my own view is that it didn’t really affect their relationship?

ChaffinMy view is that it didn’t affect their relationship. I mean Jefferson was conflicted on that issue and guilty throughout his life of brazen hypocrisies on the subject. Lafayette by contrast was initially, when he arrived in the United States was blithely, really didn’t appreciate the moral dimension of human slavery, of human chattel slavery. When he arrives and visits Charleston in his letters to to his wife and other correspondence he barely mentions slavery that undoubtedly witnessed there. He’s just talking about the freedom that exists in America. He’s really just blind to it. But I think by the end of the war he had become more reflective on the subject and over the course his lifetime becomes increasingly committed to gradual abolition. But again, I don’t think that the that subject really intruded upon their friendship. They seemed to be a kind of tactical agreement to avoid the subject. Not completely, I mean, Lafayette brings it up occasionally but not very often. He brought it up when he was visiting Jefferson in 1824 on his return to the United States.

GaryThat was interesting especially because at times Lafayette seemed to be so passionate about it although it seems like, especially with, Lafayette getting caught up in the numerous government upheavals. He had more to consider than just abolition itself. So now for my final question. On the one hand, I imagine that reading about all the important events that these two men spearheaded makes one mythologized these figures. But there are other parts of the book such as Thomas Jefferson’s treatment of Sally Hemings and Lafayette’s vacillation during the French Revolution and outright humiliation at times that humanize these figures. How did writing this book change your perceptions of the two men and how do you imagine these two historical figures?

Chaffin: I began this book with a respecting Jefferson’s intellect but taking a less charitable view of his personal morality. I think writing this book only reinforced those views. Lafayette was the real discovery for me. I knew virtually nothing about him when I began the book. I thought that he was, I just assumed he was, by reputation an adept military commander. You know Lafayette is so ubiquitous in American life. I mean, there are scores of towns, counties and rivers across the United States named for him and I realized in my own life and I live in Atlanta where I grew up. There are probably three or four streets named after him. And when I lived in Savannah I lived a couple blocks from Lafayette Park. When I lived in San Francisco I lived near a park also named for Lafayette. I lived in New York. I lived in lower Manhattan near Lafayette Street and etc.. Anyway, I think his name is so ubiquitous I think many Americans, myself included sort of taking for granted. I concluded very quickly that he was when I began writing this book that he was really the best and least known of America’s founders. I also started the book with the idea that Lafayette basically saves Jefferson’s reputation in 1781 by saving Richmond from a second British raid. Later when Jefferson becomes a diplomat in Paris that he serves as a sort of intellectual mentor to Lafayette and introduces them to the thinkers of the Enlightenment. I realized pretty quickly that Lafayette was far more interesting than that. He was far from anyone’s cipher, by the way there was a 14 year age difference. Hence that’s why I very quickly began to see him as a sort of older brother to Lafayette. Lafayette, I realized he was influenced by Jefferson but also Condorcet and other French thinkers of that age as well as his own reading. So he was he was very much his own man intellectually. And as far as his commitment to abolitionism, I was not aware of that. I’ve got a quote here, a couple of quotes Thomas Clarkson the venerable British abolitionist said of Lafayette. “He was decidedly and as uncompromising an enemy to the slave trade and slavery as any man I ever knew.” And Frederick Douglass who visited Lafayette’s grave and I think the 1870s, maybe. And remember, Douglas was no admirer of Jefferson. I mean, in one of his most famous lectures, What to the slave is the Fourth of July, was basically an indictment of Jefferson for a galling hypocrisy on matters of race and slavery. Douglas took a different view of Lafayette during a 1886 visit to its grave in Paris. Douglas reflected quote: “this dump spot is doubly hallowed, this patriot had two countries for his own” and that sort of brought this project full circle for me. My last book was the Giant’s Causeway. It was about Frederick Douglass, his time in Ireland and in Britain on a lecture tour that he conducted.

GaryLafayette was a truly incredible figure. As you mention the hero of two worlds and the French History podcast would like to take this opportunity to endorse him for president in 2020. Dr. Chaffin, Thank you very much for being on our program.

ChaffinWell thank you. Gary I appreciate your interest in having me on.

GaryThank you.

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