Over the past year or two, I have renewed my interest in history and some of the biggest events of the past several hundred years.
Because of my two extended visits to America, I was particularly interested in the early history of the United States, I have read numerous books that record the birth and development of that nation, and I have many more that I hope to read as time permits.
For Freedom and Glory: Washington, Lafayette, and Their Revolutions James R. Gaines talks about two of the most important revolutionary periods in American and French history, and two major players in both of these revolutions.
Over 500 pages, Gaines traces the parallel paths of George Washington, the first president of the newly formed United States, and the Marquis de Lafayette, a man who may have been the first president of the French Republic but who declined the position.
Although I was familiar with some American place names bearing the names Lafayette and Fayetteville, and have repeatedly walked Lafayette Street in Manhattan, I must admit that I am completely unknown to the Marquis de Lafayette and the role he played in both the American and French revolutions.
I do not know if every American city or city bearing the names Fayette, Fayetteville and Lafayette owe their name to the Marquis de Lafayette, but it is quite possible. Certainly, the countless streets, avenues, French and American naval vessels, educational establishments, American counties, metro stations, parks and city squares and other landmarks owe him their names.
Lafayette, whose full name was jaw-breaking, Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette (and who, for brevity's sake, will hereafter be mostly called Lafayette), was a French aristocrat and an army officer in command. who sailed to the New World in just 19 years to join the American Revolutionary War against France's age-old enemy, Britain. In the process, he became one of George Washington's closest aides and confidants and one of the most famous and distinguished generals of the American Revolution.
Lafayette, himself wounded in the Battle of Brandywine, Pennsylvania, shortly after arriving in America, and played a major role in several other important battles. He was also in charge of French troops during the last battle of the war, which suffered the defeat and surrender of Lord Cornwallis in Yorktown, Virginia in 1781.
Having read almost nothing about the French or American Revolution, I did not realize – until I read "Freedom and Glory" how much the American nation was tasked with supporting the French. Successive French kings helped bankrupt the American Revolution, and hundreds of French officers and thousands of soldiers and sailors participated in some of the most important battles of the American Revolutionary War.
Ironically, French participation in the American Revolutionary War helped sow the seeds for the French Revolution, which overthrew King Louis XVI (16th), in October 1789. The Royal Treasury borrowed millions of livres (then-French currency), and as a result was heavily indebted . The only thing the court in Versailles had to repay the huge debt for was collecting taxes and prices for basic food items like bread, which only helped to encourage a call to overthrow the king.
Hundreds of French officers and thousands of French troops and sailors returning from America compounded the problems of the royal court, and most were imbued with the idea and support of the French Republic. And no one was more concerned with the matter than the Marquis de Lafayette.
James R. Gaines is a wonderful storyteller and skillfully knits major players on these two groundbreaking stages. No stones appear to have been left unturned, no letters read and no intrigue investigated. The highs and lows of both revolutions are examined in great detail, and again I learned a lot about the French revolution, which was unknown to me until then.
I knew of the fall of the Bastille, a cart loaded with a crowd filled with unlucky Frenchmen and women on their way to the guillotine, and the eventual death by the guillotine of Louis XVI. And Marie Antoinette. But I did not realize how widespread and terrifying the bloodshed had become as various forces struggled to control France. I also knew about the reign of terror (1793-1794) that Robespierre had uncovered, which according to archival records shows that over 16,500 people had died through the guillotine, though some historians note that perhaps 40,000 accused prisoners may have been executed briefly. without trial or died awaiting trial.
Eventually Robespierre himself switched to guillotine in 1794, but that did not end the slaughter in France until the French Revolution finally ended five years later in 1795.
There are so many recommendations for freedom and glory: Washington, Lafayette, and their James R. Gaines revolutions. I'm really looking for a good book or two, especially about the French Revolution, because I'm sure there is a lot more to learn about French history in that period.