Lafayette: Lessons in Leadership from the Idealist General (World Generals (Palgrave MacMillan)) Review

Lafayette: Lessons in Leadership from the Idealist General (World Generals (Palgrave MacMillan))
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Lafayette: Lessons in Leadership from the Idealist General (World Generals (Palgrave MacMillan)) ReviewHistorian Marc Leepson's latest book is an eminently readable, concise account of the military career of the famous French nobleman, the Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834). Over seventy percent of the book - ten of the fourteen chapters - deals with Lafayette's involvement in the American Revolution (1775-1783). The remainder of the book covers the Marquis's involvement in two other revolutions - the French Revolution (1789-1799) and the July Revolution (1830). As such, it is mainly an account of a young man's life: the bulk of the book is over before the hero turns thirty years old.
Though he is too self-effacing to remark it, Leepson, a resident of Middleburg, Virginia, lives close to two local landmarks associated with the French general. Some ten miles to the west, at the foot of the Ashby Gap through the Blue Ridge Mountains, lies the little village of Paris which was named in honor of the French general by a veteran of the revolutionary war.Half a dozen miles east of Middleburg is Oak Hill, the private residence of President James Monroe, where the elderly Lafayette met his former comrade-in-arms during his final visit to the United States in 1825.
For this reader at least, Leepson's local connections to his subject's life, tangential though they might seem, are central to his biographical approach. From his first major book, Saving Monticello, through Flag, and Desperate Engagement, he has consistently shown a reverence for the local aspect of his story, for the specific, particular detail that has been neglected or ignored. In Lafayette, his well-researched narrative is once again guided by an admirable piety and fidelity to the facts and sources. Though the action moves across states, seas, and continents, Leepson never loses sight of the truth that all war is local and he gives appropriate attention to the various distinct places of his narrative.
Moving fluidly from scene to scene of Lafayette's adventures in France and America, the book reads almost like the screenplay for a movie. The love interest is only marginally the hero's teenage bride Adrienne. The true love interest is Lafayette's passion for glory and the cause of liberty. Leepson portrays an idealistic young aristocrat who becomes permanently enamored with America and what it represented for him. The very first quotation which begins the book - the first epigraph in the Introduction - summarizes Lafayette's rapturous embrace of the American Revolution: "The moment I heard of America, I loved her; the moment I knew she was fighting for freedom, I burnt with a desire of bleeding for her". The close relationships which he formed with all of the Founding Fathers - particularly the tender, filial relationship with George Washington - were the tangible evidence of this military and political ardor.
All told, this is a very well-executed work. It is informative in the most pleasant way, well-paced, never weighed down with irrelevant trivia. It is fascinating to observe Leepson's compact writing style. He is an author who has devoted an entire volume to vexillology - the study of flags - writing a book-length biography of the American national emblem. In Lafayette, Leepson is able to condense into a single paragraph (p134) an account of his hero's creation of the French tricolor. The book's most amusing phrase may be the almost throwaway remark about the weekly "American dinner" in Paris in 1785 where "the lingua franca was English". A similar, very dry wit runs throughout the book.
If one had to cavil about something, it might be the book's sub-title, which is a trifle disconcerting: "Lessons in Leadership from the Idealist General". While one recognizes that the book is part of Palgrave's world general series and that some sort of uniformity is needed, the sub-title with its aura of self-help for the aspiring military commander is irritating. Palgrave's editors have also required their authors to bestow similar designations on Alexander the Great and Rommel - "Lessons from History's Undefeated General", "Leadership Lessons from the Desert Fox". The fortunate Ataturk escapes with a more descriptive "The Extraordinary Life and Achievements of the Greatest General of the Ottoman Empire". In the case of Lafayette, the idealist general dispensing lessons, there is just over a page worth of "lessons" in the text, at the very end of the book. It is a page that serves more as a summary of the story than as any kind of meaningful, practical advice for an ambitious young officer. The Palgrave editors, it should be noted, while insisting on an obnoxious sub-title were unable to catch the misused homonym (p139) where "Lafayette took the oath to the principals of the new constitutional assembly". Unlike Hitler's Germany, swearing oaths of allegiance to individual leaders was not a feature of the French Revolution.
To make these very minor critical comments, though, is to miss the larger point. This is a very solid, enjoyable reading experience. Leepson provides a splendidly succinct account of a man whose "lingua franca" was neither French nor English but a celebration of freedom and the rights of man. He shows us a man who was noble by birth and more especially noble by nature: self-sacrificing, generous, passionately committed to the ideals of liberty. Lafayette's opposition to slavery was fully in keeping with his support for American and French freedom.
Wallace Stevens in "Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction", said that the poet "tries by a peculiar speech to speak/The peculiar potency of the general,/To compound the imagination's Latin with/The lingua franca et jocundissima". Leepson's Lafayette comes across as a general with peculiar potency. Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette, compounded the Latin of his origins with the ordinary language of the people. His life, for all its vicissitudes, was, indeed, jocundissima - most high-spirited and joyful. Marc Leepson's excellent, brief story of that life is, like Lafayette himself, a fanfare for the common man.
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