In this engrossing biography, author and history podcaster Mike Duncan, who explored the Roman Republic in The Storm Before the Storm, illuminates the eventful life of the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette is, of course, a popular hero of the American Revolution. Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution broadens our understanding of his engagement in other major political movements, as well, chronicling his role in the French Revolution and the toppling of the Bourbon Dynasty in 1830.
At first glance, nothing in Lafayette’s early history suggests his future commitment to liberal ideals. Lafayette (1757–1834) was born Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier in Chavaniac, France. A son of the nobility, he lost his father when he was only 2, making him the sole heir to the family’s fortune. His mother’s death when he was 12 left him in the care of guardians who made many decisions for him, including arranging his marriage to Adrienne d’Ayen at age 16. They were a devoted couple until her death in 1807.
Duncan traces the origin of Lafayette’s embrace of liberty and equality to the summer of 1775, when he first learned of George Washington and the colonists’ struggles. Politics had cut short his career in the French army, so Lafayette decided to follow this new noble cause. He managed to become a major general in the Continental Army, and by age 24, he’d earned a stellar reputation on both sides of the Atlantic.
In detailing Lafayette’s long career, Duncan takes a measured approach to his subject, making excellent use of primary sources, especially letters. The author effectively balances Lafayette the man with Lafayette the public figure and helps delineate the relationship between the United States and France.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of A Hero of Two Worlds is Duncan’s exploration of Lafayette’s long and enduring popularity with Americans. (Unlike the French, the Americans never stopped loving him.) In 1824, Lafayette was invited for a visit by President James Monroe as the nation prepared for its 50th anniversary. Lafayette received a hero’s welcome, his presence reminding “local and state leaders they were a single nation with a shared past and collective future.”
Lafayette was a unique and unifying figure in American history, celebrated and revered by all political parties. As the United States approaches its 250th anniversary, Duncan’s impressive biography provides an insightful look at the American Revolution that can be appreciated by history lovers and general readers alike.