Revolutionary Lafayette Through Eyes of a 21st-Century Translator

This summer I’m featuring a few guest posts from fellow francophile bloggers. Below you’ll find an interview that centers on the remarkable life of the Marquis de La Fayette. Known in the United States as Lafayette, the young French marquis played a pivotal role in helping America defeat the British during the Revolutionary War.

Background

Jonathan Goldberg
Jonathan Goldberg

This week’s guest blogger, Jonathan Goldberg, is an accomplished literary translator, perhaps best known for translating President Emmanuel Macron’s memoir, Révolution. From what I can tell, he is also an enthusiastic networker who enjoys interacting with other translators and francophiles. His French-language blog, Le mot juste en anglais, which has been active for 10 years, aspires to open a window for its French readers on cultural and linguistic issues and events in the Anglo-American world. This interview, with historian and French-to-English translator Alan R. Hoffman, first appeared on Wordsmiths’ Blog in the fall of 2021.

Alan R. Hoffman
Alan R. Hoffman

Alan R. Hoffman is a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School and was, for nearly 50 years, a trial lawyer in Boston. He is President of the American Friends of Lafayette. Mr. Hoffman translated Lafayette en Amérique, en 1824 et 1825, ou, Journal d’un voyage aux États-Unis, by Auguste Levasseur and published it in 2006 under the title Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825: Journal of a Voyage to the United States. Alan Hoffman’s translation is the only known translation of the entire chronicle.

Lafayette in America Cover
Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825: Journal of a Voyage to the United States

The interview that follows covers Lafayette’s visits to the United States in 1777, 1780, and 1824-1825.

Lafayette through The Eyes of a 21st-Century Translator

Goldberg: Who was Lafayette?

Hoffman: Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette (1757 –1834), known in the United States as Lafayette, was a French aristocrat and military officer who fought in the American Revolutionary War.

Marquis de Lafayette
Portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette

At the age of 19 Lafayette first left for America, where he joined the forces of George Washington (having previously met King George III in London) and joined the insurgent army, commanding American troops in several battles, including the Virginia campaign and the siege of Yorktown.

Lafayette at Valley Forge
Lafayette and Washington at Valley Forge

During a lull in the war, Lafayette returned to France in early 1779 to lobby King Louis XVI and his ministers for more material aid, loans, French troops and the return of the French fleet to the United States. The French Ministry approved his plan, and Lafayette returned to America in 1780 to rejoin the Continental Army.

Lafayette Hero of Two Worlds
Lafayette Leading Revolutionary Troops

After returning to France to settle there, he was a key figure in the French Revolution of 1789 and the July Revolution of 1830. He was co-author of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.

In July 1824, General Lafayette, by then known as The Hero of Two Worlds, sailed from Le Havre for the United States, his adoptive country, on the invitation of Congress and President James Monroe. Although he had not visited American shores since 1784 (after the Treaty of Paris formally ended the American Revolution, which he had shared the glory of winning on the battlefield), this visit, 40 years later, when he was 67 years old, produced a fervid outpouring of affection from the American people for the last surviving Major General of their Revolution.

During his 13-month tour, he visited all 24 states, which celebrated and honored him wherever he went.  He was hosted by former Presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, by Presidents James Monroe and John Quincy Adams, and by future President Andrew Jackson. Lafayette was accompanied by his only son, 45-year-old Georges Washington Lafayette, his secretary André-Nicolas Levasseur, and his valet.

Lafayette Welcoming Parade
Lafayette Welcoming Parade, 1824 New York City

Goldberg: Who was André-Nicolas Levasseur?

Hoffman: André-Nicolas Levasseur (also known as Auguste Levasseur) was a 19th-century French writer and diplomat.

Like Lafayette, Levasseur considered Napoleon “the Usurper” and was extremely critical of Restoration France under the Bourbon Monarchy.  Tellingly, he receives the news of Louis XVIII’s death from then Secretary of State John Quincy Adams in 1824, without comment.

Levasseur is best known in the United States for accompanying Lafayette on his final visit to the United States in 1824, which Levasseur chronicled.

Goldberg: What was the extent of your interest in Lafayette before you undertook the translation project? 

Hoffman: I had a strong interest in history, particularly early American history, which I picked up in college, but had only rudimentary knowledge of Lafayette until 2002 when I read Andrew Burstein’s America’s Jubilee: How in 1826 a Generation Remembered Fifty Years of Independence. The first chapter was about Lafayette’s 1824-1825 Farewell Tour of America. My interest having been sparked, I started reading everything I could find about Lafayette. This interest led to my joining the American Friends of Lafayette (AFL) and the Massachusetts Lafayette Society, and to Levasseur and his journal.

Goldberg: What was the level of your comprehension of written French when you undertook this project?

Hoffman: I had six years of French and Latin at school. In 2003 I was looking for Levasseur’s journal of Lafayette’s Farewell Tour and could not find a copy of an 1829 English translation. However, I found the original French version at the Brattle Book Shop in Boston in the rare book room. I opened Volume 1 to the preface, and to my surprise was able to sight-read it. At that moment I decided to translate the book.

Goldberg: Did Lafayette have any fluency in English before he arrived on American shores the first time?

Hoffman: No, but he learned to speak and write English aboard the Victoire, the ship that he purchased to transport himself and other French officers to America. Lafayette had studied Latin and, of course, French in school. He had an excellent tutor during the seven-week voyage, the Baron de Kalb, who was fluent in English. Lafayette brought along an English grammar book.

Sailing Ship, La Victoire
The ship Lafayette bought to sail from France to America, La Victoire.

Goldberg: Could you comment on the command of written English that Lafayette acquired, in the light of the fact that he constantly wrote letters in English to a number of Americans, including George Washington?

Hoffman: Lafayette developed a command of written (and spoken) English quite rapidly. This is evident, for example, in the earliest letter that he wrote to General Washington on October 14, 1777, just four months after arriving in America. See The Letters of Lafayette to Washington 1777 – 1779, 2nd printing, Louis Gottschalk, Editor (The American Philosophical Society, 1976).

Hero of Two Worlds

Goldberg: Here is a quote from the very recently published book, Hero of Two Worlds, (Page 141) by Mike Duncan.

“Most of French society expected his brilliant madness in America to be a hilarious failure. Instead, Lafayette trusted himself, took a bold risk, and it paid off magnificently. Sure, his title, wealth and connections opened doors in America but his courage, loyalty and talent won him acclaim.” 

Do you agree with the above? Did Lafayette’s physical involvement in the war contribute anything above and beyond his financial contribution, and the participation of several thousand French soldiers? If it did, was that principally as a morale booster?

Hoffman: I generally agree, especially with Duncan’s last sentence. His first sentence might, however, be overstated. Some of Lafayette’s contemporaries, like his best friends, the Vicomte de Noaille (his brother-in-law) and the Comte de Ségur who had obeyed their fathers’ command not to go to America to join the Insurgents, did not think Lafayette was crazy but instead envied him.

Lafayette’s contribution to the American cause was critically important. His diplomatic role was paramount. Upon his return to France on furlough from the Revolutionary Army in 1779, he, together with Benjamin Franklin, lobbied the French ministers for more money, supplies, land forces, and a return of a French fleet. The acceptance of his plan led to the Yorktown victory. Lafayette’s military role was not insignificant. His Virginia campaign in 1781 produced the condition, namely the entrapment of Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown that set the stage for the siege of the English forces and their surrender, in October 1781.

Goldberg: Would the insurgents have won the war of independence without the support of Lafayette and of France?

Hoffman: The short answer is “probably not”, and certainly not in 1781. The French Expeditionary Force, under Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, with its engineers and huge siege guns, as well as the West Indian Fleet under the Comte de Grasse, which joined with Washington’s troops from the north and Lafayette’s forces already stationed in Virginia, were decisive in the final major engagement in the war, the Battle of Yorktown. Without Lafayette and France, we would still be singing “God save the Queen”.

Surrender of Cornwallis
Surrender of Cornwallis

Goldberg: Is there a paradox in the fact that Louis XVI may be considered one of the heroes of the American Revolution yet became the villain and victim of the French Revolution?

Hoffman: Louis XVI and his ministers, in particular, the Comte de Vergennes and the Comte de Maurepas, were not Enlightenment liberals, but supported the American insurgency to avenge France’s loss of part of its colonial possessions in the Seven Years War of 1756 – 1763. The French support for the United States was financed by borrowing. This fact, together with wasteful spending by the Crown and an unfair and inefficient tax system, led to the country’s bankruptcy and to the French Revolution, which, of course, cost Louis XVI his head.

Execution of Louis XVI
Execution of Louis XVI in 1793

Goldberg: The French personalities involved in the War of Independence included Rochambeau and Lafayette, who clashed at times. Rochambeau called Lafayette a “hothead”, but did Lafayette’s boyish enthusiasm prove more valuable than Rochambeau’s circumspection? Which of them made a greater contribution?

Hoffman: Lafayette is generally acknowledged to have made a much greater contribution than Rochambeau, by virtue of his diplomatic role coupled with his military successes. Also, his boyish enthusiasm and overall likability proved infectious. His personal generosity – paying for uniforms for his troops from his own funds – clearly boosted the spirits and morale of the troops he served with.

Statue of Rochambeau
Statue of Rochambeau in Newport, RI

Goldberg: Lafayette, after his first trip to America, and his return to France, had his sights on an attack on Britain. He also considered attacking the English in Canada. Although neither of those plans was executed, can one deduce that he was at heart a warmonger?

Hoffman: No, he was not a warmonger at heart. Lafayette’s motive in considering these plans was purely strategic. He believed that success in each theater would have led to a speedier conclusion of the War and that American independence would have been won with less loss of life.

Goldberg: Have you seen Hamilton, the musical. To what extent is the portrayal of Lafayette authentic?

Hoffman: I have seen Hamilton three times, on Broadway, in a Boston theater, and the movie on TV. The play is not historically accurate in all respects, nor does it make that claim. For example, while Hamilton portrays Lafayette as being present at the inception of the American Revolution, he actually joined the Continental Army in July 1777. Also, the Lafayette character does not have a major part and sings only a few solo lines. However, the play is accurate in portraying Lafayette’s friendship with Hamilton, his popularity with his comrades in arms, and the importance of his contribution to the war effort.

Scene from the Musical Hamilton
Daveed Diggs and Lin-Manuel Miranda playing Lafayette and Hamilton

Goldberg: Lafayette wrote Washington in February 1783:

“Now, my dear General, that you are going to enjoy some ease and quiet, permit me to propose a plan to you which might become greatly beneficial to the Black Part of Mankind. Let us unite in purchasing a small estate where we may try the experiment to free the Negroes, and use them only as tenants – such an exemple [sic] as yours might render it a general practice; and, if we succeed in America, I will cheerfully devote a part of my time to render the method fashionable in the West Indies. If it be a wild scheme, I had rather be mad in this way, than to be thought wise in the other task.”

By the standards of the late 18th century, were Lafayette’s ideas of abolition and more specifically his plan to turn slaves into paid tenants, way ahead of his time?

Hoffman: Starting in 1783, Lafayette advocated for the abolition of slavery in America and in France and its colonies. When Washington did not agree to Lafayette’s proposed experiment, Lafayette purchased a plantation in Cayenne, on the northern coast of South America in 1785, and he initiated a program of gradual abolition of the enslaved persons on the plantation. Unlike American leaders, like Washington and Jefferson, who acknowledged that slavery was wrong, Lafayette put his money where his mouth was. His early anti-slavery activity was very advanced. Only the Quakers in the United States held more progressive views.

Lafayette and Armistead
Lafayette and his servant James Armistead

Addendum:

There are 79 cities and towns, counties, and other small geographic units in the United States named for Lafayette or his Chateau, La Grange. The names are Lafayette, Fayette, Fayetteville, Lafayetteville, Lagrange, and Lagrangeville. There are 45 cities or towns, 17 counties, 16 townships, villages, etc., and one ghost town, Fayette, Michigan, now a State Park. Gazette of the American Friends of Lafayette, No. 83, pp. 51 – 52 (October 2015). There is Mount Lafayette in New Hampshire, the Lafayette River in Virginia, Lake Lafayette in Florida, and Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. There are more than a score of Lafayette (Masonic) Lodges, numerous statues of Lafayette, and Lafayette Squares or Parks. The number of streets named for Lafayette likely exceeds 1000.

Washington and Lafayette
George Washington and Marquis De Lafayette at Mount Vernon, 1784.

Other Resources

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, translator, and mother of 3. Avid follower of French media, culture, history, and language. Lover of books, travel, history, art, cooking, fitness, and nature. Cultivating connections with francophiles and francophones.

5 Comments

  1. The grave of Lafayette, in Picpus Cemetery in Paris, is maintained by the American Friends of Lafayette. Interred there are also many of the victims of the guillotine. It’s a peaceful, hidden treasure to visit.

  2. The previous poster is correct indeed. Thanks God for Louis XVI who gave the order and the money!! Do you know the Breton Armand Tuffin?

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