September 5, 2007

It’s in the Mail: Historian Comes to Know Lafayette

Lloyd Kramer, author of the award-winning book Lafayette in Two Worlds, will speak on “Lafayette’s Historical Legacy: Politics, Culture, and the Modern World” 4:10 p.m. Thursday. The talk is free and open to the public

By Barbara Mulligan

Lloyd Kramer was in his second year of studying for his Ph.D. in European intellectual history at Cornell when he became intimately acquainted with Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert du Motier, better known as the Marquis de Lafayette.

Kramer, now Dean E. Smith Distinguished Term Professor of History and chair of the history department at the University of North Carolina, had certainly heard of the young French aristocrat who embraced the cause of the American Revolution and, later, the French Revolution. “But I had never really studied Lafayette,” he says.

Working as a research assistant and editor on a project entitled “Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution” changed all that, though.

“I got to know Lafayette by reading his mail,” he says.

Kramer, author of the award-winning book Lafayette in Two Worlds: Public Cultures and Personal Identities in an Age of Revolutions, will speak on “Lafayette’s Historical Legacy: Politics, Culture, and the Modern World” at 4:10 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 6, in the Williams Center for the Arts. His talk is one event in a gala, campus-wide 250th birthday party for the Marquis that helps kick off the College’s yearlong celebration in 2007-08 in recognition of the life and legacy of the man for whom it is named. Major events also include a lecture series, entitled Lives of Liberty, featuring renowned speakers, and a historical exhibit, entitled A Son and his Adoptive Father: The Marquis de Lafayette and George Washington.

  • A web site dedicated to the celebration and to the Marquis’ unique connection to the College provides information and updates.

Kramer came to realize, in poring over piles of letters from and to Lafayette, that there was a lot more to the man than generally indicated by the accounts of 20th-century historians, who seemed keen to discredit enthusiastically romantic 19th-century descriptions of Lafayette’s life and work.

In the 20th century, “a lot of [historical accounts] didn’t adequately reflect his sophistication, the way he was taken seriously by Americans,” Kramer says. “He was not just a symbol. He was someone people consulted with, someone they turned to for advice and help.”

Kramer, a cultural intellectual historian, says he became fascinated by the man who was so young when he began working for the cause of the American Revolution. Lafayette’s involvement was so deep that he became known as George Washington’s adopted son and eventually named his own son for the Revolutionary general and first American president.

“In general, Lafayette is seen as historically significant because of his role in the American Revolution and the French Revolution,” Kramer says. “No one else played a comparable role in these two great events.”

Still, Kramer says, as he read Lafayette’s correspondence, he was disturbed by “something of a disconnect between the interesting and complex figure who showed up in the letters and the somewhat superficial understanding of him by historians.”

“I began to think that this would make an interesting historical study,” Kramer says, explaining that he began “revisiting Lafayette’s career with more recent concerns in mind. . . . The further I got into the study of Lafayette, the more I realized he’s a kind of entry point for all kinds of military and cultural issues.”

While the young Lafayette who aided the American Revolution was mature beyond his years, Kramer says, he became most fascinated by the Lafayette of later years and focused much of Lafayette in Two Worlds on the period from 1800 until Lafayette’s death in 1834.

“Even if you’re wise at 20, you’re wiser at 60,” he says. “He learned from pain and loss, including the loss of his wife and many friends. . . . In his later years, there’s a new level of depth and reflection.”

This older Lafayette, who eschewed his aristocratic title and signed his name simply “Lafayette,” continued to remain idealistic and committed to the causes of liberty and equality despite his many losses and a five-year stay in prison during Robespierre’s “Reign of Terror.”

“He remained incredibly committed to those ideas,” Kramer says. “He never backed away, but he did, in some sense, I think, understand the complexity of bringing some of them into political reality.”

Also interesting about the older Lafayette, Kramer says, is his willingness and ability to correspond with “creative, interesting women” of the time, most notably Fanny Wright, a Scottish-American writer, lecturer, abolitionist, and early feminist.

“I feel that those letters to women opened up a side of Lafayette that you didn’t really see in his correspondence with men,” Kramer says, pointing out that Lafayette tended to observe the formal conventions of his time in his letters.

Still, much about Lafayette’s inner life remains unknown, Kramer points out.

“I did feel that I knew a lot of things about Lafayette as I read his letters,” Kramer says. “I understood how he would respond to certain political situations and certain crises. But I didn’t feel that I knew his most intimate feelings that well. Eighteenth-century men didn’t really pour out their feelings.”

Lafayette remains relevant today, says Kramer, whose Lafayette in Two Worlds was co-recipient of the Annibel Jenkins Biography Prize from the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies and winner of the Gilbert Chinard Prize from the Society for French Historical Studies and Institut Fran�ais de Washington.

“The main thing I want to stress is the way in which Lafayette’s historical significance is tied to his involvement in many of the most important transitions in the modern world,” Kramer says. “He’s closely connected with causes such as human rights, campaigns for national freedom, women’s rights, the abolition of slavery—ideas that have remained a central part of our modern society.”

And, Kramer says, if he had the chance to ask Lafayette one question, it would be, “How did you remain optimistic when there were so many reasons to lose hope that the world was going to get better?”

“So many of us have lost optimism about politics, about the world becoming a better place,” Kramer says. “Lafayette continued to believe that the values and commitments that he represented would prevail. . . . He really believed that politics was a place where people enhanced their opportunities, that it’s worth it and important to be involved in the public realm.”

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