Author Q&A: Marc Leepson

  • November 29, 2011

Q & A with Marc Leepson, author of Lafayette: Lessons in Leadership from the Idealist General.

This is the first of a series of articles featuring interviews with biographers and historians who will be appearing as part of the Chappell Great Lives Lecture Series at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, January through April, 2012. More information is available at

Q & A with Marc Leepson, author of Lafayette: Lessons in Leadership from the Idealist General (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011, $23)

The Arab Spring puts us in mind of the early days of our Republic. And just as exiles, ex-patriots, and lovers of liberty have rushed to the North African coast and the Middle East to lend a hand in overthrowing oppressive governments, the American Revolution attracted volunteers from far away. One of the most famous is the legendary Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert du Motier, better known as the Marquis de Lafayette.

Marc Leepson has published a crisp, new life of Lafayette with the emphasis on his life as a military man for Palgrave MacMillan’s World General Series. We ask the author to tell us more about Lafayette — an inspiration to leaders of democratic revolts.

The Marquis de Lafayette’s devotion to liberty, by word and deed, is unquestionable. In your research, do you find any clues as to why a French blue-blood would embrace democracy?

Yes, I found several. It stemmed from his strong desire at age nineteen to come to this country to fight the hated British, who had killed his father at the Battle of Minden in the Seven Years War when Lafayette was two years old. He was recruited by Silas Deane, (1737-89) and his aide William Carmichael. Dean, a Connecticut merchant and patriot, had been sent to Paris by the Continental Congress to secure French support for the fight against the British; part of that job was getting French soldiers to fight in our Revolution.

So, he was primarily interested in defeating the British. But Lafayette also had formed his own ideas about freedom and liberty. For example, here’s what he wrote to his wife Adrienne on the ship taking him to this country in June of 1777: “Defender of this freedom which I venerate, freer than anyone and coming as a friend to offer our help to such an interesting republic, I bring here my integrity and good will only. No ambition, no personal interests.”

When he came to this country, Lafayette was influenced by many important people who solidified his love of the American causes of freedom, independence and republican government. The list includes George Washington, James Monroe, and Thomas Jefferson. I can’t think of three more important or influential apostles of democracy.

Lafayette seemed to love glory and war as much as he loved republican ideals. Did you find this a paradox?

Not taken in context. The word “glory” had different connotations in the l8th century. It meant less personal glory for glory’s sake than the glory of having taken part in a noble cause.

What personal traits in particular endeared him to older men such as Jefferson and Washington, who were strong judges of character?

Primarily I believe it was his sincerity, his eagerness to learn, and his ardor for the American cause against the British. He also was fearless in battle and kept his composure under fire. Everyone (on our side) who saw him in action attested to his battlefield acumen and courage.

The subtitle of your biography of Lafayette is “Lessons in Leadership from an Idealist General.” First, what lessons does Lafayette illustrate? Second, why do you characterize him as an “idealist general”?

The lessons are ones he learned in the heat of battle. Lafayette came over here a young man eager to fight. He was very aggressive, always pushing Washington and the other Continental Army generals to take the offensive. That changed as Lafayette learned first hand the subtleties of command. He also learned to be a military leader who took care of his troops. He provided them with uniforms, food, and materiel, often using his own money to do so. He was devoted to his troops and they remained loyal to him.

He truly was an idealist, in that he stuck to his lofty ideals of freedom and constitutional government even when he could have compromised them easily to his own benefit. Twice he was all but offered to be the dictator of France, once during the French Revolution that began in 1789 and once during the three-day July Revolution of 1830. Both times the door was open for him to take power and become a Napoleon-like leader. Both times he refused, and pushed instead for representative government. That’s about as idealistic as you can get.

It’s hard to find a weakness or shortcoming in Lafayette as a human being or a leader. Did you glimpse any?

The man was not perfect, especially when he was young. As I mentioned, he was all too eager to fight too often when he first came over here. On the other hand, he wound up listening to (and learning from) the experienced generals who outranked him — another leadership lesson.

Later in life, he sometimes tended to overestimate his ability to lead, both politically and militarily. He also was vain. And despite the fact that he had a long and loving marriage, he had two long-term, well-known affairs with women.

But let’s put this in context. His over-eagerness to fight as a young man and his political and military misjudgments were exceptions. Throughout nearly all of his long, eventful life, Lafayette accomplished what he set out to do in this country and in France. He played important, decisive roles in two of the world’s most important events: the American and French Revolutions. His shortcomings were very minor compared to his large accomplishments.

Using a time machine, let’s take Lafayette to Zuccotti Park (formerly called Liberty Park) in Manhattan and have him walk among the protesters participating in Occupy Wall Street. Would he see them as kindred spirits?

I believe he would. Throughout his life he stood up for the causes he believed in, and many of them would be considered “liberal” by today’s standards. For instance, he and his wife Adrienne were strongly against slavery. He also was adamant in his belief in basic freedoms: of religion, speech and the press. And of representative government.

If Lafayette were a character in a novel, he would have to want something — all memorable characters do. What would say Lafayette wants?

He wants life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all human beings. That’s what he stood for in three revolutions.

Charles J. Shields is the associate director of the Great Lives lecture series at the University of Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Marc Leepson will be presenting his life of Lafayette as part of the series on January 31, 2012.

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