by Henry Dwight Sedgwick. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Co. 1928. 8vo. xvi+433 pp. Illus. $5.00.
THIS pleasing volume has its special timeliness today, when a war-worn world is looking askance at democracy, and indeed at all generous impulses in public life. For La Fayette, who left a deeper and more enduring impression upon the imagination and the affection of our country than any other foreigner who has ever visited our shores, incarnated beyond most characters in history the civic virtues that have lasting worth.
‘Flaming youth’ is a tepid term to apply to the young champion of freedom who. before his twentieth birthday, abandoned the luxuries and graces of the world’s gayest capital, the sunshine of royal favor and the brilliant prospects of advancement that this implied, and a child bride whom he adored, to share the uncertainties, privations, and perils of the patriot cause in America. Mixed as may have been the motives that impelled him to this action, for hatred of England and a spirit of adventure contributed a part, his whole after life testifies to the fact that an ardent, love of human liberty dominated all others. La Fayette was touched by the enthusiasm that gives divinity to men.
Those earlier chapters in which the author describes, or lets the letters of his hero describe, the associations and incidents of the Revolutionary campaign will naturally appeal most strongly to Americans. But beyond their purely national interest for us, they convey something of the charm of one of the most engaging personalities who has adorned our public annals. It was no ordinary attraction that during La Fayette’s critical illnes in 1778 drew Washington daily from army headquarters eight miles away to hibedside, where the Commander-in-Chief, ‘with tears in his eyes,’ bade his personal physician care for the young patient as if he were his own son. This affection was shared by the troops whom La Fayette commanded and by most of those with whom he was brought into personal relations; and it was inspired not only by the social graces and the winning traits of a generous and high-minded youth, but also by the respect that his prudence and ability in the field and in council exacted. Incidentally, these early chapters will disclose to a large number of reader-new aspects of the Revolution, and especially of the difficulties that beset cooperation between the French and the Colonials, who had so recently been fighting them.
After the scene shifts to Europe, dramatic experiences, of which enough for an ordinary lifetime had already been crowded into the very dawn of La Fayette’s manhood, multiply with accelerating rhythm. For a time the idol of the Paris revolution, and lifted to a post that might easily have made a more selfishly ambitious and less scrupulous man the nation’s dictator, he tried vainly to implant in his native soil the political ideals he had brought from the home of Washington. In this he failed. Exile and five years’ imprisonment in Prussian and Austrian fortresses, where his privations were lightened somewhat by financial succor from grateful America, were followed during Bonaparte’s ascendancy and the Bourbon restoration by congenial retirement upon his country estate in France. His triumphal tour of the United States in 1824 seemed to have crowned the long career of the now aging statesman. Then came a new revolutionary crisis, in 1830, when his country for a second time virtually placed her destinies in his safe-keeping.
So much for the incidents of this eventful life. The author relates them with restraint and without undue eulogy. The numerous contemporary estimates of La Fayette’s talents and character which he quotes miss the clear definition of a portrait. Perhaps this is because La Fayette was preeminently a man of character, both morally and physically courageous to a fault, inflexibly loyal to high civic ideals, but not blessed or burdened by the supreme qualities of intellect or will that line the features of the greatest men in history. His life was not tragic for himself or for others. The youthful Don Quixote matured into the good citizen par excellence. Upon the whole be rode his surf board well through the most turbulent political breakers of his time.