Lafayette: An acerbic tongue or an incisive judge of character?

A statue of Lafayette in Lafayette Square, Washington DC

A truly French and American hero, Marquis de Lafayette, a nineteen-year-old nobleman without significant military or political experiences, joined the fledgling American Revolution at a low point. He distinguished himself from other French officers by volunteering to serve in the Continental Army without commission and pay. Worldly beyond his years, Lafayette rapidly sized up the Patriot situation and successfully navigated the complex politics of the Continental Congress and the army officer corps. He quickly earned the respect of Washington and other senior Continental Army generals as someone who was trustworthy and a team player. Further, Lafayette facilitated vital French economic and military support for the Revolution.

In a cheeky assessment of Lafayette’s maturation, character and judgment, Sarah Vowell observed in her recent book:

Its worth noting right from the start, America brought out the best in Lafayette, as if he had vomited up his adolescent petulance somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic and had come ashore a new and wiser self[1]

The decision to come to America and the trans-Atlantic voyage might well have been transformative for Lafayette; however, it did not a completely mature his character and judgment. Although he incisively judged most people, from time to time he offered poorly nuanced, ill-informed perspectives, which were inconsistent with his overall character. As with any developing leader, his wisdom matured with the continuing education of life’s lessons.

Starting at the top and with his positive character assessments, Lafayette formed a close, effective and almost fatherly relationship with Washington, who he portrayed as:

… my friend, my intimate friend, and since I like to choose my friends, I dare say that to give him that title is to praise him.[2]

In addition to Washington, Lafayette forged strong bonds with many fellow officers in the Continental Army. He especially formed positive opinions on generals who were highly regarded by Washington, those who Lafayette served under and those who were intensely loyal to Washington with no designs on replacing him. Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene is an example of a general highly valued by Washington. Lafayette offered this complimentary assessment of Greene: “it will be General Greene, our most senior officer after Gates and Heath, who really has talent and exceptional judgment.”[3] An example of Lafayette’s judgment of a general, under which he served, is Maj. Gen. John Sullivan. On being assigned to Sullivan’s command, Lafayette expressed, “I both love and esteem you, therefore the moment we’ll fight together will be extremely pleasant and agreeable to me.”[4] An example of a general who was intensely loyal and no threat to Washington is Maj. Gen. William Heath.  Lafayette concluded in a letter to Heath, “…one that looks upon you as an intimate friend….”[5] Loyalty to Washington greatly influenced Lafayette’s character judgment in all three cases.

As might be expected from someone his age, Lafayette did not always form opinions on people with sufficient understanding of the situation. A recent biographer noted that he was overly impulsive.[6] This impulsiveness led to Lafayette not being afraid to speak his mind about his fellow officers, offering biting criticism of their actual and perceived command failures. Some of these strong opinions suffered from not knowing all the facts and were politically naïve. From time to time, he offered uncharitable judgments not becoming a mature leader.

Perhaps the best example of Lafayette forming and expressing strong opinions too quickly and without the nuance of perspective is his assessment of Samuel and John Adams. Stridently in his memoirs of 1779, Lafayette questioned their competence by observing that the Adams’ “were rigid republicans but more capable of destroying than preserving the republic.”[7] While many people have characterized John Adams as rigid and Samuel a firebrand, this hyperbolic overstatement may have resulted from Lafayette’s unquestioned, protective support of Washington during political disagreements with the the Adams’. Late in the war, Lafayette changes his opinion of John Adams. In a fawning congratulatory letter to Adams for inking the 1782 Dutch treaty of amity and commerce, Lafayette concluded, “Your long Professed friend and Admirer.”[8] The change of heart is consistent with an emerging leader who, when learning more about someone, will alter his opinion as a result. Also, Lafayette changed his view after Adams was no longer a threat to Washington’s leadership.

An illustrative example of Lafayette forming opinions without understanding all the facts is his assessment of the military command capabilities of Maj. Gen. Israel Putnam. Lafayette concludee that in the October 1777 Hudson Highlands battles, the British “… were hardly bothered by old Putnam, the man who, when the troubles first began, had left his plow and given the army more zeal than talent.”[9] In a second letter, Lafayette stated:

I am told general putnam is recalled, and goodell (good deal) is expected on that part—but your excellency knows better than I do what could be convenient; therfore I do’nt want to mind those things myself.[10]

Clearly, Lafayette had little confidence in Putnam and advocated relieving him of command. A more dispassionate and informed view concludes that Putnam was held in high regard by his officers and soldiers, was especially important for new recruits and political support from Connecticut, and acquitted himself courageously on the battlefield. In all three battles in which he commanded, Putnam faced vastly superior British forces supported by uncontested naval superiority. In the Hudson Highlands campaigns referenced by Lafayette, Putnam had only a small force to cover multiple strategic points and the British firmly controlled the Hudson River. Being massively outnumbered by superior mobile forces that could move more rapidly using the river, Putnam preserved his command to fight another day. Never having superior military forces, Putnam “rose to the occasion” to competently serve his country and was not as incompetent as Lafayette portrayed.[11]

Lafayette’s assessment of the French volunteer Philippe Charles Tronson Du Coudray, an expertly trained artillery and engineering officer, is a good example of Lafayette’s ability to discern character while adding an impolitic and unseemly barb. Of Du Coudray’s character Lafayette opined, “A cleaver but imprudent man, a good officer, but vain to the point of folly.”[12] Most senior Continental Army contemporaries would concur with the description of Du Coudray’s vanity, but with an absence of taste Lafayette added a less than charitable comment not found in the writings of more mature leaders: “… M. Du Coudray was drowned in the Schuylkill, and the loss of that troublemaker was perhaps a fortunate accident.”[13] Du Coudray gave his life for the Patriot cause and in respect, Congressional leaders offered one of only four Catholic masses in which the Continental Congress participated for his funeral.

Less acerbic, but still biting, was Lafayette’s assessment of Maj. Gen. Lord Stirling’s (William Alexander) judgment. Lafayette praised “brave Stirling” for his performance during the battle of Monmouth.[14] However two years earlier, Lafayette called into question Lord Stirling’s battlefield judgment by remarking that Lord Stirling “… was more courageous than judicious.”[15] This is another example of Lafayette changing his mind about a Patriot’s capabilities.

Lafayette offered even more pointed comments about Maj. Gen. Charles Lee, a highly experienced though quirky former British Army officer with numerous pre-Revolution combat commands. Lafayette wrote in his memoirs on Lee:

His features were coarse, his personality was caustic, his heart ambitious and avaricious, his character inconsistent and his whole appearance was entirely peculiar.[16]

Many fellow officers also did not hold Lee in high personal regard, but they followed his orders and respected his military experience. Lafayette did recognize Lee for making at least one good military decision but denigrated him in the same sentence.

He hated the general [Washington] and loved no one but himself, but in 1776 his advice had saved the general [Washington] and the remnants of the army.[17]

The 1778 Battle of Monmouth provided a major turning point for Lafayette’s opinion of Lee. Hours before the battle, Washington replaced Lafayette with Lee as the commander of the American advance guard. In the initial engagement with the British at Monmouth Courthouse, Lee’s forces inexplicably retreated from the attacking British. Famously, Washington, accompanied by Lafayette, came upon the retreating Lee, relieved him on the spot, and rallied the Patriot forces.  As a result of the battle, Lee lost the confidence of his fellow officers and his loyalty first came into question due to the seemingly unexplained retreat. Lafayette echoed the sentiments of many other Continental Army officers by stating that Lee’s “…first action would have been to sell out his friends and the whole American cause.”[18] Again to protect Washington, Lafayette harshly criticized Lee.

However, Lafayette went much further than most contemporaries and uncharitably concluded on Lee, “He was later suspended by a court martial, he left the service, and he was not missed.”[19] While not providing a complete vindication of Charles Lee’s traitorous actions, but at odds with Lafayette’s views, two recent biographers offer a more balanced assessment of Lee’s contributions. They concluded that Lee’s Monmouth battlefield performance was appropriate and that only with the additional Continental forces from Washington’s main army did the Patriots have sufficient forces to occupy defensible terrain and engage the British. Lee’s biographers posit that Washington may have overreacted due to Lee’s previous insubordinate actions. Unwaveringly and vociferously, Lafayette supported Washington’s decision.[20]

Further, Lafayette overstated his negative appraisals of officers who had pre-Revolution political disagreements with Washington. For example, he characterized Maj. Gen. Adam Stephen “… as always drunk.”[21] Certainly, Stephens was cashiered from the Continental Army after the Battle of Germantown for a critical and deadly friendly fire incident under his command and for being intoxicated. However, it is not likely that Stephen was always drunk, and other factors besides the extent of Stephen’s drinking impacted Lafayette’s judgment. What is less known, is the pre-Revolutionary relationship between Washington and Stephen who were initially friends serving together in the French and Indian War. During the inter-war period, Stephen ran against Washington for a seat in the House of Burgesses that caused a subsequent, permanent personal rift between them. Improbable for someone “always drunk,” Stephen after the Revolution engaged in a long, productive business career including the founding of Martinsburg, West Virginia. In 1788, Stephen attended the Virginia Continental Convention and persuasively argued for the adoption of the United States Constitution. A more mature leader might have criticized Stephen for the friendly fire incident and not focused on the intoxication. This is especially true as Lafayette directly assumed responsibility for Stephen’s division. Denigrating a previous leader appears unprofessional, especially one who ably commanded in previous battles and who became an accomplished civic and business leader despite being Washington’s political antagonist.

Lafayette reserved his severest criticisms for those who conspired or were thought to have conspired to replace Washington as supreme commander. In a letter to Washington, Lafayette labeled the alleged eponymous leader of the famous cabal, and his fellow French Army officer, Maj. Gen. Thomas Conway “… an ambitious and dangerous man.”[22] Lafayette made his personal dislike of Conway widely known. Henry Laurens, the President of Congress, related to a fellow South Carolinian that Lafayette viewed Conway with the “utmost abhorrence.”[23] Other officers including Knox, Greene and Lord Stirling also took a dim view of Conway, concurring with Lafayette that Conway was dangerous to Washington. But in a letter to the Continental Congress, Lafayette went much further by derisively referring to Conway’s military abilities, stating:

I don’t include St. Augustine because Gen. Conway will take it with fifteen hundred men coming from Mr. De Borre’s country.[24]

Lafayette was referring to Conway’s proposal to Congress to invade East Florida and capture the highly defended citadel at St. Augustine with an obviously undermanned force recruited from Europe. Sarcastically, Lafayette cast doubt on Conway’s judgment and military leadership by coy inferences of Conway overstating his military abilities.

Further, a suspicious Lafayette wrote to Washington that he was concerned that Conway would be named over Lafayette to take command of the proposed 1778 invasion of Canada. With a hint of ethnic elitism, Lafayette wrote to Washington about the potential for Conway to lead the attack:

…there are some projects to send Connway to Canada—they will laugh in france when they’l hear that he is choosen upon such a commission out of the same army where I am, principally as he is an irishman, and when the project schould be to show to the frenchmen of that country a man of theyr nation who by his rank in france could inspire them with some confidence[25]

Continuing with boyish sarcasm, Lafayette further denigrated Conway’s military capabilities and character in another letter to Washington.

I fancy Mister düer will be with Mister Cannway [Conway] sooner than he had told me—they’l perhaps conquer canada before my arrival, and I expect to meet them at the governor’s house in quebec.[26]

Eventually Lafayette was named to lead the planned Canadian invasion, but the invasion was abandoned due to the lack of personnel, supplies and funding. In France after the war, Lafayette’s criticisms of Conway caused a scandal as Conway whispered to well-placed sources in French society that Lafayette in America ruined him with innuendo and slander.[27]

Lafayette also expressed an abrasive opinion of another officer rumored to be part of the Conway Cabal. While only rumored to be the cabal’s choice for supreme leadership, Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates certainly had long standing personal designs on replacing Washington as Commander in Chief. On Gates, Lafayette opined;

He was a good officer, but he had neither the talent, the intelligence, nor the willpower necessary for supreme command.  He would have been crushed by the burden[28]

Clearly ambitious, but a major contributor, Washington assigned Gates to important command positions throughout the war. His victory at Saratoga paved the way for the vital French alliance and he was the only Patriot general to command five military departments.[29] Although his rout at the Battle of Camden and his likely participation in the Newburgh conspiracies were stains on his record, a more mature leader like Washington realized that he could employ Gates to aid in the successful outcome of the rebellion.

On most every account, Lafayette was a brilliant and gifted leader who succeeded despite his young age and lack of prior military experience.  Lafayette accomplished so much. But like any young leader, from time to time he lacked tact, formed opinions too quickly without sufficient information, and overstated his characterizations. In several instances, he issued some excessively strident and biting character assessments. Clearly Lafayette saved his greatest vitriol for those generals who were threats to Washington’s leadership. These flaws don’t make Lafayette a lesser hero; examining them merely serves to better understand his nature and his maturation into a legendary leader on two continents.

In the end, those who succeed write history. To Lafayette’s credit, Continental Army officers in their memoirs concurred with many aspects of his perspectives and character assessments. However, Lafayette would want to be remembered for his ability to accurately assess a person’s character, not for his acerbic, sarcastic comments reveling in a comrade’s death nor for dismissing a staunch Patriot as a teetering old man.

 

[1] Sarah Vowell, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States (New York: Riverhead Books, 2015), 85.

[2] Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert Du Motier Lafayette, Stanley J. Idzerda, and Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert Du Motier Lafayette, Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution: Selected Letters and Papers, 1776-1790 (Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1977), 1:130.

[3] Ibid., 2:202.

[4] Ibid., 2:111.

[5] Ibid., 3:53.

[6] J.T. Headley, Washington and His Generals (New York: A. L. Burt Company, n.d.), 449.

[7] Lafayette et al., Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution, 1:171.

[8] The Marquis de Lafayette to John Adams, May 7, 1782, Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-13-02-0009 (Original source: The Adams Papers, Papers of John Adams, vol. 13, May–October 1782, ed. Gregg L. Lint, C. James Taylor, Margaret A. Hogan, Jessie May Rodrique, Mary T. Claffey, and Hobson Woodward. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006, 12–14).

[9]  Lafayette et al., Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution, 1:99.

[10] Lafayette to George Washington, February 23, 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-13-02-0552 (Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 13, 26 December 1777 – 28 February 1778, ed. Edward G. Lengel. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003, 648–650).

[11] Eugene Procknow, “General Israel Putnam: Reputation Revisited,” Journal of the American Revolution, August 11, 2016, https://allthingsliberty.com/2016/08/general-israel-putnam-reputation-revisited/.

[12]  Lafayette et al., Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution, 1:11.

[13] Ibid., 1:12.

[14] Ibid., 2:11.

[15] Ibid., 1:91.

[16] Ibid., 2:9.

[17] Ibid. 2.

[18] Ibid., 1:172.

[19] Ibid., 2:11.

[20] Phillip Papas, Renegade Revolutionary: The Life of General Charles Lee (New York: New York University Press, 2014); Dominick A Mazzagetti, Charles Lee: Self before Country, 2013, http://public.eblib.com/choice/publicfullrecord.aspx?p=1562499.

[21]  Lafayette et al., Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution, 1:91.

[22] Ibid., 1:205.

[23] Henry Laurens to Isaac Motte, January 26, 1780, Henry Laurens et al., The Papers of Henry Laurens. Vol. 12: Nov. 1, 1777 – March 15, 1778, 1. ed (Columbia, S.C: Univ. of South Carolina Press, 1990).

[24] Lafayette et al., Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution, 1:259.

[25] Lafayette to Washington, January 20, 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-13-02-0251 (Original source: The Papers of George Washington, 13:291–292).

[26] Lafayette to Washington, February 8, 1778, Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-13-02-0407 (Original source: The Papers of George Washington, 13:488–489).

[27] Lafayette to Washington, March 9, 1784,” Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-01-02-0143 (Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, vol. 1, 1 January 1784 – 17 July 1784, ed. W. W. Abbot. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992, 184–189).

[28]  Lafayette et al., Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution, 1:171.

[29] Canada, Eastern, Northern, Hudson Highlands and Southern Departments.

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2 Comments

  • Enjoyed this article, Gene. I think I would conclude that Lafayette’s acerbic tongue resulted from his keen insight regarding the flaws in human character. One person that Lafayette admired, not mentioned here, is Thomas Paine. Paine could certainly match if not exceed Lafayette’s acerbic tongue. But the two men greatly admired each other for other reasons (a most interesting matchup of unlike backgrounds). In several letters, one to Washington and another to B. Rush, Paine expressed his delight that Lafayette trusted him to see to it that the Key to the Bastile, a present from Lafayette to Washington, was delivered to the latter. Lafayette’s trust in Paine proved sound, as the key arrived and rests this day securely at Mt. Vernon.

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