Close this search box.

188: Lafayette with Mike Duncan

The Marquis de Lafayette is a historical figure who has been largely left out of the cultural spotlight. So, instead of looking at a single movie, we’ll instead look at a few different depictions of Lafayette with podcaster, historian and author Mike Duncan.

Disclaimer: Dan LeFebvre and/or Based on a True Story may earn commissions from qualifying purchases through our links on this page.

Did you enjoy this episode? Help support the next one!

Buy me a coffeeBuy me a coffee


Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.

Dan LeFebvre  01:43

While I was preparing for our discussion today, one thing that stood out to me is the sheer lack of movies or tv shows about or even including Lafayette. If there’s one thing Wikipedia is good for, it’s those lists where they show all the different cultural depictions from people and for Lafayette, it has a whopping 24 listings of movies, TV shows, or even songs that depict him. Why do you think he’s been left out of the cultural spotlight?


Mike Duncan  02:09

Yeah, I went through the same thing that you did, because I knew I was going to be coming on to do this and talking about Lafayette, you know, in TV and movies and was like, I don’t actually really remember him showing up that much. I you know, I’ve seen him pop up a few times. I think part of it is just like in the Anglophone world, like in the English speaking world. There haven’t been like that many depictions even of just like the French Revolution, generally, right? And once Lafayette leaves the American Revolution, he goes back to France, like most of his life, and adventures, are set in France and set against the backdrop of the French Revolution, which, sure there have been some movies about that, but it has never been like a recurring major source of movies and TV shows for the English speaking world. I mean, it’s not like a Western, or even like pirate movies. And so if you’re going to, if you’re going to get Lafayette, you’re going to get him as a teenager in the American Revolution. And then even when you sort of like hone in on the American Revolution, there are stories that are adjacent to events in the American Revolution, or the War of Independence. But that even those are not exactly like a vibrant genre that keeps recurring. It’s not like we keep going back and turning up. There’s not like a movie every single year about the American Revolution. So he’s already kind of confined to a spot that the historical imagination doesn’t go back to a bunch like if like, if we were doing a show like about, let’s say, the industrial revolution in Britain, there’s historical fiction set in industrial revolution Britain, like every four months, right, there’s always going to be a show about that. And so he’s already kind of in a bit of a, in a bit of a box. And then he himself is just adjacent enough to kind of everything, whether it’s John Adams, or whether it’s Thomas Jefferson, or whether it’s Ben Franklin or George Washington, that he’s always going to be just a very insular character. And that’s actually one of the things that I wanted to do with the book is take him from being where he usually sits, which is kind of the side character and make him the main character of his own story. And that’s just something that I hoped to accomplish. And then as we, you know, like, let’s look forward over the weeks and months to come like what am I going to do with this book? Am I going to try to like correct this imbalance of maybe get Lafayette in a TV show or a movie? Yes. Yes, I think I am.


Dan LeFebvre  04:19

Well, one of the most recent depictions of Lafayette comes from amcs turn Washington spies, where he’s played by Brian Wiles. And he’s even in there. He’s in like six out of 40 total episodes. And throughout the series when we see him, he’s always with Washington. He seems to be a liaison of sorts between the French and the Americans. How well do you think turn did depicting Lafayette’s role in the American Revolution? Well, in


Mike Duncan  04:45

general, I have to say that I myself have not watched a ton of turn. I watched it at the beginning and then kind of drifted away from it. But I will say that just in going through what I wear, I know he pops in there and how I know he picks up turns up in the To show like Lafayette, frequently being portrayed as just somebody who was by Washington side is like not that Fronk. I mean, that’s that’s basically where you find him throughout the entire American Revolution. And there’s one spot in during the War of Independence, where he goes off and has like an independent command in Virginia. And even then he was really wrestling with whether or not he should leave headquarters whether he should leave basically Washington’s 10 because he did have a deep emotional connection to Washington did love serving with him did want to be there to support him. So the fact that Lafayette is constantly showing up at Washington side is not like that absolutely kind of captures the truth of their relationship and of the situation.


Dan LeFebvre  05:42

In his first appearance. There was season two, episode eight. And that’s when we see Lafayette coming to tell Washington that King Louie is negotiating a peace between France and the United States. Was he the one to deliver this news, I almost got the sense that he was like the messenger for that.


Mike Duncan  05:57

I think what they were doing is kind of combining two different events that happened in Lafayette life, like if they were even doing this consciously. So Lafayette was not the one who delivered the news that France had signed the treaty with the United States, he found out about that along with everybody else in it’s like may 1 or may 2 1778. Like just before the Battle of Monmouth courthouse, where a messenger arrives is actually Silas Dean’s brother shows up with the news that Benjamin Franklin has, has arranged this treaty of alliance with with what was then they were calling the United Provinces of the United States. They didn’t quite know what to call it. And so Lafayette was there in the camp, received the news with everybody else. And then they had like a huge celebration like a huge party. Lafayette was just strutting around, because this is what he had been trying to achieve since he had shown up like he wanted this alliance between the United States and France. So he was just over the moon about it. Later, Lafayette like after all of this, Lafayette goes back to France and continues to negotiate with King Louie and with Foreign Minister version to get even more troops and even more supplies and really descend like sort of a second wave of reinforcements. And that is roshambo is expedition. And Lafayette is the one who bears the news that roshen bows this this whole second French army that’s going to come like Lafayette is the one who’s carrying that in his hand comes and tells Washington all the news, like they discuss it like privately that all this stuff is going to happen. So it’s like, it’s sort of two things. There is a moment where Lafayette is directly revealing and carrying the message to George Washington that a French army is on the way, but it wasn’t the first time it was the second time.


Dan LeFebvre  07:38

Okay, and the way it’s depicted in the series, when Washington gets the news, there’s tears in his eyes, you can tell this is very emotional. Can you fill in some more historical context around? Why this alliance between France and the US was such a big deal?


Mike Duncan  07:54

Oh, yeah. And that like, that’s absolutely i mean, you know, tears in his eyes. You know, you never know with somebody as stoic as Washington, if there were literally tears in his eyes. But it was a supremely emotional moment. When they got the news. Lafayette hugged and kissed Washington, which, you know, Washington was not somebody who was down for being hugged and kissed in public, but he let Lafayette get away with it. But so the Treaty of alliance between what was in like the Second Continental Congress, and the Continental Army, and the Kingdom of France was humongously important to them. It was something that all of the leaders, both in the Congress and in the army had been aiming for. Right? It’s something they wanted when Lafayette was like when Lafayette shows up, he’s like a 19 year old, saying I want to be a major general, even though he has like no experience whatsoever, and has done nothing to merit a commission as a major general. And at first, they’re like no, get out of here. Like, we’re not we’re not going to give you a commission as Major General. But then they get all this other information. They start reading some of the letters that had accompanied him saying this kid, this young marquee, he like literally knows Queen Marie Antoinette and Louie the 16th. He is from this family than a wife family that was one of the most powerful, most important, most well connected families in all of France. They give him this commission as Major General because they believe he is going to be their connection to the inner circle of French power. And from the very beginning, all the American leaders knew if they were actually going to defeat the British, right, which I mean, okay. Defeat the people coming from Britain, because they were all kind of technically British at that point, right? The Royal Navy and the British Army is going to require French money, French soldiers, and most importantly, the French Navy. And that’s the only way they’re going to get through this. And so they’re aiming for this for years. And so when it finally happens, like Washington is more or less, the first couple years of the war, just trying to keep his army intact and in the war long enough to get the French on their side. And then when it happens, I mean, they really do feel like this is it we’ve now got the momentum. And in 1778 when the when the Alliance’s first revealed, they’re like, Oh my God, we might actually win this Before the French Alliance, it was very dicey whether or not they thought they were going to win. Even in their most optimistic moments. They were like, We need more than just us. And then after the French come in, they’re like, yeah, I might actually think we can do this. And then they did. Right. And I mean, Yorktown is all about an alliance between the Continental Army, the French army and the French Navy. poppin. Cornwallis, like is it a metaphor I’ve



never used before?


Dan LeFebvre  10:27

I’ve never heard that one before, either. But I like it. Well, you said you said earlier that Lafayette really wanted that Alliance. Was that something that he wanted even before he came? Or was that something that he wanted? Like he wanted to come to prove himself in the military. And then, you know, once he got close to Washington, then he wanted the Alliance was he coming to help the Americans essentially, to try to build that relationship between France and America.


Mike Duncan  10:55

In my interpretation, Lafayette did not like sort of come with the explicit intention of being like the vanguard point of an alliance between France and the United States, right, he was coming mostly because he was not happy with the life that he had wound up with at Versailles. He had just been reformed out of the French army. they instituted a bunch of like reforms, they reorganize their officer corps. And young Lafayette is one of the young officers who wound up getting put on the reserve list. And he sort of he was no longer able to have a career in the French army. So his move to the United States and sort of running away to the Continental Army is mostly about him, trying to win enough acclaim and enough glory for himself that he can come back and rejoin the French army and kind of restart his career. But very quickly, once he gets there, and he finds out what the situation is, he realizes the position that he has, he is aware that the French government, especially Foreign Minister version, is very interested in figuring out a way to help the colonies and very quickly, Lafayette becomes both of these things simultaneously, in the sense that he is he is pursuing his own independent, personal sort of career. He wants to rise as a person, but he also wants to do it alongside with the French army joining the Americans. And he’s he is going to play that liaison role, where he’s constantly trying to talk up the French to the United States. And then when he goes back to France, he’s telling everybody that will listen, the United States is great. We need to give them money we need to give them we need to give them arms, we need to we need to really tighten this alliance. So he does become a focal point of that critical link between France and the United States. And he was happy to do it.


Dan LeFebvre  12:37

That’s interesting. I wouldn’t have thought that I mean, him, you’re saying he has kind of a connection to the inner circle. But he also essentially got kicked out of the the French army. So apparently, his own connections to the royalty there in France couldn’t keep him in the army.


Mike Duncan  12:55

It’s a very subtle thing. And if you read here of two worlds, the Marquis de Lafayette in the age of revolution, I’ll explain all this to you, dear listeners out there. But Lafayette’s connection to the noailles family in the French army netted him a captaincy at the age of 18, which is a pretty like high rank for an 18 year old to be able to have, and the reforms to the French army that happened in the wake of the Seven Years War, we’re all about the fact that the French army was being run by all of these well connected but completely inexperienced and completely incompetent nobles. And so when the guy this guy, the central man who was in charge of reforming the French army, the very first thing he looked to purge was young, well connected nobles, who had been given commands above their experience and basically above what they had above what they deserved on merit. And so Lafite Yeah, exactly. And I actually say in the in the book that he is married into the new family was supposed to be like, the breath of life for his career and, and actually in France turned out to be the kiss of death. That’s what gets him booted. But then when he runs away from from all of this, because he wants quite unhappy, the Americans are just looking at him, like, holy crap, like, you know, the queen, and he’s like, yeah, yeah, I totally know the queen. I mean, she doesn’t like he didn’t. She didn’t like she doesn’t like him that much, because him and him and ran to him that have a very long and very kind of tempestuous relationship where she kind of thought he was a buffoon, and he thought she was a frivolous tart,



let’s say


Mike Duncan  14:22

and, but they didn’t know any of that, you know, George Washington and Ben Franklin. And you know, john adams are just looking at him like my God, like, this guy is so well connected. He’s going to be great for us in Lafayette encourage them to want to believe that because he wanted to be a major general.


Dan LeFebvre  14:38

We’ll just leave out the part where the Queen does like the she knows who I am. Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Well, going back to turn maybe was just me, but I was as I was watching that, I got the impression that Benedict Arnold didn’t like Lafayette, there’s a scene in there where Washington and Lafayette visit Arnold before his portrayal And we just see Arnold is giving hard glances at Lafayette and talk about how Washington is on his way to talk to the French and and Washington says yeah our allies in Hartford you know he’s but Arnold doesn’t want to he doesn’t almost doesn’t want to admit that the French are allies. Was there any bad blood between Lafayette and Benedict Arnold or was it more like Benedict Arnold in the French like,


Mike Duncan  15:25

I would say there’s no explicit bad blood between Lafayette and Benedict Arnold on a personal level. They knew each other they met one time when Arno was still like a war hero. Lafayette got sent off to Albany to run an invasion of Canada and he gets up to Albany. And Benedict Arnold was there cooperating from a war wound that he had sustained from his attempt to invade Canada and Lafayette went up there thinking he was going to invade Canada and Benedict Arnold was saying, No, you’re not that’s this is never going to work. Nobody wants to do it, like it’s completely stupid is a bad idea. And that was the extent of their, you know, sort of one on one relationship. There wasn’t anything bad about that. And Lafayette, like took his advice, and they didn’t wind up attempting this invasion of Canada. And then really, you know, by the time that Lafayette is in the army, Arnold is kind of, you know, on the sidelines with with these various war wounds, he winds up as the military governor of Philadelphia and Lafayette kind of in and out of there just the way that an officer is, but there’s not any personal bad blood between them. And I don’t know enough about Benedict Arnold’s attitude toward say, just the French generally, because most of the American colonists had some lingering hostility to the French because like before the American war of independence for 150 years of their, of the sort of British colonies existence, they’re hugging the the Atlantic seaboard of North America, their principal enemy was the French and the French Canadians. And so to suddenly be allies of the French rank. Well, you know, I ran counter to the lived experience and sort of the emotional realities of most of the British colonies. So if they, you know, if we were to crack open a biography of Benedict Arnold, I did read a biography of Benedict Arnold for the book, but if you crack one open and found out that he had, you know, just sort of general hostility towards French or the Catholics or something like that, then I can see him given Sinai to Lafayette or at least then portraying him giving Sinai to Lafayette is something that was true but everything that I read about their one on one encounters didn’t seem to have anything in it to suggest that they were they didn’t like each other.


Dan LeFebvre  17:27

Okay, well towards the end of turn after general Otto joins the British and becomes the traitor that we history knows him as now. He leads an army south. And but then with Washington needing to keep his forces ready to invade New York, Lafayette gets permission from Washington to take a single ship south to aid the Virginians to as the show puts it, quote, chastise the traitor. Did Lafayette lead this charge against Arnold?


Mike Duncan  17:52

That’s that’s all basically true. You know, what we’re talking about a couple minutes ago with like, there was this one moment where Lafayette does leave Washington side and goes off to have his own independent command. That’s the Virginia command. And Arnold had gone down there was riding around with like, 1000 guys, and you know, the state of Defense’s in Virginia were an absolute shambles. So the the British Army was just kind of having a field day down there running around and burning things. And they needed some kind of sort of backbone of professional continental soldiers to reinforce the local Virginia militia. And Washington sends Lafayette down there and Lafayette takes this job and specifically is is kind of eager to do it not just because it’s going to be really his first chance at independent command but because he gets to go fight Arnold and in the in the orders that Washington gives to Lafayette saying like do this don’t do that do this don’t do that. Like one of the things that was in there it’s like if you find the trader Arnold you are to like waste I wish I had in front of me I could quote it like you are to waste no opportunity to immediately visit upon him, you know the you know, the fruits of his betrayal, which is like you are to summarily execute this guy like you are not you are not even to like pull the court martial you are to find him and you are to throw them up against the wall and shoot him. And actually and I ended chapter of the book like this, this becomes one of the pivot points in the book like one chapter ends. Then I started the next chapter, which is about Lafayette in Virginia and I end the chapter immediately preceding that with a sentence. It’s like, and then Lafayette marched down to Virginia, looking for a tree a rope and Benedict Arnold. Wow. I mean, they were pissed at him. They were so they were such they were so mad at him. Yeah, and like, you know, did they was there bad blood but between them before? West Point. No. Was there Bad Blood afterwards? Oh, boy. Yeah, yeah, they didn’t like him anymore. Yeah.


Dan LeFebvre  19:48

Well, if we shift gears a little bit away from turn in the American Revolution, I want to ask you about the way Lafayette is depicted. There’s a 1989 movie called the French Revolution, obviously about the French Revolution and that movie last night. is played by Sam Neill. And again, we see him playing a background role. And the first time I saw him, like an hour into the film, he’s it’s after the storming of the best steel. Lafayette tells King Louie the 16th that volunteers have mobilized to defend Paris and have taken on the name National Guard and made him there general. How well do you think the movie the French Revolution did depicting Lafayette’s role in the real French revolution?


Mike Duncan  20:24

I mean, obviously, he was just, he was way more heavily involved in everything than could be depicted in that movie. Right? That like that movie, like, cuz I’ve seen now and and that was, so it came, it came out in 1718, or, excuse me thing come out 17 came out in 1989. It was the 200th anniversary of the revolution. And it was done in conjunction with like the French Ministry of Culture, right, that’s like where a lot of the funding for that for that project came from. And it’s very clear when you watch it, it’s it’s a fine movie, but it’s very clearly like them, dramatizing the great set pieces from the revolution that can then be used in a kind of educational edutainment kind of way that like, this is the kind of thing that then they would show in schools that they would show as something that is going to like, you know, here’s an entertaining way to learn about the French Revolution. So, Lafayette not showing up. I do understand it because he gets lost in the, in France, his own depiction of the French Revolution because he’s not Robespierre. He’s not Denton, you know, he’s not Louie the 16th he’s not murrah, there are other sort of bigger players that they want to get to, whereas Lafayette, and the thing is, is they do nail it, but not quite accurately, because I think we’re going to talk about the other time he shows up. But they are trying to nail where he fits into the French Revolution. And it is very true that Lafayette’s role in the French Revolution more than anything else as as commander of the National Guard in Paris, right, that’s what defines his role, even though he was in the assembly of notables talking about tax reform in as early as 1787. He’s one of the leading liberal nobles who is pushing for reform, he is a delegate to the estates General, he is using all of his fame as the hero of two worlds and has this connection to American liberty to publicize the need for reform and then back the revolution. So he was involved in a lot of things, but I just understand, like, when you look at like, if you’re putting a screenplay for that project together, like where do you need people to understand Lafayette fitting into all this? And so they just say like, Yes, he’s the head of the National Guard, I would say that that’s absolutely, it at least captures where he fits into the story.


Dan LeFebvre  22:39

Okay. And it says, obviously, the movie is talking about the French Revolution. And in turn, they’re talking about the American Revolution. So neither one of them really talk about the transition that happens from the American Revolution to the French Revolution, can you fill in some more like historical context of Lafayette, going from the American Revolution to his role in the French Revolution,


Mike Duncan  22:57

what he comes back from, you know, he was at your account. And so I’ve 1781 and he comes back to France, and through the 1780s, you know, like 1780 280-384-8586, and like, whatever. But he is one of the most famous people in France. Because he was he was at the leading edge, he went off and was this adventurous soldier winning a claim for himself before France even wound up getting involved in the war. So by this point, he is the hero of two worlds, right? That’s, that’s a moniker and a nickname that is attached to him, because of him coming back from the American War of Independence. So he’s already quite famous. He’s quite wealthy, right? he’s a he’s a rich guy. He’s one of the wealthiest people in France. And his experience in the American war is connection to some of the ideals that the American War of Independence, at least, you know, ostensibly was being fought for, like liberty and equality and social reform. He really took to heart and when he came, when he comes back to France, he’s looking at the ensemble regime, which is a broken, politically broken, economically broken financially. Protestants are oppressed, women are oppressed, everywhere he looks, he sees things that need to be fixed and need to be reformed. And he becomes really like a philanthropic, social reformer, anybody who he feels is downtrodden, or has been the victim of injustice or superstition, or, you know, the traditional ways of doing things that are running counter to what everybody understands to be modern enlightenment ideals, like rationality and liberty and equality, Lofa, it’s in the middle of it, he’s giving, he’s giving his time to it, his energy to it, his money to it. And so he’s a very prominent social reformer all through the 1780s and is trying to help reform France before it collapses into a revolution. Right, but and so obviously, he’s going to be involved in the estates General, which was an attempt, at least a lot of the people who showed up, the people shut up the states generally may have said 1989 we’re not there to stage a revolution, they were stage, they were there to stage a giant reform and rejuvenation project that met with such hostility from elements at court of the absolutist bourbon regime, that it turned into a revolution that then Lafayette believe was just and believed was okay, and then rode the revolution, you know, tried to ride the route tried to ride the tiger of revolution as best he could. But he just he’s in the thick of, of everything that’s sort of stirring in the 1780s that ultimately leads to the French Revolution.


Dan LeFebvre  25:32

Going back to the movie, later, in that movie, the French Revolution, we see Lafayette addressing the National Assembly in Versailles, the date they give is like August 26 1789. And he’s giving a speech that says, quote, natural, inalienable and sacred rights of man. So this suggests to me that Lafayette was also a politician on top of being military Manning kind of almost sounds like what you’re saying right there where he was involved in more than just the military side. Was that true?


Mike Duncan  26:02

Yeah, definitely. And, and really, and he, you know, he accepts command of the National Guard, just after the fall of the steel, like he accepts the command of it on on July 15 1789, like literally the next day, he’s in Paris, and they’re like we need, we need somebody to help us restore order. And those guys like in Paris, they’re like, there’s only one person who we think can do it, who probably has enough popular appeal and enough military experience to like organize a citizen militia, and it’s Lafayette. And so they give him the job. Like, okay, so that was July 15. Four days before that, on July 11, Lafayette as a as a member of the National Assembly, what was then being called the National Assembly is the first person to read out an enumerated list of what would become the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the citizen. Right? He, he had had this, everybody kind of knew that when the French constitution came along, that they would have something like a Declaration of Rights to go along with it, and everybody sort of have their own version of it. But Lafayette was connected Thomas, he was connected to Thomas Jefferson, who was then Minister to France from the United States. And so him and Jefferson spend a couple of weeks working out a final draft of what Lafayette interpretation of what the Declaration of Rights ought to be. And he proposes this on July 11 1789. So that’s the moment when he actually addresses the National Assembly and lays this all out point by point, you know, men are born free and equal in rights, the right to free thought and free expression, freedom of religion, all the all of these points. And he’s he’s cribbing a lot of this from the Bill of Rights like like quite openly. And then he Lafayette believes that this is going to be this great moment where he is going to be the one who kicks starts this movement to, to ratify the Bill of Rights, but then three days later that the steel falls and everything goes completely chaotic. By the time that the Declaration of Rights is ratified on August 26, which is like six weeks later, Lafayette is so immersed in trying to keep order in Paris and his role as the National Guard he was he was barely in Versailles at that point. So depicting him giving a speech in Versailles on August 26 1789, presenting the Declaration of Rights simultaneously, it’s a bit like the same with with him delivering that news to Washington. We’re like, it captures a moment that is true, but wasn’t exactly at the right time. And it also again, like I think what the what those filmmakers were up to is like, what are the things that Lafayette is officially associated with that we need to sort of stamp into this movie at some place that somehow Well, we know that he was the first person to propose the Declaration of Rights. So let’s put that in there. But if you’re making the movie, it’s really hard to like, I mean, even in writing the book, it’s hard to jam that in on July 11, which is the chronologically the true place that happens when three days later that the steel falls and that’s what you need to be talking about in that chapter. Yeah, that’s tough man. His history history is such a mess, man. They don’t. They don’t make it easy on us when we’re trying to turn it into like a coherent narrative.


Dan LeFebvre  29:02

How dare they


Mike Duncan  29:04

don’t get me started on the 100 days, man, like, I just I just wanted to Polian to stay out of France because it makes it hard to explain the transition from the Napoleonic Empire to the restoration,


Dan LeFebvre  29:15

right. Was Lafayette involved in American politics, though the way that he was in France?


Mike Duncan  29:20

No, not not in any significant way like that. And he kind of tried not to be he. He viewed himself and everybody viewed him as a friend of America. And he didn’t want to, you know, like the United States very quickly became an became enmeshed in factional struggles between you know, Federalists, and between Jefferson’s democratic Republicans, where there were very vicious and heated political debates, that Lafayette is very close friends with Alexander Hamilton. He’s very close friends with Thomas Jefferson, like both of these guys. He’s close personal friends with and they are on opposite sides of politics. Pretty much as soon as Lafayette leaves and goes back to friends, but he maintains both of those friendships, both of them maintain their friendship with Lafayette. And his sort of role in the United States is he wants to play a unifying role in the United States, he doesn’t he wants the United States to succeed. He wants them to prosper and believes that if they fall apart into, you know, factional political struggles, that that’s just going to sort of wreck the project. And then what prove to Europe, that rights, liberty, you know, popular legislature’s national sovereignty, like none of these things are actually any good Lafayette’s hoping that the United States succeeds, because of what it will mean for the prospects of all those things coming back to Europe. So he he really tried to stay aloof from immediate factional struggles, unlike in France, when he’s just like, you know, he kind of tried to do that, and be like, Oh, I’m above all this, but then, you know, they almost dropped us off for that, because that doesn’t work. In the French Revolution. You gotta you gotta get some gotta get some allies man.


Dan LeFebvre  31:06

Can’t do it all on his own. He tried to do it all on his own. And then he had to run away. There’s a scene in the movie where this angry, angry mob outside and King Louis has risked his life going to the balcony to be in front of these angry citizens. And it’s on the advice of Lafayette and so I got the impression we were talking about how Lafayette was always there with Washington and American Revolution. I almost got a similar impression where, like, Lafayette had a lot of sway with the king. Was that true?


Mike Duncan  31:37

Yes, yeah. And that that scene is all 100% true. Because he did, he had the he had a quote, he had a lifelong almost, I mean, they’d known each other since teenagers, like he knew the cleaning King, before they were cleaning King when they were still just sort of like heirs to the throne. They were all running around in the same circle getting drunk together, basically, in Versailles. And so later, even though his politics takes him in this constitutional liberal direction that Marie Antoinette and King Louie do not like they at least have that personal connection. And then Lafayette at least at this point, like in 1789, is, as I said, one of the most famous and popular people in France, he has a lot of sway also with you know, what we call the quote unquote mob which is just you know, the people of Paris. And so that scene is the very famous women’s march on Versailles, when which is in October 1789 where there’s there’s once again there’s another bread shortage and people are starving and children are starving and the women have absolutely had enough of this. And they march out to her site and very and they rent they basically they’re able to break into the palace and they very nearly Kilmer, Marie Antoinette and Lafayette shows up with the National Guard is able to sort of calm the crowd, but they’re still like praying for blood. They want to they’re they’re still true eager to vent their wrath on Louie and Marie Antoinette. And so what Lafayette proposes to them is look come out on the balcony, I’ll be there with you. Right and we can have this connection and he actually goes out there also with Marie Antoinette alone because Marie Antoinette was really the one that that people like were like really truly hated for a variety of reasons. And he kisses her hand, signaling that he as sort of the the avatar of liberty and a symbol of the revolution himself is saying, like, I’m cool with the queen and you should be cool with the Queen too. And then that that changed the mood of the crowd. You know, they went from heckling her and booing her and maybe like wanting to tear her limb from limb to kind of cheering her and saying Viva La ran and all that stuff. And then he tells him but really like you can’t stand for sign anymore. And the real deal is that you have to come back to Paris with these people and if you don’t then I can’t guarantee your safety and and they only back together but yeah, Lafayette saving the royal family with a with a balcony scene is incredibly well documented and totally true.


Dan LeFebvre  33:56

Did did Lafayette then I guess did Marie Antoinette get get over her dislike of Lafayette then? No,


Mike Duncan  34:03

no, she did not. And this is this sort of gets to like Lafayette’s long term trajectory for where he stands as a historical figure. Because when he does this and brings the royal family back to Paris, they essentially become they’re essentially under house arrest in the twillery Palace, and everybody is playing it, or at least sort of pretending Oh, they came of their own free will they want to be here in Paris with the people and as long as they don’t do anything overtly hostile to the idea of the revolution and to enter the people of Paris then like everybody’s going to be cool about this and we’re all just going to sort of go along with this pleasant fiction that everybody’s doing this of their own free will. But Marie Antoinette especially Louie less so Louise Louise bit more chill about all this but Marie Antoinette definitely believe that Lafayette was essentially their jailer. And even though in in person right now, this isn’t Just like proclamations, this is like even in their just individual, like when he’s in their chambers, you know, he’s being deferential. He’s saying I follow your orders. He’s saying I’m completely loyal to you. And Marie Antoinette thought he was finished. And there’s there’s a line from her, you know, like Lafayette has saved us from the people but who will save us from Lafayette. This is sort of her thinking about things. And so this begins a long tradition of conservatives royalist monarchist traditional Catholics viewing Lafayette as the enemy of the legitimate throne, and somebody who helped overthrow what was the divinely ordered state of existence before the revolution, which was then wrecked by the revolution. And you’ll still find people today. I mean, they’re conservatives today in France, like all over the place that still think like the French Revolution was literally a mistake. You know, not that it was something that was kind of good that went off the rails, maybe, which is a standard sort of Anglophone take on the French Revolution. There’s a lot of people out there who think the whole, the whole project was a complete disaster, and they blame Lafayette for it. The other side of all this is that Lafayette was being honest and earnest when he said, I’m still loyal to the crown. I’m still loyal to you. I believe that you know, even though I’m personally would prefer to see Republic, I don’t think that France can have a republic. So I’m going to protect the monarchy from these people who would like to overthrow the monarchy completely. And that begins the process of anybody on the left republicans radicals and then ultimately, the socialist historian that we move into and Marxist view Lafayette as somebody who was trying to protect the monarchy and stop the revolution from advancing to where the revolution needed to actually advance to a state of true egalitarian republicanism. Lafayette was trying to stop that and this is where he gets he’s just homeless. In terms of French historical memory neither conservatives nor liberals nor leftists nor anybody really wants to claim Lafayette The only people in the world who really want to claim Lafayette is us Americans because we love Him because we remember him when he was just this like chipper 19 year old kid who was like a George Washington. I love you. Let’s go kill British people, which we all think is very funny and cool.


Dan LeFebvre  37:01

Probably one of the most popular movies about the American Revolution is the Patriot which of course, there’s a lot of fiction in there. Yeah, yeah, that movie is hot garbage. I do not like the patriot. Well, I want to mention it because even Lofa is not in the movie, but there is a French liaison of shorts. And so I got the impression that either there were other French or were they trying to where the fictionalizing Lafayette Were there other French there that were liaisons?


Mike Duncan  37:29

I don’t think that they were not fictionalizing Lafayette there. I mean, maybe somebody maybe the guy who wrote the screenplay, or whatever it was like I remember there was a guy who was Lafayette, and I’ll just put a French guy because I don’t know how much research these guys do. You know, Braveheart in the Patriot, Braveheart was at least Braveheart was at least a really good movie. Right? where it was completely. You know, the guy who wrote that one was like, I didn’t do any research. I just kind of took the name and then wrote a screenplay. And you’re like, God, man. You know, how do you have the battle Sterling brand name take place on a bridge. What are you doing? But the Patriot wasn’t even a good movie? I’m just getting credit. I hope you’re not connected to anybody who like made the patriot. You’re not like Mel Gibson’s nephew or anything like that. Okay, good. It’s Mel Gibson also sucks as a human being. Now lethal weapon was good. But the weapon was a good movie. Okay, I’m getting very off track now. Okay, so the answer is there were lots of friend term officers. In the American army in the Continental Army. There were Polish officers, there were German officers, there were lots of European officers who kind of didn’t have anything to do in Europe, because this same period, the 1770s happened to be a moment of peace between the great powers in Europe. And so they’re all of these professional soldiers who kind of didn’t have anything to do in Europe, and view the conflict in North America as a place where they could go to, you know, ply their trade, you know, to make it to make a living as soldiers and probably going over there, they figured, hey, if I’m a captain, they’ll probably make me a colonel if I’m a colonel, they’ll probably make me a general. And so there were there were tons of French officers. And in the beginning that there’s great quotes from from Washington, kind of at the beginning of the war, he’s just like, these people will not stop showing up. I think, you know, I can’t I can’t they’re all arrogant. They’re all you know, they’re all demanding like a million dollars each for their for their services. But eventually, they did kind of land on a pretty decent pipeline, where if you were to actually go back through in my new details, sort of the course of let’s say that the engineering core of the Continental Army, the artillery core of the Continental Army, the cavalry core of the Continental Army, you dig back man, you’re gonna find European officers to be standing like guys, like, has your philosophy guys like that is Cusco. Guys like bear and cow guys like bear von stuben and lafa himself, who were there who provided a certain kind of professional expertise that allowed them In the army to transform into something that was that was like a truly functional army like, so yes, you find those guys like all over the place.


Dan LeFebvre  40:09

Okay, so then and then if I’m understanding correctly from what you were saying earlier, the key thing that kind of separated Lafayette, the reason why he was able to go close to Washington was essentially Lafayette’s connection to the royalty in France.


Mike Duncan  40:23

Yeah, his his personal social connections, but his family background is the thing that made him truly special, right? That was the thing that got him in the door. The thing that made him because that’s I mean, that’s that’s gotten through the door, the thing that kind of made him Beloved, is is two things that the thing that truly makes him special, and above even these other guys who I mentioned, who were all great is that he genuinely seemed to believe in the project, right? He wasn’t just there to be a mercenary. He genuinely believed that the United States was kind of on the leading edge of progress, right. And there’s a lot that Lafayette later learns about what’s going on the United States that tempers a lot of those expectations, right, like slavery,





Mike Duncan  41:11

but he genuinely seems to believe in what is being done here. And then the other thing is, he takes the time to learn how to speak English, which most of those European officers that I just talked about, like they show up, they don’t speak English. And if they do speak any sort of other language, it’s usually French, right? Because French is the lingua franca of the world. And so they would show up and they don’t even speak English. And so that drove all the these British colonials crazy, because, you know, you get this guy coming. He’s like, I’m gonna be your general, he doesn’t even speak like English, and Lafayette, Lafayette learned English. And that goes a long way to making people like you if you show up in another country. To


Dan LeFebvre  41:47

take a step back. Let’s say you’re directing the next biopic about Lafayette, who would you cast to portray him on screen?


Mike Duncan  41:54

I don’t have the slightest idea. I get this, because I think it’s it is well known ish out there that I have often been pursuing, you know, trying to get some of my material turned into TV shows or movies, you know, I’ve pitched for things I took the storm before the storm out there and pitch the head of Apple TV, they passed. But at least I got at least I got to sit in a room and, and try to get a guy drinking a bottle of water enthusiastic about Romans trying to kill each other. But my sort of my dreams for any of these projects involve doesn’t necessarily and this is why probably I’m not going to get anything. So because I don’t want to go get some big famous person to play Lafayette. And I’m not super interested in just getting big, famous people attached the project, like Who do you want to play Lafayette? Like, I don’t know, mostly, I want kind of a very, very talented person that the casting agent finds, and we make that person’s career take off because of this amazing role that we are that we have given them. Right? We will I want to make somebody’s name with the parts that we are able to write for them. Do I want? Do I want you know, the the sort of, you know, the Paul Giamatti is of the world to show up and, you know, take a turn playing some maybe version or something, like kind of cool and fun like that, like, Yeah, definitely. But the main characters, I don’t I don’t ever have notions of people that are famous now because I kind of, you know, want to make somebody famous playing these parts.


Dan LeFebvre  43:24

That seems very fitting for Lafayette, since he kind of became famous from


Mike Duncan  43:28

Yeah, I think so. he’s a he’s a teenager, you know, like, like, what, what really super talented teenager Do you want playing off? I don’t know, like, we haven’t discovered this person yet. I would like to help discover somebody, I think that will be like a neat thing. Just to do generally, I’m not like a star maker here. You know, I’m not like I’m, I’m in this to make or break careers. But I do think it would be cool as a project, to bring people who are not very well known. And give them a platform and a stage because there’s so many talented people out there. We don’t have to keep going back to the same people. But then like anybody in Hollywood, who’s listening to this is like, do you understand Hollywood at all? Maybe you need a bankable star attached as your leading man and you’re leading woman. But again, you’re sitting here telling me you want unknowns, and you’re going to put them in culottes and the whole thing is going to cost a billion dollars because it’s a period piece. Yes, sir. That’s what I’m pitching. Yes, that’s what I’m pitching. You’re gonna say thank you. And I’ll go I’ll go back to making my podcast.


Dan LeFebvre  44:26

I’d watch it. I’d watch it. Well speaking your podcast and of course, your new book, you’ve done a ton of research for those. What’s something that you learned about Lafayette, that surprised you?


Mike Duncan  44:34

Oh, the the breadth and depth of the things that I didn’t know about Lafayette before I did, this is Legion. I mean, that’s actually one of the joys of picking a subject and then delving into it at such great length. I think the thing that really that I explored the most and did did did my very best to kind of a For every nuance of something that I didn’t wasn’t very clear about is his history and roll with abolitionism. Because like I said earlier, like he, he comes over very much believing that America is this land of liberty. And when he’s first in the Continental Army, he he sees slavery. And he understands it as just being like these people are basically servants, right? Like that’s that’s his understanding of what slavery wasn’t servants were very normal thing in Europe. But he eventually comes to realize that slavery is something very different, and that slavery is incompatible with liberty. And so he spends a lot of like, this is happening to him as early as 1783. You know, when I was talking about like that phase in his life after the American War of Independence, when he becomes a social reformer, one of the biggest things that he embarks on is a career as an as an abolitionist. And so he’s he’s a very early abolitionist, and that sticks with him all the way through his death in 1834. He believes that African slavery is wrong. He believes that the slaves need to be free, he believes the slave trade needs to be stopped. And he’s very eager to tell his close personal friends George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, these people who James Monroe, who all own slaves, you should free slaves, if we’re actually going to do this thing, this project of liberty like, like we this is what we should do. Now, he has a very complicated relationship with this, in part because he like, for example, wanted to prove to the world that gradual emancipation of slaves was possible. And so he buys a slave plantation in French Guyana, and winds up owning close to 80. slaves, like Lafayette was did then become a slave owner in the mid 1780s. And he had this plan, to educate them to pay them wages to not sell them to stop corporal punishment on the plantation and that within a few years, he wanted to sort of turn control of the plantation over to the slaves after they were emancipated. But then the French Revolution happens, and this project gets lost in the mix. And he so he’s still technically a slave owner, he never did free any of those slaves. Even as he is a staunch and very vocal abolitionist, so he has this very long term, complicated relationship with slavery, but he’s always been, I think his North Star was slavery needs to be abolished. And if anything that anybody has ever said about liberty, as an ideal means anything, it is that slavery can’t be a thing anymore. This is a very simple idea that Lafayette grasped that many of his contemporaries did not they were very, they were able to compartmentalize liberty and slavery and hold those two ideas in their head simultaneously. And you get all the way to 1834. Like one of the very last letters that he wrote, but he was literally on his deathbed, he had this very bad chest cold that he couldn’t shake, and it’s what actually ends up killing me. He was one of the very last letters he writes was to a guy in a Scottish emancipation society, who was soliciting information from Lafayette about what it was like in the early days of abolitionism. Because he was, you know, Lafayette was involved in it going all the way back to 1780. Which I didn’t know any of this stuff. I mean, I was sort of generally aware that he was connected to abolitionism. But the details of it are fascinating. You go through the you go through hero, two worlds, like it’s it’s not always just a story of him being a great guy doing the right thing, mind you, right, like when I like when I did research for him. I was at Cornell, where there’s a bunch of Lafayette documents. And I’m like holding the slave manifest in my hand, listing the names and ages of all the people that Lafayette owned, because often it was a slave owner. You know, that puts a nuance on his entire life and career that I think is very important. And I talk all about it in the book.


Dan LeFebvre  48:38

He said earlier that he wasn’t really involved in American politics. It sounds like he was even even if he wasn’t involved himself, just having that connection to Washington and leaders in America there and trying to pressure them.


Mike Duncan  48:50

Yeah. And it was all like in the salon pressure like direct direct appeals, right? He never quite, he was never willing to like publicly say this stuff. Go out like my friend George Washington is wrong for not freeing his slaves. He might tell George Washington privately, dude, free your slaves. But he’s never when George Washington says no, I’m not going to do that. Lafayette does not then break relations with him. He doesn’t say like I you know, your slavery is incompatible with my friendship with you. Like he certainly never does that. He maintains friendship with all these slave owners, for sure. It fits with the rest of his life that he’s in this kind of like midway liminal space between, you know, having true moral clarity about abolitionism. But also kind of still being willing to be friends with all these guys and still not willing to completely push and make public declarations that like Thomas Jefferson, you are wrong for your slaves.


Dan LeFebvre  49:43

Well, thank you so much for coming on to chat about Lafayette and the way he’s depicted on screen. Yeah, I know. We only really focus on a couple of the depictions in movies and TV. Well, there’s not many, there’s not that many. But for people that want to learn more, you do have a brand new book, called hero to Worlds. Give us an old review his book and where somebody can get a copy.


Mike Duncan  50:01

I mean, it’s it turned into a cradle to grave biography of the market a lot. You know, it starts with him being born in 1757. It ends with him dying in 1834. And we only talked about, you know, probably 15 20% of the things that he was actually involved with. I mean, we hit the we hit the highlights, right. But there’s an entire back half of his life that is never talked about at all, like everything that he was up to during the Napoleonic Empire period after the fall, like Napoleon, like Luffy. And Napoleon knew each other personally, they had a close personal relationship that ultimately became kind of as fraught as his relationship with with Marie Antoinette. And when Napoleon falls Finally, after Waterloo, like Lafayette, it’s the one who’s literally in the chamber with Napoleon saying, dude, we need you to advocate the film. But you’re done, you have to go now, like, that’s Lafayette is the one who is delivering that news to Napoleon. So all of these things like have just been sort of lost in the grand shuffle of making Lafayette, merely a side character, or merely somebody who kind of comes and goes, but doesn’t have a big impact. When you look at everything he did, from all the way through 1834, he’s, he’s in the thick of everything, he never stopped participating in events, he never really retires. When he’s on his deathbed writing letters in that letter to the guy in the Scottish abolition societies complaining about this chest cold, and how he can’t go down to the Chamber of Deputies and give a speech that he wants to give. Because, you know, he died still working. So hopefully, I just encourage people to read the book to read the whole book. Because in my opinion, it just is that like, once he gets evicted from the French Revolution, a lot of people are gonna be like, Well, I mean, what else is what’s there left to talk about it? You know, he’s sort of he had, he had the big moments. And the thing is, there’s a lot left to talk about. He lived a very long life and a very full life.


Dan LeFebvre  51:44

Yes, I’ll definitely add it to the show notes for this episode. And when you finally get that movie made, you come back on and talk about some of the changes that they had to do and


Mike Duncan  51:52

Oh, yeah. And I will justify every single one of them and be like, okay, we had to do this. And you’ll be like, oh, bah, bah, bah, bah, bah, bah. And it’s like, Don’t you understand? Like, this scene can only be 90 seconds long. And I just had to get this idea in there. I’m pretty I’m pretty. I’m pretty sympathetic to to guys who have to grapple with historical fiction. I’m, I’m critical of them, generally. Because I think that people tend to think that they have to make history more interesting than history actually, is, this is a huge mistake that I think that screenwriters and television writers make is they think that history is boring. And they’re going to come in and make it interesting, right. And I think if you tell history, as it happened, it is inherently interesting. And I think it’s more interesting than the sort of like, glossed over plots that because we just wind up dealing with the same tropes, the same kind of characters, the same kind of plotline, that they press on to historical events, thinking that makes it more interesting. I think the history itself is more interesting. Now I am sympathetic to the fact that you have to film a scene, you need to have a piece of information conveyed. And so let’s take two people who weren’t in technically in the same room and put them in the same room and have them have a conversation like that’s fine. But um, we try to make history more interesting. The history is, history is so interesting. Come on, I


Dan LeFebvre  53:05


wholeheartedly agree. Thank you again, so much for your time. Yeah, yeah, thank you very much.



Latest episode