Chaffin, Tom. Revolutionary Brothers: Thomas Jefferson, the Marquis de Lafayette, and the Friendship That Helped Forge Two Nations. First edition. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2019.
While I ascribe to the adage “, don’t judge a book by its cover,” the title and subtitle of the book should be consistent with the author’s primary thesis. Claiming “the first sustained account of the Jefferson-Lafayette friendship and collaboration,” the cover of Tom Chaffin’s new book misrepresents the main emphasis of his otherwise worthy dual biographical study.
For those unfamiliar with the American and French Revolutions, Chaffin does an excellent job of comparing and contrasting the revolutionary lives of his two famous protagonists. Weaving between Jefferson and Lafayette, Chaffin captivatingly narratives notable events and intersperses fascinating tidbits. The author describes the written and physical interactions between the two founders with an emphasis on their longest time together in Paris. However, he does little to prove how their associations contributed to the success of the rebellions. The only in-person contact between Jefferson and Lafayette during the American War of Independence was a brief encounter during the 1780-1 British invasion of Virginia. Unremarkable with little impact, this wartime conference lasted a few days and did not alter the situation facing the Rebels nor the outcome of the war. Likewise, Jefferson, as an American diplomat in Paris, had no impact on Lafayette’s participation in the French Revolution. On several occasions, he did meet with Lafayette and offer his advice on the best means for Lafayette to manage chaotic revolutionary France. However, Lafayette was not in a position to pursue Jefferson’s republican ideals for France. While each leader significantly advanced their country’s revolution, Chaffin fails to make the case that their friendship was a major contributing factor to their accomplishments.
Interestingly, Jefferson and Lafayette shared some, but not all, political views. For example, both sought to overturn absolute, unaccountable rulers. However, Lafayette believed a constitutional monarchy was right for France, while Jefferson advocated eliminating the sovereignty in favor of a democratic republic. Further, Lafayette vociferously advocated for the abolition of slavery while Jefferson never sought to emancipate the American enslaved peoples. Chaffin could have devoted more time analyzing how their friendships helped shape (or not shape) their political philosophy.
In the end, readers experience a well-written, engaging account that is fun to read. But readers seeking an in-depth analysis of the friendship and how the relationship impacted events will be left wanting. In an example of a friendship affecting outcomes, numerous authors have explored the deep mutual attachment between George Washington and Lafayette and how these bonds contributed to their battlefield and diplomatic successes. Perhaps, the reason why this is the first book examining the friendship between Jefferson and Lafayette is that each did little to enhance the other’s revolutionary contributions.