Thursday, October 30, 2014

Book review: Statue In Search of a Pedestal

Book review: Statue In Search of a Pedestal: A Biography of the Marquis de Lafayette
by Noel B. Gerson (1913-1988) 
Dodd Meade & Company, New York, 1976
244 pages

I’m a first-time reader of Lafayette biographies, so I’ll acknowledge that Gerson entertains and I'll endorse the obvious: Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier de la Fayette was a national, military, political and, indeed, a paternal hero to millions in America and France during the American and (several) French revolutions.


There is no doubt that, despite the fact that he was one of the richest French nobles of his time, he was publicly and privately dedicated to republican government and a social/economic order that was far more egalitarian than the monarchical and aristocratic structures that prevailed.

Was Lafayette a great man? Gerson, like many of his biographers, says yes. Lafayette was a courageous battlefield leader, he was an enlightened manorial lord who enhanced the lives of his peasants, and he was both outspoken and fearless, repeatedly, in literally dangerous political situations for a couple decades in Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. Gerson, like other Lafayette biographers, repeatedly attests to these lifelong characteristics of the man Americans called “our Marquis.”

I feel obliged to call attention to some countervailing factors that Gerson describes but does not adequately interpret.

Lafayette put his money where his mouth was. He repeatedly used his great personal wealth to pay and outfit the troops he commanded, when government funds and supplies ran low. I suggest a case could be made that the Marquis, almost uniquely among American commanders, paid for his military success in the Revolutionary War. Throughout the war, the options and operations of colonial commanders were significantly hindered by short funds and short supplies. If Lafayette had not been able to pay, feed, clothe and arm his troops with his personal resources, could he have been as winning a general as he was? I suspect the answer is “No.”

Some biographers refer to Lafayette as the “victor” at Yorktown in 1781. Gerson says that Lafayette’s campaigning in Virginia in the spring and summer of 1781 “was largely responsible for the American victory at Yorktown.” Lafayette was not the only American general at Yorktown, and he wasn’t the only French general; in fact, it was manifestly an American and French victory at Yorktown. Lafayette did use his small force to isolate Cornwallis in Yorktown, but he had to wait until Washington, Rochambeau, de Grasse and others arrived with sufficient land and naval forces before he participated in the final assaults.

In France he repeatedly declined to step up to the plate and take executive leadership, during the revolutionary and Napoleonic convulsions, when the French people and the contentious military/political factions would have handed the throne or the presidency of France to him on a velvet pillow. The Marquis repeatedly risked his life to defuse explosive situations by his personal, courageous intervention. However, Gerson fastidiously details Lafayette’s repeated reluctance to take the final step and take control when, arguably, he could have stabilized dangerous situations, and forestalled or prevented catastrophic consequences, by doing so. Lafayette wasn’t responsible for the violence, but, time after time, he left a void that was unfortunately filled by lesser men.

Was Lafayette a great man? Yes. A successful general? Yes. Was he a really lucky guy? Yes. Did he and his reputation benefit immensely from great wealth and fortuitous circumstance? Yes. Did he live up to his potential in serving France and the French nation? Maybe not.

For my taste, this is a breezy and dispensable biography of Gilbert du Motier, marquis de la Fayette. Gerson was a prolific writer (325 books during his lifetime). This one is not one of his well-remembered works. It is a quick and easy read, especially if the absence of footnotes doesn’t bother you.









Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Saturday, October 25, 2014

“We, the people”….ummm


Here’s an historical tidbit about the First Continental Congress that you won’t find in the Wikipedia article on it.

All but one of the 56 delegates were rich—well-connected, ambitious and rich. They were anything but a cross-section of the people in the British colonies who, in 1774, were getting cranked up to rebel against King George III.


The First Continental Congress was convened in September 1774 by 12 of the 13 colonies (Georgia sat out) to consider American responses to the British Intolerable Acts, which were intended to punish the people of Boston and Massachusetts after a little ruckus known as the Boston Tea Party.


In his 2002 biography of the Marquis de Lafayette, author Harlow Unger points out that the delegates were “the most privileged, illustrious men.”

Delegate Samuel Adams of Massachusetts, a failure in business before he turned to politics, was the oddball.

His fellow delegates included 12 prosperous farmers/planters, 30 lawyers, 11 merchants, one builder and one wharf owner.




For example, delegate George Washington of Virginia “owned sixty thousand acres and was arguably the richest planter in the south.”

This Revolutionary War sidebar has a familiar ring….







Reference:
Harlow Giles Unger, Lafayette (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002), 218.










Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Vox populi, non vox Dei

Here’s a little item that interests me: a proverb, or aphorism, that’s been turned inside out.

You may recognize this:  “Vox populi, vox Dei.” A common understanding of this is: the voice of the people is the voice of God. That is to say, the voice (or sentiment) of the masses , or of the nation, or of the interest group, is the voice of authority, or the manifestation of rectitude.
Turns out that, early on, the phrase was popularly demeaned as a corruption of reality.



Just for the record, here’s what Alcuin of York, an 8th century intellectual who advised Charlemagne and was a contender for smartest guy of his century, had to say:
“Nec audiendi qui solent dicere, Vox populi, vox Dei, quum tumultuositas vulgi semper insaniae proxima sit.”
Letter from Alcuin to Charlemagne in 798

Which means, as you know:
'And do not listen to those who keep saying, 'The voice of the people is the voice of God.' because the tumult of the crowd is always close to madness.'

I don’t like Alcuin’s haughty and perhaps politically-motivated dismissal of the sentiment of “the people.”

I wish I could argue that folks in general make a real effort to be well informed and make reasonable attempts to speak the truth in support of the commonweal.

The truth, sadly, lies somewhere between the two extremes, or it may be unrecognizable, or, you know, whatever….

Vox populi isn’t a standard of excellence….





Some Cherokee wisdom


Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Book review: Lafayette: Lessons in Leadership . . .


Book review: Lafayette: Lessons in Leadership from the Idealist General
by Marc Leepson (b.1945) 
Palgrave Macmillan, New York 2011
202 pages

I’m a first-time reader of Lafayette biographies, so I’ll acknowledge that Leepson entertains by re-stating the obvious: Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier de la Fayette was a national, military, political and, indeed, a paternal hero to millions in America and France during the American and (several) French revolutions.


There is no doubt that, despite the fact that he was one of the richest French nobles of his time, he was publicly and privately dedicated to republican government and a social/economic order that was far more egalitarian than the monarchical and aristocratic structures that prevailed.

Was Lafayette a great man? Leepson, like many of his biographers, says yes. Lafayette was a courageous battlefield leader, he was an enlightened manorial lord who enhanced the lives of his peasants, and he was both outspoken and fearless, repeatedly, in literally dangerous political situations for a couple decades in Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. Leepson amply demonstrates these lifelong characteristics of the man Americans called “our Marquis.”

I feel obliged to call attention to some countervailing factors that Leepson fully describes but does not adequately interpret.

Lafayette put his money where his mouth was. He repeatedly used his great personal wealth to pay and outfit the troops he commanded, when government funds and supplies ran low. I suggest a case could be made that the Marquis, almost uniquely among American commanders, paid for his military success in the Revolutionary War. Throughout the war, the options and operations of colonial commanders were significantly hindered by short funds and short supplies. If Lafayette had not been able to pay, feed, clothe and arm his troops with his personal resources, could he have been as winning a general as he was? I suspect the answer is “No.”

Some biographers refer to Lafayette as the “victor” at Yorktown in 1781. Leepson says that Lafayette’s campaigning in Virginia in the spring and summer of 1781 “led to the victory at Yorktown.” Lafayette was not the only American general at Yorktown, and he wasn’t the only French general. Lafayette did use his small force to isolate Cornwallis in Yorktown, but he had to wait until Washington, Rochambeau and others arrived with sufficient forces before he participated in the final assaults.

In France he repeatedly declined to step up to the plate and take executive leadership, during the revolutionary and Napoleonic convulsions, when the French people and the contentious military/political factions would have handed the throne or the presidency of France to him on a velvet pillow. The Marquis repeatedly risked his life to defuse explosive situations by his personal, courageous intervention.


However, Leepson fastidiously details Lafayette’s repeated reluctance to take the final step and take control when, arguably, he could have stabilized dangerous situations, and forestalled or prevented catastrophic consequences, by doing so. Lafayette wasn’t responsible for the violence, but, time after time, he left a void that was unfortunately filled by lesser men.

Was Lafayette a great man? Yes. A successful general? Yes. Was he a really lucky guy? Yes. Did he and his reputation benefit immensely from great wealth and fortuitous circumstance? Yes. Did he live up to his potential in serving France and the French nation? Maybe not.

A final note: for my taste, neither Leepson nor Gen. Wesley Clark (in his Foreword) lives up to the promise of sifting “lessons in leadership” from Lafayette’s battlefield and political exploits, or his largely exemplary personal character. I think the fact is that almost all of the notable events in Lafayette’s public and private lift were as much circumstantial as anything else. Certainly, in the worst of times during the French Revolutions, when he could have demonstrated compelling leadership for the lasting benefit of his countrymen and nation, Lafayette came up short.







Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Monday, October 13, 2014

Who wasn’t a patriot?


Just how many Loyalists were there in the colonies when the shot at  Lexington was heard ‘round the world?

Colonial Loyalist
Well, no one knows for sure, but there were plenty of folks who remained loyal to King George III.
John Adams (in an 1813 letter) guessed that a third of Americans were not “with us in the revolution.”

Seems like that’s too high, according to a post by Michael Schellhammer on AllThingsLiberty.com, read it here.

Yet some historians have estimated the Loyalist segment among 2.5 million colonials ranged from 75,000 to over 400,000.

Another estimate is that almost 20,000 colonials fought with Loyalist or British regiments during the war. For comparison, about 100,000 patriots served with Continental forces, and many more fought with independent militia units against the British regulars.



The Loyalists had some impact in the fighting in New York and Connecticut, and at several key battles including Camden and the Cowpens, but they never came close to being the kind of organized, decisive military force that British generals vainly hoped for.

The British army commanders never had enough troops to beat the Continentals and their French allies, and the Loyalist units never tipped the balance for the King’s men.












Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Friday, October 10, 2014

History, memory....what really happened?


Civil War historian Gary Gallagher offered his incisive thoughts about the difference between “history” and “memory” in a recent lecture.

I want to add some of my comments about “history that didn’t happen.” Nick Sacco also offers some comments on his blog, “Exploring The Past.” Sacco says “Too often . . . our memories can lead us to think of historical events as inevitable.” I think this is a vital point that too many historians, professionals and laymen, don’t give enough attention.

It's important to emphasize that people and groups in the past continually faced decision options and critical choices and conflicting imperatives to act, as we do now. People and groups in the past continually made unique decisions in the face of uncertainties and competing exigencies, as we do now.

The "history" of an individual or a group or a nation is a distinct track, forward in time, of decisions and choices and events, some discretionary, some imperative, some unavoidably random. This process continues through a welter of known and unknown alternatives. This ever-changing process of life is unique in retrospect, but it is increasingly, incomprehensibly variable and complex as we consider the prospects for the future at any point in time.




The folks who lived and made history in the past literally didn’t know how everything was going to turn out. Only we know that. Inevitably, that tends to color our judgment and understanding of what actually happened in the past.

Sacco paraphrases Gallagher: “. . . history students oftentimes confuse history and memory as being one in the same, and these confusions can lead to questionable interpretations of primary source documents. . . in any historical event there’s a certain sequence of complexities and contingencies that shape the outcome of that event (history). But how we remember that event (memory) can be at odds with what actually happened at the time.”

I disagree with one of Gallagher’s observations: “it doesn’t matter what happened, it’s what we think happened.” My own view is that what actually happened does matter. Quite often it’s not easy to know this in satisfactory detail, even with the investment of honest effort. There are far too many examples of mistaken or self-serving “memories” of a preferred version of history, with far too much political/social/economic damage done in the name of such perverted historical “truths”, and far too many bodies strewn on false, treacherous and perfidious memory lanes.


I think there is no preventive cure for this debasement of history.

I think there is only the honorable pursuit of understanding our past in its full, historical context, with willingness to welcome insight into what the actors thought they were doing, and how they justified their actions at the time.









Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Tuesday, October 7, 2014