Hero of Two Worlds:
The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution
by Mike Duncan
Published: Aug 2021
Mike Duncan’s “Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution” is the most popular biography of Lafayette and a New York Times bestseller. Duncan is a popular history podcaster whose award-winning series “The History of Rome” ran from 2007 to 2013. His related book “The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic” was published in 2017.
The Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834) is a vaguely familiar historical figure to many Americans. Born into “second-class” nobility, Lafayette’s life was expected to be one of comfort and ease. But a strong drive to prove himself led the orphaned teen to America where he became a valuable member of George Washington’s Revolutionary War staff. Later, as an inspirational figure in France’s own revolution, he became known as the “Hero of Two Worlds.”
With a 436-page narrative that exudes an almost casual aura, readers will find Duncan’s biography uncommonly coherent and accessible. And despite the complexity of Lafayette’s times and travels, it is consistently comprehensible and engaging.
Anyone who has observed Lafayette through the lens of the Revolutionary War appreciates how consequential his early years in America were. But Lafayette’s life in France – during its decades of political upheaval and revolution – was no less significant. And Duncan adeptly treats readers to a bird’s-eye view of these two events from Lafayette’s perspective…if not quite through his own eyes.
This biography is organized into three sections of roughly equal length. The first covers Lafayette’s childhood and his participation in the American Revolution (when he was just in his early twenties). Next, the narrative follows Lafayette for a decade through the French Revolution and into Austria as a prisoner-of-state. The book’s final section reveals his role in post-revolutionary France, observing the peak of his popularity as well as his precipitous fall from grace.
There is much to enjoy in this biography and even readers unfamiliar with the French Revolution will appreciate the ride. The circumstances of Lafayette’s birth, social status and childhood are particularly well explained. And Duncan’s review of Lafayette’s actions from Brandywine to Yorktown are fascinating. But the chapter covering his triumphant return to American soil after four decades in Europe may be the most interesting.
But Duncan’s writing style frequently feels too nonchalant and although the book’s length is entirely reasonable, Lafayette’s life was so eventful that the pace sometimes seems a bit rushed. And his intriguing relationships with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison are not fully exposed. Finally, readers hoping this book will serve as a comprehensive primer on the American or French revolutions will find themselves disappointed.
Overall, however, Mike Duncan’s “Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution” is a wonderfully enjoyable excursion through the life of a remarkable and under-appreciated historical figure.
Overall rating: 4¼ stars
N.B.: Among the other choices on Lafayette: Harlow Giles Unger’s 2002 “Lafayette” or Laura Auricchio’s 2014 “The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered.” But the gold-standard is courtesy of Louis R. Gottschalk, a noted expert on Lafayette and the French Revolution, who penned at least a half-dozen volumes on Lafayette’s life including “Lafayette in America, 1777-1783.”
Also: Duncan compresses the events of Lafayette’s 13-month “grand tour” of the US in 1824/5 into about twenty pages. But this journey included stops in every one of the 24 states in the country. Reasonably documented, this adventure could easily fill an entire book – or two!