Interview with Tom Chaffin, author of Revolutionary Brothers, Thomas Jefferson, the Marquis de Lafayette, and the Friendship that Helped Forge Two Nations

Last week, Emerging Revolutionary War‘s Phillip S. Greenwalt wrote a review of the above mentioned book. To find that review click here. Recently, through email, Emerging Revolutionary War had a chance to interview the author. The questions and his responses are below.

Tom Chaffin, author

ERW: Why do you value highly the importance of place when writing history?

TC: As most of us realize when we reflect on our own lives, place plays an essential role in shaping people and events. And, over the years, I’ve found that trips to places that will be depicted in my manuscripts—assuming those locales still bear some resemblance to their relevant past—can give me a better feel for the settings of my books. Such visits can yield a sense of a place’s—a setting’s— weather, flora, fauna and topography—as well as scale: a mountain’s size perhaps; or the distances between places to be depicted, or the size and architectural details of a building that features prominently in the story. And that knowledge, in turn, can allow for more polished visual descriptions—or even the correction of errors imbedded in primary sources. Those who create contemporary letters, memoirs, diaries and newspaper stories, after all, are only human—and can thus err in recounting events, individuals and places. Beyond that, such visits prod the imagination—nourishing fresh thoughts about a character or event in the manuscript or a better narrative strategy for presenting the story. 

ERW: Most startling fact uncovered by your research on Thomas Jefferson and Marquis de Lafayette?

TC: Far too many to list, or select just one, here. But I can give you an odd fact—hardly the most important or startling one in the book. Just odd: During the American Revolution, during a 1779 visit to Paris, Lafayette met Benjamin Franklin. The two hit it off and soon embarked on several joint projects—including a book, a children’s picture book . . . on British war atrocities. Apparently, however, beyond jotting down notes describing the illustrations they had planned to commission, the two never completed the book. The Caldecott Prize [for children’s literature] didn’t exist then. But had it existed and the two had published their book, I suspect it would’ve faced long odds of winning.

ERW: Through the research, who changed your opinion more?

TC: My views of both men changed immeasurably during the research. But, then again, when I began, as a historian, I already held a long-evolved view of Jefferson as a complex individual—brilliant, intellectually aloof but emotionally distant.  (Jefferson appeared—albeit briefly—in Pathfinder, my biography of John Frémont.) And, in many ways, the research for Revolutionary Brothers only deepened—reinforced—the view of him that I had before I started working on this book. By contrast, prior to writing Revolutionary Brothers, I knew precious little about Lafayette. And what I knew, or thought I knew, was very superficial, and, in many ways, wrong-headed. So—to answer your question—it was my view of Lafayette, such as it was, that changed the most.

ERW: When finished with the manuscript, did it change from your original outlook on what you thought you would find, uncover?

TC: Yes. Entirely.  I began Revolutionary Brothers with the assumption that I would be chronicling Jefferson’s intellectual mentorship of Lafayette, a man fourteen years younger than Jefferson. I envisioned the cerebral Jefferson introducing the military man Lafayette to various intellectual currents of that day.  And Lafayette subsequently taking that learning into the French Revolution and drawing on it to write the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and so forth. And, yes, there was some of that. But then again, as I quickly learned, Lafayette, even before meeting Jefferson, was intellectually no slouch. And beyond that, like every book I’ve written, the story and the characters who propel it turned out to be far more complex than I originally imagined them to be. Equally jarring to my original preconceptions, their stories, with absolutely no prodding from me, took off in ways— and down paths—completely unanticipated by me when I began the work.

ERW: Why do you think Lafayette inspires such goodwill to this day? More so than any other foreign military officer that helped the American cause?

TC: To answer the second part of your question first, I completely agree with its premise: Lafayette—with, in recent years, the possible exception of Alexander Hamilton—ranks as the best-known and most beloved of all the foreign officers who helped the American cause.  By way of illustration, I live in Atlanta; and one of the counties that make up metro Atlanta is DeKalb County— named after Johann Kalb, the Prussian soldier who numbered among Lafayette’s early mentors. A key character in Revolutionary Brothers, Kalb, before Lafayette learned English. served as his interpreter during his meetings with Silas Deane, the American agent in Paris who recruited both men to the Continental Army; Kalb actually introduced Lafayette to Deane; and months later, Kalb sailed with his protégé to America—and that was not even Kalb’s first trip to America. In 1768, he had spent four months here as a covert agent for the French government, assessing whether the resentments of Britain’s colonists toward the mother country had reached a level sufficient to risk open French military support of a rebellion here. In the end, Kalb decided it hadn’t. 

In other words, Kalb was a fascinating individual with his own compelling story. But I suspect that, at best, perhaps ten percent of today’s residents of DeKalb County, Georgia, know who he was.  That relative obscurity owes in part, I suppose, to the fact that Kalb died during the war—in 1780, on a South Carolina battlefield. Unlike Lafayette, he didn’t live to publish recollections of his war-experience or to conduct a sentimental postwar American tour. But the relative obscurity of Kalb and others also owes to the fact that, more so than other foreign officers, Lafayette had a winning personality and a gift—a flair—for self-promotion. Before and after its creation, he was also central, in many ways, to the Franco-American alliance. Indeed, for many Americans, he came to embody that alliance, which ultimately produced the American victory.

ERW: After reading about their friendship, what was the most important aspect of that connection? Secondly, why do you think it has been overlooked by historians for so long.

TC: Immediately their friendship arose from a convergence of circumstances and need: General Washington dispatched Lafayette to Virginia in early 1781 to thwart a British invasion of the state—and not incidentally to save Governor Jefferson the embarrassment of a second raid on Richmond, the state’s capital, in a period  of three months. Three years later, in 1784, when Jefferson arrives in Paris as a neophyte diplomat, their friendship deepens: Lafayette—knowing prominent people in Paris and Versailles—was able to open important doors for his friend in both places. And two years later, as Lafayette, for the first time in his life, dives into France’s domestic politics—Jefferson, drawing on his vast legal and political experiences, serves as a seasoned mentor. Along the way, the arc of their friendship opens an intimate view into the lives of two extraordinary men and their era. It also opens a window on to two very different revolutions.

As for the second part of your question, I wouldn’t say that the Jefferson-Lafayette friendship has been completely overlooked by historians—only that Revolutionary Brothers is the first book-length narrative to explore it.

ERW: What are the two main points that you hope every reader gets out of this history?

TC: I’m not sure that I can isolate two points that I “hope” readers will take away from the book. As an author and historian, I try to be an honest and careful broker of the facts that animate whatever story I’m telling, and I trust readers to reach their own conclusions about what they’ve read.  I don’t write books to advance particular arguments. That said, however, I can share with you one point that did occur to me as I completed the book—the realization of how these two lives and the two revolutions they lived through often turned on the vagaries of chance, of dumb luck, as much as what we think of as grand forces of history.

ERW: What was the one place you enjoyed visiting the most and felt had the most connection to Jefferson and for Lafayette?

TC: For Jefferson, I’d probably say the Canal du Midi, in the south of France, on which he spent ten days enjoying what he called the “pleasantest” of “all the methods of traveling I have ever tried.” I should probably also mention that, early on in the research, I spent four weeks as a visiting fellow at the Center for Jefferson Studies, just down the road from Monticello. And during my residence there, I took long hikes in the forests around Monticello—the mountainous woodlands that enchanted Jefferson from his childhood through his final years. And I think that those hikes gave me a sense of the isolation and love of nature that—notwithstanding Jefferson’s well-known affections for erudite conversation—he came to cherish.

For Lafayette, I’d say the apartment where he breathed his last, now privately owned, on Paris’s rue d’Anjou.  I was also moved by his and wife’s grave, which sits in a quiet corner of eastern Paris’s Picpus cemetery.

ERW: What’s the next history we can look forward to and expect from Tom?

TC: Thank you for your interest. I’m in the early stages of work on my next project, but it’s probably best that I not discuss it right now.

ERW: Since we are Emerging Revolutionary War with a goal to inspire, educate, and promote interest in the Revolutionary War Era, what is the one bit of advice you would give to an emerging historian?

TC: Because there are so many types of history books and ways to write them, I’m wary of offering general advice. But whatever book you decide to write,      I would say this: know the audience that you’re trying to reach and keep those readers them in mind as you write. I happen to write narrative history directed toward an audience of educated general-readers, as well as specialists. And if that’s what you have in mind,  I have this advice: avoid jargon, and when referring to a person, event or the like that might not be known to most general readers, take a moment to compose a clause or a sentence or two that succinctly—without disrupting the narrative’s flow— explains the reference. And if you do decide to write a character-driven narrative, let your characters not abstract forces propel the story.

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