Lafayette Scholar Comes to LaGrange
Alan Hoffman is a Lafayette Scholar. He’s coming to LaGrange.
Pitch a crowd of scholars into a Lafayette Scholar sifter and what sieves through is a little less than six feet, wearing a compact bowtie, or at least looking the part, and carrying a confidant, comfortable countenance, as though he or she had just stepped out of a Frank Capra story. Picture Charles Sherman Ruggles. Or Alan Hoffman. Lafayette scholars know story.
Hoffman, similar to so many Americans, got side-tracked in his youth. He attended the epitome of Ivy League luster, Yale University, where the absence of good football, I’m sure, prompted his spending many a Saturday afternoon instead in the library with his studies, by default. People out of Yale mostly learn how to dress, a sort of sartorial conceit; but Alan redeemed himself by majoring in history, studying with a grand master of that field, Edmund Morgan. Morgan had an epic, original mind, which defined for a generation the discussion of America’s paradox in his book, “American Slavery, American Freedom.” How Hoffman subsequently became distracted is a mystery, but then again youth has its own logic. From the grandeur of history he succumbed to the sorcery of law and Harvard Law School. Saturday afternoons were surely here even more dismal and disappointing than at Yale.
Forty years now he has been a Boston lawyer. He maintains a sense of healthy self-regard, however, by living outside the confines of Boston proper and commuting from his home in New Hampshire.
In 2002 he read Andrew Burstein’s, “America’s Jubilee: How in 1826 a Generation Remembered Fifty Years of Independence.” It was as though he had discovered within himself a deep and hidden spark, a pilot light fueled. This story of the Marquis de Lafayette, who was at the time the most popular and revered man in all America, rekindled for Hoffman the grandness of history and its power to inspire. Lafayette, at the invitation of President James Monroe and at the request of Congress, returned to America in 1824 as The Nation’s Guest for a Farewell Tour. The last of America’s Revolutionary War generals, for thirteen months in 1824 to 1825 he crisscrossed all twenty-four states then comprising the United States, everywhere greeted with enormous crowds and wild celebrations.
Lafayette’s personal secretary Auguste Levasseur kept a running record of the visit, in French. Hoffman, looking to read Levasseur’s work, could find no unabridged translation, only piecemeal parts. For two years, nights and weekends, he rallied his recall of college French and translated the whole of Levasseur’s journal.
Published in 2006,”Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825,” now in its third printing, launched Hoffman’s career as a Lafayette Scholar. Provide a street corner or a podium, he is at home with either one, and he can tell the story. He also serves as President of the American Friends of Lafayette and the Massachusetts Lafayette Society.
At high noon, April 11, 2019, he will give a talk to a joint meeting of civic clubs on “Lafayette: The Farewell Tour,” with emphasis on the Georgia leg, March 19 through March 31, 1825. Lafayette visited Savannah, then by boat and coach on to Augusta, Warrenton, Sparta, Milledgeville, and Macon. On March 31 he arrived at what is Engineer’s Point on the Chattahoochee River, present day Lawson Field, Fort Benning. He was ferried across by Creek Indians to Fort Mitchell, Alabama. Perhaps apocryphal, but the story goes that Lafayette viewed West Georgia and commented, Colonel Julius Caesar Alford within earshot, that the land reminded him of home, the Chateau de LaGrange; thus, the settlement nearby assumed its name, LaGrange.
For Lafayette, any insurgent move toward independence was not a hard sell. He supported upstarts in Italy, Portugal, and Ireland. Here in America he argued for the abolition of slavery and, together with Fanny Wright, hoped women would be permitted greater voice. Hoffman will discuss “Lafayette: Human Rights Advocate,” on Thursday evening at 6 PM, April 11, at Hills and Dales. This is free and open to the public.
Hoffman retired not long ago, but it seems to me the obligation he now undertakes to inform America about Lafayette much more challenging than flailing away in a courtroom, and more meaningful. Cicero said gratitude is parent to all other virtues, whereas Aristotle said courage, and now comes Alan Hoffman to reconcile the dispute, with Lafayette as the occasion for such lofty chatter.
Edmund Morgan would be proud.
Richard L. Ingram