Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie, son of a French marquis and a Dominican slave, enlisted as a private in the dragoons in 1786, at the age of twenty-four, under the name Alexandre Dumas, and embarked on a career illustrious by any measure, and unimaginable for a mixed race man anywhere else in the West for another two centuries.
French law on race relations in those pre-Revolutionary years was in conflict and transition. France practiced slavery in its colonies on an immense scale and on a much more brutal model than that of the American south, which was itself brutal enough to shame us forever. Despite that fact, the law in France was ambiguous on the subject of slavery, and the parlement courts, in partial defiance of the French crown, aggressively advanced the legal theory that it was not possible to be a slave in France.
The young Dumas also became attracted to and involved in what would become Revolutionary politics, a dedicated Republican and a rising military officer, rising to become General-in-Chief in the Army of the Alps and successfully invading northern Italy under the Committee of Public Safety government, and commanding general of the cavalry division under Napoleon Bonaparte in the conquest of Italy and the invasion of Egypt. No other person of color reached as high a rank anywhere in the West until Colin Powell became a four-star general in the US army in 1989.
Reiss gives us a fascinating and lively account of this amazing career, Dumas' origins, rise, and eventually fall from favor as Napoleon's star ascended. An additional delicious piece of this story is the impact that Alex Dumas (the form of name he most frequently used) had on his only son, the man we know, with a certain irony, as Alexandre Dumas père. The future novelist had an amazing hero for a father, with truly remarkable accomplishments as well as such escapades as, in fact, fighting and winning duels with three of his fellow dragoons on the same day, when he was still a young enlisted man in the dragoons. Though the incredible career of the man we might reasonably call Alexandre Dumas grand-père is largely forgotten today, many of his adventures and accomplishments were reworked by his son into the lives of his fictional heroes in such novels as The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo.
Another little, delicious bonus: Tom Reiss's account of his very French adventures in getting access to the surviving papers of this earlier generation of the Dumas family.
I borrowed this book from the library.