Editor's Library: Lafayette, America’s legendary forgotten revolutionary hero

Editor’s Library is a new feature in which editor Ryan Murray provides brief reviews and analysis of his reading list from the past month. Some selections are new, some are less new, and others are incredibly not new. Have a recommendation? Tweet Ryan at @RyanERMurray.

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States

Sarah Vowell


Let me start by saying that Sarah Vowell’s 2015 book, “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States,” is probably just fine as a hard copy.

The cheeky history book, charming and witty with all of Vowell’s own snark, is a primary source-heavy work while remaining amazingly light and approachable. But I listened to it as a book on tape.

Maybe that’s anathema to some of you book readers out there, and I totally get it. But when the voice-acting talents include Nick Offerman as George Washington and Patton Oswalt as Thomas Jefferson as well as John Slattery and Fred Armisen, I have no regrets.

But I digress.

Vowell’s work follows the life and exploits of the Marquis de Lafayette, America’s favorite fighting Frenchman, from his birth into nobility in central France to his arranged marriage to his eventual travails as a 19 year old in the American Revolution and his eventual paternal bond with George Washington.

The title refers to the constant fear that the Revolution would soon fall apart, whether from the lack of provisions at Valley Forge, the incompetence of commanders at Monmouth or the fact that Continental soldiers were just outmatched throughout much of the war by the Redcoats and Hessians across the battlefield.

“That, to me, is the quintessential experience of living in the United States,” Vowell quips. “Constantly worrying whether or not the country is about to fall apart.”

The young Marquis left his homeland and pregnant wife for adventure in the New World and a chance at revenge against his country’s biggest rival across la Manche. The Brits had just knocked the French for a loop during the Seven Years’ War (known as the French and Indian War in North America), leaving many Frenchmen of Lafayette’s generation angry and looking for a way to strike back.

Vowell notes this with aplomb in the book, citing the names of prominent former French Army officers and soldiers coming to the fledgling United States of America looking for glory and an easy paycheck.

What they found were a bunch of tax-hating country rubes who didn’t want to pay foreigners for jobs Americans could do.

So much has changed.

Where the Marquis de Lafayette succeeded where his countrymen failed is that he was willing to fight for free.

“Considering Independence Hall was also where the founders calculated that a slave equals three-fifths of a person and cooked up an electoral college that lets Florida and Ohio pick our presidents, making an adolescent who barely spoke English a major general at the age I got hired to run the cash register at a Portland pizza joint was not the worst decision ever made there,” Vowell writes.

Lafayette was instrumental in drumming up support from his native country, support that would come by sea and box General Charles Cornwallis in at Yorktown, effectively ending the war for American independence.

Just a few short years later, Lafayette himself would find trouble thanks to some revolutionaries. As a member of the nobility, he was denounced by Robespierre and eventually imprisoned by Austrians while trying to escape France during the French Revolution.

He survived the ordeal with head still attached to neck, and was able to come back to the United States when President James Monroe invited him to celebrate the nation’s 50th anniversary in 1824.

What followed is known as Lafayette’s “grand tour” and celebrations for the last living hero of the revolution lasted months. He witnessed the peaceful transition of power in the 1824 election and amicable relations between John Quincy Adams and runner-up Andrew Jackson. He returned to France, supported the common people in the revolution of 1830 and finally passed after a bout of pneumonia in 1834 at the age of 76.

In 274 pages which feel much shorter, Vowell uses her semi-cynical sense of humor to both shine a light on historical truth and poke holes in the veneer of the American Revolution. It’s a marvelous work, and while one would never mistake it for a textbook, it uses primary quotes from many of the men and women involved in independence to punch the point that this country started balancing on the edge of a bayonet.

As Vowell says of the United States’ own foibles, “you know your country has a checkered past when you find yourself sitting around pondering the humanitarian upside of sticking with the British Empire.”