Review: ‘Lafayette in the Somewhat United States’

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. Sarah Vowell. Riverhead. 288 pages. $27.95.
Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. Sarah Vowell. Riverhead. 288 pages. $27.95.

If you’ve waited your whole life for a historian to write that the Marquis de Lafayette “bopped over” the English Channel, thank Sarah Vowell. The former contributing editor to NPR’s This American Life has crafted another cheeky gloss on the heterodox and frankly absurd chain of facts of which American heritage is composed. Lafayette in the Somewhat United States examines the role the Frenchman played in the American cause: a bad son of nobility and distracted father whose irreverence and devotion to the cause of liberty endeared him to George Washington, a man whose smiles were as infrequent as his victories on the battlefield.

Lafayette represents, according to Vowell, “that rare object of agreement in the ironically named United States.” Jefferson the master articulator of liberty merges with Jefferson the master politician and Jefferson the awful businessman and slaveholder into a personage of inexhaustible paradoxes. Washington the punctilious first president was also Washington the bumbling general. By contrast, Lafayette remains the personality whom our parents learned about in school and thus around whom consensus can still form; there’s little gray about Lafayette, the plastic saint. Synthesizing two centuries of primary and secondary sources, Vowell traces a man whose zealotry was indistinguishable from thrill-seeking. He was on the ride of his life. While surer diplomatic hands (and, to be blunt, battlefield triumphs) negotiated France’s crucial entrance into the war, Lafayette’s presence reminded the bedraggled rebels that the most powerful nation in Europe had a stake.

Readers may balk at Vowell’s analogies between events in 1780 and the present day, but history to her must be ruthlessly reexamined for new patterns. Scholars agree that the devastating winter at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, was the American war effort’s nadir. These soldiers in rags, famished enough to pick lice off their skin to eat, were victims of stingy congressional appropriations — what she calls, tactfully, a “hypersensitivity about taxes.” We Americans don’t like paying for things we need; even in 1778, “infrastructure” was crumbling. More money, however, wouldn’t have solved the problem, she writes, “of a loosely clinched bundle of states trying to collaborate for the greater good.”

Even a cursory acquaintance with Lafayette should indicate how this project represents the marriage of true minds. Gordon S. Wood and Joseph Ellis never dreamt of adjective-noun dismissals as crisp as “the gilded nonsense and silken flimflam” of the Château de Versailles. French adventurer Philippe Du Coudray “hoodwinked” diplomat Silas Deane. Touring the Lafayette family manor in Chavaniac, Vowell notes the “Louis-something-style chairs.”

Replacing the Continental Army’s chief artillery officer, Henry Knox, “was not as easy and arbitrary as Bewitched casting a second Darrin.”

We get it — Vowell’s informal. The generalist in her sometimes confuses energy with vehemence; that last quotation assumes her audience has hated history since 10th grade. But Vowell, whose other books include studies of presidential assassinations, sees history as sequences regarding a novelist’s eye and a commentator’s flair. Lafayette in the Somewhat United States gets the sweep right. Those unfamiliar with such lesser known participants as Edmund Randolph and the Comte de Rochambeau won’t get confused. Her ebullient French hero doesn’t stray too far from her narrative, a Zelig figure everywhere and nowhere. The “single-minded suckup” turns out to be a “first-rate advocate” for his soldiers, wheedling flour and pork and rum when times get hard.

Because mercy has naught to do with the progress of human events, a grateful France will jail Lafayette during the peak of its own revolution a decade later. But Lafayette lives on as an idea, a place, Vowell argues. In a stirring conclusion, she links the so-called Hero of the Two Worlds to a century’s worth of demonstrations at the square north of the White House that bears his name, where civil rights activists, Ku Klux Klan members and war protestors disturbed the sleep of presidents. So it was for the fledgling republic’s greatest friend, unsatisfied with well-funded indolence in a Parisian backwater.

Alfred Soto is a media adviser and instructor of journalism at Florida International University.