Friday, March 25, 2016

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States

Lafayette in the Somewhat United StatesLafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Lafayette, we are here!" Thus ends Sarah Vowell's fabulously entertaining take on the American Revolution. I loved this book. I chuckled to myself the whole way through, almost not noticing that Vowell was constructing a strong argument that we've always been fragmented, contentious, and well, just broken, as a democracy. But darn it, there are some great stories along the way.

Lafayette is portrayed as a young puppy with a crush on democracy, America, and George Washington, not necessarily in that order. His first letter from the Carolinas to his young wife gushes, "The next morning was beautiful. Everything around me was new to me, the room, the bed draped in delicate mosquito curtains, the black servants who came to me quietly to ask my commands, the strange beauty of the landscape outside my windows, the luxuriant vegetation--all combined to produce a magic effect." Vowell brings us back to reality: "In other words, it was a buggy swamp chock-full of slaves."

The relationship with France gives Vowell plenty of material for her trademark ironic observations:
"For men who signed a document declaring that all men are equal, the Continental Congress sure spent an awful lot of time kowtowing to French bigwigs."
My favorite historical characters in this book include General Nathanael Greene, the "Fighting Quaker" (He was reprimanded as a boy for reading too many books about warfare--presumably the Bible doesn't count as one of those); the thousands of "stoic colonial women" who boycotted tea and English cloth (Vowell asks, "What's more valiant: littering from a wharf [aka the Boston Tea Party] or years of doing chores and looking after children from dawn to dark without caffeine?"); Benjamin Franklin (charming the French in his frontier attire, and making John Adams shudder); and James Armistead Lafayette, the spy (who was a slave and almost didn't receive his freedom at the end of the war until Lafayette and others plead his case) who helped make the French/American victory at Yorktown possible.

The tragedy of French support for America was that it sealed the fate of the French government: the money they loaned us was never repaid, and it started the ball rolling in earnest toward the events at the Place de la Revolution.
"He [Franklin] asked for 25 million livres. France kicked in 6, which was 6 more than Washington had. This was among the happiest developments of the war (if you try not to think too hard about the guillotine)."
I came away from this book with a better understanding of the past and of my relationship to it. "Lafayette in the Somewhat United States" is one of the best histories I've read.

I'll leave you with one of my favorite stories illustrating a humorous side of French-American relations:
"One of the French officers was horrified that at a dinner in Washington's tent, His Excellency served the meal not in a succession of courses like in civilization. Apparently Washington 'gave, on the same plate, meat, vegetables, and salad.' On the same plate? Were these Americans people or animals?"
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