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Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell

Two weeks after finishing Sarah Vowell's latest book, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, I'm trying to figure out why she wrote it. It certainly isn't for the reason many girls ages 14 to 35 will read it -- obsession with the Broadway musical Hamilton and a new desire to read about America's favorite fighting Frenchman ("Lafa-yette!") -- so why?

...there will be many Hamilton references today

Vowell states that in 2003, when France "refused to back an American resolution for military action against Iraq," thus ensuring the unfortunate emergence of "freedom fries," she stopped at a house museum where Melville wrote Moby-Dick while she was attending a wedding (sounds like a pretty Vowellian move), and she noticed a tiny silk dress on display that Melville's wife wore as a two-year-old when she was "presented to the Marquis de Lafayette" on a return visit of his to Boston. She was struck by how this apparently meant so much to the family, they kept the dress and the story surrounding it.

I find myself slightly dubious about that starting an entire book, but I suppose one of the questions Vowell came into it wanting to answer was "How beloved was Lafayette?" (answer: really, really, really beloved)

While I love all of Sarah Vowell's books, and this is definitely readable and fun and interesting and taught me more about the Revolutionary War (I now have a pretty damn good grasp of what the hell happened at Yorktown, which makes me feel like less of an idiot about my own country), I feel dissatisfied with a real understanding of why people loved Lafayette so much. 


Lafayette, in brief, was a 19-year-old extremely rich French noble who wanted to fight in a war. And France, weirdly enough, had nothing to offer him in the late 1770s, so he ran away to America and volunteered to fight for us for free. We couldn't even afford shoes, so we said okey dokey.

The portrait Vowell paints of him is, I will say, adorable. Imagine a really excited puppy who very much wants to fight the British, and you have Lafayette.

Lafayette with George Washington

He was insanely positive and loved America a lot. Like...probably more than we do. Not that he wasn't into his own country. He was also pretty damn instrumental in getting France to essentially win the war for us by sending money, guns, ships, and troops. And Baron von Steuben! The French Minister of War introduced him to Benjamin Franklin, and von Steuben proceeded to make us look like actual soldiers instead of a bunch of guys standing around.


While I don't think I necessarily got the information that would explain why 2/3 of New York came out to greet Lafayette when he returned to the U.S. in 1824 (I mean, other foreigners helped us out, LIKE VON STEUBEN), Vowell as usual takes you through various historical sites, makes you hella want to visit them, AND gives a pretty good overview of the subject she's covering in a limited amount of space, as she seems pretty committed to books that are fewer than 300 pages.

I came out of it with the aforementioned Yorktown info, a better appreciation for what we owe the French for the 1770s, a greater knowledge of the role key figures played in the Revolutionary War, and a burning desire to have something etched with the words spoken in France by Colonel Charles E. Stanton when America entered World War I:

"Lafayette, we are here."

My face every time I come across that story
So, read it. Learn things. Listen to Hamilton.


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