The Lancelot of the Revolutionary Set



First let me get this out of the way…deep breath…EVERYONE GIVE IT UP FOR AMERICA’S FAVORITE FIGHTING FRENCHMAN!



If you haven’t yet been indoctrinated into the cult of Broadway’s Hamilton…well there’s no time like the present.

Okay, then let’s move on.

His full name was Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier and long before our French-bashing days of Freedom Fries, the Marquis de Lafayette was one of our first American superstars. At age 19 he defied his father-in-law and abandoned his wife and newborn child to sail the Atlantic and win glory fighting in the American Revolution (teenagers, amiright?). Although he was only given an honorary generalship as a way for American politicians to butter up the French aristocracy, he soon found a place for himself in George Washington’s army, leading battles and taking bullets.

This dude loved America, visiting the country he worked to free in 1824. He toured the only 24 states that existed at the time, delighting in the memorabilia with his likeness and partying like only an aging revolutionary could. Even from the beginning, he extolled the virtue of Americans, writing about our “simplicity of manners, a desire to oblige” and the “sweet equality…among everybody.” Which as author Sarah Vowell points out “in 1777, the kind of thing only a white guy could say.”

Cracks like that are a part of Vowell’s gift, an ability to demystify the long-dead revolutionaries we only know from regal marble sculptures and history books celebrating American exceptionalism. Vowell brings them back to earth, covering the doubts and petty jealousies that surrounded our Founding Fathers. She referred to them as “financially strapped terrorists,” sticklers about the whole “no taxation without representation” thing, but morally on board with hitting the French up for financial and military aid, raised by taxing French peasants into oblivion.

Vowell uses Lafayette as our ticket into the Revolution. Vowell tours that battles at White Plains and Yorktown, confronts Quakers’ complicated history with the battle of Brandywine, and most importantly, stops by the boyhood home of The Boss (hey, one of Springsteen’s relatives was a revolutionary soldier). But Vowell doesn’t keep this story in the past. Like most history, this affects the present too. The 2013 government shutdown threatened to ruin Vowell’s trips to Monticello and Yorktown, reminding her that “we the people haven’t agreed on much of anything.” She’s confronting our tendency to deify our Founders, and pointing out that discord has been embedded in America’s DNA since the start. Politicians conspired to fire General Washington, they argued bitterly about the place of slavery in this new land of the free and they didn’t even really like each other most of the time. Now the battles are about Obamacare and Russia.

“After Dickinson and Adams had it out over the Olive Branch Petition, Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, that he and Dickinson “are not to be on speaking terms.” How sad is it that this tiff sort of cheers me up? If two of the most distinguished, dedicated, and thoughtful public servants in the history of this republic could not find a way to agree to disagree, how can we expect the current crop of congressional blockheads to get along?” 

This book could have veered off into the adorkable, with all of Vowell’s tangents. But she keeps this ship righted. Fans of her earlier work know what to expect. This isn’t a dry history book about what these dead white dudes did. It’s about the founding of our country, and what it means to us today. Vowell closes her book by listing all of the American places named after Lafayette, including the park across the street from the White House, where protesters have camped out for at least a century. Anti-war activists, Students for a Free Tibet, white supremacists and early suffragettes have all stood in the park named for this man in awe of the potential of America’s burgeoning republic.


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