Lafayette in the somewhat United States

by Sarah Vowell

Hardcover, 2015




New York : Riverhead Books, 2015.


On August 16, 1824, an elderly French gentlemen sailed into New York Harbor and giddy Americans were there to welcome him. Or, rather, to welcome him back. It had been 30 years since the Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette had last set foot in the United States, and he was so beloved that 80,000 people showed up to cheer for him. The entire population of New York at the time was 120,000. Lafayette's arrival in 1824 coincided with one of the most contentious presidential elections in American history. Congress had just fought its first epic battle over slavery, and the threat of a Civil War loomed. But Lafayette, belonging to neither North nor South, to no political party or faction, was a walking, talking reminder of the sacrifices and bravery of the revolutionary generation and what they wanted the country to be. His return was not just a reunion with his beloved Americans, it was a reunion for Americans with their own astonishing singular past.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member bragan
This is a historical look both at Lafayette in particular and at the French contributions to the American Revolution in general. As is usual for Vowell, it's sprinkled with amusing and sometimes slightly snarky commentary, and, as is usual for almost every popular history book I've ever read, it
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contains enough details about the fascinating little quirks of history to make me wonder just how the hell my high school history classes managed to make learning about this stuff so insufferably dull.

I do have one sort-of complaint, which is something I've noticed in all of Vowell's historical books: She tends to jump around a lot, going off on digressions, skipping over some events, and alluding to others out of chronological order. I've discovered that if I have a decent basic grounding in the subject she's talking about, I find this charming and pleasant, but if I don't, it can become a little difficult to follow. And, unfortunately, my entire previous knowledge of Lafayette, courtesy of aforementioned crappy high school history classes, can be summed up as, "He was some French guy who helped out in the Revolutionary War, and I guess he must have been useful somehow." Poor Lafayette. Sarah Vowell has convinced me he deserves better.

Rating: I debated over the rating for this, due to the sometimes-I-didn't-follow-it-so-well thing. But then I asked myself, would I recommend this book to someone interested in the subject matter? And the answer is yes. Yes, I certainly would. So I'm being very slightly generous and giving it a 4/5.
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LibraryThing member Jaylia3
Sarah Vowell’s acerbic, insightful wit comes through loud and clear in this fascinating account of French General Lafayette and his role in the American Revolution, but it took me a while to adjust to her irreverent banter in print--as well as being an author Vowell is also known for her radio
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pieces on This American Life. This book runs almost 270 pages without any chapter breaks, and reads like the long-winded but mesmerizing stand-up routine of a highly knowledgeable, history obsessed comedian who knows how to use humor to make a point.

Lafayette was still a teenager when he left his young bride behind and snuck out of France to join the American Revolution against the wishes of his family, but he ended up becoming such a key figure in the winning of the war that cities all over the country are named for him. Vowell has a special knack for revealing the personalities of the many historical figures she writes about, their foibles, revealing quirks, and strengths. Since Lafayette had a close relationship with George Washington he features prominently in the book and I really appreciated getting a clearer picture of the man behind the myth. Vowell even manages to make battles and military strategy interesting, in part by keeping her focus on the people involved, and in part by not overlooking the missteps or ironies of the situations.

Vowell finds plenty of opportunities to relate the struggles of the Revolutionary period to American politics today, pointing out that many current ideological divisions and tendencies have an origin, or at least an analog, dating back to the founding of the country. The book also covers the aftereffects of the Revolutionary War in France and Britain, and the America of 1824, which was when John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson competed in a notorious presidential election and the then elderly Lafayette made a return trip to the country that was still so besotted with him that two thirds of the population of New York City welcomed him ashore. While researching the book Vowell visited historic sites in America and France and she takes readers along on those trips too, giving us her impressions of tourist destinations like Williamsburg and Valley Forge while relating what happened there in the past.

In this book Vowell manages the neat trick of being both funny and stirring. She clearly loves history, and she makes it very easy to join her in that passion.

I read an advanced review copy of this book supplied by the publisher. Review opinions are mine.
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LibraryThing member JJbooklvr
This was my first Sarah Vowell book and I don't expect it to be my last. History fans, especially of the Revolutionary War period will particularly enjoy this book. We all were taught the basics in school growing up and I have read several books on the era, but was still surprised to learn things I
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didn't know. Throw in a good dash of humor and the conversational tone makes this a great choice for people who think they don't like nonfiction books.
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LibraryThing member mahsdad
I wish all history textbooks were written by Sarah. This one is ostensibly about the American Revolution from the view point of Lafayette, the young French aristocrat, who defied his family to seek out fame and adventure in the new world. I listened to this on audio and while Sarah read the text,
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there was a great cast who spoke the thoughts and musings of the founding Fathers; Nick Offerman as Washington (perfect), John Slattery as Lafayette, John Hodgeman as John Adams and Bobby Cannavale as Benjamin Franklin. Recommend! 9/10

"What the French took from the Americans was their theory of revolution, not government. Their cutting, not their sewing."

"Jacob Ritter was so appalled by the day's patriotic gore that he had an epiphany... It says something about the ugliness of Sept 11, 1777 that this boy woke up a Lutheran and went to bed a Quaker."
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LibraryThing member kaylaraeintheway
I want to start of this review by saying that pretty much the whole time I was reading this, I had the Hamilton soundtrack stuck in my head, specifically the line: "Everyone give it up for America's favorite fighting Frenchman!"


I picked up this book because I wanted to know more about the
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young man who willingly (and very eagerly) left his wife and child behind to fight a war for another country's independence. I was a little surprised when I started reading to find that Vowell's book was not so much a biography of the Marquis de Lafayette, but an examination of the American Revolution as a whole. This is the first book by Vowell that I've ever read, and it took me a while to get used to her time-jumping, sarcastic style (which was not unwelcome, just unexpected). By the end of the book, I felt like I got a good feel for the major players in the Revolution, but not as complete a picture of Lafayette as I wanted. The last few pages on the statue of Lafayette in the park across from the White House, however, gave me all kinds of patriotic feels, so the impact that he made on our country (though many have forgotten it) can still be felt.
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LibraryThing member Ronrose1
Sarah Vowell approaches history with a touch of humor and sarcasm which would have made those long hours sitting in History class so much more enjoyable. This is not to say that she doesn’t cover the basics or the particulars. Indeed, she is quite ready to point out many facts left out of more
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conventional history books. The author gives credit were it is due, while not swerving to document where blame should lie. The courage and enduring fortitude of those volunteer soldiers who stuck with a beleaguered General Washington through defeat after defeat, while receiving little or no payment, even in shoes or clothing, while having to face the world’s best army, is nearly unimaginable. All this while a privileged, well dressed, well fed, few sat in Congress debating amongst themselves whether the troops should receive food or payment or even if Washington should be relieved of his command. This was the condition of the so called united colonies when the Marquis de La Fayette came to join the cause for freedom and the equality of man. The story of La Fayette, a young nobleman from France who was enamored with a vision of fighting for freedom and glory, is woven through out our country’s founding history. He fought hard against not only the British, but against those in Congress who failed to back Washington as a leader. While defending the American cause to an skeptical French monarchy, La Fayette sought not only French money and military support, but he also brought a passion for liberty and freedom which he instilled in many of those around him. Many of whom had lost sight of those goals in the darkest days of the war for independence. These are goals he carried with him throughout his life. As late as 1824, when La Fayette returned to the United States as the last surviving general of the Continental Army, the people of this country flocked to see him, treating him like we would a rock star. Throughout the country the people came from miles away to see him, the last personification of those who lead this country to freedom. Book provided for review by Riverhead Books and Shelf Awareness.
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LibraryThing member rglossne
If you think you know American history, and you'd like to know more, get acquainted with 'history adjacent' writer Sarah Vowell. I especially enjoyed this audiobook. Vowell brings along some of her famous friends to voice historical figures. I was vaguely aware that the Marquis de Lafayette was
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important in the American Revolution but Vowell makes the case that the support of the French, led by Lafayette, was key to defeating the British. Listen for the laughs and the knowledge.
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LibraryThing member ablachly
Only Sarah Vowell can write a history of Lafayette (Everyone give it up for America's favorite fighting Frenchman!) that mentions the recasting of Darrin on Bewitched.
LibraryThing member Othemts
This audiobook includes numerous well-known actors performing the quotes of historical figures in addition to the author reading the main text. As the "Lafayette" part of the title implies, this is a biography of Marquis de Lafayette, the young French aristocrat who helped George Washington win the
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American Revolutionary War. Vowell starts with Lafeyette's historic tour of the United States in 1824-25 and then flashes back to Lafayette's experiences in the war. I wish that we learned more about the Grand Tour or Lafayette's post-American Revolution activities, but the war-era biographical details are solid with a mix of Vowell's humor and pop culture references. For example, Vowell details the arrival of Baron von Steuben with falsified credentials on a direct continuum to the parade and dance party in Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

The universal admiration is contrasted to the "Somewhat United States" where it seems that Americans can never agree on anything or get along. The Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention, the Election of 1800, and the Election of 1824 all provide numerous examples of this disunity through which the United States still persevered. It is somewhat comforting that if even the esteemed founders of our country had difficulty agreeing and maintaining cordial relationships that today's political discord is just par for the course.

The book also takes the form of a travelogue as Vowell and various traveling companions visit sites associated with Lafayette, leading to an amusing side trip in Freehold, NJ to see Bruce Springsteen's childhood home (both Springsteen and I were born in Freehold), and a very positive experience at Colonial Williamsburg for Vowell, her sister, and nephew. Particularly interesting is an interview with the historic interpreter who portrays Lafeyette and his experience during the Iraq War era when anti-French sentiment was high.

This is an enjoyable popular history which makes a good introduction to Lafayette and his place in America's cultural consciousness.
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LibraryThing member spounds
I think it's fair to say that to this frustrated history major now working in corporate America, Sarah Vowell is a heroine. To be able to drive around the U.S. with your best friends and favorite family and visit historic sites, both famous and obscure is something from my dreams... ACK! Why did I
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give up so early?

Not only do I love her life, I love her style--observant, sarcastic, and insightful--all delivered with a healthy dose of humor. This is the third Sarah Vowell book that I've read and each of them has presented a story that I thought I knew--or should have known--in way that proved I only knew the bullet points or in same cases the myth.

In the case of Lafayette in the Somewhat United States Vowell takes on the part of the French in the Revolutionary War through the life of its most famous character, General Lafayette. It's hard to even write that term "General" because the dude was only 19-years-old when he received that rank. Apparently, all that fighting the French and English had been doing for centuries and the personal toll it took on Lafayette (his father was killed in battle early in Lafayette's life) made Frenchmen in general and Lafayette in particular much better at the art of war than the typical America. So the young commission.

He proved himself a loyal and able leader and endeared himself to the Americans so that when he returned to the United States nearly 30 years after the end of the war and after having endured a harrowing time back home during the French Revolution, he was met with hugs by the Founding Fathers.

So I knew that the French backed us during the Revolution and I knew that Lafayette was one of them, but I really didn't understand how decisive the French help was. Without them there wouldn't have been us. Vowell does a really good job of showing the reader that as she takes us from walks through the mansions of pre-revolutionary France to tours of US battlefields to an interview with George Washington in Colonial Williamsburg. I learned a lot.

All that being said, as much as I liked unlearning all that stuff I thought I knew before, I missed the funny Sarah. There were a few places in this book where I guffawed, but mostly she seemed more ticked off than in her other books. I'm not sure if that's a sign of the times, the subject matter at hand, or maybe she was being funny and I was just too much of a stick in the mud to recognize it. They ARE the Founding Fathers, don't you know?

Anyway, the more serious tone is not enough to keep me from recommending this book - it's good! - but if you've never read Sarah Vowell before start with something else, like Unfamiliar Fishes or Assassination Vacation.
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LibraryThing member EllsbethB
This was an enjoyable pop history book, looking at the Revolution through the intriguing lens of Lafayette. I haven't studied Lafayette a great deal in the past, and this book has me interested in learning more about him. I listened to it on audio, and enjoyed the additional voices that added to
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the author's (sometimes mechanical) narration. This is a fun way to consider the American Revolution.
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LibraryThing member jenspirko
Vowell turns her signature blend of smartassery and scholarship to a man who is usually depicted one-dimensionally, the Marquis de Lafayette, Revolutionary hero and American (French) icon. Vowell gives us a glory-hungry teenager whose early hero-worship of George Washington matures over time into a
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more seasoned military mind. Vowell's jumping-off-point is actually Lafayette's 1820s visit to the U.S., when he revisits landmarks of his wartime successes and weeps at Washington's tomb. The adulation of the American crowds that heralded his visit lead Vowell to consider the near-universal popularity of a man who seemed equally beloved by everyone, including such bitter rivals as John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Her ruminations on the cantankerous nature of American politics could have been deeper, but she turns so thoroughly and so engagingly to the story of the Marquis himself that I soon forgot my wish for more insightful political theorizing. Her historical research ranges from visits to battlefields and memorials to combing through letters and military dispatches. Such thoroughness not only lends her biographical history rich and compelling detail, but it also supports Vowell's story with solid scholarship.
I strongly recommend the audiobook version. I enjoy Vowell's voice; an NPR alumnae, she may be an acquired taste, but I find that her own reading is the best interpretation of her wry wit. The real treat is the impressive cast of readers who portray the historical figures, including Nick Offerman as George Washington, John Hodgman as John Adams, John Slattery as the Marquis de Lafayette, and Patton Oswalt as Thomas Jefferson, among others. Highly recommended -- especially the audio edition!
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LibraryThing member annbury
A terrific book; i did not know anything about Lafayette and his contribution to our independence, but Sarah Vowell does. She is a funny writer and also shares many of my liberal prejudices, including allowing women to vote. Her comments that we have been a disaster at implementing our own
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declaration or constitution are spot on. I had no idea that reading history and learning a thing or two could be so enjoyable. Her observation that the US is splintered beyond belief is correct.
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LibraryThing member figre
You are going to walk out of here knowing more about the American Revolution than you thought there was to know. Now, normally, that would be a bit of a threat. History downloads, no matter how interested you may be in the subject, can quickly become boring. But this is Sarah Vowell. And one thing
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no one (to my knowledge) has ever accused Sarah Vowell of being is boring.

Sarah has successfully moved from entertaining essayist to skilled researcher. And, in the process, she still keeps that adjective “entertaining.” This is an entertaining and information-filled discussion of the American Revolution, the role of France and Lafayette, and just how dysfunctional this country has been since the very beginning.

The framework around this piece is the story of the Marquis of Lafayette. If you didn’t know, Lafayette is one of the heroes of our (that is, the United States) independence. And one of the points of this book is that, while Lafayette was held in high status for a very long time (look at the things and people – including my maternal grandfather – named after Lafayette), his fame has diminished over time.

But that is just a framework. While there is extensive and interesting information on Lafayette, we also learn about the role the American Revolution played in France’s revolution, the incompetence of the Continental Congress in running a war, the details of the Battle of Yorktown and how close that came to coming out differently, the support the colonies had back in British Parliament, how a ragtag band of misfits, yokels, and farmers were turned into a real fighting force…288 pages, and all this plus more is discussed in pretty good detail.

Now, I’m not going to say this is a historical treatise worthy of a reviewed journal. But it is well researched and tells the story in an entertaining way that kept me reading.

For some, I am sure Sarah Vowell’s approach becomes bothersome and irritating. The sudden juxtapositions of her approach to research and personal incidents may not sit well with some readers. But that is just a part of what attracts me to her writing. She can be knee-deep in a real, historical discussion, and then she suddenly thrusts the real world (her real world) in there. It makes it more entertaining, and it makes it more…real.

This is a worthy addition to the Sarah Vowel canon and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys her writing, is interested in history, or wants to learn much more about the American Revolution.
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LibraryThing member thoughtbox
Though Vowell disavows any status of historian, she's one of the many recent authors who's doing history properly. Her nuanced examinations of relative forgotten or ignored pivotal historical events for America are not only packed with information; they're digestible, too.

This is a much-forgotten
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aspect when it comes to writing about history by historians. Historians seem to believe that you can write "history," or you can write for the general market. This short-changes both audiences.

It's not enough to simplify history in order to make it seem more exciting — this is the pseudo-argument at the heart of every high school history textbook I've ever read, that to include all the conflicting and somewhat contrasting evidence would be "confusing" and therefore boring. To their minds, we must all think that George Washington had his cherry tree, never told a lie and ascended to Mount Olympus when his time on this earth was complete.

Vowell and her ilk show us the flaws in the marble busts that so often serve as our only reminders of our leaders. The titular Lafayette should be considered as one of the great heroes of the American Revolution ... but only because he was spoiling for war, and at times probably endangered his troops in his lust for military honors.

But that makes him more interesting, not less. He's a whole human being with conflicting ideas and wants. He's an actual person who made decisions (and mistakes!), rather than a mythical figure who felled giants and battled trolls with immaculately coiffed wigs.
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LibraryThing member Unreachableshelf
Very good if judged by the standard of light history/nonfiction in general, but probably my least favorite of Vowell's books so far. It may have something to do with the fact that I'm more familiar with the subject than with most of her books, and therefore am less interested in what's really a
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brief overview, but I was fairly familiar with most of the ground covered by Assassination Vacation as well, so I'm not sure what it is.

Also, this may not be the author's fault, but I feel like the flap text suggested that the book was going to be primarily about Lafayette's return trip to the US in 1824 and what he found there. This isn't the case; the book is almost entirely about the revolution itself (in fact sometimes Lafayette disappears for longer than I'd expect for the subject of the book), with the 1824 visit forming a sort of introduction and a look at his legacy in the end.
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LibraryThing member bookappeal
Vowell recounts Lafayette's somewhat unusual role in the American Revolutionary War. Lafayette was more dedicated to American independence than some of the people living in the rebellious states at the time and he held the utmost admiration for George Washington who unwittingly served as a sort of
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father figure to the orphaned 19-year-old general. Fans of military history will appreciate the research and primary source quotes but, if you do not enjoy reading about military strategy, you may find yourself skimming details to get to Vowell's editorial comments on history, wherein the humor lies. The narrative is also broken up with her travels (usually with friends, because she doesn't drive) to obscure historic sites which are funny but sometimes only tangentially relevant. For example, after a modern day Quaker complains about the multitude of history books focused on war, Vowell muses "Moreover, precisely because there are plenty of straight-dope versions of the Revolutionary War in print, I have room to let these Quakers get under my skin for a minute" and detours into arguments for and against writing yet another book on the subject. Readers will have to decide if they prefer the "straight-dope" version of history or Vowell's humorous and more wandering take. The book contains no chapter divisions (only segment breaks) or index but does include a bibliography.
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LibraryThing member jmchshannon
Sarah Vowell’s unique take on history – eyes wide open, unashamed to point out the not-so-glorious past – is at its finest with this story of the Revolutionary War and one of the men who helped the colonists win their freedom.
LibraryThing member davevanl
Many times this book crosses the border from book of history to editorial on current society and back again.
LibraryThing member Johnson88
Was not my favorite book. Was not necessarily humored with her sense of humor.

I do now want to get a biogrphy of Lafayette and read it.
LibraryThing member greeniezona
I had been curious about Vowell's books for ages, and finally got around to picking this one up as a part of my current trend on reading about the American Revolution. Vowell has become known for her associative, nearly stream-of-consciousness style that sometimes feels like an NPR radio segment or
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nerdy podcast. Most of the time it really worked for me -- especially as she's talking about how Lafayette's legacy has changed over the history of America -- her asides on Pennsylvania Quakers and Colonial Williamsburg re-enactors is actually pretty on topic.

I did sometimes wish for more straightforward biographical information on Lafayette -- but any good non-fiction book should leave you wanting to learn more, right? And this book made me want to learn more about Lafayette, Washington, and the general course of the war. It's becoming increasingly clear that most of my Revolutionary knowledge is about the statesmen and the causes -- very little about the war itself.

A fascinating read.
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LibraryThing member kevn57
Interesting biography of a foreign soldier in the American revolution, and how much the us owes France for it's freedom. Also tie-ins to the present day "Freedom Fries", how do politicians have so much free time to do nothing, the answer is they are just behaving as did the founding fathers.
LibraryThing member Matke
Vowels has a quirky take on American history, and mixes in plenty of personal anecdotes about her research. She brings a fresh look to the old stories we think we know by heart.
LibraryThing member JBD1
Sarah Vowell does her thing with the Revolutionary War and Lafayette. Her usual snark, humor, and wit, plus a fair bit of good research. I did expect a bit more on Lafayette's return visit in 1824, but no real matter. If you are a Vowell fan, you'll want to have a go at this one too, probably.
LibraryThing member quondame
An unromantic look at one of the more romantic of historical figures, Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette. The structure of this book is sort of like a ball of yarn played along a hallway by a kitten, with eddies of yarn popping us into a contemporary tour of sites
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figuring in Lafayette's adventures with the continental army, and his tour 40 odd years later. The lack of unity in what was to become the USA is a constant theme, a dark haze in the mostly humorous tone. Calligraphic caricatures that seem more whimsical than accurate punctuate the text.
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