If you’re obsessed with the musical Hamilton and want to learn more about “America’s favorite fighting Frenchman,” now is as good a time as any to take a break from spreading the Hamilton gospel to your co-workers to read Sarah Vowell’s Lafayette in the Somewhat United States.
I am well aware how embarrassingly little I know about history. Vowell, in a conversation with Quakers, helped me realize a potential reason for my disinterest in the history I learned in school. She visits the Birmingham Friends Meetinghouse near the Brandywine Battlefield in Pennsylvania, where Lafayette got shot in the leg. After telling her new acquaintances that she’s researching Lafayette, one of them says, “We understand our history as war.”
“Yes,” I thought, remembering my history education as notebooks filled with battles and dates, the only one of which I can clearly recall being 1066, William the Conqueror. No wonder I thought history was boring for so long. I don’t care about battles.
Reductive as that may be, I do care about people, and Vowell, with huge doses of snark, presents all these historical figures as imperfect humans. Yes, George Washington led the Continental Army to victory, but he had a lot of help (and slaves). Yes, a very young Lafayette crossed the Atlantic a few times to help the United States in their fight against Britain, but to do so, he deceived his in-laws and pregnant wife. Yes, the Continental Army triumphed against its colonial oppressor, but man, were they a hot, underfunded, unshod and barely-clothed mess.
Now for some highlights of the many, sarcastic gems from the book.
-On Lafayette’s seasickness during the boat ride to the United States: “He spent the miserable voyage learning English, presumably mastering how to conjugate the verb ‘to puke.’”
-Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben’s assessment of the American soldiers’ bayonet skills before he taught them Bayonet 101: “'the American soldier, never having used this arm, had no faith in it, and never used it but to roast his beefsteak.'”
-On Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the first draft of Notes on the State of Virginia while the Continental Army struggled to defend his state: “Basically, the governor of Virginia had thoughts on everything but how to arm and feed and reinforce the soldiers risking their lives to save his state.”
-The horror expressed by a French officer dining in Washington’s tent when the general failed to serve the meal “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?” I think the French are still wondering this now that the doggy bag has found its way to their country.
If I included all the parts that made me laugh, there would be little left for you to read. Overall, I was left feeling admiration and some warmth toward our Revolutionary War heroes, plus a desire to read more of Washington’s correspondence. I also added several more places to visit to the Travel List, like Lafayette’s birthplace and the cemetery in Paris where he’s buried.
I’m working on improving my loose grasp on history. Hamilton and books like Vowell’s help immensely. And actually, it’s really easy to read this book and also annoy your coworkers about Hamilton.