Friday, July 1, 2016

LaFayette In the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell

Forty years after the Bicentennial of our country, most citizens take the American Revolution for granted. We know the names of the most famous patriots who fought the war and wrote the Declaration of Independence. But we generally give little thought to these historical figures and their words and deeds. Now historian, humorist, and outside-the-box thinker, Sarah Vowell, brings us a short unique history which provides details of our Revolution and Revolutionaries.

The Marquis de LaFayette, a wealthy French idealist, joined the Revolution at the age of nineteen. He provided his own transportation, his own uniform, his own weapons and insisted he be allowed to serve "at my own expense...(and) to serve first as a volunteer." From LaFayette, the altruistic center of her book, Vowell expands her scope to tell the stories of many other patriots and scoundrels involved in the Revolution. Then, as now, people did not appreciate his management of the war. American and foreign military officers vied to displace him. Congress would not allocate the funds needed to feed and clothe his army. And the war often went poorly. But LaFayette remained loyal to Washington as did other generals, including Nathanael Green and the self-educated artillery general, Henry Knox. We are all aware that the Continentals prevailed, but after reading this book, we will know how this was achieved and how close they came to failing.

After America won its independence, LaFayette returned to France and became embroiled in the French Revolution. He survived and, in 1824, at the invitation of President James Monroe, returned to the United States for a celebratory year-long tour of the the then twenty-four states. Everywhere he went, enormous crowds turned out to see and honor the last surviving general of the Revolution. Two thirds of the population of New York City was the port to welcome him. Throughout her book, Vowell points out that then, as now, our country was only "Somewhat" united. Factions, regions, and political parties divided a people who could only agree that they loved LaFayette. 1824 was even the year of one of the most contentious presidential elections in American history, resulting in the choice of John Quincy Adams as an unpopular compromise. Now, nearly two hundred years later, We the People are still citizens of a somewhat United States as our televisions bring another hotly contested presidential campaign into our homes.

LaFayette In the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell is an unusual American history book as it is both amusing and informative.