I picked up Sarah Vowell’s “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States” earlier this year even though I already had more than 90 books on my To Read shelves. I don’t often push newly bought books to the top, but I tossed the book to about No. 15 on the list.
I love history books, particularly well written and thorough ones. Historians like Edmund Morris and Doris Kearns Goodwin can give you a feast to chew on. Writers like Tony Horwitz and Rick Perlstein can make you laugh or cry while showing you the characters from our past.
I’ve been attempting to read more histories written by women because they’re often excellent and, sadly, underpublished.
So I picked up Vowell’s book hoping for the snark and whit I’d come to appreciate from her radio appearances on NPR.
I’m also a stickler for historians who don’t peddle hagiography. Our heroes were real people with foibles and faults. Don’t hide that.
From the first page, I wasn’t disappointed.
How did the Marquis de Lafayette win over the stingiest, crankiest tax protesters in the history of the world? He trudged to Philadelphia, hung around the building where they signed the Declaration of Independence, and volunteered to work for free. The Continental Congress had its doubt about saddle General George Washington with the teenage French aristocrat, but Ben Franklin Road from Paris that the kid might be of use and, what the hell, the price was right.
So on July 31, 1777, Congress passed a resolution on Lafayette a major general in the army of the United States recognizing “his great zeal to the cause of liberty.” That and the penny less rivals, in their unsuccessful campaign to shake down the king of France, hoped to milk Lafayette’s “illustrious family and connections” back home.
The Founding Fathers, while sticklers about taxation without representation in general, were magnanimously open minded about the French crown overtaxing French subjects to pay for the French navy to cross the Atlantic to lend a hand. Les insurgents, as the French referred to the Americans, wanted what all self-respecting, financially strapped terrorists want: to become state-sponsored terrorists.
Oh, this is going to be a good book.