Sunday, April 30, 2017

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States
Sarah Vowell (Riverhead, 2015)

     Sarah Vowell claims that she is not so much a historian as a 'historian-adjacent, nonfiction wise guy', and she's probably right; but perhaps her books are all the more deliciously readable for it, at least in this moment when her vernacular is fresh. She may also be overstating the case, because there's a real historical argument being made in this book, placing the American Revolution in the context of the long-running rivalry between Great Britain and France.

     What we know as the French and Indian War was the American chapter of the Seven Years War, which might have been termed the first World War, stretching as it did across parts of four continents. In the concluding peace treaty of 1763, the French were humiliated. "Thus the massive chunk of North America for more than two centuries–from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico–was downsized to scraps." Another, more personal consequence was that the future Marquis de Lafayette lost his father. "The death of his father at the hands of British forces merely provided the boy with a specific target at a young age. Soldiering in general was his destiny, just as it had been for his father before him..." 
     Vowell describes how Lafayette absconded to Philadelphia when he was only nineteen. Orphaned but wealthy, he left behind a wife who would shortly bear their first child; evidently he was more interested in finding a father than in being one, and he adopted George Washington to fill the role. It helped that he paid his own way to America, and offered to serve without pay. "On July 31 [1777] Congress commissioned him as a volunteer major general, which is to say, he was basically an unpaid intern wearing a general's sash."

     In his first action, at the battle of Brandywine, Lafayette sustained a musket-ball wound in his leg, which he bore with "pride and delight"–here, indeed, was a young man who "tended to confuse glory with love." In due course, Lafayette became of military use to Washington, heading up a division of Virginians; his unquenchable loyalty may have been even more welcome, as Washington was being second-guessed by the Continental Congress and members of his own staff. The heroic stature both men would later attain was no sure thing in the winter of 1777-1778.

     Vowell marches us about from Boston to the Carolinas, following the fortunes of the revolu-tionaries, and the diplomatic and naval goings-on that would ultimately decide their fate. Only in 1781, when at last they had the French navy coordinating to deny the British supplies and reinforcements, did the Americans gain the upper hand in their negotiations with the King.

    The book abounds with thought-provoking irony. If we had stayed in the British Empire, would slavery have ended sooner, as it did in the British West Indies in the 1830's? Americans went to war protesting taxes levied to pay for the last war; the French government later lost its head, at least partly over taxes it raised to fight in that cause. The shelves may not have needed another volume about the American Revolution, but now it has one more you can take to the beach, and you'll probably stay awake reading it.

May 2017, by email.