In any other year this would be the time when patriotic celebrations, grilling in the backyard, and summer vacations would top the American agenda. And in more ordinary times, this would be the perfect opportunity for those of us with an affinity for France and the French to remind ourselves that we likely would not have won our independence without the massive support of France in those earliest days of our Republic.
This year, though, Americans can't even (safely) get out of their backyards or to the beach, much less fly to France for a visit -- so we'll have to make do with a more "virtual" remembrance of the occasion. And while we're at it, I'd argue that it's specifically worth remembering the influence of our old ally, the Marquis de Lafayette (or, to give him his full name, Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette).
This year we can catch the spectacular film version of Hamilton on Disney + this Friday and enjoy the spectacular turn of Daveed Diggs playing Lafayette. If you happen to be in France already...well, the country is cautiously emerging from le confinement and an actual pilgrimage to Lafayette's home base is again a possibility. And Lafayette is a perfect character to feature in this blog because he’s a native of the Auvergne in the deep heart of France!
A note of optimism for divisive times
Why is it worth the time to remember Lafayette and France's contributions to the American struggle for Independence? I'd argue that, again this year on July 4th, many of us are feeling more than a little tense and unsettled by the state of our political life – and it would be easy to think that the cloth of civility and civic virtues written into our founding documents is unraveling. Seen from inside the 24-hour news cycle, it’s easy to believe we might be drifting away from the best qualities that make us uniquely “American”.
“Not so fast!” says Sarah Vowell. If you haven't read it yet, her wonderful Lafayette in the Somewhat United States (Riverhead Books, 2015) is worth your time. (It certainly made me feel better!) You might know Ms. Vowell from one of her appearances on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart or NPR’s This American Life. She’s also written about how Puritan culture lives on in contemporary America, about the history of political violence in this country, and about how Hawaii became Americanized. The topics may sound heavy, but all her books are extended personal (and very funny) essays reflecting on how we got to be the America we are today.
Her subject for Lafayette in the Somewhat United States is this charismatic Auvergnat from the deep heart of France and the impact he had on American culture long after the Revolutionary War was over. Today, we're making a virtual visit to his family château at Chavaniac, which even Sarah Vowell concedes is a little…rustic:
"Surfaced in natural rocks instead of cut stone, it has a rough texture that makes it appear even older than its medieval roots. Visiting the place today provides insight into Lafayette’s later soft spot for the American bumpkins he served with – as well as an understanding of just how imprecise the French word 'chateau' is. The rustic gloom of the Château de Chevaniac is a Woody Guthrie song compared to the Liberace concert that is the Château de Versailles."
(Vowell spends several pages of the book describing her own visit to the chateau and the little village of Chavaniac, describing it as feeling like "an old-fangled French time warp." She checks out a few of the most common Parisian stereotypes about people from the Auvergne, and recounts that, as an 8-year-old boy Lafayette was allowed to join in the hunt for the infamous wolf-like creature known as the "Beast of Gévaudan" which terrorized the countryside here in the 1760s.)
Photo copyright © 2020 Richard L. Alexander
A visit to Lafayette's chateau
The chateau has recently opened again following the first wave of the pandemic, and you can visit with the usual precautions related to wearing face masks, maintaining social distancing, and observing sanitary requirements. It’s worth the trip, though, to see a very well-curated overview of Lafayette’s life – a life that led him improbably to a role as a major-general in Washington’s colonial army at the age of 19, then back to France as a participant in the French revolution and co-author of the Declaration of the Rights of Man (with a little help from Thomas Jefferson).
He was born here at Chavanniac (here's a 360-degree virtual tour of the actual "room where it happened") in September, 1757. This is still a relatively wild and under-populated part of France, between the ancient cities of Brioude and Le Puy en Velay. In the wonderfully descriptive prose of the chateau's website,
"The Velay sauvage was the crucible where [Lafayette's] character was toughened up; in this rough country, sometimes chaotic, where nature does not seem to obey any logic, where there's no traditional harmony, he acquired the need for independence which lay at the origin of all his actions."
Lafayette's ancestors lived here since at least the 14th century, although the original family home burned down and was replaced by the current chateau in 1701. In truth, while it is more rustic than the great palaces of northern France, it seems as comfortable and even as luxurious as many other castle homes in this part of the country. The formal visit features a number of informative panels about Lafayette's life here and his importance on the international stage in the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as his marriage, his lifelong interest in the Masonic orders, and his commitment to the abolition of slavery.
Lafayette - a "unanimous" American hero
So why does Sarah Vowell take the life of Lafayette as the springboard for Lafayette in the Somewhat United States? Because Americans (especially in the early 1800s) were amazingly unanimous in their outpouring of affection and support for him --towns and landmarks were named for him all across the country, and his tours of America in the 1800s were attended by crowds that would have made the Beatles jealous. This adulation crossed party lines and evoked outpourings of purple prose even more intense than the praise accorded several of America's Founding Fathers.
That kind of unanimity is not normal for us, according to Vowell. Her thesis is that the miracle of American history is that we ever unify on any point. Our whole story is one of constant push-and-pull, from colonists vs. the British crown to strong federalists vs. advocates of states’ rights to liberals vs. conservatives – and on and on.
Even the involvement of France in our Revolution involved a contradiction that’s impossible to reconcile on the surface, since it required selling the King of France on the idea of supporting a bunch of colonials who wanted to usurp the rights of a King! As Ms. Vowell says, “getting on each other’s nerves is our right”.
"[W]e the people have never agreed on much of anything. Other than a bipartisan consensus on barbecue and Meryl Streep, plus that time in 1942 when everyone from Bing Crosby to Oregonian schoolchildren heeded FDR’s call to scrounge up rubber for the war effort, disunity is the through line in the national plot – not necessarily as a failing, but as a free people’s privilege."
And, of course, that's a privilege we likely would not enjoy if it hadn’t been for Lafayette and France’s support for our War of Independence.
So, on this Fourth of July when our national debate continues to sink into sniping and discord, it’s a great time to read or re-read Lafayette in the Somewhat United States and take some comfort in Vowell’s take on our history. (I promise you’ll laugh out loud at least 20 times as you read it – followed by a quick “hmm, you know – she’s right!”)
And if you happen to be in France, it’s a good time to make the pilgrimage to Chavaniac to think again about Lafayette’s role in all of this.
Have you read anything good on the long relationship between the U.S. and France? What do you think of Sarah Vowell's observation that Lafayette is a rare example of something Americans can all agree upon? Please share your recommendations and your own observations in the comments section below -- and please take a moment to share this post with someone else who's interested in the people, places, history, and culture of the 'deep heart of France'!