It's that time of year for Americans - the big surge of patriotic celebrations, grilling in the backyard, and summer vacations! As always, it’s a good time 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.
Again this year on July 4th, many of us are feeling 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 this book is 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). 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! You can visit 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."
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).
So why does Sarah Vowell take the life of Lafayette as the springboard for this book? Because Americans (especially in the early 1800s) were amazingly unanimous in their outpouring of affection and support for him -- and that's not normal, according to Vowell. Her point is that the miracle of American history is that we ever unify on any point. Our whole story is one of push-and-pull, from colonists vs. the British crown to strong federalists vs. advocates of states’ rights – 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 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, it’s a privilege we wouldn’t 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? Please share your recommendations below!