I’m not sure I would have gotten to reading Sarah Vowell’s newest book, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, if I haven’t started listening to the soundtrack for Hamilton just a couple weeks ago.
For those who don’t know, Hamilton is a Broadway musical about the life and times of Alexander Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda. It sounds rather crazy, I know, but it’s totally excellent (and you can listen to it several places online). The Marquis de Lafayette, a teenage Frenchman who became a well-loved general in the Revolutionary War, is introduced in the second song of the show with this verse:
Oui oui, mon ami, je m’appelle Lafayette!
The Lancelot of the revolutionary set!
I came from afar just to say “Bonsoir!”
Tell the King “Casse toi!” Who’s the best?
That just struck me as so hilarious that I decided I wanted to learn more about this guy immediately. Although Lafayette in the Somewhat United States is about Lafayette, it’s really a broader look at how the ideals of the American Revolution mesh (or, in lots of cases, are in contrast) with the reality of fighting in the Revolutionary War. It’s more ambitious than a simple biography, but I think that makes it an even better match with Hamilton‘s critique and revisiting of the Founding Fathers.
There are two things I love about Sarah Vowell as a writer and historian. First, she’s clearly fond of our Founding Fathers and other major historical figures, but she’s not afraid to point out where they messed up or areas in their lives where they demonstrated hypocrisy. It’s disingenuous to talk about, say, Thomas Jefferson, the writer of one of our favorite phrases — “all men are created equal” — and not also acknowledge that he owned slaves. The founders of our country had big ideas, but ultimately they were people and can be talked about as such without diminishing their legacy.
Vowell is so great at this. In the book, she calls the colonists “self-respecting, financially strapped terrorists” and “anti-monarchist punks,” among other affectionate names. I think that’s so funny! In another section, she makes this really apt observation about the problems at Valley Forge:
I would like to see the calamity at Valley Forge as just the growing pains of a new nation. It has been a long time since the men and women serving in the armed forces of the world’s only superpower went naked because some crooked townies in upstate New York filched their uniforms. But there’s still this combination of government ineptitude, shortsightedness, stinginess, corruption and neglect that affected the Continentals before, during and after Valley Forge that twenty-first century Americans are not entirely unfamiliar with.
That also leads me into the second thing I love about Vowell: she’s wonderful at showing the way history can be a conversation between the past and present. Most of her books pull together historical events with our present day memory of those events through things like museums, monuments and historical reenactments. It’s a really interesting way to both learn about particular moments and look at how our popular conception of them has changed.
Lafayette is actually a great example of this — he helped forge an alliance with France that enabled the United States to win the Revolutionary War. But not so long ago, the United States Congress renamed “French Fries” to “Freedom Fries” and, at least as I recall my history classes, works to overlook that significant contribution. Vowell spends a bit of time on this in the book, which I thought was really interesting.
These features of Vowell’s writing are also some of what I love best about Hamilton. Lin-Manuel Miranda clearly admires and respects Alexander Hamilton and many of the other Founding Fathers — why else make an entire musical about the American Revolution? But the musical points out their mistakes and flaws, often in really pointed ways. And the specific casting of performers of color in the roles of our white Founding Fathers makes really fascinating echoes between America of the past and America of the present. It’s remarkable.
So there you have it, I have Hamilton to thanks for picking up Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, and the book to thank for helping me articulate some of what I love about the musical. Get your hands on both, they’re great.