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Lafayette in the Somewhat United States
Cover of Lafayette in the Somewhat United States
Lafayette in the Somewhat United States


From the bestselling author of Assassination Vacation and The Partly Cloudy Patriot, an insightful and unconventional account of George Washington's trusted officer and friend, that swashbuckling teenage French aristocrat the Marquis de Lafayette.

Chronicling General Lafayette's years in Washington's army, Vowell reflects on the ideals of the American Revolution versus the reality of the Revolutionary War. Riding shotgun with Lafayette, Vowell swerves from the high-minded debates of Independence Hall to the frozen wasteland of Valley Forge, from bloody battlefields to the Palace of Versailles, bumping into John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Lord Cornwallis, Benjamin Franklin, Marie Antoinette and various kings, Quakers and redcoats along the way.

Drawn to the patriots' war out of a lust for glory, Enlightenment ideas and the traditional French hatred for the British, young Lafayette crossed the Atlantic expecting to join forces with an undivided people, encountering instead fault lines between the Continental Congress and the Continental Army, rebel and loyalist inhabitants, and a conspiracy to fire George Washington, the one man holding together the rickety, seemingly doomed patriot cause.

While Vowell's yarn is full of the bickering and infighting that marks the American past—and present—her telling of the Revolution is just as much a story of friendship: between Washington and Lafayette, between the Americans and their French allies and, most of all between Lafayette and the American people. Coinciding with one of the most contentious presidential elections in American history, Vowell lingers over the elderly Lafayette's sentimental return tour of America in 1824, when three fourths of the population of New York City turned out to welcome him ashore. As a Frenchman and the last surviving general of the Continental Army, Lafayette belonged to neither North nor South, to no political party or faction. He was a walking, talking reminder of the sacrifices and bravery of the revolutionary generation and what the founders hoped this country could be. His return was not just a reunion with his beloved Americans it was a reunion for Americans with their own astonishing, singular past.

Vowell's narrative look at our somewhat united states is humorous, irreverent and wholly original.


From the Hardcover edition.


From the bestselling author of Assassination Vacation and The Partly Cloudy Patriot, an insightful and unconventional account of George Washington's trusted officer and friend, that swashbuckling teenage French aristocrat the Marquis de Lafayette.

Chronicling General Lafayette's years in Washington's army, Vowell reflects on the ideals of the American Revolution versus the reality of the Revolutionary War. Riding shotgun with Lafayette, Vowell swerves from the high-minded debates of Independence Hall to the frozen wasteland of Valley Forge, from bloody battlefields to the Palace of Versailles, bumping into John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Lord Cornwallis, Benjamin Franklin, Marie Antoinette and various kings, Quakers and redcoats along the way.

Drawn to the patriots' war out of a lust for glory, Enlightenment ideas and the traditional French hatred for the British, young Lafayette crossed the Atlantic expecting to join forces with an undivided people, encountering instead fault lines between the Continental Congress and the Continental Army, rebel and loyalist inhabitants, and a conspiracy to fire George Washington, the one man holding together the rickety, seemingly doomed patriot cause.

While Vowell's yarn is full of the bickering and infighting that marks the American past—and present—her telling of the Revolution is just as much a story of friendship: between Washington and Lafayette, between the Americans and their French allies and, most of all between Lafayette and the American people. Coinciding with one of the most contentious presidential elections in American history, Vowell lingers over the elderly Lafayette's sentimental return tour of America in 1824, when three fourths of the population of New York City turned out to welcome him ashore. As a Frenchman and the last surviving general of the Continental Army, Lafayette belonged to neither North nor South, to no political party or faction. He was a walking, talking reminder of the sacrifices and bravery of the revolutionary generation and what the founders hoped this country could be. His return was not just a reunion with his beloved Americans it was a reunion for Americans with their own astonishing, singular past.

Vowell's narrative look at our somewhat united states is humorous, irreverent and wholly original.


From the Hardcover edition.
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  • Publisher's Weekly

    July 27, 2015
    In this crash course on the fledgling nation’s teenaged French general, undoubtedly the only American Revolution narrative to offhandedly drop a Ferris Bueller reference, Vowell (Unfamiliar Fishes) retains her familiar casual tone and displays her crow-like ability to find the shiny, nearly forgotten historical details. Unimpressed by Lafayette’s nobility, she instead admires his cheekiness and rebellious nature—traits well-suited to involvement in both American and French revolutions. Lafayette’s loyalty to George Washington and the U.S. came back to him during his triumphant 1824 visit, when cheering American crowds celebrated his return in numbers that easily dwarfed the Beatles’ invasion 140 years later. Jocularity and cheerful irreverence permeate the story, though it feels as if Vowell tries a bit too hard to retain a light atmosphere during detail-heavy passages (her labeling of the Moravians of Bethlehem, Pa., as “a community of German-American Jesus freaks” is a prime example). Nevertheless, her combination of well-researched, obscure details with personal, family-filled anecdotes and references to recent events, such as the 2013 federal government shutdown, add plenty of sparkle to an old tale. The Vowell formula once again guarantees an entertaining, nontraditional look at American history and a fast, enjoyable read.

  • Kirkus

    July 1, 2015
    Another Vowell-ian romp through history, politics, and pop culture, this time revisiting the story of Lafayette, the French contributions to victory in the American Revolution, and his farewell tour through the United States in 1824. Readers of Vowell's previous books (Unfamiliar Fishes, 2011, etc.) will recognize yet another pleasantly snarky work that belongs on any shelf of first-rate satire. Her peripatetic research techniques remain: visit the sites, walk the ground, read the books, talk with relevant folks (here, she recounts her chat with a Lafayette impersonator at Williamsburg). Vowell also continually yanks us back to the present, commenting sharply on such things as our current political polarization. The "sweet-natured republic Lafayette foretold," she writes, hasn't exactly occurred. Vowell also uses slang and cliche as light artillery, deploying them so that shells explode expectedly. When she writes that Lafayette was trying to put the toothpaste back into the tube, we laugh as well as learn. Vowell takes some bayonet thrusts at religious fanatics, at the current American right, and at the brainless hatred of all things French during the Gulf War (despite the fact that the French saved us at Yorktown). Although she focuses principally on the war years, she does cover, lightly, Lafayette's 1824 return-and (rare for her) misses an opportunity to mention that young Edgar Allan Poe, at 15 a member of the Morgan Riflemen, participated in the celebrations in Richmond. Several times, the author mentions the British spy Maj. John Andre but neglects to note his spectral appearances in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." But she doesn't miss much else. Vowell reminds us of George Washington's early failures in the war (and of those in the government who wanted to replace him) and that there used to be an "Evacuation Day" in New York City to celebrate the departure of the British. An enlightening and entertaining blend of history and edged attitude.

    COPYRIGHT(2015) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    September 1, 2015

    At the beginning of the American Revolutionary War, unemployed French soldiers seeking fame, incomes, and revenge against the British were anxious to join American forces. The Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834), inspired by revolutionary ideals and motivated by glory, was 19 when he left his wife and defied the king to volunteer in the colonials' noble rebellion. George Washington gambled on him and other imported soldiers, taking advantage of their eagerness and sometimes questionable skills and experience. Vowell (Unfamiliar Fishes), author, journalist, essayist, and commentator, wittily explores the enduring American affection for Lafayette, which was demonstrated by Americans' enthusiastic reception during his U.S. visit in 1824. She describes Lafayette's "military ardor"; his lust for glory and melodramatic, fawning manner; and his heroism, which benefitted the American cause while also reminding readers of bureaucratic incompetence, incongruities between principles and conduct (then and now), and even crucial French military and naval contributions to American independence (particularly at Yorktown). The author emphasizes that, despite current and past disunity, Americans possess the invaluable freedom to express opposing opinions. VERDICT Vowell's lively, droll style will attract readers to this cleverly crafted, well-researched book. It is especially recommended to those who are convinced that history is dry. [See Prepub Alert, 4/20/15.]--Margaret Kappanadze, Elmira Coll. Lib., NY

    Copyright 2015 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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