In Lafayette city looking for a friend

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Lafayette symbolizes many things for Vowell: the ideals of democratic government, the hard reality of those democracies, the tremendous debt early Americans owed to France and the importance of friendship. Like her books, such as Assassination VacationLafayette strikes witty blows against the stodgy sorts of U. It's less a history book than a collection of stories. I spoke with her last week about her work, her opinion of Lafayette, why she doesn't consider herself a historian, and what she admires about the hit Broadway musical Hamilton.

That question always stumps me. There are so many answers to that. There's a statue of Lafayette in the square and it's right next to the sidewalk, so I walked by him pretty much every day. He was one of my neighbors so I was always thinking about him. And also, I had written a shorter piece a of years ago about Lafeyette's return trip to America in Was that the story that appeared on This American Life? Yes, yeah. It was for a show about reunions and that piece was a very kind of sentimental journey, literally, about how he came back in He was invited by President Monroe, he stays for over a year and the whole country goes berserk for him.

It's just Lafayette mania. Two-thirds of the population of New York City meets his ship. Every night is a party in his honor.

In Lafayette city looking for a friend

And I guess the reason that story attracted me was because of the consensus that the whole country embraced him. Bythe Civil War is pretty much a foregone conclusion.

In Lafayette city looking for a friend

But because he was a Frenchman and because he was the last living general from Washington's army, the whole country—north and south, left and right—he belonged to everyone and that seemed so exotic to me. So Lafeyette comes back to America injust shy of 50 years after the revolution. Eighty thousand people meet him at New York Harbor. It's an enormous crowd. I think there are a few reasons. He is, basically, the most obvious personification of America's alliance with France in the war. And Americans back then were still grateful for French money and gunpowder and soldiers and sailors.

In Lafayette city looking for a friend

The help from the French government was the deciding factor in the revolution. Lafayette was the most swashbuckling symbol of that. There was also, then and now, a great reverence and almost a religious love for George Washington. Lafayette had served with Washington and became his de facto adopted son—Lafayette was an orphan and Washington had no biological children of his own—so their relationship was very close.

And so, he was so identified with Washington. The visit also coincided with the presidential election ofwhich is basically the first election when Americans had to vote for a non-founding father. There was this nostalgia, this kind of national moment of reflection about how the country had to continue on without its fathers. Lafeyette's secretary kept a diary during that whole trip. He marveled that these newspapers would be full of bile about presidential candidates, then Lafayette would show up, and the day's paper would be all like, "We 'heart' Lafayette.

Well, he has been a little bit forgotten, but I think you could say that about many, many figures in American history. I think the forgetting of Lafayette is just a symptom of the larger cultural amnesia. When I was starting my research on this book, there was this survey done by the American Revolution Center that said most adult Americans they didn't know what century the Revolution was fought in. They thought the Civil War came first. They didn't know the Bill of Rights was part of the Constitution. So yes, Lafayette is a little bit forgotten, but so are a lot of other things more important than him.

You mention in the book this idea that Lafeyette is no longer a person. His name is a bunch of places now. The most practical effect of his visit in the s was that everything started getting named after him. And I remember my friend just calling it "that big monument thing with all the Brooklyn streets.

In Lafayette city looking for a friend

It's natural that these people leave behind their names and their stories are forgotten, I suppose. But for me, every time I would walk, say, past the statue of Lafayette down towards Gansevoort Street, the whole city came alive. If there's any practical effect of learning about this stuff, it just makes the world more alive and interesting.

And it certainly makes walking around certain cities on the eastern seaboard more fascinating. Let's rewind five decades. Lafayette crosses the Atlantic inat age He abandons his pregnant wife—. He leaves behind a comfortable aristocratic life. His family doesn't even know what he's doing and it's all to fight in someone else's war.

Oh, for sure. I would distrust one who only made good decisions. There are a few reasons for his decision to fight. Lafayette married quite young. He's a teenager. He's the richest orphan in France, and he's kind of pounced upon by this very rich and powerful family, then he marries their daughter. His father-in-law wants him to get a cushy boring job at the French court and be a proper gentleman, but Lafayette is the descendant of soldiers. His ancestors are soldiers going back to the Middle Ages.

In Lafayette city looking for a friend

One of his ancestors fought with Joan of Arc. His father, who died when Lafayette was almost two years old, was killed by the British in battle during in the Seven Years War. That's one reason he's pretty gung ho to fight the British in America. He wants to be a soldier like his father before him and all the fathers before that. He's just one of many European soldiers who flocked to the American theater of war to volunteer with the rebels, some of them not for particularly idealistic reasons, but because they were out of a job.

The defense industry in Europe was downsizing. Lafayette is one of these Frenchmen who are coming over to fight. The other thing is, he got bitten by the Enlightenment bug and was enamored with ideals about liberty and equality. The letters he writes to his poor, knocked-up wife while he's crossing the ocean are incredibly idealistic. He says that the happiness of America will be bound up with the happiness of mankind, and then we'll establish a republic of virtue and honesty and tolerance and justice.

He's laying it on a little bit thick because he has just abandoned her. But it's still very stirring, and I do think he believed it. So after all of your research, after writing this book, spending a lot of time trying to get into his head, how do you feel about Lafayette? Do you like him?

In Lafayette city looking for a friend

Do I like him? Yes, I do like him. I am very fond of him. He's a very sentimental person I think part of that was his youth, maybe his being an orphan. Jefferson complained of his canine appetite for affection. Lafayette has this puppy-dog quality. Yeah, he was. But I like puppy dogs. And when push came to shove, Lafayette got the job done. For all of his French panache, he really did roll up his sleeves and set to work on behalf of the Americans. Maybe it was bound up with his lust for glory. Washington was constantly dealing with desertion crises.

His soldiers are deserting him in droves throughout the whole war. And who can blame them? They're not getting paid. They're not getting fed. There's frequently no water. A lot of them don't have shoes. It's a really crummy job. But then this kid shows up like a football player asking his coach to put him in the game. In his first battle, the Battle of Brandywine, he's wounded and barely notices because he's so busy trying to rally all the patriot soldiers to stand and fight.

He never turns down an asment. He's always ready to get in the game. And then, when he goes back home to Paris after the war, he's constantly helping the American ministers, Jefferson and Monroe, with boring economic stuff. There's not much glory in that. But Lafayette lobbied to get the whalers of Nantucket a contract to sell their whale oil to the city of Paris. That's real, boring, grownup friendship. And then to thank him, the whole island pooled all their milk and sent him a giant wheel of cheese. What was your question? The thing I like about nonfiction is you get to write about people.

The older I get, I feel I have more empathy In Lafayette city looking for a friend people's failings because I've had so much more experience with my own. Yes, he was an impetuous person. But generally, I think he was well intentioned.

And he also really did believe in these things that I believe in. So, yes. Is he a guy that I want to have a beer with? In this book, you describe yourself as "a historian adjacent narrative nonfiction wise guy. I don't think of that as self-deprecation. You're thinking of that as self-deprecation in the sense that a proper historian is above me on some hierarchy. I don't think that way at all. I meant that, in the book, it's played a little bit as a joke.

You're teasing yourself, right? I am, but I'm also teasing Sam Adams, because he says, ["If we do not beat them this fall will not the faithful Historian record it as our own Fault? And I also don't like being called a humorist. I don't think that's right, partly because my books are full of bummers. I reserve the right to be a total drag. I just consider myself a writer. That's one reason I don't have footnotes.

In Lafayette city looking for a friend

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Why Marquis de Lafayette Is Still America’s Best Friend