During the frigid winter of 1777, at Valley Forge, Major General Lafayette wrote a letter to George Washington. The days of the Revolutionary War had rarely been darker or colder. When the Continental Army had reached Valley Forge, eleven days earlier, most soldiers marched barefoot, leaving bloody tracks on the frozen Pennsylvania ground. More than 2,500 would die that winter, from starvation, exposure, or disease. While the soldiers froze, a scandal erupted within the Continental Congress. A secretive cabal schemed to oust Washington as commander in chief of the army.

“I see plainly that America can defend herself if proper measures[s] are taken and now I begin to fear that she could be lost by herself and her own sons,” Lafayette wrote. “When I was in Europe I thought that here almost every man was a lover of liberty and would rather die free than live [a] slave.… However at that time I believed that all good Americans were united together, that the confidence of Congress in you was unbounded.”

Lafayette in the
Somewhat United States

by Sarah Vowell
Riverhead Books, 288 pp.

The cabal would be defeated, and Washington would march the army out of Valley Forge, and three long years later Charles Cornwallis would surrender the British army at Yorktown—but as Lafayette’s letter illustrates, disunion was as dangerous an enemy as the Redcoats. The United States won its independence, but it was a victory marred by political spats, infighting, tactical errors, and enormous debt. Sarah Vowell’s new book, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, is an engaging reminder that America has never been anything but a (somewhat) dysfunctional country. This is no rose-colored ode to the Founding Fathers. “In the United States,” she writes, “there was no simpler, more agreeable time.”

And that’s the key to Vowell’s understanding of U.S. history. It’s a deceptively simple idea that in Vowell’s hands feels like something more. Why? Because she’s not a historian. She’s an essayist, a former contributing editor to National Public Radio’s This American Life, who often writes in the first person, adopting the persona of a wry, wise-cracking observer of people. In an aside in Lafayette, Vowell describes herself as a “historian-adjacent, narrative nonfiction wise guy”—a canny, self-deprecating way to absolve herself of an academic’s responsibility—who avoids convention as much as possible. It’s an effective posture. She writes about history, yes, but she’s no scholar.

While ostensibly a biography of the Marquis de Lafayette during his war years in America, Vowell’s book is really a meandering retelling of the Revolutionary War by way of anecdote. Lafayette is shaggy in a tremendous way, more an extended essay than a book. (“[T]here are,” as Vowell accurately notes, “plenty of straight-dope versions of the Revolutionary War in print.”) Vowell abandons the title figure for long stretches to indulge her curiosities and take historical field trips. She opines about modern-day political dysfunction at the slightest opportunity, jumping, for instance, from Charles Lee’s cowardice at the Battle of Monmouth to Chris Christie’s “traffic problems” in present-day Fort Lee.

One wonders, then, why Lafayette isn’t more focused on, well, Lafayette. There’s certainly no lack of material. He was a titan of American history, only nineteen years old when the Continental Congress commissioned him as an unpaid major general. Or, as Vowell puts it, “the French teenager who crossed the Atlantic on his own dime to volunteer to fight with George Washington.” He lived among the soldiers at Valley Forge, aided the French Revolution after the war in America, and fled his homeland during the Reign of Terror.

Vowell begins the book with Lafayette’s triumphant return to the United States in 1824, three decades after he had last set foot in America. As the last living general of the Continental Army, he arrived a national hero. A crowd of eighty thousand—almost 65 percent of all New Yorkers—gathered to welcome his ship in New York Harbor. Everywhere Lafayette went, he was honored with rapturous crowds, celebratory balls, and, in true American fashion, commemorative knickknacks stamped with illustrations of his face. He traveled the country, reuniting with comrades he hadn’t seen in years. Lafayette had returned at a remarkable moment in the young republic’s life: that November, for the first time, none of the presidential candidates were Founding Fathers. It is somehow fitting that voters didn’t end up electing any of them; neither John Quincy Adams nor Andrew Jackson secured an electoral majority, so Adams was chosen by the House of Representatives. “The bitter presidential campaign and the Lafayette hoopla were both amplified by the awareness of the passing of what was left of the Revolutionary generation,” Vowell writes. “Lafayette’s tour gave Americans one last chance to wave goodbye, not just to him, but also to the dwindling original patriots.”

Lafayette is not a biography. It’s a story about the union’s infancy. The Frenchman, used as a rhetorical device, becomes proof of Vowell’s maxim that there was no simple, more agreeable time in America. It’s easy to see why she does this. Lafayette came to America with naive ideals about self-government. He fought, left, then returned, decades later, with firsthand knowledge of the many ways in which people can screw it up. Who better to embody those messy anxieties than the man who saw democratic success in his adoptive country and then met abject failure in his native one?

Despite what politicians on the campaign trail may say about “bringing back” the country to its most unified days, Vowell doesn’t break a sweat knocking down stale theories of American greatness:

[D]isunity is the through line in the national plot—not necessarily as a failing, but as a free people’s privilege. And thanks to Lafayette and his cohorts in Washington’s army, plus the king of France and his navy, not to mention the founding dreamers who clearly did not think through what happens every time one citizen’s pursuit of happiness infuriates his neighbors, getting on each other’s nerves is our right.

The question that lingers throughout Lafayette is why this democracy has lasted. If America has such an exceptional form of government, what is it that makes it so special? The answer, says Vowell, lies in our freedom to permit and accommodate protest. That’s why she sets a handful of late scenes within Lafayette Park at the White House, a site that’s probably seen more civil disobedience than anywhere else in the country, and is only a couple hundred yards away from the president’s bed. America, she’s saying, has a tremendous tolerance for insurrection.

How does this theory apply, though, when “getting on each other’s nerves” through acts of protest doesn’t lead to political change? Framing America’s history around disunity does little to reflect on injustice committed against marginalized people. It recasts oppression as an argument between political actors with agency, not an act committed by the powerful against the weak. The truth, as Vowell admits, is much more complicated: “The most obvious threat to equality in eighteenth-century North America was not taxation without representation but slavery.” (She goes so far as to wonder if the United States would be better off if it had lost the war, since the British Empire abolished slavery in 1833.) It’s certainly not by accident that the book ends with a turn-of-the-century women’s suffrage protest in Lafayette Park. And, of course, Vowell understands that those Continental Army soldiers freezing to death in Valley Forge didn’t have much of a choice.

Vowell describes Valley Forge as “an embarrassment, a monstrous administrative and humanitarian fiasco, a self-inflicted wound.” And it was. Partisan feuds and bureaucratic neglect were rife. The army suffered through the winter with neither food nor clothing, not because supplies were low but because no reliable means of transportation existed to move them. The rebellion was nearly lost because the new government didn’t know how to govern. Vowell concludes,

The officers and politicians supplying the soldiery were no more experienced at getting blankets to the troops than the troops were at standing in a line and fending off Cornwallis and his veteran regulars, fighters well clothed and well fed through an efficient supply system whose kinks had been worked out over generations.

Dysfunction is the original sin of American politics; it’s an inextricable element of the democratic system. Maybe this is the ultimate lesson of Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. Even after America’s founders were united by the dream of disunion, after they asked their soldiers to shed blood in defense of that ideal, and after they learned, in the hardest ways, how to govern a people who wanted to exercise their rights, they still could not guarantee the country’s survival.

“That, to me, is the quintessential experience of living in the United States: constantly worrying whether or not the country is about to fall apart,” Vowell writes. But, when Lafayette returned to New York City as an old man, the eighty thousand people who crowded to meet him were not thinking of the future. Their minds were in the past, remembering a French teenager who abandoned his pregnant wife and family and home to fight for someone else’s revolution. Tomorrow could wait until the celebration ended.

Chris Heller

Chris Heller is a journalist who has written for the Atlantic, National Public Radio, GQ, and Pacific Standard magazine.