Lafayette and the Disunited States

In the November/December issue of the Washington Monthly, journalist Chris Heller has a review of a new book on Lafayette. Sarah Vowell’s Lafayette in the Somewhat United States is “more an extended essay than a book.” She is 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.

As the title suggests, a major theme of the book is that disunity is an enduring feature of American life which has been with us since the grim winter at Valley Forge. In fact, this contentiousness has been such a fixture in our history that it could almost be described as one of the defining characteristics of what it is to be American.

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…

“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.

Vowell’s basically uses Lafayette as a vehicle to explore these ideas. It’s an exercise in puncturing the rose-colored balloons of those who constantly hearken back to an idyllic golden age when Americans got everything right and largely agreed about how our society should be structured and governed.

Lafayette may have initially harbored those same illusions, but was quickly disabused.

You’ll want to read the whole thing.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com