Usually I try to take some time before reading a second book by the same author, but after listening to the soundtrack of Hamilton on repeat for the past couple weeks I couldn’t resist picking up a book about one of Hamilton’s cohorts. I went into this book feeling fairly cocky because once you’ve heard Lafayette rap while going into battle it’s hard to believe there’s anything you don’t know about him. Turns out I didn’t know a lot about him. After reading Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell I now feel pretty darn cocky while listening to Lafayette rap. Thus proving that while “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know” may be true, it’s also true that the more you know the more turned up your nose goes. (Try saying that sentence out loud three times fast.)
The last book I read by Sarah Vowell was Take The Cannoli which while still filled with historical facts and stories, was more of a collection of essays delving into how Sarah Vowell relates to the history of her country. Lafayette in the Somewhat United States focuses on, as the title indicates, Lafayette’s adventures and influence in and on the American Revolution. This book did take me a little bit longer to get through simply because even with Sarah Vowell’s humor and wit, reading about battles seems to be a struggle for me. Despite occasionally thinking, “Yes, they fought a battle and then they’re going to fight another battle please stop fighting already get to the sex scandals, oh wait no that’s Hamilton…damn.” I never wanted to put the book down.
Vowell manages to mix just enough personal observations into facts to keep me fully engaged and curious. One of the things I actually really like about Vowell is that she doesn’t mind going into what if’s. This isn’t something as a historian you probably don’t want to do too much because it could lead to a labyrinth of rabbit holes, but occasionally it’s interesting. What if Washington hadn’t made a couple of mistakes and lost the Battle of Brandywine? What if the American Revolution never happened in the first place? As Vowell points out, if we hadn’t fought the Revolution in the first place and stayed under British rule, slavery would have been outlawed almost sixty years sooner. That’s a pretty significant thing to think about.
Vowell doesn’t just tell us what happened, she sits in judgement. Which is so much more fun than reading history in a nonjudgemental way. There’s a moment when Vowell says, “While history might be full of exemplary fathers, recorded history is not where to find them.” This is not something I’ve heard any history teacher talk about. Yes, these men fought a war for freedom, and started a democracy, U-rah-rah USA, but what about their families? These guys were not always the best of people and they made plenty of mistakes. Reading about history is a lot easier when you take the people off the history book pedestals and acknowledge that they’re human and Vowell does an excellent job of just that.