Newspaper article International New York Times

The Marquis De Lafayette and His Tour of America

Newspaper article International New York Times

The Marquis De Lafayette and His Tour of America

Article excerpt

Lafayette was hailed as a hero on his 1820s American tour.

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. By Sarah Vowell. Illustrated. 274 pages. Riverhead Books. $27.95.

The full name was Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, which was quite a mouthful for Yankee sensibilities, but the Marquis de Lafayette became one of the first American celebrities anyway. (The new nation had a sweet tooth for the flattery of Frenchmen. That's also how Tocqueville managed to freeload his way across the Northwest Territories.) Lafayette came over the Atlantic to fight in the American Revolution when he was 19. He went home to France and tried to be a centrist politician during that country's upheaval. This was rather like aspiring to be a pot roast in a den of wolverines.

But he survived the Revolution and the Terror, turned down a job in Napoleon's government, and in 1824, he returned to the United States at the invitation of James Monroe. He visited all 24 of the states at the time. The tour took more than a year, and Lafayette was cheered at every stop. He survived the sinking of his steamboat in the Ohio River, and lived to help lay the cornerstone of the Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown, Mass. He also survived an oration by Daniel Webster on that same occasion.

Now comes Sarah Vowell to bring the marquis back for another tour of the continent. Today, we have television historians. ("Tell us, Doris/Michael/Douglas: How does Bobby Jindal remind you of Burton Wheeler?") We also have martial historians, who provide the raw material for Tom Hanks to make yet another mini-series about the heroic efforts of white people. And then we have Ms. Vowell, who is an ambling historian.

In "Lafayette in the Somewhat United States," Ms. Vowell wanders through the history of the American Revolution and its immediate aftermath, using Lafayette's involvement in the war as a map, and bringing us all along in her perambulations -- with occasional side trips to such modern phenomena as Colonial Williamsburg, the many protesters who have flocked to Lafayette Square across from the White House, and Ms. …

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