…at Lafayette College, that is. Last February I had the opportunity to join fellow members of the American Friends of Lafayette (yes, that’s a thing, and you can—and should—join by visiting this website) in the “reserved seating” section (that’s the second row, folks) of the absolutely packed Colton Chapel on the campus of Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. We were settled into the pews to hear Sarah Vowell discuss her New York Times bestseller, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States.
Lafayette College is, obviously, an apt place to hear someone expound upon the merits of Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette (say that five times fast). The college was founded in 1826 on the heels of the Marquis’ “Farewell Tour” of the United States, and aptly named for him “in memory and out of respect for the signal services rendered by General Lafayette in the great cause of freedom” (from the Charter of Lafayette College, Article I). Lafayette College isn’t the only place in the United States named for or out of respect of the Marquis—in her book, Vowell notes that “nowadays, Lafayette is a place, not a person,” and she makes an appropriate observation. According to Lafayette scholar (and AFofL president) Alan Hoffman, over 80 localities in the United States have been named in honor of the Marquis, with Fayetteville, North Carolina being the very first in 1783.
Place and landscape are interesting lenses through which to examine Lafayette’s relationship with the United States. Though his final resting place is in Paris, Lafayette is even buried in American soil–from Bunker Hill, as a matter of fact–collected in 1825.
Lafayette first ventured to the somewhat-not-yet-but-might-actually-be-if-Washington-can-keep-it-together United States in 1777. Lafayette’s first daybreak view was when he awoke in his bedchamber at Major Benjamin Huger’s home near Georgetown, South Carolina, after stepping off of the ship Victory the previous evening. Lafayette surveyed what was to him, a new world:
The next morning was beautiful. Everything around me was new to me, the room, the bed draped in delicate mosquito curtains…the strange new beauty of the landscape outside my windows, the luxuriant vegetation—all combined to produce a magical effect.
Vowell describes how Lafayette, in 1777, in his enthusiasm and naiveté, wasn’t entirely sure what he was looking at, but loved it. Lafayette surveyed scenes outside of his window that were, true to Vowell’s title, somewhat the United States—Congress declared independence from Great Britain a year earlier, but Parliament had yet to recognized it. Similarly, the very physical landscape Lafayette described was, well, schizophrenic. Huger’s Georgian-inspired South Carolina home where the ultimate patriot awoke that morning was nestled near a town named after—who else–King George III, yet Georgetown was a hotbed of patriotism that contributed to the infamy of everyone’s favorite Revolutionary rascal Mel Gibson Francis Marion.
Vowell’s text weaves us through the rest of Lafayette’s tenure in the somewhat-but-becoming-ever-closer-to-actually-being United States, all the way to up to Lafayette’s participation in the Siege of Yorktown, the somewhat-last-battle of the American Revolution.
But Lafayette’s relationship with the somewhat United States didn’t end there. In 1824 at the invitation of President James Monroe, the Marquis, now the last surviving general of the American Revolution, embarked on a “Farewell Tour” of the country he so passionately helped establish. A bona fide rock star, Lafayette arrived in New York to an estimated 80,000 screaming fans.
Let’s take a break for some quantitative population analysis:
|Population of New York:||123,000||7,000,000|
|Number of Screaming Fans:||80,000||4,000|
|Percentage of Population:||65.04%||0.06%|
Who’s the rockstar now?! A-hem…as I was saying…
Lafayette’s Farewell Tour of the United States included visits to the very places named in his honor—Fayetteville, North Carolina received him in March 1825—and places were renamed because of the tour (further proof that Lafayette had a powerful impact on the physical landscape of the United States, somewhat or otherwise). And just as he did in 1777, in 1824 Lafayette reemerged as a hero of the American cause. As Vowell pointed out in her talk at Lafayette College, the Marquis was an apolitical unifier who ushered in a new era of patriotism when the (somewhat) United States needed it the most. When Lafayette arrived, the country was in the midst of a heated election season—one that many felt would either break the young nation or peacefully transition it into a new phase of her existence without living vestiges of the original Revolutionary population to guide it. As Vowell argues, an anxious American populous united in a rally around the hero, and both Lafayette’s visit and the election of 1824 highlight what historian Robert Hay called “the desperate desire of the American people to maintain for as long as possible some physical and spiritual connection with the Revolutionary generation.”
All of this is to say nothing about Lafayette’s influential views on abolition, women’s rights, and other important reforms that, if he didn’t support directly, he was eventually called down to support (e.g., Evelyn Wotherspoon Wainwright’s 1920 pleading to a statue of Lafayette in D.C.’s Lafayette Square to “Speak, Lafayette, dead these hundred years but still living in the hearts of the American people.”) As Vowell argues in Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, the American people, and the rights and liberties they enjoy, would not be ours without a little help from our friends (see what I did there?)–one friend, specifically—the Marquis de Lafayette, and his constant contributions to the somewhat, ever growing, ever discoursing, ever revolutionary United States. I encourage you to check out Sarah Vowell’s book, and learn more about why Lafayette is permanently fixed on the landscape of the United States of America—and in the hearts and minds of its citizens. No somewhat about it.
Robert P. Hay, “The American Revolution Twice Recalled: Lafayette’s Visit and the Election of 1824,” Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 69, Issue 1, pp 43-62.
Sarah Vowell, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, New York: Riverhead Books, 2015.