On Finally Getting to See “Hamilton”


“I saw her just up Broadway a couple of blocks. She was going to see a play.”

Here ye, here ye! My name is Rachel Lesch and I present free thoughts on Hamilton: An American Musical.

Mom, Aunt Pat, and I took the 11:30am bus into New York City. The trip took about an hour because the traffic was insane, man. We had a quick lunch at Schnippers across the street for Port Authority before heading to Richard Rogers Theater. Because it is June, our Playbills were Pride Month themed.


“What time is? Showtime!”



“Alexander Hamilton,” the opening number, received a massive ovation, especially during the entrance of lead actor, Michael Luwoye. Daniel Breaker, who played Aaron Burr, has a hoity-toity snooty sounding voice which was different from Leslie Odom Jr. (the original Aaron Burr) who sang the part with a smooth menace. He did well but I thought he sounded a bit weak during “Dear Theodosia.”

When Peggy (Joanna A. Jones) is complaining during “Schuyler Sisters,” Eliza (Lexi Lawson) puts her hands on Peggy’s shoulders and is like “shut up Peg.”


Angelica and Eliza during “Schuyler Sisters”

When Peggy (Joanna A. Jones who is double cast as Maria Reynolds) is complaining during “Schuyler Sisters,” Eliza (Lexi Lawson) puts her hands on Peggy’s shoulders and is like “shut up Peg.”  One of the students in the common dances around Eliza flirtatiously at one point during the song. George Washington (Bryan Terrell Clark) sang the lines “Can I be real a second?” and “Elegance and eloquence” a sarcastically during “Right Hand Man.” I thought that Clark’s voice did not quite fit the role of George Washington. It does not have the deep and commanding quality that I imagine the character having. 

There was an “eyes-meeting-across-the-ballroom” moment between Hamilton and Eliza during “Helpless.” Their kiss at the end of “Helpless” was long and steamy, so when John Laurens (Anthony Lee Medina: who is double cast as Philip Hamilton) says “Alright, Alright, that’s what I’m talking about” at the beginning of “Satisfied,” he interrupts their kiss with suggestive pelvic thrusts. The line “I romanticize what might have been” made me think maybe Angelica is looking back on her first meeting with Hamilton with rose-colored glasses. She is making more of her connection with him than there perhaps really was. One of Hamilton’s biggest historical inaccuracies is that Angelica is presented as still eligible whereas in real life she was already married by the time she met Hamilton. According to the show’s logic, if Hamilton preferred Angelica over her sister Eliza, he would have married her instead. Eliza is seen dancing with Burr when she first notices Hamilton at the ball.

During Hamilton’s narration at the beginning of “Stay Alive,” Eliza is seen reading a letter, so his words are meant to be a letter home. Read coat soldiers march in front of where Eliza is standing during “Stay Alive,” so it kind of looks like she is a British prisoner. I imagine that Eliza must have had to be careful since as the daughter of a general in Continental Army and the wife of George Washington’s right-hand man, she would have made a valuable hostage. Eliza and Angelica are frequently seen in the background during the war scenes, showing that Hamilton is thinking of the women he loves.

When King George III (Euan Morton) sings the line “I’m so blue” he stamps his foot petulantly and the spotlight changes from red to blue. When King George III (Euan Morton) sings the line “I’m so blue” he stamps his foot petulantly and the spotlight changes from red to blue. The use of color in the production design is the stuff of lengthy analytical essays. Hamilton’s arrival home from the war and reunion with the pregnant Eliza is lit in blue, Eliza’s signature color, which is calm and soothing. Eliza and Angelica, who wears a pale shade of rose pink, are warm and comforting forces in Hamilton’s life and their pastel shades reflect this. There is an interesting parallel between “Non-Stop” and “Take a Break.” Both songs end with Angelica and Eliza each holding one of Hamilton’s hands and him breaking away from them, first to go and be Secretary of the Treasury, then to stay home from a family vacation.

The dress that Eliza wears during “Non-Stop” and “Take a Break” is a pale turquoise: her blue mixed with Hamilton’s green. As his wife and the mother of their children, her identity is an extension of his. After his betrayal with Maria Reynolds, the sultry siren in the red dress, she goes back to wearing the pale blue she wore before their marriage. Red is a color associated with danger and is used as visual shorthand to say that Maria Reynolds is bad news. It also clashes with green, Hamilton’s signature color, showing that his relationship with Maria is wrong. Eliza, the saintly wife, is dressed in Virgin Mary blue while Maria, the mistress, is a literal scarlet woman. During “The Reynolds Pamphlet” Maria is seen reading the titular pamphlet, in which she is named and shamed, and walks off stage with her head hung in disgrace. Eliza, the homemaker, is pitied by the public while Maria, the homewrecker, is reviled as a whore. Maria Reynolds is a character I loathe and despise but at this point, I almost felt sorry for her.

Hamilton and Eliza are fully reconciled by the bittersweet “Best of Wives and Best of Women” during which Eliza wears a dark teal dressing gown: her blue and his green mixed with the black of the mourning clothes they wore after the death of their son Philip. The Hamiltons are a united front again though sadder what wiser after all they’ve been through. When she widowed, Eliza wears pale blue again, signaling that she is her own woman.

James Monroe Iglehart, who plays the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson, made his entrance as Jefferson to thunderous applause. I saw him as the Genie in Aladdin and the Tony Award-winning actor is always a joy to watch but I think he did better as Jefferson than as Lafayette. His voice is better suited to Jefferson’s jazz than Lafayette’s rapid-fire hip-hop. The songs that got the biggest reaction were George Washington’s parting song “One Last Time” and Eliza’s break up song “Burn.”

Lexi Lawson sounded broken and tearful during “Burn” which was a different take on the song. Phillipa Soo (the original Eliza) sang it with a steely intensity, using her words as pins to burst Hamilton’s bubble. I have always seen “Burn” as Eliza’s “Letterbomb” from American Idiot, where the love interest is pretty much telling the protagonist “fuck you, I’m done with your shit.” You can imagine that Lawson is going to eat a ton of ice cream and cry which is understandable in her situation. 

The feels hit me like Aaron Burr’s bullet during the second act. I do not think that I have ever had as big of an emotional reaction. The song “It’s Quiet Uptown” is known as a big tear jerker but it never had as big of an effect on me. Hamilton and Eliza’s reconciliation is seen as a beautiful moment of forgiveness but I’ve always seen it as one of the countless instances of a wife being expected to “be the better person” and forgive her husband for his transgressions when he probably would have just kicked her to the curb if she had done the same thing. Upon actually seeing the show, I confess that the scene moved me. You see how completely heartbroken Hamilton is following Philip’s death and how he blames himself (not unjustly) for the chain of events that lead to this tragic events. Eliza is aloof and ignores her husband even as he pleads for forgiveness. When she finally allows him to hold her hand, he breaks down crying and it’s a powerful moment.

The last ten minutes of Hamilton are a masterpiece of suspense as events hurtle at breakneck speed towards the climactic Hamilton/Burr duel. It’s ending is superb with Eliza explaining how she spent her half-century of widowhood carrying on her beloved husband’s legacy. Hamilton ushers Eliza in the spotlight where she takes her last breath and is finally able to join him in the afterlife. I was close to tears as I walked out of the theater.

After the show, we had dinner at the Heartland Brewery in Port Authority before getting on our bus back to New Jersey. We then had ice cream at a place called Magnifico’s on our way home. The perfect end to a perfect day.

I have the honor to be you, obdient servant,

R. Lesch


Alex, Eliza, and Historical Inacquracy


For starters, I very much enjoyed Alex and Eliza by Melissa de la Cruz. It’s very well written and the story is a page-turner. In the wake of the smash-hit musical Hamilton, a number of novels have come out telling the love story of Alexander Hamilton and Eliza Schuyler. Alex and Eliza is known as the fanfic/ romance novel version of this story, as opposed to more straightforward historical  fiction works like The Hamilton Affair (which I did not care for) and I, Eliza Hamilton (which I haven’t read but probably won’t, lest it give me The Hamilton Affair PTSD), and is the least historically accurate of the three.

Historical fiction is by nature, speculative. History itself often gives us only the bare bones of what happened and its the job of the author to provide the details. The courtship of Alexander Hamilton and Eliza Schuyler is an example of this. We know when they met, when they started courting, when they got engaged, and when they got married but we don’t everything that went into getting from one of these steps to another.

Alex and Eliza is heavily influenced by Pride and Prejudice, mainly in how the dynamic between its two protagonists is set up. Alexander Hamilton and Eliza Schuyler first met in 1777, when he was sent to relieve her father, General Philip Schuyler, of command after the Continental Army’s loss at Saratoga. In Alex and Eliza, this makes Eliza dislike the young colonel, though he becomes smitten with her. Alex is pranked by some of Eliza’s friends, who send him a note, supposedly from Eliza, saying that she will meet him in the barn at midnight. He is upset when she is a no-show.  A misunderstanding causes our hero and heroine to initially dislike each other.

Hamilton and Schuyler met again three years later in February of 1780 when she came to visit the Continental Army headquarters in Morristown New Jersey, which I visited a year ago. The official reason for her visit was to aid her aunt and uncle (her uncle was surgeon-general to the Continental Army) but there was an unspoken assumption that she was there to find a husband among the Continental Army’s eligible officers. Hamilton’s letters show that he was smitten with Eliza, who he described as “unmercifully handsome,” and they were engaged within three weeks. The couple are reintroduced in Alex and Eliza when her carriage breaks down and he comes to her rescue. They become reacquainted when she inoculates him against smallpox. I do not think that these events happened since if they had, it probably would have come up in the letters that Hamilton wrote to Eliza during their engagement and marriage (her letters to him, unfortunately, have not survived) but are not out of the realm of possibility.  Doctor Cochran, Eliza’s uncle, is best known for inoculating the troops stationed in Morristown against smallpox. Having Alex rescue Eliza is conforming to the tropes of romance novels. These are examples of the author fleshing out the bare bones of history but Alex and Eliza does contain some glaring historical inaccuracies.

John Andre- Did they or didn’t they?

British war hero John Andre spent some time with the Schuyler family as a guests/prisoner of General Philip Schuyler. From all accounts, Andre was a dashing a noble figure and Eliza Schuyler is believed to have had something of a crush on him. Andre was a talented artist and sketched a portrait of Eliza. Her later fiance, Alexander Hamilton said that he was jealous of Andre’s “talents.” Hamilton and Andre would later cross paths again because of Andre’s involvement in the Benedict Arnold Affair.

In Alex and Eliza, Eliza dances with Andre at a ball and is so taken with him that she says she would run away with him if he were to ask. Andre and Alex compete for Eliza’s attention during the ball. Later on, Eliza explains that Andre proposed to her but she refused because a relationship between the two of them would be impossible due to their being on opposite sides of the revolutionary war.

Henry Livington- Who?

The subplot with Henry Livingston, the man that Eliza’s family tries to marry her off to, is where Alex and Eliza feels the most fanfic like. It comes out of nowhere, just when Alex and Eliza are starting to become close. As the main obstacle to Alex and Eliza’s relationship, of course, he is a douche and an attempted rapist: he attempts to force himself on Eliza the night before their wedding and Alex comes to her rescue. Henry feels like a character in a fandom that Melissa de la Cruz did not like, so she paints him the worst possible light in her fanfic.

Henry Livingston in Alex and Eliza is the brother of socialite Kitty Livingston, a friend of Eliza’s and one of Hamilton’s early crushes. There appears to have been a Henry Livingston living in the correct place and around the right age to be this character but I could not find out if he was Kitty Livingston’s brother and he appears to have had no connection to the Schuylers.

Clothing- Frock Flicks would have a field day with this book. 

Eliza is described as wearing a pair of pantaloons under her dress which she describes as “risqué” and “French”. Pantaloons were indeed considered a risqué garment, associated with dancers and courtesans, not something a practical and respectable young lady living in the somewhat puritanical American colonies would wear.

It wouldn’t be for another forty or so years until we see pant-like garments commonly worn on females: pantalets, which worn under the shorter dresses of little girls.


H. A Friedrich-portrait of a noble girl, 1820s


Underdrawers would not be worn on all women until the mid 19th Century.


Underdrawers- 1840-60s

Aunt Gertrude, Eliza’s chaperone in Morristown is frequently described as wearing a blouse decorated with a cameo brooch. Women in the 18th Century would have worn a fitted bodice and skirt and what we would think of as a blouse would only be worn as part of a riding habit, rather than the domestic setting that de la Cruz puts Aunt Gertrude in.

Eliza’s boorish fiancé, Henry Livingston, insults the “jumper” that she wears in the first chapter he is introduced in. I had a hard time imagining what type of garment Eliza would be wearing in this scene. Jumper style gowns would not be worn until the 1790s, another ten or so years after Alex and Eliza takes place.


September 1796 Journal des Luxus und der Moden


Vigee Le Brun- Countess du Barry (1789)

I also thought that “jumper” could be a mistranslation of “jumps”, an unboned bodice worn in an informal setting.

Or it could refer to a bibbed apron

What universe is de la Cruz living in if she thinks that Eliza Schuyler in 1780 would dress like this?


Alex imagines Eliza wearing an “ivory wedding bonnet.” Wedding bonnets are more of a 19th rather than an 18th-century thing.


Wedding bonnet-1845



Wedding Bonnet- 1845

Bonnet could refer to the frilly caps which 18th Century women often wore.

This is an example of an outfit that Eliza might have worn to her wedding to Alex. The bergère hat could be the “wedding bonnet” Alex is referring to.


Wedding Dress of Jane Bailey (1780)


Wedding dress of Jane Bailey (1780)

At her actual wedding, Eliza is described as wearing a veil. Wedding veils are not usually an 18th Century thing. Typically a cap or hat or a fancy pouf hairstyle with all the trimmings would be worn. The bridal outfit we would recognize wouldn’t come into place until the 19th Century. Queen Victoria is credited with popularizing the white wedding dress.


Wedding Dress of Queen Victoria (1840)


Queen Victoria on her Wedding Day (1840)

The color white is associated with purity and virginity so it was an appropriate color for a bride but it would not become the traditional color for wedding dresses until the 19th century. A bride in the 18th Century would have worn her best dress or had a particularly fancy dress made. It would not necessarily be white.  The wartime wedding of Eliza Schuyler, a scion of one of New York’s most prominent families, would not be the high society extravaganza that it would have been during peacetime but Eliza would have wanted to look her best.



Some of the dresses worn in this story are described as being worn without a corset, especially those worn by the trim figured Peggy or the practical and unpretentious Eliza. An example of this is Eliza’s wedding dress. We have an image of corsets as a rib-crushing, patriarchy induced torture device worn only by the vain and frivolous or the old, overweight, and straight-laced but this is projecting our modern ideas of comfort onto the past. 18th Century women would have worn corsets from childhood and would have been used to it. Instead of warping the torso into an hour-glass shape with an impossibly tiny waist, corsets provide support for the bust and form a shelf from which the skirts hang. A dress worn without a corset would look sloppy and ill-fitting, not how even the tomboyish Eliza would wish to present herself on her wedding day.


Henry Livingston is described as having muttonchops, which are typically considered an 18th Century style.


General Ambrose Burnside (19th Century)- the namesake of the “sideburn”

Though we usually think of mutton chops or sideburns as a 19th-century style, it is possible that Henry Livingston would have worn something similar but less elaborate. 18th-century men were typically clean-shaven whereas elaborate facial hair is more of a 19th-century fashion trend.



The clothing described in the story seems to be a ye olde melange of 18th century, regency, and Victorian.

Despite all of the annoying inaccuracies, Alex and Eliza is enjoyable fluff and I would recommend it for your summer reading.

A Review of Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley


One of my favorite people on the planet is the historian, author, and television presenter, Lucy Worsley. I discovered her through the documentaries she has made and I always get excited when I hear that a new one is coming out, especially when the latest one was a tie in film for her latest book Jane Austen at Home.  In her documentaries, Worsley has outed herself as a Jane Austen fangirl. Austen is the poster girl for the Regency era and her books are synonymous with the era. In Jane Austen at Home, Austen is presented as a woman both ahead of her time and of her time. The stories she wrote reflected both her own life and the time period she lived in.  

The biggest paradox of Jane Austen’s life is that this godmother of romance novelists famously died an old maid. We have an image of her handed down to us of a prim spinster but Worsley’s biography tells us that she had a number of opportunities to marry. If Jane had married, the demands of running a household and raising a family may have prevented her from writing. Worsley’s argument is that Jane, independent and introverted, likely never had a serious inclination towards marriage. She was happiest when she was left alone to write, which is something I can relate to.

Worsley infectious enthusiasm for her subjects, which is evident in her documentaries, extends towards her writing. I have a difficulty reading nonfiction prose, finding it dry and boring, but as well as being a terrific television presence is also a great writer. Jane Austen at Home is a must read for those interested in the Regency period and for Jane fans in general.

Clarissa Book 2: The Perfect Guy



Much of the first two books of the novel Clarissa or the History of a Young Lady by Samuel Richardson is taken up with letters written between the heroine, Clarissa Harlowe, and her best friend, Anna Howe. The contents of these letters frequently discuss the most complicated and important question that young women in the eighteenth century would have to deal with: who they should they marry?

Clarissa’s main conflict so far has been whether or not she should bow to family’s pressure to marry the rich but repulsive Rodger Solmes or accept the protection of the dashing but rakish Robert Lovelace. Rejecting or accepting suitors is one of the few areas where a gentile young woman like Clarissa had a say in their life and often that was not even the case. Marriages were arranged by your families and dictated by the demands of your position in society with the feelings of those involved given very little consideration. What Clarissa is going through is an extreme example of what many young women in the eighteenth century went through: pressure to marry someone they do not love or even like.  

The central conceits of the story, which Richardson is trying to subvert, are the old adages that all girls want bad boys and a reformed rake makes the best husband. Clarissa insists that she was no particular interest in Lovelace but always comes to his defense when people bad mouth him. This shows the complexity and ambiguity of  Richardson’s writing. Because the story is told through letters, Clarissa and Lovelace’s relationship has a “he said/she said” element to it. Despite her protestations that she is not attracted to Lovelace, we get a sense that she is lying to herself. Lovelace is a man who has seduced and ruined the reputation of many women while Clarissa is a woman of great virtue and integrity. She does not want to admit that she has fallen for Lovelace’s charms. Lovelace uses the implication that her love can reform him to try to woo Clarissa but we can tell that this is only a ploy. Anna Howe is being courted by the respectable and devoted but dull Mr. Hickman who she, proto Jane Austen heroine that she is, enjoys making the victim of her sharp tongue: “If a man is rash enough to woo me, he must take me as I am.”  Hickman is the suitor encouraged by Anna’s mother and he is framed as a good man who would make a good husband. 

Upper Class women like a Anna and Clarissa would never have to work or be able to pursue a career, so choosing a husband would be decision that would define the rest of their lives. Marrying a good man with a comfortable income would lead to a happy and stable life while the opposite could lead to a life of misery. Through the letters written by Anna and Clarissa, Richardson explores what makes a man a good suitor and how a girl should choose who to marry. Should she follow her heart or the demands and expectations of her family? Should she chose someone attractive and exciting like Lovelace or someone respectable and reliable like Hickman.

Lafayette and the Beginnings of America’s Relationship with France


America’s relationship with France has always been complex. France is our traditional ally, on our side from the beginning and our supporter in World Wars I and II and yet we often dismiss them as effete, cowardly, fickle, and untrustworthy. This love-hate relationship was cemented during the American Revolution with the arrival of a young French nobleman named Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette.

Born in 1757, the Marquis de Lafayette was a member of one of France’s wealthiest and most distinguished families. His ancestors had established a proud family tradition of service in the French military and his father had died fighting against the British during the seven years war. From his childhood, Lafayette had dreamed of military glory and with the arrival of the American Revolution, he found his chance. Lafayette appears as a major character in the smash-hit Broadway musical Hamilton. In the musical number “My Shot” which serves as an “I want song” for Alexander Hamilton and his circle of young revolutionaries, Lafayette, played by a flamboyant and motor-mouthed Daveed Diggs, tells about what he hopes to get out the upcoming American Revolution: “I dream of life without a monarchy, the unrest in France will lead to ‘ornarchy? ‘Onarchy? How you say, how you say, ‘anarchy?” (Miranda 1:3).  As a young man who had grown up on the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment, Lafayette saw the revolution brewing in the Americas as the embodiment of these ideals and hoped that this fight for liberty would extend to his own country. His words in Hamilton foreshadow how France’s involvement in America’s war of independence is one of the factors that will lead to the French Revolution.

Factions in France were eager to aid the Americans in their war for independence as a way of getting back at Great Britain after France’s disastrous loss in the Seven Years War which resulted in the loss of most of its colonies. Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, France’s comptroller general of finance, warned Louis XVI that the realm’s diminished treasury could not take the strain of another military engagement: “The king knows that situation of his finances. By making premature use of our strengths, we risk the perpetuating of our weaknesses” (Vowell 52). Turgot’s worries would prove to be well founded since the economic collapse caused by France’s involvement in the Seven Years War (after which they were booted out of Canada and Louisiana) and the American War of Independence (on which they spent one billion livres) helped create the social unrest which lead to the French Revolution (52).

Despite Turgot’s warnings, Louis XVI agreed to send money and weapons to the American insurgents but this needed to be conducted in secret as to not alert the British. The plan that Louis and his ministers came up with involved the celebrated playwright Pierre Beaumarchais, who moonlighted as a spy and diplomat, setting up a fake company through which arms deals with the Americans could be transacted (54-5). Beaumarchais was the author of the smash hit plays The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro and because of his celebrity and the fact that he was the mind behind the crafty servant character Figaro, the French government trusted him with covert intelligence missions such as apprehending the cross-dressing secret agent the Chevalier d’Eon (39-40). This would be the equivalent of Lin-Manuel Miranda having a sideline as a C.I.A agent and participating as a go-between in secret government arms deals. Louis XVI publicly banned all French soldiers from volunteering in the American cause. When it came to the attention of his government that the Marquis de Lafayette, a high profile aristocrat, was planning on offering his military service to the Continental Army, they feared that their secret deals with Continental Congress would be exposed to the British and forbid Lafayette from going to America. Being an impetuous nineteen-year-old, Lafayette went behind the backs of the French government, and his own family, and set sail for the thirteen colonies. In Hamilton, Lafayette describes his journey during the musical number “Aaron Burr, Sir” as “I came from afar just to say bonsoir, tell the king: Casse-toi” (Miranda 1:2). Casse-toi roughly translates to  “go away” or “beat it” and carries the same weight as “fuck you.” Lafayette was a very young man when he left to fight for the American cause and his disobedience of orders from the French establishment was essentially an act of youthful rebellion.

Lafayette arrived in the Americas during the summer of 1777 with the promise of a major general’s commission in the Continental Army from Silas Deane, the first American diplomat sent to France. He was not the only French noble to join the American cause but was the most prominent. The American Continental Congress was skeptical of these haughty aristocrats, believing their commitment to the cause of independence was insincere and self-serving. George Washington complained about them on several occasions: “These men have no attachment to nor ties to the country” (Vowell 76), “This evil, if I may call it so, is a growing one; for, from what I learn, they are coming in swarms from old France” he wrote in a letter dated February 20th, 1777, “….Their ignorance of our language and their inability to recruit men, are insurmountable obstacles to their being ingrafted into our continental battalions; for our officers who have raised their men, and have served through the war upon pay that has hitherto not borne their expenses, would be disgusted if foreigners were put over their hands” (76). But Lafayette’s wealth and connections, as well as the fact that he offered to work for free, gained their attention and they granted him the commission he wanted.

At twenty years old, Lafayette was the youngest general in the Continental Army. He distinguished himself militarily at the Battle of Brandywine (September 11th, 1777) rallying his troops into an orderly retreat. Though he was shot in the leg and badly injured, Lafayette refused to leave the battle. George Washington told the doctor who was tending the wounded to take care of Lafayette “as if he were my own son.” This was due to Washington’s paternal affection for the young Marquis as well as a fear that if anything happened to Lafayette, it would jeopardize America’s possible alliance with France, of which Lafayette was symbolic (Bridgers).

Lafayette’s exemplary behavior at the Battle of Brandywine and the Continental Army’s subsequent military successes turned public opinion in France in favor of aiding the cause of American independence (Vowell 127). The Comte de Ségur, a friend of Lafayette’s who would later serve in the French forces in the Americas, wrote: “When Paris heard rumors of the first battles in which Lafayette and his companions did honor to the name of Frenchmen, there was general approval. The very persons who had blamed him the most for his bold enterprise now applauded him. The court showed itself almost proud of him and all the young men envied him. Thus public opinion, turning more and more towards war, made it inevitable and inevitably dragged a government too weak to resist in the same direction” (127).

Benjamin Franklin, America’s senior-most diplomat, had been secretly dispatched to France in 1776 in order to secure an official alliance. The seventy-year-old Franklin’s American contemporaries had inherited that traditional British antipathy towards the French but he quickly took to life in France (Hovd). His reputation as a scientist and philosopher gained him admittance into Parisian high society and his charisma and carefully crafted image of rustic simplicity charmed them, specifically the flirtatious, sophisticated, and well-connected ladies of the Parisian salons. Portraits of Franklin and other Franklin memorabilia were popular with the French public and the beaver fur hats he was known to wear became a much-copied fashion accessory.  Franklin approached the Comte de Vergennes, Louis XVI’s foreign minister, with the prospect of an alliance. Vergennes and the French government were doubtful of the ability of the Continental Army to win against the British, especially after the Continental Army lost the strategically important Fort Ticonderoga on July 5th, 1777) and refused a formal alliance but agreed to covertly send aid. Franklin continued diplomatic negotiations with Vergennes for over a year.

As a person of interest, Franklin was watched by a network of spies and informants set up by the British, which included his own secretary, Edward Bancroft, alternated his loyalties between the British and the Americans. The urbane Franklin wrote of this situation: “It is impossible to uncover the falsity of pretended friends. If I was sure that my valet was a spy, which he probably is, I wouldn’t dream of discharging him for that fact, if, of course, he was a good valet” (Hovd).  A British diplomat was sent to meet with Franklin in Paris to discuss a possible peace. Franklin masterfully played the British and French against each other. His meetings with both sides allowed each to think that he would side with the other. The possibility of an Anglo-American rapprochement forced Vergennes’s hand (Hovd).  After a significant American victory at Saratoga, the French became to take the Americans seriously as a potential ally (Blumer Episode 4).

The treaty of Alliance between France and America was signed on February 6th, 1778 and promised mutually military aid. It was celebrated with a dinner hosted by Vergennes at which Franklin was given the chair traditionally reserved for the British ambassador ( Vowell 176-7). Franklin gloated to an acquaintance: “This alliance will serve to keep the English bull quiet and make him behave himself. His horns have been shortened” (Blumer Episode 4). Louis XVI later regretted the decision to aid the Americans due to the financial demands it made on him. Over a decade later, when he was asked by the Indian leader Tipu Sultan of Mysore for help in his conflict with the British East India Company, Louis wrote “This occasion greatly resembles the American affair of which I never think without regret. On that occasion, they took advantage of my youth, and today we are paying the price for it.”

Louis XVI dispatched Admiral the Comte d’Estaing to North America in April of 1778 with a fleet of twelve ships and four thousands troops. The first joint military effort between the Continental Army and its French allies was the Battle of Rhode Island; the colony of Rhode Island had been under British occupation since 1776. D’Estaing and General John Sullivan were unable to coordinate their plans for the invasion of Rhode Island and d’Estaing chose to withdraw his forces in order to combat a fleet commanded by Lord Richard Howe. Both fleets were damaged by a storm, rendering d’Estaing’s forces unable to assist in the Rhode Island campaign and caused them to retreat to Boston for repairs. John Sullivan and Nathaniel Greene, the generals in charge of the Rhode Island campaign, feared that d’Estaing’s withdrawal would threaten the Franco-American alliance. Sullivan complained to Henry Laurens, a continental congressman from South Carolina, that d’Estaing’s letdown “has raised every voice against the French nation, revived all those ancient prejudices against the faith and sincerity of that people, and inclines them most heartily to curse the new alliance,” (Vowell 201). Lauren’s son, John, wrote to his father: “I saw very plainly when I was at Boston that our ancient hereditary prejudices were far from being eradicated” (205). The American colonies had disassociated themselves from Great Britain only a few years earlier but the distrust and animosity towards the French that they had inherited from their English forebears went as far back as William the Conqueror.  

During his sojourn in the Americas, the Marquis de Lafayette formed close relationships with a number of prominent, and soon to be prominent, Americans, most notably George Washington who, being childless, was known to take a paternal interest in his young aids-de-camp whom he referred to as “my family,” which included Alexander Hamilton (future first US treasury secretary), John Laurens (the son of South Carolina congressman Henry Laurens),  and Benedict Arnold (who would later betray the American cause by defecting to the British ). Hamilton, Lafayette, and Laurens were inseparable friends and were referred to as the “gay (meaning happy and lighthearted) trio.” Washington affectionately referred to Lafayette as “my boy” and Lafayette saw Washington as a father figure. As a favored son of George Washington and a high ranking French aristocrat, Lafayette was an important symbol of the Franco-American alliance. Lord Cornwallis, a British general, vowed to capture Lafayette saying “the boy will not escape me,” (Vowell 223).

In January of 1779, Lafayette returned to France. Despite a brief house arrest as punishment for disobeying the French government, he was treated to a hero’s welcome. “I had the honor of being consulted by all the ministers,” he described, “and of being kissed by all the ladies,” (210). With the help of his devoted and well-connected wife, Adrienne de Noailles, he persistently lobbied for continued French aid of their American allies. Lafayette and Washington affectionately wrote to one another about what life might be like after the war:

“Be so kind, mon cher général,” Lafayette wrote,

“As to present my best regards to your lady and do not tell her, but, I have a wife who is madly in love with you. My feelings for you are too strong that I cannot object to her feelings and indeed all of Europe wants to see you, so much that I have boldly affirmed that after peace is settled, mon cher général, how happy I will be to embrace you again.”

“My dear Marquis,” Washington replied,

“You invited me to visit France after independence. Remember my friend, I do not speak your language and I am too old to learn it. I cannot bear the idea that I would appear awkward and insipid in front of the ladies, especially in front of your young wife. Convey to her in any event, my most tender affection, and don’t be afraid of a rival. Alas, in all of history, there is no example of a young woman preferring an old man if she follows her own real inclinations.”

(Blumer Episode 5)

During this time, Adrienne gave birth to a son named Georges Washington de Lafayette, after her husband’s beloved mentor. Vergennes ordered Lafayette back to America in March of 1780, promising to send along reinforcements.

On July 10th, 1780, a French fleet under the command of the Comte de Rochambeau arrived in Newport carrying six thousand troops. Lafayette expected to be put in command of these troops but command was given instead to Rochambeau, a much more experienced commander. He acted as an interpreter between Rochambeau (who did not speak English) and Washington (who did not speak French) during their first meeting. The cautious Rochambeau was hesitant to commit his because it was still uncertain whether or not the Americas had a chance of winning the war but the French continued to send aid in money, supplies, and troops (Bridgers). Rochambeau was unimpressed with the Continental Army and wrote to the French minister of war:

“Monsieur, the country is ruined. They have nothing, not a single coin. Washington’s army grows and shrinks from moment to moment. Sometimes, he claims to have fifteen thousand troops, sometimes, only three thousand. Send men, money, and ships but do not count on any help from these people.”

(Blumer Episode 5)

Stuck in Rhode Island for reinforcements, Rochambeau’s forces were able to do little except drill. Lafayette wrote to Rochambeau, urging him to take action:

“Monsieur le Comte, here I find myself in the middle of a foreign land with the French army sitting idle in Rhode Island. The talk among the Tories and the English is that France has come to stir up fire but not fight themselves. How am I to answer them when you are guarding an Island that nobody in America cares about. Whatever troops you are expecting next year from France, whatever plans you have for the future will not make up for the fatal harm of your inaction now. We must do battle and my vanity makes me believe that we French can never be beaten.”

Rochambeau responded with a biting put down of Lafayette’s overzealousness and inexperience:

“My dear fellow, I’ll let you in on one of my great secrets learned from years of experience: Frenchmen aren’t invincible. Our troops are easily beaten when they lose confidence in their leaders and they do it very quickly when they see that their lives are being risked to satisfy some general’s personal ambition. Perhaps the warmth of your spirit has, for the moment, gotten the better part of your sound judgment. Keep this fire for when we actually go into battle.”

(Blumer Episode 5)

Washington and his generals speculated as to whether or not the decisive battle of the war would take place in New York or Virginia. The decision was made when Lord Cornwallis’s troops found themselves stranded in Yorktown, Virginia, giving Washington and Rochambeau an opportunity for a conclusive victory. They moved their troops south to Yorktown and a French fleet under Admiral de Grasse left the Caribbean (where it had been protecting France’s valuable sugar islands) into the Chesapeake Bay. Due to an obligation in the Caribbean and the upcoming hurricane season, de Grasse’s fleet was only available for two weeks in early October. On October 9th, 1781, Washington ordered his artillery to bombard Cornwallis’s encampments. Lafayette was given overall command of an assignment to capture two heavily fortified British redoubts. He divided up command of his two brigades between his friends John Laurens and Alexander Hamilton. The signal to begin the attack was “Rochambeau” which sounded like “rush-on-boys” when pronounced quickly. Lafayette’s French forces attacked redoubt number nine while Hamilton’s American forces attacked redoubt ten. The mission was a success and accomplished within thirty minutes.

On October 17th, the Siege of Yorktown ended with a British surrender. Lafayette wrote to the Comte de Maurepas, the French prime minister “The play, sir, is over-and the fifth act has just been closed” (Vowell 255). He returned to his wife’s family home, the Hôtel de Noailles, in  Paris on 21 January 1782. His wife Adrienne was a lady in waiting, or dame d’honneur, to Queen Marie Antoinette, who gave Adrienne a ride to the Hôtel de Noailles in her own carriage and graciously welcomed Lafayette back to France, despite the fact that she personally disliked him, having given him the nickname “blondinet” because of his red hair and had mocked his clumsy dancing in the past (Fraser 319). In response to Marie Antoinette’s generosity, Lafayette sniped that the cost of a subsequent court ball could have equipped a whole regiment in America (194). Louis XVI gave Lafayette the Cross of Saint-Louis, France’s highest military honor, and Lafayette was also given the title of “Hero of the Two Worlds.” Among Lafayette’s parting words in Hamilton are “I go back to France, I bring freedom to my country if I’m given the chance” (Miranda 1:19). After the storming of the Bastille Fortress in Paris on July 14th, 1789, Lafayette was named head of France’s national guard and one of the leading members of the New French Republic’s National Assembly.

Peace negotiations between the Americans and Great Britain were complicated and took two years to work out. They were finalized with the Treaty of Paris of 1783. The American delegation struck a deal with Britain, which violated their treaty with France. In exchange for its help, France was given control of the island of Tobago. Vergennes predicted that “We shall be but poorly paid for that we have done for the United States, and for securing them a national existence” (Vowell 257).

Thomas Jefferson succeed Benjamin Franklin as the American ambassador in France and was stationed in Paris from 1784-9. After their involvement in the American Revolution, factions in France were eager to see reform in their own country. Jefferson wrote home to George Washington: “The nation has been awakened by our revolution, they feel their strength, they are enlightened, their lights are spreading and they will not retrograde” (Chernow 316). Among Jefferson’s accomplishments as ambassador was to help Lafayette draft the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which established the new French Republic in 1789.

After the ratification of the Constitution in 1787, the former American colonies officially became the United States of America but they were united in name only. Two political parties had formed with vastly different ideals of how the new country should be run. The Federalists (also known as Hamiltonians, after party head Alexander Hamilton) wanted a strong central government, mercantile based economy, and for US foreign policy to align with Great Britain as a useful trading partner. The anti-federalists (also known as Democratic-Republicans of Jeffersonians, after their leader Thomas Jefferson), wanted an agriculture-based economy, government run at local and small-scale level, and for US foreign policy to be aligned with the French, our closest ally. With the onset of the French Revolution, Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians were divided further. Jeffersonians saw the French Revolution as an extension of America’s own fight for liberty and that since the French were our allies, we had an obligation to help them. They referred to themselves as Jacobins, France’s radical left-wing party, and greeted each other as “citizen” and “citizeness”, the preferred form of address among French revolutionaries. Hamiltonians feared the revolution’s radical nature and thought that their newborn nation was too weak and unstable to get involved in foreign conflicts. They saw the revolution as violent and destructive in how it dealt with the ancien regime aristocracy  (Hamilton and his wife, Elizabeth, socialized with and provided financial aid to aristocratic refugees from revolutionary France). The idealism that some Americans felt when it came to the French Revolution was disillusioned by the Reign of Terror, which claimed Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, among its thousands of victims. John Adams warned that “Danton, Robespierre, Marat, etc. are furies. Dragons’ teeth have been sown in France and will come up as monsters” (434).

In the musical number “Cabinet Battle #2” from Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton wins a debate against Thomas over whether or not the US should get involved in the French Revolution. Hamilton’s argument is that they made the treaty that supposedly bound them to France with a king that the revolutionaries executed, making said treaty null and void “We signed a treaty with a king whose head is now in a basket, would you like to take it out and ask it? Should we honor our treaty, King Louis’s head? Uh, do whatever you want, I’m super dead” (Miranda 2:7). George Washington agrees with Hamilton for the reason that the fledgling United States is not strong enough to get involved in another war: “We’re too fragile to start another fight” (2:7). Jefferson then says to Hamilton: “Did you forget Lafayette?…Have you an ounce of regret?…yet in their hour of need you forget” (2:7).

As the French Revolution became increasingly radical, it eventually turned against Lafayette, blaming him, as head of the National Guard, for several lapses in security such as the royal family’s flight to Varennes. He fled from France and was captured by the Austrians, who were at war with France due to the execution of Queen Marie Antoinette, who had been born an Austrian archduchess. Adrienne was imprisoned in France and was spared the guillotine due to the lobbying of future president James Monroe and his wife Elizabeth, who visited her in prison. The Monroes helped secure passage for Adrienne her daughters to join Lafayette in Austria. Georges Washington de Lafayette came to the United States where he lived for a while with his namesake’s family at Mount Vernon and attended Harvard University.

The US government was divided as to whether or not it should support the new French Republic, which was at war with its monarchist neighbors, including Great Britain, who the Federalists wanted to do business with. George Washington’s administration issued an official policy of neutrality. Debt repayments to France were stopped for the reason that the US had made an alliance with the Kingdom of France, not the new French Republic. Edmund Genêt, a French emissary, arrived in the US in 1793 to gather American support for the French Revolution and started hiring American ships to fight the British Navy. Both the French and British navies impressed American ships and soldiers during the 1790s. Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians came to an agreement that this violated America’s policy of neutrality. Diplomat John Jay was sent to London to negotiate what would later be called the Jay Treaty, a weak truce between the US and Great Britain which attempted to resolve lingering issues between the two countries left over from the War of Independence. It granted Great Britain most favorable trade nation status. The French were offended by the Jay Treaty because they felt that it violated the Franco-American Treaty of 1778 and perceived it as the US being too friendly with Great Britain, its longtime rival and started attacking American merchant ships in response.

John Adams was elected the second president of the United States in 1796. In 1797, Adams sent representatives, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, John Marshall, and Elbridge Gerry, over to France to negotiate a peace agreement. Three French representatives known as X, Y, and Z (their true names were left out of the official reports of the incident because Adams knew that he might have to use them again the future) approached them and demanded a bribe of $250,000 in exchange for them being allowed to meet with Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, the French foreign minister. The United States government was incensed and refused these demands. John Adams wrote in a June 1798 message to Congress: “I will never send another minister to France without assurances that he will be received, respected, and honor as the representative of a great, free, powerful, and independent nation.”  Federalists and those who supported war with France adopted that slogan “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute!” On July 7th, 1798, the United States Congress authorized the Navy to seek and destroy French vessels. Over the next two years (1798-1800) the US military, specifically its navy, engaged in an unofficial conflict with France known as the Quasi-War which mostly consisted of naval warfare in the Atlantic and the Caribbean. To weaken the French, the US supported a revolution in Haiti, one of the France’s most valuable colonies. During this unofficial war, the US Navy captured eighty-five French ships, only losing one, the USS Retaliation, which faced off against two French ships off of the West Indies on November 20th, 1798, and surrendered because it was greatly outnumbered. The Quasi-War saw the establishment of a permanent US Navy and Marine Corps. In 1798, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts which made it more difficult for immigrants to become US citizens, gave the president the authority to deport any immigrant from a hostile foreign power or who was seen as a threat to national security and made speaking out against the government an offense punishable by imprisonment. The Alien and Sedition Acts had repercussions which resonated throughout the first half of the nineteenth century.

John Adams wanted to avoid a bigger war with France which the US was unprepared for. The new leader of the French Republic, Napoleon Bonaparte asked Adams to send over new representatives. The Convention of 1800, also known as the Treaty of Mortefontaine, ended the Franco-American alliance and the Quasi-War.

In 1824, the sixty-seven-year-old Lafayette returned to the United States and was feted as a national celebrity. His visit was commemorated with the very American phenomenon or souvenirs. Lafayette encountered a lady at a ball wearing gloves with his face on them and was reported as saying “a few graceful words to the effect that he did not care to kiss himself “ (Vowell 6). During his year-long tour of the United States, Lafayette paid a tear-filled visit to George Washington’s tomb at Mount Vernon, called upon Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, and dropped in to see Elizabeth Schuyler, the widow of his old friend, Alexander Hamilton.

The Marquis de Lafayette died in 1834 at the age of seventy-seven and was buried in Paris’s Picpus Cemetery. His son, Georges Washington de Lafayette, sprinkled dirt from Bunker Hill on his casket, fulfilling his wish that he be buried in both French and American soil. Eighty-three years later, when the American Expeditionary Forces arrived in Paris, Colonel Charles E. Stanton made an address on July 4th, 1917 in front of Lafayette’s tomb:

“America has joined forces with the Allied Powers and what we have of blood and treasure are yours. Therefore it is that with loving pride we drape the colors in tribute of respect to this citizen of your great republic. And here and now, in the presence of the illustrious dead, we pledge our hearts and our honor in carrying this war to a successful issue. Lafayette, we are here.”

(Vowell 260-262)

The phrase “Lafayette, we are here” was repeated by Evelyn Wotherspoon Wainwright of the National Women’s party in her September 16th, 1918 speech addressing the bronze statue of Lafayette in Washington DC’s  Lafayette Square:

“We, the women of the United States, denied the liberty which you helped to gain, and for which we have asked in for sixty years, turn to you to plead for us. Speak, Lafayette, dead these hundred years but still living in the hearts of the American people. Let that outstretched hand of yours pointing to the White House recall to him (President Woodrow Wilson) his words and promises, his trumpet call for all us, to see the world is made safe for democracy. As our army in France spoke to you there, saying here we are to help your country fight for liberty, will you not speak here and now for us, a little band with no army, no power but justice and right, no strength but in our Constitution and in the Declaration of Independence; and win a great victory again in this country by giving us the opportunity we ask to be heard through the Susan B. Anthony amendment (the name of the 19th Amendment granting American Women the right to vote before it was ratified) Lafayette, we are here.”


The name of Lafayette was used during the First World War to conjure up images of Franco-American unity and the continuing fight for democracy but the relationship between the United States and France has been fraught in recent decades, since in 2003, France refused to support preemptive military action in Iraq, the repercussions of which ranged from a proposed bill to repatriate the remains of US soldiers buried in France to the renaming of  french fries to freedom fries. Florida representative Ginny Brown-Wait, who proposed the American Heroes Repatriation Act of 2003 argued that:

“The remains of our brave servicemen should be buried in patriotic soil, not in a country that has turned its back on the United States and on the memory of Americans who fought and died there. It’s almost as if the French have forgotten what those thousands of white crosses at Normandy represent” (238)

Americans have a tendency to see the French as arrogant, effete, fickle, cowardly, and untrustworthy and their relationship with them as all take and no give. The role that they played in helping the United States become a country in the first place is often glossed over or ignored due to ignorance or xenophobia. Americans liked to joke that the French are cowardly and surrender easily and say that we saved them during world wars one and two and forget that they saved us during our war for independence.

Daveed Diggs and any other who played Lafayette in Hamilton was double cast as Thomas Jefferson, the play’s France loving antagonist. Lafayette/Jefferson sings the line “we fought with him” (Miranda 1:1) and the audience are left wondering if this was as a comrade in arms or as a political enemy. The double casting of the same actor as both Lafayette and Jefferson shows the dichotomy of how Americans view France: Lafayette, the loyal friend and ally, and Jefferson, the untrustworthy rival. Lafayette (an America loving Frenchman) and Jefferson (a France loving America) are a distorted mirror of each other and the fact that Lafayette becomes Jefferson reflects how Americans started off trusting the French but then turned against them.

Whether it was the Quasi-War or the Freedom Fries era, anything French is viewed with suspicion. Vergennes’s prediction that “We shall be but poorly paid for that we have done for the United States” continues to be true.

Works Cited

Benjamin Franklin. Dir. Pro. Hovd, Ellen and Meyer, Muffie. Perf. Feore, Colm. PBS, 2002. Film.

This PBS special on the extraordinary life of Benjamin Franklin. Among the many accomplishments of Franklin’s long life was to act as the diplomat who negotiated the alliance with France which help America win in its war against Britain. Franklin used his considerable genius, charm, and diplomatic tact to win over the French people and convinced their government to send aid to the American cause.

Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. London: Penguin Books, 2004. Print.

In this comprehensive biography, Ron Chernow goes into depth about the life and career of founding father Alexander Hamilton. In the early decades of the United States, Hamilton’s federalists clashed with Jefferson’s democratic republicans over man issues including how the US should deal with the French Revolution. Tensions with France lead to the Quasi-War, the first international conflict that the US found itself engaged in.

“Episode 4: Oh Fatal Ambition!” Liberty! The American Revolution. Pro. and Dir. Ellen Hovd and Muffie Meyer. Writ. Ronald Blumer. Perf. Edward Herrmann. PBS, 1997. Web.

Episode four of the PBS series Liberty! The American Revolution tracks the escalation of the American Revolution. Benjamin Franklin is sent to Paris to secure an alliance with France and uses his charm and celebrity to accomplish this objective. France is hesitant to formally support the American cause but is convinced to do so by an American victory at Saratoga.

“Episode 5: The World Turn Upside Down.” Liberty! The American Revolution. Pro. and Dir. Ellen Hovd and Muffie Meyer. Writ. Ronald Blumer. Perf. Edward Herrmann. PBS, 1997. Web.

Episode five of the PBS series Liberty! The American Revolution follows the end of the American war for independence, specifically the involvement of America’s French allies. Washington’s young and impetuous protege, the Marquis de Lafayette, clashed with the Comte de Rochambeau, the commander of the French forces in the Americas but French intervention was crucial in the American victory.

Fraser, Antonia. Marie Antoinette: The Journey. New York: Anchor Books, 2001. Print.

Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette, France’s doomed final queen, goes into great detail about the social and political context of the French Revolution. Among Versailles’s courtiers were the Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the American Revolution, and his wife, Adrienne de Noailles. Marie Antoinette personally disliked Lafayette and they clashed when Lafayette became an important figure in the French Revolution.

Hamilton. Directed by Thomas Kail, performances by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Daveed Diggs. Produced by Jeffrey Seller. 2015.

The Tony Award winning musical Hamilton focuses on the life and career of Alexander Hamilton. Among Hamilton’s circle of friends is Frenchman, the Marquis de Lafayette, who hopes that he can bring the spirit of the American Revolution to his homeland. Later on, Hamilton clashes with Thomas Jefferson over whether or not the newly United States should support the French Revolution.

“Marquis de Lafayette.” Washington’s Generals. Pro. and Writ. Raymond Bridgers. Dir. Robert M. Wise. Perf. Edward Herrmann. History Channel, 2006. Web.

This episode of the History Channel series Washington’s Generals discusses the Marquis de Lafayette, a young French aristocrat who joined the cause of American independence and became a trusted ally and of George Washington and a symbol of America’s alliance with which was crucial in winning the war with Britain.

Vowell, Sarah. Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. New York: Riverhead Books, 2015. Print.

Historian Sarah Vowell describes the involvement of the Marquis de Lafayette in the American Revolution and its place in the large narrative of American history and America’s relationship with France. Americans by nature are a disunited people, rarely agreeing with one another let alone with other countries but Lafayette has always be a unifying figure, specifically for America and France.  

Bag Girl Reviews: Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell.


Sarah Vowell is an American historian and author known for her snarky and irreverent writing style and unconventional way of handling non-fiction prose. My father is an admirer of her and her work and that is how I am aware of it. When I decided to write my term paper on the Marquis de Lafayette and the beginnings of America’s relationship with France, I was reminded of this book and chose to use it as one of my sources. Vowell’s writing is unique among history books in that they have a much less formal and pedantic tone than is typically associated with the genre. Her books read more like Jack Kerouac’s On The Road than the history texts students are made to read in school. The structure of Lafayette in the Somewhat United States is based around Vowell’s trips to sites associated with her subjects and she often goes into descriptions of the people and places she encounters on her excursions. As someone with a penchant for history related vacations, I find this format enjoyable.

Vowell begins the book with the question “How did the Marquis de Lafayette win over the stingiest, crankiest tax protestors in the history of the world?” The most fascinating question to ponder about this unlikeliest of founding fathers is why and how did a teenage French aristocrat end up becoming an important figure in the cause of American independence and wholeheartedly embraced, and was embraced by, a country so different from his own. Vowell’s central theme is what Lafayette, as one of America’s first national celebrities, was one of the few unifying figures in American history, which is riddled with social and political division.

During the research period for this book, Vowell visited a number of Lafayette related sites such as the Chateau de Chavaniac in the Auvergne region of France, Lafayette’s childhood home and the Brandywine Battle Site, where Lafayette fought his first battle as a general in the Continental Congress, and the sites of other battles where Lafayette fought such as Monmouth and Yorktown. Because Lafayette in the Somewhat United States is as much a travel narrative as a historical one, Vowell finds ways of incorporating these experiences into the narrative she is telling. Vowell describes her approach to history as thus “Having studied art history, as opposed to political history, I tend to incorporate found objects into my books,” she writes. “Just as Pablo Picasso glued a fragment of furniture onto the canvas of ‘Still Life With Chair Caning,’ I like to use whatever’s lying around to paint pictures of the past — traditional pigment like archival documents but also the added texture of whatever bibs and bobs I learn from looking out bus windows or chatting up the people I bump into on the road.” The final product is a hodgepodge of historical fact and amusing anecdote.

Vowell explores Lafayette as both a person and as symbol for both the Americans and the French of a relationship that was tense and complex from the beginning. Lafayette managed to form an alliance between two vastly different countries (the curmudgeonly and puritanical Americans and the haughty and effete French) which lasted over the centuries. He tried to use his revolutionary credentials to cool the worst excesses of the French Revolution but barely managed to get out of it with his head intact. In 1824, the sixty-seven year old Lafayette visited the now United States and was met with a superstar’s welcome. The 1824 American tour elicited the equivalent of a modern day media frenzy with crowds of thousands appearing to see the elderly Lafayette wherever he went. Entrepreneurs profited from the Lafayette mania through the very American phenomenon of commemorative souvenirs.

The title Vowell chose for her book Lafayette in the Somewhat United States refers to the main theme of the text, that Americans have been traditionally a divided people, broken up into a number of social, political, religious, and racial factions, and unwilling to cooperate and agree amongst themselves and other countries but Lafayette was one of the few things that united the American people and united them with France. Lafayette embraced America wholeheartedly and the feelings were mutual as the Lafayette mania of 1824 shows.

Almost as soon as the first Europeans arrived on North American soil, they began to squabble pettily with one another and their relationship with the outside world was marred by misunderstanding and outright xenophobia. The decision to break away from Europe and form their own society was much easier than coming to a consensus as to who should run that society and how it should be run. In today’s socio-political climate, the growing pains of the New United States feel familiar, relevant, and perhaps comforting. Viciousness, pettiness, and conflict are far from anything new in American political life and the country has gone through some nasty periods of strife but always come through it. One of the few things that can bring its diverse peoples with their diverse values together is a shared reverence for its founding fathers.

One of the things I find fascinating about studying the founding fathers, and I get the impression that Sarah Vowell does too, is that once you get past the image of wise and infallible sages that posterity created for them, you find that they are relatably flawed. Vowell enjoys affectionately taking her subjects down a peg. Washington and Lafayette were great men but even they had their shortcomings. Lafayette’s disobedience to the orders of the French government and departure for the Americas was the ultimate act of teenage petulance and rebellion and Washington was saddled with a position that no mere mortal could possibly handle without a lot of strain. We find stories of their outbursts and petty infighting interesting and amusing because such behavior is understandable and relatable. Who has not talked smack about someone they do not like.  

As much as I love history, I struggle with reading history books as do many people. The genre has a not totally undeserved reputation for being dry, intimidating, and unapproachable. This is why Sarah Vowell’s books come as a breath of fresh air. Her snarky, rambling prose filled with slang and pop culture references is the exact opposite of the textbooks I had to slog through for my history classes. I am also reading W.E Woodward’s biography of Lafayette as research for the term paper I am writing and saying that getting through the book is a chore to get through is putting it mildly. Lafayette in the Somewhat United States is an ideal book for people with an interest in history but struggle with five hundred page biographies filled with footnotes, annotations, and other appendices.

Vowell’s informal and irreverent writing style makes the book more accessible than those of her peers but does not feel dumbed down. Her prose has the feeling of a casual conversation with an intelligent, interesting, and eccentric person. The road trip format of Lafayette in the Somewhat United States I find enjoyable as someone who loves to travel and whose childhood family trips were to historic sites such as Gettysburg and Colonial Williamsburg. The text is cobbled together from both the highbrow discourse of historians and conversations with the random people one encounters during a road trip. This style is effective because it shows how history relates to the world outside of academia. Vowell enjoys taking digs at America’s intertwined reverence and ignorance of its own history. She is tackling a well known but not understood subject. Most people have a vague knowledge of the American Revolution or the Civil War but have little interest in studying deeper into the subjects.  Yet we trot out our god-like adoration of the founding generation each Fourth of July and the Civil War still evokes violent feelings even today. Historic sites are popular and lucrative tourist destinations yet no one seems to want to pay tax money for their upkeep.

I would recommend Lafayette in the Somewhat United States especially if you are interested in the Revolutionary War Era and or Franco-American relations.

Bag Girl Halloween Special: A Review of The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe and An Evening in Salem


During November and December of 2010, I spent a good amount of time in Boston for follow up doctor’s appointments after being released from Children’s Hospital following my second and third heart surgeries. Near Children’s Hospital is a Barnes and Noble, where my mom poked around while waiting for the next doctor’s appointment. Barnes and Noble sells composite volumes of the works of a number of authors with elaborate leather bound covers ( I received one which contains the novels of Jane Austen that Christmas) one of which is called The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, which I purchased during one of the many Barnes and Noble gift cards I received as get-well-soon presents. In honor of Halloween, I decided to pull out this book and read through its highlights.

The Raven and Annabel Lee are Poe’s best-known poems and both deal with lost love and untimely death. Deceased loved ones show up a lot in Poe’s work and are a case of art imitating life since Poe’s beloved wife Virginia died young. He is quoted as saying “the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetic topic in the world.” The narrator of The Raven is sunk in grief and depression following the death of his sweetheart/wife Lenore. The name Lenore is frequently used to rhyme with “Nevermore” the raven’s reply to each of the narrator’s questions about God and life after death, and the repetitious use of these two words is used to show how the narrator is constantly reminded that Lenore is “Nevermore” or dead. The poem’s frequent use of onomonopias such as “knock” and “croak” make it a poem meant to be read aloud and perfect for a dramatic reading.  Premature death to illness (most frequently tuberculosis) was all too familiar to Poe and his nineteenth-century contemporaries who were passionate mourners. Annabel Lee epitomizes the almost necrophilic reverence with which deceased women are treated in Poe’s writing. Its narrator sees their dead sweetheart as an angelic and heavenly figure and treats her seaside tomb as a shrine. Lenore in The Raven is characterized as a seraphimal presence in a similar way that Annabel Lee is. Women appear in the Poe oeuvre as distant, celestial, forever young and beautiful objects to be pined for and worshipped almost as a saint. Death does not separate a lover from the object of their affection but rather increases his ardor for her.

The Tell-Tale Heart is another of Poe’s works that desire an aloud reading for the reader to get its full effect. It is similar in structure to The Raven: the narrator of both pieces is haunted by an event in the past (the death of Lenore; the murder of the old man) and both rely heavily on sound (the knocking and croaking of the raven; the beating of the old man’s heart). The ending of The Tell-Tale Heart masterfully builds up to its climax at a tempo which resembles an accelerating pulse as the narrator is driven to confess their crime. Like the raven symbolizes grief and lost love, the beating heart represents the narrator’s insanity (is the sound there or is it all in their head?) and guilt (the narrator cannot bear this guilt any longer and releases this burden by confessing to their crime).

Untimely death from disease was an unfortunate and inescapable reality of nineteenth-century life. In The Masque of the Red Death, a prince and his courtiers try to escape from a plague by secluding themselves inside the prince’s lavish mountain castle, where they try to forget about the horrors going on in the outside world by partying. The castle contains a loud, booming clock which startles and dumbfounds the guests whenever it marks the hours. When the clock strikes midnight, a red shrouded figure wearing with a skull face appears, representing the disease which the partygoers seek to avoid and are later killed by. Death appears in Poe’s writing as an unavoidable and inevitable part of life. It will get you in the end, no matter how rich and privileged you are, and it’s only a matter of time.

The themes found throughout Poe’s work such as madness, the inevitability of death and decay come into place in The Fall of the House of Usher. It’s narrator is called to visit his childhood friend Roderick Usher at his dilapidated ancestral mansion. Roderick and his sister Madeline are the last of their family line and Roderick is deeply depressed because Madeline is wasting away from a chronic illness and becomes more and more paranoid and insane until he has a mental breakdown and believes that the recently deceased Madeline was buried alive. The title The Fall of the House of Usher has a double meaning: the Usher family ancestral mansion collapses in on itself at the end of the story and with the deaths of Roderick and Madeline, the Usher family bloodline is extinct. We are given the impression that it is the corruption of Usher family (Madeline is sickly and Roderick is insane) has eaten away at the family legacy and its collapse is inevitable.

Jasmine and I took the three o’clock shuttle into downtown Salem and walked to Salem Cinema. Downtown was crowded and alive with people dressed up in a variety of costumes. At four o’clock, Jasmine and I attended a screening of a documentary called The History of Halloween. The documentary was interesting but I found it a bit silly and pandering. Jasmine was upset by the fact that people in the middle ages used to cull black cats because they thought they were bad luck. This is one of the factors which led to the outbreak of the bubonic plague. After the movie, we watched to look in these Wiccan shops that Jasmine likes but Coven’s Cottage was closed and there was a line to get into Hex. Walking through the downtown area, we saw someone dressed up as Pennywise from It, a man playing Tom Petty songs on his guitar, and what Jasmine refers to as “religious freaks” who were berating people for their sinful ways. Jasmine and I wanted to end our evening by getting drinks at Rockefeller’s but the wait there was forty-five minute to an hour long wait, so we ended up being home by six when most people were starting to go out for the evening.


I finished up the evening by watching the 1964 film version of The Masque of the Red Death starring Vincent Price.