40 pages 1 hour read

Sarah Vowell

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2015

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


Lafayette in the Somewhat United States is a 2015 history of America written by Sarah Vowell. Vowell uses the perspective of the Marquis de Lafayette—a Frenchman who longed to fight with the Americans and win military glory—to give an irreverent, timely history of the United States, with relevant implications for America’s modern political situation.

When Lafayette came to America, he was only 19. He was a wealthy, educated orphan who wanted to acquire personal honor and widespread acclaim by joining the American revolutionary cause. A charismatic youth, he had no trouble befriending powerful men of influence, such as George Washington, and assimilating into the Continental Army.

Vowell jumps back and forth between her modern-day tour of Lafayette-based historical landmarks and the historical events commemorated by those sites. By placing herself at the locations where Lafayette is honored, Vowell is able to comment on how people view Lafayette today and then backtrack into history to describe the events of the Battle of Brandywine, or Lafayette’s attempt to capture Benedict Arnold. At each location, Lafayette meets people who applaud or disdain his aggressive thrill-seeking, given their stance on the existence of war itself.

Vowell states that she initially became attracted to the idea of writing a book about Lafayette because he “has always belonged to all of us.” She frequently mentions the bickering, stubborn modern Congress and points out that Lafayette is one of the few things upon which Americans were almost always able to agree. She believed she could find useful insights by studying a man who is almost universally loved even by partisans in America.

As she tells the story of the Revolutionary War, Vowell makes it clear that, while America won the war, success was not a forgone conclusion. Indeed, she demonstrates that Washington’s first few years were filled with failures; the government’s mismanagement of supplying the troops and ensuring that everyone received payment for their service was so inept, it bordered on farce. She claims that many Americans do not understand that if the French navy had not supplied thousands of reinforcement troops near the end of the war, America might have lost. By using Lafayette as a subject, she can examine the degree to which America owes its independence to another country, despite the patriotic myth that Americans were able to overcome the British Empire on their own. During later conflicts, like the Gulf War, America and France would even take opposing stances on strategy or whether war was justifiable.