2016: the year I met the real Marquis de Lafayette, “America’s Favorite Fightin’ Frenchman”!
The first image I had of him came from my favorite book in childhood, Louisa May Alcott’s An Old-Fashioned Girl. The grandmother in the story reminisces about meeting Lafayette when she was a very young girl, and he quite an old man. She still treasures the glove she was wearing when he gallantly kissed her hand. So, my first idea of the man: an elderly, courtly General, a retired hero taking a last victory lap around the nation he helped bring into being.
Then we studied the Revolution in school, and the Marquis was among all the white-haired old men fighting the war. The fashion for powdered wigs and a child’s perception of all adults as “old”, plus the reverence paid to our Founders, made me think of them as grandpas. Franklin was in his seventies and Washington in his forties, but they never tell you in history class that the rest of the Founding Fathers were in their teens and early twenties, and our entire nation was founded on their raging hormones and still-developing brains.
But in 2016, I listened to the Revolutions podcast, and for the first time learned that Lafayette was literally a teen-aged runaway, a 19-year-old who ditched family responsibilities to fight a war his nation wasn’t even involved in (yet. Thanks for fixing that, Monsieur le Marquis!) Lafayette was drawn by ideals of liberty and democracy; once the American Revolution was won, he returned to France to have the same fight there, with considerably less success.
I followed that with Sarah Vowell’s Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, which covered a lot of the same territory as the podcast and reinforced my new image of him. And then, we got hooked on the Hamilton soundtrack, and Lafayette’s transformation was complete.
I have a LOT to say about Hamilton–Ken and I have been listening to both the soundtrack and the book that inspired the musical, and obsessively discussing them both. But for now, I will just say that I rather resent having lived this long before learning all of this. I loved history when I was in school, and took as many classes of it as I could, including AP American History. Just imagine how much more riveting it would have been if we’d known the Founding Fathers were barely past high-school age themselves when fought and won the Revolution! Think how many kids who were bored by history class might have perked up and tuned in to the discussion! This is one of the things I like best about Hamilton’s success–that it’s giving history a new vitality and (I hope) inspiring more kids to learn it and love it.
I know teen-age me would have TOTALLY had this picture in her locker: