In fall 2013, Sarah Vowell scheduled a trip to Independence Hall, the Philadelphia historical site where both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were debated and signed.
The bestselling popular historian was doing fieldwork for her 2015 book, “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States,” yet the trip happened to coincide with a government shutdown and Vowell had to reschedule. She appreciated the irony of not being able to visit the birthplace of the American government because the government wasn’t operating. But she also understands that bickering and contentiousness have been consistent threads throughout U.S. history.
“(That’s) one thing we should give ourselves a break about, I think,” Vowell says. “We’re always beating ourselves up about how divided we are, and it’s seen as such a bad thing. It’s not a great thing, and it certainly leads to legislative paralysis, among other inefficiencies ... but it’s also the beauty of who we are.”
The constitutional debates in Independence Hall weren’t harmonious exchanges, she points out, and nor have national debates been in the centuries since. As Vowell writes in “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States,” the quintessential experience throughout American history is “constantly worrying whether or not the country is about to fall apart.”
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On Oct. 9, Vowell, who is known also for her work with NPR and as the voice of Violet in the animated film, “The Incredibles,” appears at Carolina Theatre in Durham. The free discussion is the headlining event of Durham Reads Together 2017, presented by Durham County Library. Admission is free.
She’ll be joined onstage by David Rees, who grew up in Chapel Hill and is a former political cartoonist, TV host and (we’re not making this up) professional pencil sharpener. Rees will interview Vowell about her work as a historian and about the cornerstone document of American government.
Durham Reads Together 2017 participants are reading the Constitution, which Vowell thinks is a fantastic choice for a citywide book club.
“I can’t think of a book that inspires more argument,” she says. “It’s sort of this paradox. It’s the thing that binds us together, but it’s also the thing that we fight about. And that’s who we are.”
Vowell cites multiple examples of the country’s long tradition of heated, sometimes ugly disagreement. During months of argument at the Constitutional Convention, she says, Benjamin Franklin famously wondered if the sun carved on George Washington’s chair was rising or setting. Upon sending the Constitution out for ratification, he decided it was rising, but Vowell is fascinated by the infighting before and after that moment.
“The founders, they were not optimists, and their document reflects this,” she says.
Vowell said the country wasn’t suddenly tidier, but at least there was consensus on the nature and function of its government. Vowell compares the Constitution to a living room the day company is visiting – you vacuum, you fluff the pillows, you put everything in order – while Rees describes it as an owner’s manual for the United States.
“You have different issues pop up, you turn to that page,” he says. “Turn to page 36 if your cassette tape isn’t rewinding. Stuff like that.”
Appropriately, different eras see different constitutional amendments come to the fore, relevant to the issues at play. Internet privacy questions have brought the Fourth Amendment into focus, Rees says, going on to observe that the Trump presidency has made the usually obscure emoluments clause (“No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States”) relevant, but also the fourth section of the 25th Amendment (which allows for the removal of a president who “is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”).
“It’s like an album,” he says. “Everyone has their favorite tracks.”
As a political cartoonist, Rees was protected by the First Amendment. He said he never was worried that he’d be thrown in jail for criticizing George W. Bush’s administration in his “Get Your War On” webcomic.
Vowell has a few copies of the Constitution lying around, so she picks one up and reads that amendment in full. It allows a lot for some unexpected things, she said, including Satan worship and all manner of protests.
“A society is only free if its most repugnant nitwits are allowed to say what they think,” she says. “That’s just the deal.”
A rare uniting figure
Yet “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States” followed a rare uniting figure in American history who happened to experience both the birth of the Constitution and a major early Constitutional crisis. Vowell notes that Americans more or less agreed on the Revolutionary heroism of French nobleman and soldier the Marquis de Lafayette.
In the background of both his American visits, though, there was bickering aplenty. During the Revolution, it was arguments in Independence Hall or between the Continental Congress and Continental Army. When he returned a few decades later, it was during a particularly testy presidential election.
“The election of 1824 was probably our most contentious, which is saying something,” says Vowell.
While 14 cities have been named in Lafayette’s honor, Vowell said the most meaningful thing named for him is Lafayette Square across from the White House.
“It’s where we Americans yell at our president and have done since our suffragists were irked with President Wilson (and) trying to get the right to vote for women nationwide,” Vowell says. “It’s also where people from other countries who are not allowed to protest, and could be punished or even executed for protesting, go to protest their leaders.”
About David Rees
David Rees grew up in Chapel Hill, so for him, it’s particularly exciting to return for an event at Durham’s Carolina Theatre.
“I feel like I’ve made it,” he says. “When you go back to one of these iconic places of your youth, it’s kind of a homecoming.”
Rees has been host of the National Geographic Channel’s “Going Deep with David Rees.” He has written the following: “How to Sharpen Pencils” and early 21st century webcomics “Get Your War On,” “My New Fighting Technique is Unstoppable” and “My New Filing Technique is Unstoppable.”
Though Rees made a name for himself writing creating outspoken, left-of-center political cartoons (and remains quite vocal about his views), he doesn’t feel he that’s why he was booked to interview Sarah Vowell. Instead, he said he thinks it’s because he’s an experienced interviewer. Nothing beats sitting next to an interesting person at a dinner party and pestering them with questions, he says.
Vowell was one of the first people from Generation X to find her own way of writing popular history, and Rees said he respects her approach and the fact that she isn’t shy to write about the unflattering side of American history.
“I don’t think I was booked to interview Sarah because I used to be a left-wing political cartoonist,” he said. “I think it’s just because I interview people and I’m interested in this stuff. But I’m not going to throw a Molotov cocktail in the Carolina Theatre or anything. My parents will be in the audience anyway, and they’ll be disappointed.”
What: An Evening With Sarah Vowell, American Historian
Where: The Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St., Durham
When: 7 p.m. Oct. 9
Info: durhamreadstogether.org; carolinatheatre.org