ON A MASSACHUSETTS MORNING in 1961, Gore Vidal beat his friend John F. Kennedy at backgammon, after which the two men chatted about why nobody engages in great political discussions any more like the nation's founders did as a matter of everyday life.
"Meanwhile, dear Jack," Vidal writes in Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, "in the forty years since your murder, I have pondered your questions, and this volume is my hardly definitive answer."
In Vidal's little history book - and this time, it's the real thing, not a novel (like his popular Burr or Lincoln) - the founders of the United States of America become crystal clear about the need for a federal constitution after the Shays rebellion of 1786-87. Before it, a Federalist faction favored a strong central government, while the anti-Federalist (later "Republican") faction favored wider states' rights. But when Shays rose up against the moneyed class and fought for the overtaxed poor, "there were no Federalists, no future Republicans," Vidal writes, "only frightened men of property."
Still, Vidal admires many things about these tyros of modern government and politics. Washington: honest, altruistic, majestic, a mediocre general who led by force of character. Adams: misanthropic, anti-aristocratic, well-meaning, and a bad judge of human nature. Jefferson: a dreamy existentialist who wanted a convention once a generation to re-examine and revise the federal constitution.
And of course, the immutably wise old Benjamin Franklin, an "eerily prescient voice" whom history has rendered into "the jolly fat ventriloquist of common lore, with his simple maxims for simple folk." He especially praises Franklin for predicting that "the People shall become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any others."
Vidal quotes so profusely from primary texts that you never doubt his authority, although you may wonder how the founders dared call their nation a government "for the people," given their venal natures. Inventing a Nation is more about political intrigue and personality - one would expect nothing less from a novelist - than the article-by-article nitty-gritty of forging our Constitution ("invented," incidentally, by James Madison, an otherwise minor figure in the book). Our founders were all, finally, too flawed and human to support the hagiography that a conventional history demands. Thus the good intentions that brought the factions together quickly gave way to compromise and corruption.
Still, in his titular figures, Vidal ultimately sees "three presidents, [who] for all their disagreements, were as one in wishing to preserve, protect and defend" the emerging nation against what, in Vidal's theory of American empire, has become "a combine of military, media, religious mania and lust for oil." (The author himself is a "Republican" in the sense that, unlike the Federalists, he favors states' rights over the despotic octopus of a powerful national government. He does not, of course, address the issue of allowing, say, Alabama, Utah or Kansas to fairly and individually grant its citizens the rights of, say, abortion, integration, sodomy and such.)
Vidal's history seems to meander at times but all in all flows quite smoothly, moving backward and forward within his 18th and early 19th Century time frame whenever he needs to make connections. Sometimes he even moves very forward, drawing parallels between his central historical events and the emerging history of the 21st Century.
The USA Patriot Act of 2001, posits Vidal, is the feature film for which our nation's nascence - replete with Sedition Acts and North/South rivalries - was merely the preview of coming attractions. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks pop up, as does Britain's New Labor prime minister, Tony Blair, whose victory Vidal sees as a reminder of the pre-destiny - or at least, the consistency - of national character.
Our founders did not favor or choose to form, Vidal reminds us, a messy democracy, like Athens, where citizens would assemble at plebiscites to debate and approve all laws. They created instead a republic of voters who chose people to do the deed for us, and where from time to time, in these early days, the elected leaders would appease the grumbling plebes with grants of property, which the barons could then proceed to rob them of. An enemy of intervention, Vidal notes that the Constitution says nothing of making the world "safe for democracy," a doctrine that comes up "as an occasional rhetorical flourish when we are up to mischief in foreign lands."
Vidal's book isn't so much iconoclastic - many "legitimate" historians don't dispute what he says - as it is merely irreverent in the literal sense: He doesn't feel obliged to retouch his portraits of the founders or genuflect before them, preferring instead to copiously report what they said and to find order and meaning in what they did. If there's a villain of this piece, it's Alexander Hamilton, a bright, tenacious, Anglophile classist and unindicted treasonist who, as secretary of the Treasury, used his favor with President Washington (and his affection for England) to make sure money went to the proper people.
In the course of his history, Vidal drops the names of the political and social philosophers - Locke, Hume, Paine, Rousseau, some others - whose ideas the founders cobbled together to invent our nation and write our Constitution. His book doesn't quite ever tie up its loose ends or draw canonic conclusions, which is either an unusually wise decision on the part of the author, or the inevitable shortcoming of any project that tries to read the minds of the past.
But in all of his flashes forward, Vidal never brings up the figure who may be most relevant of all. Is American still even possible to sustain? Is any culture or political system? In insinuating a need to return to the values of our creators, Vidal doesn't consider whether our world has simply become too huge, too complex and (whether we want to admit it or not) too dangerous for something so simple to work. Thus he might well analogize our current America as a living example of the monster created by the renowned 19th Century scientist, Dr. Victor Frankenstein: an assemblage of used parts, brought to life by a mad dream, and powered by an electricity that its creator can no longer control.
Read the first chapter of Inventing a Nation (NYT registration required). This link will open a new window and take you away from The Gore Vidal Index.
L.A. Weekly interviews Vidal about the book.
Vidal's discusses his newest book, Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, on NPR. This link will open a new window and take you away from The Gore Vidal Index.
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University of Pittsburgh