Gore Vidal’s vast panorama of American history—a series of seven novels, the “American Chronicles,” ranging in time from the Revolution (Burr) to the period from 1939-1954 (Washington, D.C. and The Golden Age)—utilized the author’s considerable skills as a writer of fiction to dramatize historical truth. As a documentary codicil to that series, Inventing a Nation projects the same storyline—America’s long road to empire—on a smaller screen.
With a novelist’s eye for character and the telling detail, Gore Vidal takes us on a brisk ride through early American history as seen through the eyes of the Founders. Much is packed into this short book, yet it is never dense. We get portraits not just of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson as advertised in the title, but also James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Tom Paine, and that “one true exotic” among America’s inventors, Alexander Hamilton, the lean and hungry Cassius of the Revolution.
From the beginning, the country was divided between republicans, followers of Jefferson and Madison, and would-be royalists; between a British faction and the partisans of revolutionary France; between rural magnates, “anti-aristocratic aristocrats,” as Vidal describes them, concentrated in the southern and middle states, and ambitious young lawyers, resident in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, who looked to England and its stratified social system as the model for an American monarchy.
Vidal establishes his own stance early on in his portrait of George Mason, the Virginia planter and proto-libertarian author of the Bill of Rights. Mason opposed slavery and when the Constitutional Convention avoided resolving the issue—and delayed those crucial amendments—Mason campaigned against ratification. “Then,” writes Vidal, “once the republic was in place, he refused to serve as one of his state’s senators. He has few political heirs.”
Without doubt Vidal considers this lack a sign of degeneracy. Nostalgia permeates this volume: the prose has an elegiac ring to it, alternately angry and sad, combative and resigned. More than once Vidal cites Franklin’s grim endorsement of the Constitution, in which the 87-year-old elder statesman of the Revolution predicted that “this is likely to be administered for a Course of Years and can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other.”
Now, Vidal notes, two centuries and 16 years later, “Franklin’s blunt dark prophecy has come true.” We live under the heel of the Patriot Act and in thrall to a league of latter-day über-Federalists who would put “an end to evil”—and to our constitutional Republic. Their success, he suspects, is a moral failure on the part of the American people, who have given up—he fears—the stern republican virtues to wallow in the fleshpots of empire. Vidal’s complaint is indistinguishable from that of the paleoconservatives. Wherever he got his reputation as a liberal, this polemic ought to dispel it for good. The Founders, even the Federalist Adams, believed that monarchy was a system of government fit only for a corrupted people. The chief carrier of the monarchist spore was surely, in Vidal’s view, the bastard Hamilton, who as a young groveling clerk (his own description) wrote: “I wish there was a war.” Vidal’s sardonic analysis is that “he had read Plutarch” and “knew how swiftly one could rise in war.” When the Constitution was ratified over the objections of anti-Federalists, Vidal relates, “a parade featuring a ship called The Hamilton, on a float, sailed triumphantly along Wall Street as its ghost still does today.” Hamilton, who wanted Washington to wear a crown, embodied the self-ennobled American aristocracy that saw government and politics as a means of self-enrichment. His followers were a “bandit party,” as Vidal puts it, an 18th-century version of the Russian Mafia.
Adams, too, was a monarchist at heart. “Short, fat, given to bouts of vanity that alternated with its first cousin self-pity,” his brooding nature and dark view of men combined with Anglophilia to envision a uniquely American throne, and a court peopled by a natural aristocracy sprung from stony New England soil. He agreed with Hamilton’s view that, as Vidal phrases it, “every society produces a ruling class. Why not accept this without any fuss?” With a single deft brushstroke, Vidal the master painter captures the bitterness and dark humor of this most querulous Founder, citing Adams’s quip that George Washington was chosen commander-in-chief of the Continental Army because “he was always the tallest in the room.”
Washington is clearly the chief character in this narrative, the father not only of his country but of a brood of often errant sons whose antics would have split the young Republic asunder but for his imperturbable ability to steer a steady course between them. As a general, “he was in constant retreat,” but as long as he successfully fought the two main enemies of the Revolution—desertion by his own troops and a corrupt Continental Congress that kept him ill-supplied—his “majestic presence” kept the rebel army together. Time, he knew, was on his side. The British, who were strangers in the land, would eventually tire of the struggle and go home—as they did, with an extra push from the French fleet. In an age when it is the Americans who have become the occupiers, U.S. military planners would do well to study how General Washington applied the elementary principles of guerrilla warfare so successfully that he hardly won more than a few pitched battles and yet still managed to win the war.
Jefferson, whose populism seems even more radical in retrospect, is clearly admired by Vidal, who is not, however, blind to the great man’s tendency to be overcome by his own enthusiasms. These were, however, tempered by Madison, and kept in check by Jefferson’s own innate practical sense. Like Washington and Adams, he was devoted to the survival of the Republic in waters made turbulent by Europe’s wars, which roiled the Atlantic and washed up on American shores. When Napoleon took control of the Spanish possessions in Louisiana and threatened the nascent American republic, Jefferson speculated that he might have to turn to his old enemy, England, for protection—a double irony for the leader of the pro-French party and author of the Declaration that had severed us from the mother country.
As the young republic entered its fifth year, the European powers cast their long shadows over the American political landscape: “the lobbyists of those countries,” Vidal relates, “set off many a coffeehouse row.” On the pro-British side, the perfidious Hamilton—Britain’s “Agent Seven”— met with London’s spymaster in America, George Hammond, betraying the American positions during negotiations over John Jay’s treaty. War with England seemed imminent, and the pro-French party agitated for it in the House. The moderates only managed to head it off by a razor-thin margin.
Like some Third World nation in the Cold War era, America was the scene of a propaganda proxy-war waged by contending superpowers, each with its own “amen corner,” but, when push came to shove, the Founders—yes, even Hamilton—put America first. This is dramatized in Vidal’s account of how Washington’s Farewell Address came to be written: Madison wrote the first draft, on which Washington based his second draft, a seamless collaboration “gloriously marbleized” by Hamilton. A balanced, ecumenical federalism is enunciated, one that values unity but abhors despotism and is especially vigilant against the lures and stratagems of foreign interests.The exhortation against “passionate attachments” and antipathies in foreign policy was originally authored by Hamilton, but Washington, we learn, elaborated on this theme more expansively and definitively, flatly stating that “nothing is more essential than that antipathies against particular nations and passionate attachments should be avoided.” Of the two, Vidal is quick to note, “Washington’s version is most applicable to our Union today as the great combine of military, media, religious mania, and lust for oil has overthrown those safeguards that the first three presidents, for all their disagreements, were as one in wishing to preserve, protect, and defend.”
Like Franklin, Vidal greatly fears the corruption of the people that is the first and fatal symptom of the imperial disease. Yet his often fatalistic despair, in its sheer poignancy, may do more than he thought possible to reverse the trend. At one point, Vidal seems to attribute the decline of our old Republic to “the second law of thermodynamics (everything is always running down).” Yet this cannot be entirely true as long as Vidal’s work is widely read and appreciated.
Justin Raimondo is editorial director of Antiwar.com and author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard.