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Book – Gore Vidal – Inventing a Nation

American Revolution comes to life

The broadside was a common form of media during the American Revolutio.  Inventing a Nation is such a broadside – a compact melange of anecdotal history, contemporary commentary and unabashed partisan rhetoric — in other words, a great read! Vidal surveys the period from 1776 to 1800, concentrating on the personalities and writings of Hamilton, Adams, Washington, & Jefferson. Along the way, he contrasts 18th century politics and political philosophy with 21st century politics. Other times he’s satisfied with the quick jab, as when he quotes Adams’ view of the newly arrived French minister as a comparison with “our first unelected president”:

John Adams had known Genet’s family in France: he had also known the boy himself. Politely, he received the fiery minister and then wrapped him round with Adamsian analysis of the graveyard sort: “A youth totally destitute of all experience in popular government, popular assemblies, or conventions of any kind: very little accustomed to reflect upon his own or his fellow creatures’ hearts; wholly ignorant of the law of nature and nations . . . ” Adams did grant him “a declamatory style. . . a flitting, fluttering imagination, an ardor in his temper, and a civil deportment.” Thus two centuries ago the witty French had sent us an archetypal personality whose American avatar would one’ day be placed in Washington’s by now rickety chair.

But Vidal’s slyness is only a cover for his real subject — the creation of a government that could hold democracy at bay without the trappings of a monarchy. The book is not much longer than an old-style New Yorker series, and he summarizes major events like the constitutional convention to provide details of the men involved, as seen by themselves and their peers. Early on he shows the prescience of many of the founders:

At eighty-one Franklin was too feeble to address the convention on its handiwork, and so a friend read for him the following words: “I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such: because I think a General Government necessary for us, and there is no Form of Government but what may be a Blessing to the People if well-administred; and I believe farther that this is likely to be well administred 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, two centuries and sixteen years later, Franklin’s blunt dark prophecy has come true: popular corruption has indeed given birth to that Despotic Government which he foresaw as inevitable at our birth. Unsurprisingly, a third edition of the admirable Benjamin Franklin: His Lift As He Wrote It, by Esmon Wright, is now on sale (Harvard University Press, 1996) with’ significantly-inevitably?, Franklin’s somber prediction cut out, thus silencing our only great ancestral voice to predict Enron et seq., not to mention November 2000, and, following that, des­potism whose traditional activity, war, now hedges us all around” No wonder that so many academic histories of our republic and its origins tend to gaze fixedly upon the sunny aspects of a history growing ever darker. No wonder they choose to disregard the wise, eerily prescient voice of the authentic Franklin in favor of the jolly fat ventriloquist of common lore, with his simple maxims for simple folk; to ignore his key to our earthly political invention in favor of that lesser key which he attached to a kite in order to attract heavenly fire.

In the afterword Vidal pushes the point home, starting from his discussion of the Alien & Sedition Acts, progenitors of the Patriot Act, he follows Jefferson’s careful defense of civil rights with his orchestration of the states counterattack that resulted in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions

In a sense Jefferson had made his case in the first Kentucky Resolution from which Breckinridge had eliminated the core
argument “where powers are assumed [by the Federal government] which have not been delegated [in the Constitution], a nullification of the act is the rightful remedy: that every State has a natural right in cases not within the compact. . . to nullify of their own authority all assumptions of powers by others within their own limits.” Thus Jefferson in 1798 had spoken in favor of the principle of nullification. But the first resolution asked for no more than a general sense of the States that the two Federalist Acts were unconstitutional.

Jefferson had to act cautiously, for, even as Vice President, his mere criticism of the acts of Adams & Hamilton could be a violation of the Sedition Act. [Not so different from today’s Bush supporters who declare any dissent being aid and comfort to the enemy.] In this case, the ultimate confrontation was avoided by Jefferson’s electoral defeat of Adams and immediate
suspension of the 2 acts. But nullification remained an inflammatory concept lurking within the Constitution; exploding in the Civil War 2 generations later. Today, Vidal sees it as perhaps the last defense of the states when the Federal Executive abrogates power.

I’ve only traced here one of several threads Vidal ties to contemporary issues. Others include Hamilton’s creation of the financial system, and Marshall’s bold construction of judicial review. Shortness doesn’t prevent Vidal from presenting many arguments that are vital to today’s national politics. Conservatives’ knee-jerk reactions in reviews are amusing since much of the discussion in the book is of ideas any true conservative should hold as core values!

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