The right men, but not the real story

Joseph J. Ellis is the author of many books, including "American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson" and "Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation," which won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize in History.

At the end of "Inventing a Nation," Gore Vidal recalls a conversation with John F. Kennedy at Hyannis in 1961. Kennedy was complaining about the proliferation of second-raters in government: "Then you read all those debates over the Constitution ... nothing like that now. Nothing." Kennedy wonders if perhaps there was something special in the water back then. For how else could one explain, he asks, "how a sort of backwoods country like this, with only three million people, could have produced the three great geniuses of the eighteenth century -- Franklin, Jefferson, and Hamilton?"

This, in fact, is not the American trinity that Vidal would have selected, but he does not correct Kennedy's choice retrospectively. Instead he refers to one of the biblical books of wisdom, Ecclesiasticus: "Let us now praise famous men and our fathers that begat us." Then he adds: "Meanwhile, dear Jack, in the forty years since your murder, I've pondered your question, and this volume is my hardly definitive answer."

Kennedy's question has enjoyed a resurgence of interest in recent years. Not so much within the groves of academe, where scholars are baying down other less-traveled trails after other scents, but rather in that steadily shrinking space in which ordinary Americans read books about history. My own effort to address Kennedy's question appeared during the last presidential election, which landed in the lap of the U.S. Supreme Court after an awkward pit stop in Florida. Wherever I went, two questions were invariably asked: How did we get this weird contraption called the electoral college? And why is it that in 2000 we had to choose between Bush and Gore when in 1800 they got to choose between Adams and Jefferson?

In response to the popular appetite for answers, publishers have produced a wave of new books on specific members of the founding generation, a surprising number of which have surged onto the bestseller list, thereby feeding the interest further and creating a little bull market in what most scholars had previously described as the deadest, whitest males in American history. One can only imagine the excitement within the editorial offices of Yale University Press when the opportunity presented itself to match a hot topic with one of the master stylists of American letters, who also happened to be a lifelong student of American history.

Though Vidal could not care a whit, scholars are unlikely to take "Inventing a Nation" seriously. There are no endnotes, a boatload of factual errors (the claim, for instance, that Washington was broke in 1786) and a flamboyant disdain for the measured assessments of, say, the political factions within the Constitutional Convention or the behind-the-scenes bargaining over the location of the national capital on the Potomac. Vidal's cavalier style is not designed to move carefully on the ground through the thick academic underbrush. Asking it to do so is like asking Louis Armstrong to play just the notes on the sheet. It soars and dives at its own choosing, and it feels perfectly free to amble off in tangential riffs designed to express Vidal's imaginative rendering of the story. Thus, in a discussion of the political controversy over passage of the Jay Treaty in 1796:

"At a point like this in a fictional narrative, there would be a confrontation between Washington and Hamilton. From what we know of each man, and each armed with this particular information, the dramatist could move if not into Shakespeare land (Brutus and Cassius at Philippi), then at least into Schiller's 'Mary Stuart,' where the Queen of Scots denounces the Queen of England to her face as, literally, a bastard -- like Alexander Hamilton. But no record in actual history is seldom so completed; hence, swarms of bees are constantly, and most usefully, forever abuzz in Academe's hives."

There are similar Vidalesque improvisations that ricochet off remarks by Franklin or Adams, providing occasions for political lectures on what Vidal asserts are the Evil Empire that is the current Justice Department, the despotic character of the Rehnquist Court and the militarization of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War. Vidal, in short, is not happy with what the United States has become since the founders set the mold. Exactly where the republican experiment went decisively awry is not clear, though my best guess is that Vidal thinks it happened in the decades after the Civil War, which raises the core question that darts in and out of his storyline in "Inventing a Nation": Was the founding moment a promise later betrayed, or were the seeds of corruption planted at the creation?

The politically correct answer of the moment is the latter. Since Vidal has made a career out of being politically incorrect, his answer resists the customary grooves in favor of a serpentine path that cuts a distinctive swath through the politics and personalities of the revolutionary era. The bulk of the book covers the story from the adoption of the Constitution in 1789 to the election of Jefferson in 1800. In effect, he forms a repertoire company of the leading players, provides brief background sketches when they first appear onstage, then lets them talk and act their way through the overlapping scenes -- the emergence of political parties, the reaction to the French Revolution, the suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion, Washington's Farewell Address, the Quasi-War with France and the eventual triumph of the Republicans led by Jefferson and Madison.

There are no larger-than-life heroes in the Vidal story because he believes, correctly I think, that such creatures do not exist. Franklin comes off as the wisest, though he exits early. Hamilton and Jefferson are the politically shrewdest characters, each deft with sharp-edged weapons designed to slice opponents to pieces, with Hamilton favoring the saber and Jefferson the stiletto. Adams has the strongest moral fiber, though he lets down Vidal by signing the Alien and Sedition acts. Only George Washington escapes Vidal's lacerating wit and survives with his integrity wholly intact.

There are potshots all along the way, at Hamilton's Napoleonic tendencies, Jefferson's duplicity over Sally Hemings, Adams' throbbing ambition, the judicial machinations of Justice John Marshall in Marbury vs. Madison. But it is not a rogue's gallery that we see parading before us. As I read him, Vidal is saying that the founders embody the most impressive collection of political talent America has ever produced, but canonizing them as our secular saints fundamentally distorts the jealousies and rivalries, pure ambition and sheer bile that drove them all.

This makes sense, but one of his major political themes does not. Because Vidal despises the national security state that developed in the United States in the mid-20th century, his heart is with Jefferson, whose lyrical rendition of the anti-government ethos has always provided the most potent weapon to wield against encroachments on individual rights. But he also knows the history of the 1790s well enough to recognize that Jefferson is not to be trusted with anyone's heart and that behind his principled disavowal of federal power lay the unspoken realization that, once such power was acknowledged, it would be used against slavery.

Vidal blazes away at Jefferson's most effective opponent, Marshall, for inventing the doctrine of judicial review, which he sees as a harbinger of federal hegemony in the mode of the Florida decision in 2000. But of course it was also the basis for Brown vs. Board of Education, which Vidal surely champions. Here it seems to me that his polemical defiance of U.S. global arrogance in the modern era contorts and distorts his rendering of the historical decisions that got us from then to now.

If his heart is with Jefferson, or at least the Jeffersonian legacy, his head is with the Federalists, chiefly Adams and Washington. They were the ones who sustained the invented nation in its infancy, who delayed full-blooded democracy until we could manage it, who insisted that we were a single people rather than a confederation of sovereign states, who shared Vidal's elitist sense that talent has an obligation to govern. Henry Adams, great-grandson of a founder, became the high priest of this tradition in his classic history of the early republic. Vidal, who has already purchased his burial spot next to Henry Adams in Rock Creek Park, near Washington, D.C., clearly sees himself in a direct line of succession (not apostolic) with the Adams legacy. And for all their flaws, Vidal concurs with the verdict of Henry Adams on the founding generation: In terms of statesmanship, a panoramic survey of American political history must conclude that Darwin got it exactly backward. This is pure Vidal. And "Inventing a Nation" is his edgy tribute to the way we were before the fall.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Saturday November 22, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction Henry Adams' grave -- A review of Gore Vidal's book "Inventing a Nation" in Sunday's Book Review referred to the burial place of Henry Adams as Rock Creek Park, near Washington, D.C. In fact, Adams is buried in Washington's Rock Creek Cemetery, which is not a part of the park. In addition, the park is in Washington. For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday November 30, 2003 Home Edition Book Review Part R Page 14 Features Desk 1 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction Henry Adams' grave -- A review of Gore Vidal's book "Inventing a Nation" in the Nov. 16 Book Review referred to the burial place of Henry Adams as Rock Creek Park, near Washington, D.C. In fact, Adams is buried in Washington's Rock Creek Cemetery, which is not a part of the park. In addition, the park is in Washington.
Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World