Vidal's Founding Fathers: Inventing a Nation

In _Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson_, Gore Vidal returns to the infancy of the republic with one eye clearly fixed on the present. Rather than documenting the "official" history of the birth of the nation, Vidal takes us behind the curtain to the machinations at work, noting especially the tensions between Hamilton and Jefferson, and Washington's stately presence above the fray, even if he leaned for the federalist cause. What I found most striking is just how much was "up in the air" with the American experiment. For instance, after the Revolution, it wasn't simply self-evident what form of government would work for the newly liberated colonies. Indeed, there were hints that a new monarchy wasn't out of the question.

Or consider Vidal's observation that "democracy" is "a word that appears nowhere in the American Constitution" (p. 135)--which is why it is so curious that today, in the name of the "American ideal" that the US sees fits to export by force, we get simply the festish of free elections. As Vidal puts it, "Current publicists for the American Empire have convinced themselves that if other nations, living as they do in utter darkness, would only hold numerous elections at enormous cost to their polity's plutocracy (or to the benign empire back of these exercises), perfect government would henceforward obtain as The People had Been Heard." But "no one would wish an uneducated, minsinformed majority to launch a war, much less do something meaninful like balance the budget of Orange County, California" (p. 136).

Vidal doesn't miss the change to compare Adams' support of the Alien-Sedition Acts with our contemporary "Patriot Act": "Is is simply coincidence that Adams, after years of relative obscurity in the shadowy corridors of the American pantheon, has, of late, been found to be a figure of great character and intellectual interest as, indeed, he was an is? But one wonders whether those who would now place him on high might be indeed be otherwise enthralled by the fact that, ignoring the Bill of Rights, he approved the Alien-Sedition Acts not only in time of war but even in the face of a dangerous possibility of...well, danger, some time or other in the days to come" (p. 153).

Perhaps what is most curious is that both Vidal and Bush & Co. look to Jefferson as the paragon of "American" politics. For Vidal, Jefferson is the consummate republican, suspicious of the federalist machinations of Hamilton and Washington. Indeed, he enlists such a Jeffersonian ideal in order to criticize the centralizing tendencies of the current administration (which, ironically, are decided anti-republican, despite the fact that they are the work of Republicans). What is it that Bush, Wolfowitz, and Rummy see in Jefferson? The Jacobin penchant for expansionist idealism. [More on the latter in another post concerning the "new Jacobinism" because neoconservative imperialism.]

Vidal closes with a consideration of the "case that made the court": Marbury v. Madision. Here Vidal's interest is in showing the early expansion of the Supreme Court's power under Marshall, which he then bemoans as the same institution which gave us George W. as president. So once again, this curious bivalency: the leftist Vidal and the neoconservatives both lament the "activism" of the courts, though obviously for different reasons. Doesn't this suggest that so-called "liberals" and neocons are cousins of the same continuum?

[For a helpful overview of Marbury v. Madison, see Micahel J. Glennon, "The Case That Made The Court," Wilson Quarterly 27.3 (Summer 2003): 20-28.]