Skeletons in the Closet
Gore Vidal's Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, on the other hand, is not an example of the new American historiography but of the persistence of the old. Vidal, as most readers are aware, is a patriot at war with his own country. Like a lot of people, he is furious over Bush's theft of the White House in December 2000 and his use of 9/11 as a latter-day Reichstag fire with which to plunge the country into war and repression. Yet the curious thing about Vidal is that the more anti-American he becomes, the more American he reveals himself to be. In politico-taxonomical terms, he is an "Old Whig," a premodern Anglo-American type that our eighteenth-century Constitution has preserved as if in amber. The Old Whigs were angry patriots furious over their country's slide into imperialist decadence and filled with nostalgia for the rustic old Republic, when ways were simpler and people were braver, more courageous and more honest. Thus, Vidal is amused by the shortcomings of Washington, Jefferson et al., he chuckles over their foibles, but he believes in the end that they tower over their modern-day equivalents. He quotes John F. Kennedy as asking one morning in Hyannis in 1961, "How do you explain 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?"
To which Vidal says he replied: "Time. They had more of it. They stayed home on the farm in winter. They read. Wrote letters. Apparently, thought, something no longer done--in public life."
Nonsense. As impressive as Franklin and Hamilton were (Jefferson is another story), their greatness had to do with the fact that they were in a position to benefit from historical opportunities unavailable to many of their contemporaries, for example, all those slaves languishing in the American South. As for "the three great geniuses of the eighteenth century"--a century that gave us Haydn, Mozart, Kant, Robespierre and Toussaint L'Ouverture, to name a very, very few--the remark says more about JFK's provincialism than anything else. Vidal claims in Inventing a Nation to be a fan of Henry Adams's histories. If so, he should know that Adams reserved his most withering contempt for American chest-thumping of precisely this sort.
This is not to say that Inventing a Nation is without wit or insight. Vidal knows his subjects well and paints each portrait with a few deft strokes. There is Washington as the canny politician, Franklin as the wise old sensualist and the short, fat John Adams ("His Rotundity") as someone oscillating between bouts of vanity and self-pity. Adams, "the best-read man in Boston," has something catty to say about nearly everyone who heaves into view--Hamilton ("bastard brat of a Scotch peddler"), Franklin ("in a constant state of dissipation"), Jefferson ("indolent...poisoned with ambition") and so on--and Vidal, with his fine ear for gossip, quotes him with relish. Washington struggles to control his Cabinet, Hamilton plots and conspires and makes life miserable for Adams, while Chief Justice John Marshall, like Washington a Virginia Federalist, prepares to smite the Jeffersonians with Marbury v. Madison and judicial review--Vidal's political comedy is nothing if not busy.
Still, there's something a bit musty about the whole exercise. Not surprisingly, perhaps, given Vidal's roots in the Virginia gentry, Inventing a Nation is consistently hostile to Hamilton, the great modernizer of the period, while apologetic about Jefferson and his dependence on slave labor. "If all men are created equal, then, if you are serious, free your slaves, Mr. Jefferson," he admonishes. Vidal adds, however, "But they were his capital. He could not and survive, and so he did not.... It might be useful for some of his overly correct critics to try to put themselves in his place." Yet Jefferson has come under repeated assault in recent years not only because he refused to free his slaves but because he sought to extend slavery to the West while protecting it against Northern dynamos like Hamilton. Nation readers will enjoy the anti-Bush jabs that Vidal weaves into his account, but what will they make of his swipe at Lincoln for his neo-Federalism? In his first draft of a resolution eventually adopted by the Kentucky state legislature in 1799, Jefferson argued that states had the power to nullify--refuse to execute--federal policies they viewed as unconstitutional. Vidal comments:
The man who had once--rashly?--said that "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants" was indeed on record that if a state denied liberty to its lawful citizens, revolution is, as it was in 1776, the weapon of choice. This is a great truth savagely if not fatally tested by a Civil War in which the abolition of slavery replaced disunion, despite Lincoln's most poetic efforts to the contrary, and any hope of a decentralized Union as the issue has been dead until this day.
Vidal confuses secession with revolution and, near as I can make out, seems to be accusing Lincoln of using slavery as an excuse to ram through a centralized state. Vidal, for one, wishes that he hadn't. If only Lincoln had abolished slavery and left it at that, we would have the old Republic back in all its homespun, decentralized glory, purged of its original sin. Imperialism, product of a centralized state, would never have reared its ugly head. Instead of a hypertrophied White House running roughshod over civil liberties, America would still be a land of checks and balances and separation of powers. Thus, we come full circle to the French aristocracy's politics of nostalgia in 1787-88.
Vidal's explanation of America's fall from grace is similarly nostalgic, resting as it does on that eighteenth-century mainstay, "corruption." He quotes Franklin telling his fellow delegates at the Philadelphia Convention that the Constitution they had just drawn up was probably as good a plan of government as any, but that it "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." Vidal adds: "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." The result is "Enron et seq., not to mention November 2000, and, following that, despotism whose traditional activity, war, now hedges us all around."
Rather than the Founders failing the people, it is "we the people" who have failed the Founders. Perhaps Vidal should dissolve the people and elect another.
Let me suggest an alternative to this all-too-common narrative of descent and decay. Rather than a race of demigods, the Founders were a group of ordinary mortals--intelligent, resourceful, but otherwise with the full complement of flaws and limitations--who succeeded in coming up with a government yoking together thirteen jealous statelets. Notwithstanding all the complicated Rube Goldberg machinery they put in place, their real achievement was barring the door to the most obvious forms of aristocracy while opening it just a crack to democracy--not the premodern, localist democracy beloved of Jeffersonians but the centralized, mass, neo-Jacobin democracy--"the red lightning of the people's wrath," to quote one Radical Republican--that finally burst through, if only for a time, in the Civil War. Few of the Founders would have predicted such a development, and many would have opposed it. Yet it is the only thing that carried American society forward. We all share Vidal's outrage at the Bush Administration. But when it comes to figuring out where America has gone wrong, he's got it exactly backward.