Gore Vidal does not like America. He does not like the Bush administration either. In his new book, Inventing a Nation, he takes aim at both. Ostensibly, Vidal’s book is about the Founding Fathers - Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, as well as Hamilton and Franklin. Vidal’s real purpose, however, becomes clear when, by the second chapter, he begins to argue that the nation our Founders created has veered off course and is now rushing headfirst to bloodthirsty despotism. American history, he writes, grows ever darker. Further, Vidal is convinced that one of our Founders, the amiable and pudgy Benjamin Franklin, predicted this gloomy state of affairs over 200 years ago. Hence, he quotes and praises Franklin’s warning to the Constitutional Convention that the government, under the Constitution, “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 is no stranger to pessimism. As an essayist, novelist, and playwright for over 50 years, he has made a career of it. He was a leading spokesman for the New Left in the 1960s and which helped to earn him the praise of a left-friendly media. According to The Washington Post, he is the “master essayist of our age.” His rise began in 1948 with the publication of The City and the Pillar, a “path-breaking” novel about a homosexual relationship. In 1960, he ran for Congress from Dutchess County, New York. In the midst of the Cold War, he called for drastic reductions in the military budget and friendly relations with Mao, the brutal despot whose Communist policies were then producing the worst recorded famine in world history. He lost. Eight years later, in a series of much-discussed debates with William F. Buckley during the raucous Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Vidal called on Americans to support Ho Chi Minh and North Vietnam’s Communist regime against the United States. For good measure, he called Buckley a Nazi. In the last several years, as Frontpage readers know (see George Shadroui, “The Weird World of Gore Vidal,” December 23, 2003), Vidal has lapsed into a permanent and bizarre form of Anti-Americanism. In several essays and interviews, he has insisted that the U.S. is an imperialist power hell-bent on world domination, that the terrorism of Timothy McVeigh and Osama bin Laden was perfectly understandable, and that President Bush knew what was going to happen on 9/11 and welcomed it.
In a sane world, Vidal’s musings would be dismissed as the unfortunate ramblings of a middling novelist and artistocratic crank. Not so today. Hence, the leftwing public broadcasting network, PBS, has declared that “it could be easily argued that no American since Twain has performed so ably as a man of letters as Gore Vidal.” And, writing for equally leftist New York Review of Books, historian Edmund Morgan has declared that Vidal’s Inventing a Nation is a “tract for the times.” It is a “cri de coeur [passionate appeal] from one who has seen the wolf and cried in vain.”
It is hard to determine what has made the usually judicious Morgan purr in French for Vidal (particularly when one considers that Inventing a Nation contradicts Morgan’s own work on several essential points). Divided into seven chapters plus a brief epilogue, Inventing a Nation contains no footnotes, no original research, and no new information on our nation’s Revolutionary era. Instead, using his crafty pen, Vidal provides brief sketches of the Founders. Washington, he writes, was a poor military strategist but was possessed of stoic resolve and a sense of purpose. Further, his Farewell Address has much to teach Americans today as “the great combine of military, media, religious mania, and lust for oil has overthrown those safeguards that the first three presidents…were as one in wishing to preserve, protect, and defend.” Vidal is more critical of the erudite John Adams. He rebukes the second president for his support of the Alien and Sedition Acts, notes his trusting and cantankerous nature, and observes that Adams also “spoke with the pronounced lisp of the dentally challenged….”
Vidal’s views of our Founders personalities are often colorful, but they are also silly and, at key points, wrong. His infatuation with Franklin is misplaced. Vidal relishes Franklin’s claim that America would lapse into despotism and he treats it as evidence that Franklin “thought more deeply than any other well-recorded American.” This argument can not be sustained. Assuredly, Franklin was a remarkable figure and his diplomatic achievement in getting the French to support the Revolution was important. Franklin was not, however, the greatest thinker among our Founders. James Madison was the primary author of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and he also wrote 29 of the 85 Federalist Papers – one of the greatest political treatises ever written. Alexander Hamilton, who Vidal detests, was one of the principal architects of American capitalism and the author of 51 Federalist Papers. Compared to Madison and Hamilton, Franklin’s intellectual influence on the shape of America’s political and economic institutions were minimal. As Vidal fan Edmund Morgan has written, Franklin “took no part in the movement to bring it [the Constitutional Convention of 1787] about and did not contribute significantly to the final result.” Further, Franklin was a late comer to the Revolutionary cause and appears to have joined it largely for personal reasons. He spent most of his last years abroad and was far more impressed with life in London and Paris than he was with life in any American city. Finally, Franklin’s death in 1790 occasioned far more mourning in Paris than it did in America. Franklin, in fact, received only one eulogy in the U.S.
Other historical inaccuracies spoil Inventing a Nation. Remarkably, Vidal contends that it was only after Parliament passed the Intolerable Acts in 1774 that the colonial resistance slogan “no taxation without representation” became widespread. “Suddenly,” Vidal writes, “‘no taxation without representation’ dominated the political debate….” Most school children know otherwise. It was in response to the 1765 Stamp Act that colonists, through such groups as the Stamp Act Congress, effectively raised the “no taxation without representation” banner on a broad scale. With delegates from nine colonies meeting in New York City in October, 1765, the Congress adopted resolutions that declared it is “essential to the freedom of a people, and the undoubted rights of Englishmen, that no taxes be imposed on them but with their own consent, given personally or by their representatives.” To quote from Morgan again: the conviction that Parliamentary taxation was unjust due to lack of representation “emerged full grown as soon as the Stamp Act was passed.”
What is least convincing in Inventing a Nation is Vidal’s central thesis - that the nation our Fathers created is now corrupt and despotic. “The inventors of our nation,” he writes, “would be astonished at what we have done to their handiwork, their reputations as well.” Due, in large measure, to the Bush administration and the Patriot Act, America has become a crypto-fascist country, according to Vidal, whose citizens are stupid and easily kept in line through high-tech “total surveillance.” The corruption that Franklin predicted, Vidal writes, “has become institutionalized in the American republic-empire, whose despotism…[is] grounded upon the unconstitutional USA Patriot Act of 2001 and its successor now at hand.” To Vidal, American history is a history of decline. It is a morbid tale. It is also a history that the Left, save for Vidal’s modest but distorted defense of our nation’s founders, has adopted as its own. It makes no sense. America’s Founding Fathers created a revolutionary society that destroyed the political and moral validity of monarchy. In place of monarchical government, they established a government based upon political consent, the rule of law, and the idea of equality - a truly radical development in a world ruled by emperors, kings, and czars. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Americans used our Founder’s ideas to expand democracy by destroying slavery, securing women’s rights, and promoting and protecting civil rights. Far from being a history of decline, American history is a story of remarkable progress, of expanding rights, and of ever increasing levels of prosperity. Our nation, as President Bush has recently noted, is one that millions of immigrants came to in the past and continue to flock to today. America in 2004 is undoubtedly a vastly more open and democratic society than it was in 1904 or 1804. To argue otherwise and to insist that our nation is slouching towards some type of Nazi-like fascism is the height of absurdity. Vidal, in spite of - or, perhaps, because of - his failure to understand these elementary facts is one of the most celebrated intellectuals alive. That he is so celebrated, and that his works, including Inventing a Nation, are dubbed masterworks, or great cri de coeurs is a disturbing commentary on the shallowness of the contemporary Left’s intellectual culture.