Birth of a nation

It seems America’s founding fathers have never been more popular. Americans have often been filled with patriotic nostalgia about the birth of the republic and the figures that toiled to make it so, but there is a renewed interest, fuelled by new research and fresh interpretations.

In recent years, new biographies of George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton have featured in the national bestseller lists. Stories of the founders, the revolution and the creation of the constitution are a staple of the Pulitzer Prizes. There have been many new exhibitions, lectures, documentaries and movies about these men and the other principal founders, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

The nature of the scholarship has swung from sentimental and undiluted praise, to condemnation, charges of hypocrisy and ridicule. But the finer historians have sought a balance: respecting their achievements while not being uncritical about their shortcomings. The search to truly understand them, in all their complexities and contradictions, is what drives the interest.

Among the recent books examining the founders and their legacy is the distinguished writer and political activist Gore Vidal’s Inventing a Nation. Vidal recalls a ‘bright morning’ conversation with President John F. Kennedy that provided the motive for his book. Kennedy asked how a ‘... backwoods country like this, with only three million people, could have produced three great geniuses of the 18th century—Franklin, Jefferson and Hamilton?’ Vidal answered, flippantly, ‘Time. They had more of it … They read. Wrote letters. Apparently, thought, something no longer done—in public life.’ Now, some 40 years later, Vidal provides a more detailed reply to Kennedy’s question.

Vidal approaches the birth of the republic principally through three figures: Washington, Adams and Jefferson. In his examination of the founding, he describes Washington’s ‘passive eminence’, the truly ‘great collaborators’ Hamilton and Madison, and the ‘godfathers’ Adams and Jefferson. From here Vidal travels back and forth visiting the revolutionary wars, the continental congresses and the early years of the republic.

Vidal describes the competing ideas and values in the creation of a national government, the relationships between the protagonists, and the infighting that characterised Washington’s two presidential terms. He reminds us that none of it was inevitable or easy; it was a long struggle that required not only wisdom but compromise.

This is not a misty-eyed portrayal of the greatest of great men. Vidal does not ignore their collective arrogance or the political skulduggery that characterised the new nation’s early years, nor does he forgive them their hypocrisies, flaws or contradictions. He seems to enjoy reminding us that Washington did not win many battles, that Hamilton favoured the ‘rich and wellborn’ over ‘the mass of the people’, that Madison was a pawn in Jefferson’s political games, that Franklin enjoyed too many ‘joyous affairs’, that Adams saw virtue in monarchy, and that Jefferson, in addition to his immorality, was in awe of the French Revolution.

Most critically, despite the clarion call echoing from the Declaration of Independence that ‘all men are created equal’, four of the first five presidents were slave-owners. Indeed, the founders chose to compromise on slavery, leaving it for future generations to resolve. It would take a civil war to do so.
Vidal makes the story dramatic, yet realistic, and ultimately compelling. He is motivated not ‘by dramatic contradictions in character’, but rather ‘in those consistencies wherein lie greatness’.

Those wanting a more scholarly approach might consult the eminent American historians Joseph Ellis, Ron Chernow, David McCullough, Gordon Wood, Richard Brookhiser or Andrew Burstein. Vidal’s tract invokes the image of an informative dinner conversation, with Vidal holding court at one end and perhaps his friend, NSW Premier Bob Carr (who has written a foreword) at the other, agreeing about the greatness of these men, yet drawing different conclusions about their legacy.

Unfortunately, Vidal’s pet subjects, ranging from the imperial presidency, public corruption and the power of corporations, to the reach of the American empire and the war in Iraq, all weave their way into the narrative. In so doing, Vidal enlists the founders to support his arguments. There is Franklin railing against the inevitability of ‘despotic government’ and ‘corrupted’ people, and Jefferson’s call for new revolutions every generation to keep ‘the tree of liberty’ refreshed.

This book is layered with Vidal’s lament that America, once great and full of promise, has withered and been transformed into a corporate, repressive, oligarchical state. At its core the book is a polemic, written by a disgruntled and disillusioned American, hoping that America may yet fulfil its founding ambitions.

Though unconvincing in that, it is more than an anti-imperialist rant. Rather, it is a wise attempt to answer Kennedy’s question which has intrigued scholars and students for centuries, and will do so for many years to come. 

Inventing a Nation: Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Gore Vidal. MUP, 2004. isbn 0 522 85138 X, rrp $29.95

Troy Bramston is co-editor of The Hawke Government: A critical retrospective (Pluto Press, 2003), works for a Labor senator, and holds a master’s degree in politics and international relations from UNSW.



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