On a Massachusetts morning in 1961, Gore Vidal beat his friend John F. Kennedy at backgammon, after which the two men chatted about why nobody engages in great political discussions any more like the nation's founders did as a matter of everyday life.
"Meanwhile, dear Jack," Vidal writes in Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, "in the 40 years since your murder, I have pondered your questions, and this volume is my hardly definitive answer."
In Vidal's little history book -- and this time, it's not a novel (like his popular Burr or Lincoln) -- the founders became crystal-clear about the need for a federal constitution after Shays' Rebellion of 1786-87. Before it, the Federalists favored a strong central government, while the anti-Federalists (later "Republicans") favored wider states' rights. But when Shays rose up against the moneyed class and fought for the overtaxed poor, "there were no Federalists, no future Republicans," Vidal writes, "only frightened men of property."
Still, Vidal admires many things about these tyros of modern government and politics. Washington: honest, altruistic, majestic, a mediocre general who led by force of character. Adams: misanthropic, anti-aristocratic, well meaning, and a bad judge of human nature. Jefferson: a dreamy existentialist who wanted a convention once a generation to re-examine and revise the federal constitution.
And of course, the immutably wise old Benjamin Franklin, an "eerily prescient voice" whom history has rendered into "the jolly fat ventriloquist of common lore, with his simple maxims for simple folk." He especially praises Franklin for predicting "the People shall become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any others."
Vidal quotes so profusely from primary texts that you never doubt his authority, although you may wonder how the founders dared call their nation a government "for the people," given their venal natures. Inventing a Nation is more about political intrigue and personality than the article-by-article nitty-gritty of forging our Constitution ("invented," incidentally, by James Madison). Our founders were, finally, all too flawed and human to support the hagiography that a conventional history demands (and that Vidal abhors). Thus the good intentions that brought the factions together quickly gave way to compromise and corruption.
Vidal's history moves around within his 18th- and early 19th-century time frame and sometimes even moves very forward, drawing parallels with the emerging history of the 21st century. The USA Patriot Act of 2001, posits Vidal, is the feature film for which our nation's nascence -- replete with Sedition Acts and North/South rivalries -- was merely the preview of coming attractions. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks pop up, as does Britain's "New" Labor prime minister, Tony Blair, whose victory Vidal sees as a reminder of the pre-destiny -- or at least the consistency -- of national character.
Vidal reminds us that our founders did not choose to form a messy democracy, like Athens, where citizens would assemble at plebiscites to debate and approve all laws. They created instead a republic of voters who chose people to do the deed for us, and where from time to time, in the early days, these elected leaders would appease the grumbling plebes with grants of property, which the barons could then proceed to rob them of. An enemy of intervention -- and an advocate of less federal government, especially when it intrudes on our private lives and Constitutional freedoms -- Vidal notes that the Constitution says nothing of making the world "safe for democracy," a doctrine that comes up "as an occasional rhetorical flourish when we are up to mischief in foreign lands."
Vidal's book isn't so much iconoclastic as it is merely irreverent in the most literal sense: He doesn't feel obliged to retouch his portraits of the founders or genuflect before them. If there's a villain of this piece, it's Alexander Hamilton, a bright, tenacious, Anglophile classist and unindicted treasonist who, as secretary of the Treasury, used his favor with President Washington (and his fondness for England) to make sure money went to the proper people.
In the course of his history, Vidal drops the names of the political and social philosophers -- Locke, Hume, Paine, Rousseau -- whose ideas the founders cobbled together to invent our nation. His book doesn't quite ever tie up its loose ends or draw canonic conclusions, which is either an unusually wise decision, or the inevitable shortcoming of any project that tries to read the minds of the past.