The Triumph of Plunder

James Morone

  • Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson by Gore Vidal
    Yale, 198 pp, £8.99, September 2004, ISBN 0 300 10592 4

American conservatives are fond of jeremiads. Everywhere they look, they see flabby morals and flagging virtue. Children? We used to punish them for whispering in class, now they come to school with guns. Families? No one wants to get married any more, except the gays. Government? Never so bloated and corrupt. Our allies? Never so pusillanimous or venal. It’s quite a trick to seize power in every corner of American politics – as conservatives have in the past decade – only to announce loudly that things were never worse.

Gore Vidal aims to steal the form away from the right. Inventing a Nation borrows its essential narrative from Benjamin Franklin’s dark benediction over the newly written constitution. That, too, was a parlous moment for American liberty. Eleven years after breaking with England, the United States seemed destined for chaos. Each cantankerous state governed itself and squabbled with its neighbours. In 1787, their panicky leaders gathered in Philadelphia to try to patch the nation together. After wrangling all summer – big states v. small, slave states v. free, aristocrats v. republicans – they hammered out their document. As the delegates lined up to sign, the 81-year-old Franklin offered this ambiguous blessing:

I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such: because I think a General Government necessary for us, and there is no Form of Government but what may be a Blessing to the People if well administered; and I believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a Course of Years and 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.

And that, Vidal says, was Franklin’s last and greatest prophecy. ‘Two centuries and 16 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.’ Vidal surveys the familiar details: a conservative clique brazenly steals an election; the Supreme Court tosses aside the ballots and ‘throws a bright spotlight on just how undemocratic our republic has become’; corporations like Enron plunder both their investors and their employees. And, most ominously, the despotic regime tightens its grip by fostering a permanent state of war. The American republic becomes, as Franklin predicted, an American empire.

Worse, Franklin’s prophecy no longer stirs even a vague popular memory. Vidal rummages through his bookshelf, plucks out Esmond Wright’s Benjamin Franklin: His Life as He Wrote It, and finds the prophecy snipped out of the third edition. Again, he reaches for ‘the best of America’s high school history books’, The American Pageant, and finds its authors complaining that Franklin had become so ‘indiscreetly talkative’ that his colleagues hired chaperones to trail him and stop him spilling the Constitutional Convention’s secrets. ‘The wise, eerily prescient voice of the authentic Franklin’, Vidal comments, is now recast as ‘the jolly, fat ventriloquist of common lore’.

His treatment of the founders flouts one rule of the jeremiad: for Vidal there never was a golden age – quite the contrary – and he rudely exposes the clay feet hidden beneath those Federalist chairs. The glorious past is thick with knaves and fools, and that knavery and foolishness would eventually corrupt the republic: ‘What will be the old age of the government if it is thus early decrepit!’ the French ambassador Joseph Fauchet sniffed in 1792. The ‘whole nation’ is ‘a stock-jobbing, speculating, selfish people. Riches alone here fix consideration.’ Those early American foibles – cash, class and corruption – are at the heart of our present troubles.

The most sustained theme of Inventing a Nation might be tagged as tales of avarice. Even the ‘protocolossus’ George Washington shambles onto Vidal’s stage ‘seriously broke’ and grumbling about money. Most accounts point up that he was elected to almost everything (commander of the army, chair of the Constitutional Convention, president of the nation), and gave the rude young republic some dignity: Washington calculated every action by how it might touch his (and, by extension, his nation’s) reputation. As president, for example, he received visitors in afternoon levees, at which he formally greeted dignitaries, arrayed in a semi-circle around him, one at a time; during the reception, the president guided his countrymen away from the gauche temptation to shake his hand by holding his hat in one hand while resting the other on the hilt of his sword.

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