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.

Vidal’s Washington, in contrast, thinks mainly about money. After the Revolution, he considers escaping his expensive fame by heading north, perhaps as far as Canada. When his mother asks for 15 guineas, he blows up: ‘It is really hard upon me when you have taken everything you wanted from the plantation.’ And worse: ‘I have paid . . . by my own account fifty odd pounds out of my own pocket to you, besides (if I am rightly informed) everything that has been raised by the crops on the plantation.’ Vidal imagines the early American legislators blinking in astonished awe as Congress gets Washington’s bill and ‘coughs up $100,000’ for expenses. All the lesser characters echo his obsession. John Adams, the first vice-president, thought his salary (a quarter of the president’s) ‘a sort of "curiosity"’; it has not been recorded, Vidal writes, whether ‘Adams wept’ about his sorry financial condition.

Vidal is tapping one of the trustiest themes in American culture. Americans ‘think about nothing’, Tocqueville wrote in 1835, ‘but ways of changing their lot and bettering it’. ‘Money is the god of the United States,’ his travelling companion, Gustave de Beaumont, added, ‘as glory is the god of France . . . If one is born to think, he thinks; if he is born to make money, he does not think.’ Vidal puts the same point just as sharply, reflecting that the United States never developed ‘a true civilisation’: ‘cellophane and Kleenex were never quite enough.’

The lively debates in the first session of Congress offer a variation on the theme. What did men like John Adams and James Madison accomplish in the first legislature? The state needed funds, so the great political theorists haggled and horse-traded about whom to tax. First there was a proposed levy on molasses. The Virginians suggested six cents per gallon, New England, which produced the stuff, countered with three and eventually settled on four. Then sugar. Then salt. ‘The days of discussing Hume and Montesquieu were over,’ Vidal sniggers.

No one embodied the national money lust quite like Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s aide-de-camp, secretary of the treasury, and virtual prime minister. During the first administration, Hamilton proposed that the federal government assume all the debts run up by freewheeling states during and after the Revolution. This would create a national debt financed by government bonds: a solid foundation, Hamilton argued, for finance and speculation. Republicans who believed in small government were horrified, for this would thrust the federal government into the centre of the economy – of American society, indeed. Even worse, the critics complained, Hamilton’s scheme smacked of imperial corruption. Sure enough, sharp speculators with connections to his treasury department rushed to buy up the ‘worthless’ bonds from their unsuspecting countrymen, paying pennies to the dollar. ‘Nobody knew what these debts were, what their amount, or what their proofs,’ cried Thomas Jefferson. ‘No matter,’ he continued, ‘we will guess them to be twenty million . . . The more debt Hamilton could rake up, the more plunder for his mercenaries.’ Jefferson thought he knew the source of Hamilton’s madness: he was ‘so bewitched and perverted by the British example, as to be under thoro’ conviction that corruption was essential to the government of a nation’.

All the same, Jefferson salvaged Hamilton’s scheme after Congress narrowly voted it down. He did this in order to win Hamilton’s support for moving the national capital from the glittering social whirl of Philadelphia to a malarial swamp on the Potomac River (not far, as it happened, from Washington and Jefferson’s plantations). Jefferson lived to rue the deal. Vidal rues it in his turn: thanks to Hamilton’s ‘master manipulations at the treasury . . . there was now a Hamiltonian bandit party of new-rich . . . The corruption of the citizenry which Franklin acknowledged, and in the long run feared, had now reared its head.’ In Vidal’s view, Hamilton had gulled Jefferson and greased the way for the very worst American impulses: insider trading, the manic rush for wealth, the rise of a voracious capitalism, and the constant scramble for government jobs.

For a long time there were limits to American avarice. In Vidal’s history, populism roughly balanced plunder for two centuries. Patrician democrats and rude mobs would, in their own way, inspire an egalitarian urge to counter the moneyed elite. To take the aristocrats first: when the conservative George Mason moved in 1776 to restrict the Virginia electorate to white men who owned fifty acres of land, Jefferson suggested that the state ought to grant any voter who otherwise qualified the necessary land. That same summer, he drafted the Declaration of Independence and glossed John Locke: the idea that all men had a right to be secure in their life, liberty and property became an inalienable right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’. Vidal smiles: ‘John Locke’s "property” was suddenly out the window, thanks to Jefferson, who had substituted "the pursuit of happiness", something new under the political sun.’ Vidal draws a direct line between Jefferson’s patrician populism of the 1770s and Franklin Roosevelt’s in the 1930s.

Behind the good patricians, Vidal sees the much ruder and more radical voice of the populists. After the Revolutionary War, farmers in western Massachusetts rebelled. Bankers called in their debts and the state assembly (burdened with its own debt) introduced a property tax. Led by Captain Daniel Shays, the rebels took the field, drawing a genuinely revolutionary conclusion from the war for independence: ‘The property of the United States has been protected from confiscation of Britain by the joint exertion of all, and ought to be the common property of all.’ It took some time to get up a militia, but property interests eventually managed to put down Shays’s rebellion. In those early days, however, annual elections made the state assembly especially solicitous towards popular sentiment. The defeated rebels voted in an assembly that accommodated the debtors by grossly inflating the currency. That scared the men of property into a Constitutional Convention, where they intended to restore a proper respect for life, liberty and property.

A hundred and fifty years later, the same democratic spirit pumped courage into Roosevelt’s social programme. Governor Huey Long blew out of Louisiana touting a radical cure for the Depression: the rich had caused the crisis by grabbing too much; the answer was simple – share the wealth. Long pushed a punitive property tax: confiscate all income over $1 million a year and any estate over $8 million, and use the revenues to give every needy family a $5000 stake and an annual stipend of about $2000. He seemed poised to challenge Roosevelt for the presidency in 1936, and lots of stories made the rounds – getting nastier, Long commented, as his popularity swelled. (In one infamous episode, he rushed into a public lavatory and, in his boozy impatience, tried to relieve himself at a urinal that was already in use by aiming between another man’s legs; the man’s trousers got soaked; Long emerged with a black eye and a ready story: international bankers from the house of Morgan had tried to assassinate him.) The Roosevelt administration formulated its social security programme with an ear cocked for Long’s diatribes and an eye out for his presidential aspirations. Vidal reads Long as a direct descendant of Daniel Shays, pulling American reformers leftwards and posing danger to the property elites till he was ‘gunned down by the usual lone male assassin who so often recurs in American political life’.

Today, the party of plunder has finally overwhelmed the tradition of the populist rebels. ‘One cannot have a viable party of any kind that is not based on the interests of a class,’ Vidal explains. When the industrial workers – miners, manual labourers, mill hands – lost their jobs to automation and Third World labour markets, the old left was ‘adrift in the fin de siècle consumer/advertiser world’. Bill Clinton offered a mild, neo-leftish response to the demise of working-class politics, but then a new administration seized power, took off corporate capital’s velvet gloves and committed the state – Vidal’s prose turns electric whenever he thinks about it – to plunder, corruption and despotism (the last dressed up as ‘homeland security’).

Vidal’s emphasis goes against current fashion on the American left. He bases his story largely on issues of class and ‘religious mania’. His nutshell history of American imperialism, for example, runs something like this: while most Europeans basked in a renaissance of classical humanism, ‘fundamentalist Protestants had something more dour, more pure – indeed Puritan – in view: shining cities on a hill with converted Indians and imported African slaves to do the heavy lifting.’ Early leaders internalised that city on a hill while checking every impulse to divert its energy into foreign entanglements. When war talk broke out in the mid-1790s, Madison drily suggested that the first step must be to hire the Portuguese navy so as to have something to fight with. Washington’s farewell address, drafted with Hamilton and released in 1796, made probably the most celebrated case for American neutrality: ‘Nothing is more essential than that antipathies against particular nations and passionate attachments for others should be avoided.’ Washington urged his nation to avoid ‘entangling alliances’ and, instead, to ‘cultivate just and amicable feelings towards all’. Both ‘animosity’ and ‘affection’ lead a nation ‘astray from its duty and interest’. In particular, ‘the nation urged by resentment and rage sometimes compels the government to war, contrary to its own calculations and policy.’ But that early wisdom leaked away (Woodrow Wilson, for example, got it into his head to ‘make the world safe for democracy’) and, today, ‘religious mania’ and ‘lust for oil’ have the American empire rising up to crush ‘serpentine evil everywhere, for ever, wriggling its way through sacred gardens’.

Is it really lust for oil and religious mania, however? Most contemporary leftists no longer explain the American story primarily as one of economics tinged with moralising. Rather, understanding it usually means exploring the clashing tribes – those ‘converted Indians’ and ‘imported slaves’ – who have gathered in the US. Vidal feels no urge to dilute his class analysis by considerations of race, ethnicity and gender. When he turns to the Declaration of Independence, he can’t resist writing: ‘If all men are created equal then . . . free your slaves, Mr Jefferson.’ So far, entirely fashionable. But then: ‘They were his capital. He could not and survive so he did not.’ No apologies here; in fact, a poke in the eye: ‘It might be useful for some of his overly correct critics to try and put themselves in his place.’

Or take America’s odd presidential elections. The constitution orders each state legislature to devise a way to choose electors who will in turn choose a president. Americans eventually discarded that roundabout 18th-century procedure, but kept the Electoral College, which allocates all a state’s electors to the winning candidate regardless of how close the popular vote was. That’s how Al Gore managed to get half a million votes more than George Bush and still lose the election (putting aside the question of dodgy counting in Florida). Why would a relentlessly modern nation cling to this anachronism? The Electoral College stands, Vidal answers, to ‘ensure that majoritarian government can never interfere with those rights of property that the founders believed not only inalienable but possibly divine’. Always money.

A popular alternative suggests that the Electoral College really protects whiteness: the system tilts heavily towards rural districts dominated by white Protestants (who like to think of themselves as traditional America). Blacks make up 12 per cent of the population (Hispanics a bit more) but they don’t win 12 per cent of the electors: no electors for you if you can’t carry the entire state. Suburbs and rural districts offset the cities, and very rural states get more than their share because each state has at least three electoral votes. Indeed, fashionable leftists believe that one can have ‘a viable party that is not based on the interests of a class’: the Republican Party rose to national power because poor white Southerners cast aside their class interests and began fervidly voting according to their racial anxieties.

Fashionable scholars reread American history as a long series of conflicts over race, sexuality and ethnicity. Economics matters, of course, but shares a crowded stage with witch trials and feminism, slave stories and segregation. Where Vidal sees the grand old struggle between rich and poor, others find an endless culture clash, a restless quest to reconstruct the national ‘us’ – always pitted against some dangerous ‘them’.

The 2004 presidential election duly follows the script. To be sure, the parties joust over prosperity and war (without staking out very different territories), but when Congress delayed its summer recess, it was because the Senate needed time to debate and defeat a sly Republican constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. The point was not to win the change (we’ve only managed 15 amendments in the last two hundred years) but to permit Republican delegates to go home blasting the Democrats’ pro-homosexual, anti-marriage agenda.

During the 2000 election, Al Gore moved to the left and transformed himself into an economic populist ripping into corporate greed, while George Bush ran from the middle, promising unity, wholesome values and an anodyne ‘compassionate conservatism’. This time, the parties have swapped tactics. The Democrats grope for the moderate centre hoping to capture the rather small number of uncommitted voters: in the spring, John Kerry, Democratic war hero, noisily courted a Republican war hero, John McCain, to run as his vice-president (a rare move – the last split ticket ran and won in 1864). Meanwhile, George Bush cheers American patriotism, promises a safe homeland and talks tough against abortion, homosexuality and permissive courts.

The two strategies are both efforts to cope with a new American electoral geography: the country is evenly divided between red (Republican) and blue (Democratic) states. And we already know the results in most places: Bush wins in the South (Texas, Mississippi) and the Great Plains (Kansas and North Dakota), while Kerry takes the more cosmopolitan coasts (New York and California). Winning will turn on a handful of evenly divided states.

The great mystery for the left – and for Gore Vidal – is why the red states remain so ardently Republican against their apparent economic interest. The poorest white districts seem to despise the Democrats: they flatly reject the party that would raise the minimum wage, expand public health insurance and tax the rich, and embrace a party that flaunts its union-busting, anti-statist, commitment to the privileged. Why? The most popular explanation, at least on the left, finds cultural anxieties trumping economic self-interest. The heartland Republicans yearn for a lost social order, for the halcyon days before feminists, homosexuals, affirmative action, pierced noses, secular humanists, multicultural talk and Italian coffee (‘latte liberal’: this season’s favourite putdown).

Vidal links the new American empire with religious faith, and is right to do so. A New York Times reporter memorably illustrated the point during a recent debate by asking Kerry: ‘Really quick – is God on America’s side?’ (Translation: ‘Are you an effete, un-American, latte liberal?’) Vidal’s shrewd notion of empire is easy to misread. Most conservative voters have no interest in international affairs. The war on terror is not a foreign policy so much as an effort to reorder the homeland and restore the old values: patriotism, religion, respect for authority, robust law enforcement and a foreign policy that shows the world we mean what we say. On this issue, Vidal sounds the contemporary left’s fear with perfect pitch: a massive security apparatus – an empire – rises by feeding frustrated voters dreams of an imaginary golden past, together with hard fears of a dangerous new world entangling Americans in foreigners’ hates and hopes.

By late summer, Bush had burst ahead in the polls. Yet many Democrats remained hopeful. The administration, they felt, had gone too far – too warlike, too divisive, too many terror alerts, not nearly enough jobs. Despite the polls, Bush’s approval ratings languished in the danger zone (around 50 per cent). Further to the left – out where Gore Vidal is a political hero – the electoral prospects do nothing to dispel the gloom. Even winning the White House would be far too little and much too late. The imperial trappings – surrounded by nostalgic images of homeland – are firmly in place. A moderate Democrat groping towards the political centre is not likely to dislodge them.