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Present at the Creation: The Denial of "the Political" in America's founding Politics A Book review of Gore Vidal's book

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One of our foremost men of letters, the late Gore Vidal, has written an important little book -- at least as far as it goes. This 195-page book begins well, trenchantly written with lots of piss and vinegar flowing throughout, at least in the early chapters where the reader is given a "fly on the wall seat" at the table at the nation's creation.
In those ruckus early years, carefully reflected in the book's early chapters, Vidal covers a lot of important ground. So much so that it reminded this reader of what the "real themes" that lay at the bottom (on the substrate and in the subtext) of the discussions at the drafting sessions of the Articles of Confederation, the Declaration of Independence and even the drafting and editing of the U.S. Constitution itself, were really about.
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In those seminal early chapters, where discussion of the real political issues was about to break out, sadly, Mr. Vidal then turned tail and abruptly "pulled up short" reverting to merely foreshadowing what the "real issues" that led to the invention of the Republic were all about.
At this point I was reminded of the admonitions and warnings given by Patrick Geary and Michael Ignatieff, in their respective books, "The Myth of Nations," and "Blood and Belonging," both about the mechanics of how nations are invented. Loosely paraphrased and greatly summarized, the reader may recall that these authors warned us in no uncertain terms that "nation-making" is nothing if not mostly "myth-making." Or, put somewhat less diplomatically, nation-making is the art of exaggerating the "good and heroic," while at the same time minimizing (or leaving out) as much of the "bad and ugly" as the collective conscience will allow.
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Had the author continued to use his considerable intellect and literary skills to advance the themes opened up in the early chapters, then this would have been a memorable book. However, by the middle of the book, Mr. Vidal, had pulled up so short that the discussion had turned into a "People Magazine" version of the invention of the U.S.
Yes, I too like hearing about Washington's wooden teeth, Franklin's bastard children, and Jefferson's rump in the sack with Sally Hemmings. But I would much rather have had the author continue using his considerable talents to focus on why our founding fathers lacked the courage to face squarely the facts of their own deeply troubling moral and financial situation?
It is an issue other authors have raised. For instance, Roger Wilkins, in his fine book "Jefferson's Pillow," made the very "pardonable" mistake of trying to square the circle of contradictions between the personal lives of the Virginia quartet and what was left as their historical legacy. Joseph J. Ellis, in his "American Creation," gives the standard narrative, leaving a little room for "rationalizing away" a few of the more notable errors of our founder's, errors like slavery and the failure to negotiate honestly with the Indians. Others, like Charles Beard, Howard Zinn, and more recently Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, in her "An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States," and Gerald Horn's "The Counter Revolution of 1776," from the University of Houston, leave little room for rationalizing away moral mistakes and thus have all discovered, that Wilkins' moral circle cannot easily be squared.
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Even the most pregnant of themes either missed or abandoned here, like that of using Washington as a metaphor of the fledging new nation, was deflected.
General George Washington was not just the father of the country, General of the Revolutionary War, and our first President, but also served as well, as both a symbol and an apt metaphor for the moral and financial dilemma that the new nation found itself in. Like Washington, by 1786, the new nation too was mired in corruption and flat broke.
Washington, despite being a well-known and notorious land speculator (this was one of the reasons he was a land surveyor) with thousands of acres of land both in Virginia and on the Ohio frontier, and despite having consciously married well above his station specifically to secure his financial future, as well as also having over 100 slaves to do all of the manual labor, our founding father and first national hero, even while he was President, was teetering on financial and moral collapse. With all of these built-in advantages, neither Washington nor Jefferson could seem to make their land a profitable going concern.
In a similar moral and financial dilemma, so too was the very much fractured young nation divided in no less than thirteen mutually-exclusive sectors, it too was also teetering on financial and moral bankruptcy. Having made its financial way mostly by colony-wise clandestine and illegal trading in contraband British products, smuggling and pirating on the high seas, and by otherwise buying and selling illegal British goods to her enemies, or evading paying taxes on smuggled goods, using its extensive smuggling routes to evade British authorities on the high seas while still competing against it, and even selling inflated British military goods to both sides in both the French-Indian War and the Revolutionary War. And most importantly, it ignored the colony-wide British edict against continuing to trade in slaves; and then to add a final insult to injury, the colonies refused to be taxed for the war debt it owed Britain for rescuing it from the French-Indian War.
Thus, like Washington, the young nation too found itself having to punt on "fourth and long" deep in its own territory, with the clock running out.
The fact of the matter is that we have become so accustom to "leaving out the political" in the American political dialogue that it has become an inbred cultural trait.
In order to "ferret out" what the real issues were lurking in the background and in the subtext during the founding generation, requires reading at least a couple dozen other books. Without a great deal of digging, we in fact would never discover what the real issues that lay just beneath the breaths of the founding fathers in those heady discussions in Philadelphia, Boston and New York, were.
For without a doubt, just beyond all of the drafting sessions, the burning issues of the day had little to do with the taxes on British tea in the Boston harbor, or about British troops occupying Boston, or even about the fears of American government becoming a British like monarchy, and it certainly had nothing at all to do with the personal lives of this founding sextet, to which the entire second half of this book was devoted.
The "real causes" of the American Revolution lay in the subtext of Colonial America's Politics, i.e., in the denial of the political.
What those sessions in Philadelphia, Boston and New York really were about, was about which groups were being included and which were being left out when the phrase "we the people" was used? It was also about whether "property rights" would be valued over individual "human and citizens rights?" It was about the continued state-sanctioned diplomatic treachery and genocide being willfully committed against Native Americans. It was about how to avoid dealing with the issue of Colonial America's real "cash crop," slavery. It was about the ever-present fear of the possibilities of slave revolts all across the Southern colonies. It was how the ever-present fear of another Shay's rebellion in which the slaves and poor of all colors would unite and rise up against the corrupt landed gentry of white men, which included all of the founding fathers.
It was about the fact that the Articles of Confederation and "colony rights" (the precursor to states rights) were not working and continued to trump the collective rights of the national union to come into being. It was about how the South feared being dominated by the North. It was about how to avoid the moral obligation to pay off rather than welsh on its war debt to Britain for the cost it had incurred in the French-Indian War (while saving Colonial America from Spain and France, who were still on the prowl around the frontiers of the continent). It was about how smuggling had become the mainstay of the colony's economy at the same time that it was being used to undermine British trans-Atlantic and global trade (and was being done at the same time that the British came to the colonies rescue?) And most of all, it was about how to get from under the hammer of the recently handed down British edict against continuing the practice of slavery.
These are the critical moral and political issues whose importance was being denied during the discussions that resulted in the invention of the nation. These are the moral and political issues that never hit the drafting tables in the discussions at the nation's creation. What we got instead and still have, is a mythical cover story that glorified a group of men who even by the standards of their day would have been described as moral Pygmies, meaning no disrespect to Pygmies
Ever in denial, the overriding question was still what to do under such circumstances?
If instead of focussing incessantly on the context as most American history books do -- i.e., on the red herring of tea being taxed and Boston being occupied by their colonial masters (for god's sake, British troops had been in Boston for 60 years!), why not instead focus on the dense substrate of motives bubbling up from the political subtext in the list above?
And equally as important, why not focus on how the young nation, in the aftermath of the French-Indian War, was better able to (and now actually anxious to) flex its own new global economic muscles as a result of the incredible productivity of slavery resulting in increased global trade in cotton, molasses, corn, hemp, alcohol and spirits, and tobacco, and doing so against its primary competition and colonial protector, Britain?
Why not concentrate on the fact that the Articles of Confederation were not working (as Washington himself put it: "Unless we bind together, we are no more than a rope of sand")? Why not mention that it was Shay's rebellion that intervened and threatened to divide up property, print money, unite black and white slaves with other poor against the landed white male gentry, and then reunite them all with England? Or, why not speak about the empty treasury and the cost of "homeland security" in the face of Colonial America's own intense fears of the slave revolts taking place all across the Atlantic -- especially since Jefferson had dispatched colonial troops to Haiti to help the Colony's worse enemy France defeat Touissant L'Overture? Jefferson's trecherous ploy did not work, Napoleon was ejected from Haiti and was force to sell its North American possessions to the American colony.
These were the preeminent issues threatening and animating the white colonial landed gentry during the founding generation, and yet not a word about any of them survived in our much revered political documents? This is what Colonial American politics was about during the run up to the revolutionary war. And seen through the lens of this much denser subtext of issues, it does not take much imagination or Machiavellian shrewdness to see that there is only one solution that solves all of these problems at once, an immoral one: the double-crossing of big brother Britain by declaring independence from the Crown at the soonest and most inopportune time for Britain, and then drafting a Constitution that would unite the colonies. QED
So, why the apolitical song and dance, the cheap inane cover story, about fighting for the white man's freedom against the British, and about being enslaved by the British monarchy, etc.? Why would Vidal, after a beautifully contextualizing narrative that brings us to this critical launch point, then suddenly and unconscionably veer off into irrelevances about the personal idiosyncrasies of the players? Was it not calculated precisely to cover up the treachery of the founding fathers against their most reliable colonial protector and rescuer, Great Britain?
Whether or not Vidal mentions it, unless he expects that we readers are all both blind and dumb, it is all but self-evident in retrospect that the geopolitical table had been set for a Slavetocracy similar to that which Colonial America had become, to step into the geopolitical breach and assume its place as a global power.
The British knew it; and so did the American Colonial Settlers (and after reading this book, so too does the reader?). So why the "song and dance" about the Boston tea tax and all the false rhetoric about the need for the white man to declare his freedom from the British Monarchy, especially when the only "real slaves" were the black men the founding fathers held in chains on the farms in Virginia, the same men who had helped turn the little piss ant of a Colony into a world power?
While our history books would have us believe that there was no way out of this "give me liberty, or give me death" situation, the truth is that what the "middling colonials" (a quarter of whom were British subjects) would have settled for, was well within reach: Colonial American representation in the British Parliament. Why did our history books fail to raise even for discussion this very viable option to avoid the "so-called" American Revolution?
I now believe the reason was just as Dr. Gerald Horne, of the University of Houston has put it in his recent book, "The Counter-Revolution of 1776:" None of our founding heroes were willing to "own up to" the fact that the real sticking point that ignited the fuse leading to the Declaration of Independence as well as to the Revolutionary War was the settlers' refusal to give in to the British request to stop the slave trade in Colonial America, as well as having to pay back its war debt. Still a very thought-provoking read. Three stars


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Retired Foreign Service Officer and past Manager of Political and Military Affairs at the US Department of State. For a brief time an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Denver and the University of Washington at (more...)

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