Inventing A Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson

Book by Gore Vidal

Review by Thom Hartmann, originally published at on June 8, 2004

The best of novels always leave me wishing they hadn’t ended -- I want to know more of the story, what happened next, where the characters went and what they did and how they ended up. In this exceptional work of non-fiction, Gore Vidal has used his brilliant novelist talents to produce a brief glimpse into the founding of America that left me feeling both enlightened, satisfied, and -- surprisingly for a non-fiction book -- wanting more.

Because the book is so short (189 small-format pages -- a weekend read) Vidal assumes that his readers are already well grounded in American history and thus touches only lightly on some of the more notorious issues and events in the lives of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson.

For those who have read books like Charles Beard’s 1932 masterpiece "The Rise of American Civilization," Fawn Brodie’s seminal "Thomas Jefferson," or even my new history book "We The People," Vidal’s light touch will serve as a reminder of some of the larger debates of those times, and memory will fill in the missing nuance. For those using "Inventing A Nation" as their first exploration of the lives of our most important Founders, it will evoke a hunger for more, lighting the fire of inquiry about how this nation came to be.

One of the truly marvelous aspects of Vidal’s book is that it challenges, head-on, many of the most common misperceptions about our Founders (such as the notion that they really only wanted to create a country for rich white guys). He begins his myth-puncturing with the opening sentence of the book: "In the fall of 1786 the fifty-four-year-old president of the Potomac Company, George Washington, late commander in chief of the American army (resigned December 23, 1783, after eight years of active duty) was seriously broke."

As I’ll be sharing in more detail on my radio program this month, page after page is filled with often subtle, often revealing, and always fascinating insights into the lives, times, personalities, idiosyncrasies, and motivations of our Founders. These range from Jefferson’s idealism to Washington’s stoicism to Hamilton’s being "British Agent Number Seven."

My only complaint with the book -- a minor point, really -- is that Vidal refers to Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party (today the longest surviving political party in world history, the Democratic Party, having dropped the "Republican" part of their name in the 1830s) by the then-common shorthand "Republican Party," which may cause confusion among readers not knowledgeable about the history of American political parties. (Vidal assumes his readers know that the modern-day Republican Party didn’t come along until decades after most of the Founders were dead, being a semi-resurrection of the Whigs, who, in turn were a semi-resurrection of the Federalists).

Wrapping up the book, Vidal reveals a private conversation he had with his friend and relative-by-marriage John F. Kennedy. " do you explain," Kennedy asked, perhaps rhetorically, "how a sort of backwoods country like this, with only three million people, could have produced the three greatest geniuses of the eighteenth century -- Franklin, Jefferson, and Hamilton?"

A page and a half later, Vidal ends the book poignantly:

"‘Let us now praise famous men and our fathers that begat us,’ as the New England hymn of my youth, based on Ecclesiasticus, most pointedly instructed us. Meanwhile, dear Jack, in the forty years since your murder, I have pondered your question, and this volume is my hardly definitive answer."

Jack Kennedy would have found both inspiration and insights in Vidal’s short masterpiece, "Inventing A Nation." As will you.

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