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101 of 115 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Vidal's Vivid Portrait Of The Nation's Nativity
This is a two-tiered ranking...five stars for Vidalphiles, and three stars for other readers. If you revel in Gore Vidal's witty, often acerbic take on our present-day society, you should find this book a delight. Otherwise, you will probably find it infuriating in places...but at least it's never tedious. On display throughout this book is Vidal's great gift to turn...
Published on November 3, 2003 by W. C HALL

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81 of 110 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Well written, but not worth it
I have been thoroughly disappointed with everything that Gore Vidal has published since "The Golden Age" (and that was not him at his best). I have enjoyed his novels, chiefly "Julian," "Creation," "Burr," "Lincoln," "1876," and even "Empire" and Hollywood." I still recommend these books because of...
Published on November 19, 2003 by M. A Newman


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101 of 115 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Vidal's Vivid Portrait Of The Nation's Nativity, November 3, 2003
By 
W. C HALL (Newport, OR USA) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Inventing A Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson (Hardcover)
This is a two-tiered ranking...five stars for Vidalphiles, and three stars for other readers. If you revel in Gore Vidal's witty, often acerbic take on our present-day society, you should find this book a delight. Otherwise, you will probably find it infuriating in places...but at least it's never tedious. On display throughout this book is Vidal's great gift to turn two-dimensional historic personages back into three-dimensional figures of flesh and blood.
Vidal's narrative opens in the fall of 1786 as George Washington prepares to accept the call to lead the constitutional convention. This is a Washington, though revered by his countrymen, who finds himself in serious financial straits. The steady flow of visitors to Mount Vernon is eroding his resources--and demands for money from his mother are making things worse. Of all the Founding Fathers, Vidal perhaps best succeeds in offering a vibrant portrait of this proud, sometimes vain man, always conscious of his unique position in the new nation, sometimes struggling with the mantle of leadership that has been placed on his shoulders but never turning away from it.
The subtitle of the book is "Washington, Adams, Jefferson," and while Adams also emerges as the stubborn, resolute leader who was fully aware of his place in Washington's shadow; and Jefferson lives and breathes as the restless, shambling, somewhat abstract and overtalkative intellectual he must have appeared to his contemporaries, other founders rise from these pages with equal vividness, some for relatively brief cameos, such as Franklin, and others who play larger roles, such as Hamilton.
But Washington is at the heart of this story, as he was at the difficult, sometimes tortured enterprise that was involved in building a new nation. By now, we seem to have moved past the vision of the founders as a group of divinely inspired men who were the 18th century counterpart of Moses, accepting the wisdom of the heavens writ large on stone tablets. Vidal vividly reminds us just how much these men, for all their great gifts, were often groping almost blindly while a combination of wisdom with generous portions of luck and circumstance allowed them to forge something that still inspires awe more than two centuries later.
Washington's death in 1799 closes the book, and this is fitting, for it also marked the passing of the founders' era. If you can deal with (or agree with!) Vidal's assaults on our "national security state" of the present day, you should find this a vibrant, engaging read.
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41 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb and thoughtful, November 30, 2003
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This review is from: Inventing A Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson (Hardcover)
Americans are lucky to have Gore Vidal. Few of our historians (or writers for that matter) have his education, his critical abilities, or his prose. This book is not a history of the early American republic, or postage stamp biographies of the principle players. Instead it's a look at how, pretty much from thin air, a functioning American government was created after the first attempt failed so miserably. From the horse trading at the Constitutional convention to John Marshall's Federalist Supreme Court (which gave us judicial review and saved us from a good deal of Jeffersonian excess), Vidal tells the story of the compromises and conflicts that turned the theoretical government of the Constitutional convention into a living entity.
The not so subtle underlying theme of this book is how perverted those institutions have become. Vidal is on record (and has been for more than 30 years) as believing that by 1950, five years after WW II, our generally evolving to a better version of the original republic was being hijacked by political and business forces intent on maintaining the country on a constant war footing. In the famous debate with William F. Buckley in 1968 he made almost precisely the same argument against the Vietnam war that he made against Gulf War II, the gist of which is that since neither Vietnam nor Iraq gathered armies in Mexico it is not the business of a decent republic to make mishcief inside their borders.
To spotlight some of those issues, Vidal points out at length how our nascent republic survived largely by avoiding war in Europe. He makes much of Washington's constant preaching of avoiding war (and also much of his incompetence in prosecuting one), notes Hamilton's constant saber rattling, as well as Jefferson's willingness to forgive the heads flying aobut during the excesses of the French Revolution. Another reviewer mentions Founding Brothers, certainly a good book to read, as superior to this one. I think Inventing a Nation is more overtly political, more critical of its subject matter, and funnier. Many people seem to dislike Vidal because he is honest about his subjects. I think he admires Jefferson greatly but can't keep from noting his majestic hypocrisies. He admires John Adams but still spotlights his vanity, occasional shortsightedness, his monarchial tendencies, and his temper.
I also think that Vidal is trying to leave crumbs for future generations to figure out just what went wrong in the second half of 20th century. Let's face it, we aren't likely to get 30 more books out of him, and this is one that shows how undemocratic our early republic was and by doing so offers many insights into how undemocratic it is becoming once again.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 4 1/2* Vigorous, Controversial, and Fascinating, December 11, 2004
This review is from: Inventing A Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson (Hardcover)
Opinionated, erudite, passionate, witty, and manifestly sure of himself, Vidal makes himself as much a subject of the book as Washington, Jefferson, or Adams. He is everywhere present: in his winking asides, his revolving idealist/cynical stance, and in his time-leaping comparisons of contemporary times with those of the founders. Vidal's sometimes quirky writing style includes unfinished rhetorical questions, an apparent disdain for textbook grammar, references to Shakespeare and the classicists (often in Latin), circuitously long sentences, and a tone alternating between scholarly report, detached bemusement, and profound concern (sometimes combining them into an inventive and provocative alloy).

Citing Benjamin Franklin's written opinion (delivered by a friend to the Constitutional Convention) that our form of government will "eventually end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other," Vidal shifts immediately to a 1996 Franklin biography, "[with] significantly-inevitably?, Franklin's somber predictions cut out, thus silencing our only ancestral voice to predict Enron et seq., not to mention November 2000, and following that, despotism whose traditional activity, war, now hedges us all around."

All of this will madden those who either disagree with his political views or who expect a traditional historical treatment. Although Vidal obviously knows American history, the book is fundamentally an auteur's extended op-ed page or stage piece. Vidal's portrayals are a synthesis of his vast knowledge, prodigious research, hindsight perspective, and refreshingly unafraid opinion, mixing fact with both conjecture and psychological insight. Once you accept this (or put the book down in disgust), you can enjoy Vidor's writing as you would a letter from an affectionate but outspoken family member: One who rules over discussions with a mix of fact and fancy, who educates, persuades, and regales his audience (including himself).

Vidal covers the intriguing and monumental years from the pre-revolutionary era through the tumultuous presidencies of Washington and Adams (and, especially, contemporaries Hamilton and Madison), ending with a too brief discussion of Justice John Marshall and the roots of judicial review. After this always fascinating and sometimes frustrating view of the nation's founding, he provides an entertaining afterwards (as if he were finally free to really inject himself into the book) which includes a powerful anecdote about John F. Kennedy that poignantly conveys Vidal's anguish over the country he believes we have left behind.
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81 of 110 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Well written, but not worth it, November 19, 2003
By 
M. A Newman (Alexandria, VA United States) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Inventing A Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson (Hardcover)
I have been thoroughly disappointed with everything that Gore Vidal has published since "The Golden Age" (and that was not him at his best). I have enjoyed his novels, chiefly "Julian," "Creation," "Burr," "Lincoln," "1876," and even "Empire" and Hollywood." I still recommend these books because of their wit, their invention, and their iconoclasm. I would also recommend his large collection of essays.
However, when it comes to this book praise is difficult. First of all, although it does cover much the same ground as "Burr," but a great deal of this work is spent dispensing gossip half truths and obscure quotations which really do not seem to amount to much other than iconoclasm for iconoclasm's sake. It seems that the only people who come off reasonably well in this book are Adams and Franklin (which is odd since they represented different views on life and future of America).
The other "founding fathers" are disparaged through and through. While I believe there is a place for these sorts of evaluations, I do believe that Vidal goes too far at times. The characterization of Hamilton as a "British agent" which he expresses in a somewhat peculiar fashion really is too much. Personally I dislike Hamilton, believing him to have been a positive menace after he left government service at the age of 40. However, I do not know of a reputatable historian who would support this claim by Vidal.
The reason that Franklin comes off so well is that Vidal has found a rather picquant and pessimistic quotation from "the sage of Philadelphia" expressing fear of the degeneration of the American republic. This obscure quotation is raked over throughout the book. For this service Franklin is praised, though I am not sure he would welcome it.
One gets the impression that there is a part of Gore Vidal who seems to believe that the US invented political corruption and this has been with us from the beginning. While the second part is true, this is a phenomenon which the US can not claim exclusive ownership. I think the failings that he delights in are failings that exist in politics and politicians regardless of the age and that one might have to grade these people on the curve or be left with no one worth considering "praise worthy" other than failures and nonentities for the simple reason that they never had the opportunity to be corrupt since they never held office or did anything important to begin with.
His main concern is a continuing sense of outrage over the election of 2000 and the "Bush Junta." I think that this has colored his ability to address issues related to the founding fathers in the book and it has has resulted in a greatly inferior product.
To be sure, the writing, the wit is still there, but there is also an annoying audacity much to the discredit of the book and its author.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars More Than Just History, December 23, 2003
By 
Jack Ratcliffe "jratcliffe48" (Philadelphia, PA United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Inventing A Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson (Hardcover)
I read this book after having the fun of listening to Mr. Vidal discuss it at an event last month at the new National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. I've also taken into account some of the earlier reviews posted here. I agree it's not his best work; I'd save that distinction for LINCOLN and the UNITED STATES essays. However, it is a very thoughtful and funny piece of work. Vidal INTENDS you to think about what he says. There is more to history (at least there should be) than just getting the dates and names right. If you want the life of Washington read D.S. Freeman or J. T. Flexner. If you want John Adams, go to David McCullough. If you want Jefferson, see Joseph Ellis or even Dumas Malone. Those are first-rate biographies. However, what Vidal attempts here (generally successfully) is the second part of history - how does what they did reflect now? What present events suggest we haven't come as far as this founding trio would like? (See his comments on the relationship of Adams' Alien & Sedition Acts to the Bush Patriot Act.) It's funny, elegant, and enlightening. I enjoyed every skewering line.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining And Irritating, July 21, 2006
By 
James Gallen (St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.A.) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (REAL NAME)   
"Inventing A Nation" is Gore Vidal's witty and irreverent look at the three main characters, George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson who, together and in competition, invented the United States. Reporting the contributions, strengths and faults of each, Vidal carries the early years of our country from the Revolution through the Louisiana Purchase and on to the end of the Founders' Era, with the death of Adams and Jefferson on July 4, 1826. Besides the three main characters, the reader also gains insights into the roles of lesser players, such as Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Aaron Burr and John Marshall, particularly as they shared scenes on the world stage with the main characters.

I found this book to be both entertaining and irritating. Vidal's unusual ability to turn a phrase keeps this book moving along. At times Vidal suddenly shifts from events early in our history to current political topics. Vidal has a way of presenting his impression of current issues as universally accepted fact. An example of this is his leap from a discussion of the Alien and Sedition Acts of the Adams Administration to contemporary anti-terrorist laws, which Vidal sees as similar infringements on civil rights. This I find irritating. I did gain some insights into new ways of viewing individuals and developments in this portion of our history, although I can say that I found other books to be more informative. Because the new material was relatively sparse and the cheap shots at modern policies so irritating, I seriously considered giving up on this book before completion, something I almost never do. On the balance, I am glad that I stuck with it, but, knowing what I know now, I am not sure that I would start it.
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13 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An entertaining essay about our amazing vulnerable nation, February 27, 2005
By 
C. B Collins Jr. (Atlanta, GA United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Inventing A Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson (Hardcover)
Gore Vidal's witty, snide, snobby, sarcastic style of writing is very entertaining and even his critics have to admit he knows his history.

In this short, quickly read book, he demonstrates beyond doubt that our nation was founded, not by saints, but by a vast array of men with mutiple interests, visions, egos, and agendas. The miracle is that a flexible system of government was forged from this complex interplay of lofty enlightement philosophy with base ego centered self interests.

Vidal brings historic characters to life with tiny details, for example Abigail Adams becomes disqusted when Benjamin Franklin's mistress feeds her lap dog from the dinner table. While Washington is urging that the flimsy Articles of Confederation be replaced with a Constitution, he and his mother have a falling out. The book is full of these personal touches that bring the historic characters alive in the mind of the reader.

The team work of these early founders, despite their disagreements, was fantastic. Adams charmed the Dutch while Jefferson and Franklin charmed the French. The genius of Hamilton and Madison is balanced with the exceptional political skills of Washington.

I am always amazed when conservatives attack Gore Vidal, since he is an advocate of maximum liberty of the individual, and he will viciously criticise FDR with the same venom he would use against George W Bush.

The reader is left with a feeling of wonder and amazement that our principals of government have survived despite the folly of many a generation of politicians. Vidal would have us recognize that we must remain vigilant and skeptical regarding our nation's leadership and direction.
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13 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thought provoking and ascerbic, December 29, 2003
By 
doc peterson (Portland, Oregon USA) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
This review is from: Inventing A Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson (Hardcover)
Gore Vidal, in his _Inventing a Nation_, turns his attention to the first three Presidents and the politics of the young United States. The in-fighting, back-stabbing, manipulation (and in some cases, outright treason, as in the case of Alexander Hamilton) between the emerging political parties are discussed in great detail as are the personalities of the "founding fathers."
Wih this panoramic background Vidal has several points to make. That the nation was have today is not at all what the creators of the Constitution would have imagined, that we Americans have surrendered many of the liberties given us by the founding fathers (to the courts and corporations), and that the "democracy" we imagine we have has, in fact, never been so. I assume this is intended to provoke thought and reflection by readers, which it does.
But Vidal also has an ascerbic side, bordering on contempt for the common American when he asserts that most Americans have no idea what the "electoral college" is, that the nation has gravely erred by attempting to "export" democracy (beginning with our enterance into WWI and continuing to our current "war on terror"). Vidal also bitterly (perhaps justly so) decries the relequeshing of Congressional power to declare war to the executive.
At the Constitutional Convention, an elderly Ben Franklin remarked that we have a democracy, if we can keep it. Vidal argues that contrary to the intentions of our founding fathers, (who also battled similar issues) we have been unable to keep it. Certainly a thought-provoking read, but it is sure to anger some.
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12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Flesh and Blood., December 26, 2003
By 
This review is from: Inventing A Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson (Hardcover)
I would recommend the purchase of 'Inventing a Nation.' The main selling point of the book is Vidal's unbeatable style. You already know who the players are; 'court historians' have already identified them for you, in gross detail. Two of them adorn Mount Rushmore, gazing at a country that today they might find very strange indeed. (John Adams didn't make the cut for Mount Rushmore, I guess you would have to ask Gutzon Borglum why . . .)
What the court historians don't generally do is make an effort to cast the Founding Fathers as human beings, remarkable as they were. In this book, we read about Washington's financial troubles with his mom, Jefferson's uneasy working relationship with John Marshall, and Adams' never-ending correspondence with his wife Abigail.
Along with Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, Vidal takes time to embellish the margins of his portrait with sub-miniatures of Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Marshall, James Madison and the ineffable Talleyrand.
If a bland regurgitation of dates, times and places are what you are looking for, look to a textbook. If you are looking for a breath of fresh air, and a walk among giants that were only human after all, look to Vidal.
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9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Vidal's Founding Fathers, December 4, 2006
"How do you explain how a sort of backwoods country [Virginia] like this, with only 3 million people, could have produced the 3 great geniuses of the 18th century - Franklin, Jefferson, and Hamilton?" - this was the question John Kennedy asked Gore Vidal forty years before Vidal wrote "Inventing a Nation." Vidal says "this volume is hardly my definitive answer" to "dear Jack." Vidal produces this sentimental provocation at the end of his "Inventing a Nation" rather than the beginning.
Vidal "should" have given this anecdote in an introduction to his book if "should" means we want Vidal to approach the Founding Era as traditional historians do. In fact, Richard Eder is right in his New York Times book review (11/27/03) when he writes, "As history, 'Inventing a Nation' is likely to annoy the historian; it is not a novel, and the polemics come as half-choked asides, almost as if Mr. Vidal had been trying to hold back on them. Frequently, fortunately, he fails. He rambles with one founder, then with another, and then it's back to the first."
I might add that (except ending reflections on Kennedy) Vidal has no thesis to work. He attempts no argument that overarches his narrative. A good contrast with Vidal's open-endedness is Gordon Wood's Pulitzer Prize winner "The Radicalism of the American Revolution," where Wood carefully marshals evidence towards a grand historical interpretation.
Vidal not only offers no argument, he offers no real narrative, and he offers no citations to his quotations and sources.
What is Vidal doing? The LA Times book review said he is writing as "Pure Vidal." That is, he is an essayist and he is using the Vidal-approach to addressing the Founding Era.
I will go one step further in my argument, and I will end my review with my thesis like Vidal does his. First, it is right to say that this is "Pure Vidal" because there is much historical knowledge and contemporary interconnectedness in this book. Take for example these witty, controversial, colorful, and contemporary reflections:

Vidal can turn-a-phrase: "...Captain Shays, having sold Lafayette's sword to feed his family, took up the terrible swift sword of revolution" (6).

"The Electoral College, however, remains to this day solidly in place to ensure that majoritarian governance can never interfere with those rights of property that the founders believed not only inalienable but possibly divine" (67).

After Adams genuflects to his Senate a bit too much for Vidal's taste, the latter bites back saying: "The American megalomaniacal style of self-praise was now in place" (69).

"...neither empathy nor compassion is an American trait. Witness, the centuries of black slavery taken for granted by much of the country" (77).

Vidal comes ever so close to comparing traitors, double-agents, and spies with LOBBYISTS! These latter men, "profit from unpatriotic activities undertaken for domestic and foreign masters" (95).

How intriguing is this contrast: Jefferson as a "child of the Enlightenment," and Adams as "of Manichean disposition" (102-03). But, this is almost the exact opposite claim made by Joseph Ellis in his Pulitzer Prize winning Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. Ellis writes that Jefferson is more likely the Manichean, "Jefferson's mind consistently saw the world in terms of clashing dichotomies" (231). If I had to pick a side, Vidal of Ellis, concerning the Founding Fathers, I'd side with Ellis.

Vidal's comments on the presidential electoral proceedings of 2000 build slowly into an attack after a discussion of the history of democracy (134-137). This provocation is worth reading.

Vidal attacks the beginnings of corporate-America by noting Marshall's "most ingenious chimera" (Dartmouth College v. Woodward) (184-85).

Instead of the title "Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, and Jefferson" Vidal could have used "....: Washington, Jefferson, and Marshall." His point is made clear in light of Vidal's own admittance, "Jefferson versus Marshall was to be the great drama that, to this day, divides us" (180). I must however remember that for Vidal this is "my hardly definitive answer."

Vidal quotes John Kennedy as saying that he is "struck" by the fact that so many people he meets are "second-rate" compared to what "you read in those debates over the Constitution...nothing like that now" (188). But Vidal's book skips the Founding period and goes straight to the Founders working within their own system, and these politics are just as messy, duplicitous, and mischievous as our contemporary world. I think Vidal is trying to refine the American perspective on a distinction between the Paine's "Common Sense," Madison's notes on the debate on the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers - sell of the Constitution, with the almost disturbing way our Founders managed the Nation after it was set up. Notice Vidal's almost innocuous statement, "Inevitably, in those affairs where human vanity is most on view and at most taut, there is comedy" (134). Vidal sees those vanities surface as most taut after the almost philosophical debate of First Principles (e.g. the Constitution). Vidal is saying we all have in common our human feature of vanity and this becomes enacted once we come back down to earth and struggle with real politick.
But not everything the Founders did after the Founding was comical and common politics. One of the last remarks Vidal makes about the Founders that distinguishes them from us: "Time, they had more of it...They read. Wrote letters. Apparently, thought, something no longer done - in public life" (187). Vidal is a prolific writer. He may want us to remember him as continuing in the Founder's spirit.
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Inventing A Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson
Inventing A Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson by Gore Vidal (Hardcover - November 1, 2003)
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