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Inventing A Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson Hardcover – November 1, 2003

3.1 out of 5 stars 63 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this concise but hardly cohesive effort, the achievements of America's most venerable founding fathers-and a large supporting cast, including Alexander Hamilton and Ben Franklin-are eclipsed by their personal, psychological and political foibles. Our nation is often portrayed as a finished product, having been birthed by great thinkers and selfless patriots. Vidal illustrates that the new nation was, in fact, a messy, tenuous experiment, consistently teetering on the brink. Vidal sheds light on the shaky alliances, rivalries, egos, personal ambitions and political realities faced by the men who became the first three American presidents. Unfortunately, Vidal's greatest strength, his novelist's flair, runs amok here. At John Adams's inauguration, for example, Vidal asserts that Washington "won his last victory in the Mount Rushmore sweepstakes" by forcing Jefferson, the vice-president, to exit the hall before him, so Washington could claim the larger ovation. This is divined from a record that merely states, "Jefferson was obliged to leave the chamber first." Correspondence is used to support Vidal's acerbic appraisals, but without source notes, readers are left to wonder in what context the extracts were originally penned. Vidal's antipathy toward the "American Empire" and contempt for the American public drips thick from his sentences and shows up frequently in annoying parenthetical asides and interjected screeds. He sneers that the "majority" of Americans "don't know what the Electoral College is" and compares Truman to the bloody Roman tyrant Tiberius. This book was surely intended to be thought provoking. Unfortunately, it provokes more thought about its author than its subjects. Still, one has to appreciate the irony of a noted icon-smasher launching Yale's new American Icons series.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

Much of Vidal's contempt for contemporary America may originate in his admiration of how the Founding Fathers handled human nature. At least the founders, Vidal seems to say in this sinuous essay, were not hypocrites disclaiming interest in power; rather, they made an honest attempt in the original Constitution to restrain what they saw as politicians' inevitable appetites for ambition and avarice. Long fascinated with the behind-the-scenes aspects of politics in the 1780s and 1790s, Vidal muses on Alexander Hamilton's machinations against John Adams and analyzes similar political sleights of hand by Jefferson, Aaron Burr, John Marshall, and James Madison. Along with these characteristically brilliant and acerbic reflections on power and personality, Vidal offers a generally positive portrayal of Washington, taking time to note how the Father of His Country looked with his wooden teeth. This entertaining and enlightening reappraisal of the founders is a must for buffs of American civilization and its discontents. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Series: Icons of America
  • Hardcover: 198 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; 1st edition (November 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300101716
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300101713
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.9 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (63 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #822,311 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By W. C HALL VINE VOICE on November 3, 2003
Format: 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.
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Format: 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.
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Format: Audio CD
"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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