Portrait by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
In his latest book, Gore Vidal takes readers behind the scenes as America's founding fathers fought and worked to create a new country. In an interview with NPR's Bob Edwards, Vidal discusses Inventing a Nation, the historical writer's work about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.
Among Vidal's revelations: Benjamin Franklin believed the Constitution was flawed and predicted it eventually would fail. And the Revolution was only kept alive by the force of Washington's personality and "the cleverness of our diplomats," (including Franklin, Jefferson and Adams), in convincing France to come to America's aid.
Following is an excerpt from Vidal's Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson.
On September 5, 1774, forty-five of the weightiest colonial men formed the First Continental Congress at Philadelphia. The weightiest of the lot was the Boston lawyer John Adams, known as the best-read man in Boston. Short, fat, given to bouts of vanity that alternated with its first cousin self-pity, he was thirty-nine years old when he joined the Massachusetts delegation to the Congress. He was married to Abigail Smith, a marriage somewhat similar to that of his father, John the farmer, to Susanna Boylston. Each Adams had seemed instinctively to be obeying an old law of new societies, by marrying above his social station: farmer John to a Boylston, while Abigail’s mother was a storied Quincy.
The one who moves up is known as a hypergamist and, not too surprisingly, such marriages tend to be happier than classic love matches between like-stationed couples. Certainly, Abigail and John were the most interesting couple among the founders of the embryo nation, and their letters to each other are still a joy to read; nor were they alone in their marital adventurousness; even the protocolossus, Washington, had condescended to marry a grand fortune.
If Adams was the loftiest of the scholars at the Continental Congress of 1775, Thomas Jefferson was the most intricate character, gifted as writer, architect, farmer—and, in a corrupt moment, he allowed his cook to give birth to that unique dessert later known as Baked Alaska. Like Adams, he had tried his hand at constitution making in the spring of 1776. He sent A Summary
View of the Rights of British America to Patrick Henry, the orator and professional Virginia politician, but got no answer. Henry reputedly had a problem with laudanum, the drug of the day. Jefferson was not pleased with this rebuff: "Whether Mr. Henry disapproved the ground taken," he later wrote, "or was too lazy to read it (for he was the laziest man in reading I ever knew) I never learned but he communicated it to nobody."
From April 1775 to July 1776 the undeclared war between England and its American colonies smoldered; flared up; appeared to sputter out... It was hardly, ever, a mass rebellion. For one thing, sixteen percent of the Americans were Tories: that is, loyalists to the crown. They were also among the wealthiest and best-educated of the colonists. Over the next eight years, as rebellion became war, many of them fled to Canada or even "back" to England, giving the radical lawyers who had taken charge of the Revolution a lucrative practice settling scores, not to mention estates.
Excerpt from Chapter 2 of Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Copyright 2003 Gore Vidal.