A Week in Books: Invention of a nation

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In Britain today, every semi-educated show-off can buy a cheap laugh with a dig at dumb Americans. Yet ignorance and insularity know no frontiers. Except for the hobbyists who spend their weekends re-fighting Civil War battles, most Brits know shamefully little about American history and ideology, and care less. In particular, the amazing depth and richness of the political thought that secured the triumph of the Revolution and the making of the "United States" remains a firmly closed book to most. Instead, we obsess like hard-of-thinking medieval serfs about what the valet did with the prince did with the princess did with the butler... Just grow up and get a life (and a proper constitution), as Jefferson might have - much more elegantly - said.

Help, however, is at hand. It comes from a fine old American institution, and a light of liberty that beams from sea to shining sea. Never mind that the seas in question have, over the past 40 years, often been the Tyrrhenian and the Adriatic. Gore Vidal, as a virtual expatriate has, through his wit and learning, served his country better than several presidents. Many of his strongest novels - such as Burr and 1876 - confront a forgetful, myth-making present with the perils and muddles of the actual American past. His magisterial essays (collected in United States) echo with patrician dismay at the sad decline of a rare and precious republic into a common-or-garden empire.

Now he has written a brief, luminous and (of course) idiosyncratic book on the deeds and thoughts that forged the Union, from the creation of the Constitution in 1787 to the inauguration of Jefferson in 1801. Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson (Yale University Press, £14.95) is so limpid and lively in its portraits of the Founding Fathers, and its exposition of their principles, that even feudal-minded Brits can enjoy it. For US readers, Vidal's iconoclasm will loom largest, as he insists on the English roots of all-American ideals, labels his native land a "despotism" after the "anti-constitutional" USA Patriot Act, or looks at how Jefferson finessed the matter of slavery.

Over there, Inventing a Nation will read like another seditious salvo fired by Unpatriotic Gore. Over here, the case is altered. For all his debunking mischief, Vidal has a salutary story to tell us of how grand ideas can coalesce into fresh institutions. Nothing about this process was pre-ordained. Washington might have become King George; a backlash might have returned the rebel colonies to the crown; the Revolution might have bred its Napoleon. Instead, the republic endured.

For every hundred Britons who will crow that Al Gore (the author's kinsman) won many more votes than Bush, not one can tell you why the electoral college exists. For better or worse, as Vidal crisply explains, the Founding Fathers made a Roman republic, not an Athenian democracy. Vidal lays bare this political bedrock, with sharp reflections on the Scots-West Indian gadfly, Alexander Hamilton. If you want to blame anyone for George Bush's "victory", blame the pro-British Hamilton ("the bastard brat of a Scotch peddlar", said John Adams) and his disdain for mere majorities.

After this bracing dip into the values of the Enlightenment, Vidal allows himself a little light anecdotage. It concerns, inevitably, his relative-by-marriage John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and a leisurely morning in 1961 when JFK moaned to Vidal about "second-rate" modern politicans, and asked him to account for the intellectual muscle of the early presidents. Perverse as ever, Vidal wound up the favourite son of Irish America with the answer: "Anglo-Saxon attitudes". If true, we could do with more of them right now.