Thursday, September 27, 2012

Gore Vidal's "Burr": Our Founding Felons

Gore Vidal recently passed away. A few days later, I found a used copy of Burr in a small bookstore in Alexandria and began reading this formidable work. Vidal's prose style is dense, his plot is confusing and circular. But the book is well worth reading for its realistic (as opposed to hagiographic) treatment of the founding fathers.

Writers often wish that their work will affect the lives of their readers. Vidal achieved this wish when Michele Bachmann converted to Republicanism during an abortive reading of Burr. She called the book snotty and accused Vidal of mocking the Founders. I found the book snarky but refreshingly honest.

Thomas Jefferson c. 1820
Vidal was not mocking the founders. He was telling the truth about them. He concentrated on their flaws instead of their achievements. Vidal pointed out that Washington was a mediocre general who spent most of the Revolutionary War retreating from the British. Washington won two minor battles on his own and only succeeded in defeating Cornwallis at Yorktown with the assistance of Lafayette and the French navy. Furthermore, Washington had his soldiers flogged and owed his fortune to the efforts of his slaves. Both of those acts would today be felonies.

Vidal spares most of his venom for Jefferson, however. Jefferson wrote the words, "All men are created equal", but owned more than 700 slaves over his lifetime. Historians have whitewashed his reputation by claiming he treated his slaves humanely, but this was not true. Jefferson used beatings of young boys to force them to do factory work. As late as 1950, school textbooks omitted this fact from his biography. Jefferson also hired slave hunters to bring back escaped slaves, sold young boys on the auction block, and had sexual relations with at least one female slave. Many of these actions would be considered felonies today.

Perhaps most damning, Vidal accuses Jefferson of hypocrisy, since he preached equality by did not practice it. Jefferson never freed a slave during his lifetime, instead requiring a slave to buy his freedom. When Count Kosciuszko bequeathed Jefferson a large sum of money to free many of his slaves, Jefferson refused the bequest. Jefferson did free a few of his slaves on his death, but neglected to free their families, which resulted in families being irrevocably separated.

George Washington during the Revolution
By contrast, Washington freed his slaves in his will and also provided money to assure they would have livelihoods. Washington thus answered Jefferson's rationalizations about freeing slaves, namely that they were racially inferior beings, incapable of existing in an integrated society. Washington didn't agree and proved Jefferson wrong with his actions.

Only in retrospect did the founders achieve godlike status. Only in the minds of current-day jurists and tea-partiers like Bachmann have they become infallible on matters of government. The worship of these men as deities is as ridiculous as it is pernicious. Vidal has done us all a favor by depicting them as mere mortals.

[This article is based in part on a Smithsonian article, "The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson" by Henry Wiencek.]

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