After winning control of the House in 2010, Republicans opened the next session of Congress by reading the Constitution. They were drawing on the widespread conservative sense that the U.S. under President Barack Obama was drifting from the principles of its founding leaders and documents.
The Tea Party, named for the most famous anti-tax revolt in American history, was the clearest expression of this Revolutionary nostalgia, and for many voters this year, 2012 will be an election about returning to what they see as the values of 1787.
In “All the King’s Men,” however, Willie Stark learns to dismiss the idealized portraits of the Founding Fathers in American history textbooks: “I bet things were just like they are now. A lot of folks wrassling round,” he scoffs. That line could serve as the epigraph to one of the most entertaining novels ever written about American politics, Gore Vidal’s “Burr.” Vidal, who died July 31 at the age of 86, published what many regard as his best novel in 1973, when Vietnam and Watergate were dealing Americans’ confidence in their government a series of blows from which it has yet to recover.
What is left to admire is the sheer audacity and energy of the founders, their 18th-century scale and scope. They may have been scoundrels, Vidal suggests, but the country doesn’t even make scoundrels like that anymore.
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The reviewer, Adam Kirsch, provides a fair summary of Burr, and he's to be applauded for turning our attention to the novel in light of the hagiographic impulse many Americans have relative to the Founding Fathers.
However, Vidal modeled Burr the character less on himself than Kirsch suspects. As pointed out on HuffPost in "The Legacy of Gore Vidal," Vidal had an entire library of 200 books on Burr and his contemporaries and manuscript letters that Aaron Burr had written shipped from the US to Ravello, where Vidal was writing, to supplement standard editions. Much of the library and manuscripts he'd purchased as a lot from a rare manuscripts and books dealer. Vidal studied Burr's voice carefully, and the voice in the novel is certainly more Burr's than Vidal's.
And Kirsch arguably suggests that the novel's characterizations of the Founding Fathers are far-fetched. They aren't, especially given that Vidal rarely agrees completely with his narrators.
Kirsch cites Burr's description of George Washington as broad-bottomed. Well, he was, and it's rather obvious in the painted portraits of Washington, and contemporaries noted it. (Note a soldier's description of Washington being "broad across the hips.")
The Founding Fathers were indeed ambitious men on the make. It's painfully obvious, really. And why shouldn't they have been? The Revolution was in many regards more like a civil war fought against the British Empire so colonists might better craft an empire of their own. Colonists' compaints about lack of Parliamentary representation rested alongside their complaints that London's policies towards the Indians were too lenient. (Native Americans were under Crown Protection.) And only a few years before such complaints, American commentators were forecasting that the British Empire's capital, perhaps the throne itself, would move from London to America in due course. Empire was in the air...in America as much as in the halls of Westminster, and the Founders wanted a piece of the action.