MORE CLAPTRAP HAS probably been spoken about the US Constitution than any other subject, and the less Americans know about it, the more they use it as an emotive totem. In his predictably entertaining study of the years between the Constitutional Conference at Philadelphia in 1787, when the Founding Fathers drew up the sacred document, and George Washington's death in 1799 (with some justifiable use of flashbacks and 'flash forwards'), Gore Vidal exposes how much cant and humbug always was attached to the subject, and what an imperfect constitution it was. Could more territory be added to that of the states signing up to the document? No one knew, and Thomas Jefferson's momentous acquisition of the vast Louisiana territories from Napoleon in 1803 could conceivably have been construed as 'unconstitutional' by legal purists. Who was supposed to resolve conflicts between the executive and legislative branches of government? Again, no one knew, and this issue was only resolved in an ad hoc fashion, in 1803, when, in the landmark case Marbury vs Madison, Chief Justice Marshall gave the Supreme Court the prerogative of judicial review. Above all, the $64,000 question remained unresolved: could states who had joined the federal union set up in 1787 secede? Since the United States had themselves seceded from Britain, the logical answer had to be 'yes', yet Abraham Lincoln fought a bloody civil war in 1861-65 in part because of his adamant insistence that the answer was 'no'. Moreover, the US Constitution has been consistently mended over more than two centuries, often in the most absurd way. The first ten amendments, for instance, introduced a quite unnecessary Bill of Rights - complete with the 'right to bear arms' so beloved of the National Rifle Association, a law which has hung like an albatross around American necks ever since.
Yet Vidal is primarily a novelist and, though an essayist of great talent, not constitutional lawyer, and his book is mainly concerned with the magndicent personalities among the Founding Fathers and with their early conflicts as the nation took shape. What he has to say about Washington merely confirms this