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Gore Vidal Portrait Session

“We would together constitute a new nation, founded upon ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ The first two foundation stones were familiar, if vague… ‘The pursuit of happiness’ is the real Joker in the deck. To this day, no one is sure just what Jefferson meant. But I suppose what he had in mind was that government will leave each citizen alone, to develop as best he can in a tranquil climate, to achieve whatever it is that his heart desires, with a minimum of distress to the other pursuers of happiness. This was a revolutionary concept in 1776, and it still is…

Although the Founding Fathers were, to a man, natural conservatives, there were enough Jeffersonian-minded pursuers of happiness among them to realize that so lawyerly a Republic would probably act as a straight jacket to those of an energetic nature. So to ensure the rights of each to pursue happiness, the Bill of Rights was attached to the Constitution. In theory, henceforward, no one need fear the tyranny of either the state or of the majority. Certain of our rights, like the freedom of speech, were said to be inalienable.

But some like to remind us that the right to privacy cannot be found anywhere in the pages of the Constitution, or even in the Federalist Papers… We are told that since the Constitution nowhere says that a citizen has the right to have sex with another citizen, or to take drugs, or to OD on cigarettes — or, as the nation is now doing, on sugar — that the Founders therefore did not license them to do any of these things that may be proscribed by the prejudices of a local majority. But this is an invitation to tyranny…

Was the United States meant to be a patriarchal society? I think the answer is no. Was the United States meant to be a monotheistic society, Christian or otherwise? The answer is no. Religion may be freely practiced here, but religion was deliberately excluded from the political arrangements of our republic…

Each year it is discovered with some alarm that American high school students, when confronted anonymously by the Bill of Rights, neither like it nor approve of it. Our society has made them into true patriots — but not of the idea of a free society, but of a stern patriarchy, where the police have every right to arrest you for just about anything that the state disapproves of. To me the tragedy of the United States in this century is not the crack up of an empire we never knew what to do with in the first place; but the collapse of the idea of the citizen as someone autonomous, whose private life is not subject to orders from above.”


From Gore Vidal’s speech at The Nation’s 125th Anniversary in 1990.

As typically is the case with Vidal, the combination of his intelligence and charm — conveyed as they are in his patrician, cisatlantic tones — masks a scattering of sins of hyperbole and historical judgement. I nevertheless recommend the speech below, and have listened to it twice now — not because of it’s heavy scholarship, but because it’s as heady and sardonic a piece of political theater as you’ll find.

Read on:

  • Vidal’s hilarious, prophetic rebuttal to Bush’s second inaugural
  • Reader of this site Dr. Robert P. George debates Krauthammer on the founders’ views of human nature
  • The greatest debate of all time: Hitchens grapples with Galloway on Iraq

Gore Vidal