Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

1876 finds its truest and most exciting theme in the presidential election, for what is at stake is nothing less than what kind of country America will become. Will it continue to be “this vigorous, ugly, turbulent realm devoted to moneymaking by any means”? Or will the forces of reform, under Tilden’s leadership, reassert the principle of the public interest? Tilden, at one time an attorney for the railroads, has helped to build the very capitalist system that he now would like to restrain. Yet, like the Aaron Burr whom Schuyler served in Burr, Tilden will not grab for power even though he has significant popular support. He will not engage in the bribery that ultimately puts Hayes in office.

Throughout Vidal’s historical novels, the most successful politicians are opportunists and hypocrites, men and women who realize that power is built upon the leverage acquired by shaping principles to fit the requirements of political office. It is not that principles count for nothing; rather, as Garfield (a man who knows the value of principles) puts it, “when you are dealt the cards, you play them.” Schuyler’s bitter but realistic conclusion is, “So Caesar must have sounded when he set aside the old republic.”