Christopher Hitchens: “Thomas Jefferson: Author of America”

Last Sunday was the birthday of both gentlemen above. When Hitchens became an American citizen it was at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC on their respective birthdays. Often heard in debates saying “Mr Jefferson, build up that wall” when talking about the separation of church and state you may be tempted to think that the 188 page book will be only a love sonnet.

The book is a part of the Eminent Lives series of publicationsWhat does follow in the book is a sharp account of Jefferson, and one that does show the man, frailties and the conflicts and contradictions that went into a man who’s living monument today is the United States. This book is highly recommended as a first read on Jefferson (as indeed is Hitchens book on Thomas Paine’s the Rights of Man) for not only being erudite, informative but a joy to read – with the benefit of being concise.

Perhaps the contradictions that most comes across about Jefferson is the subject of slavery and race. On the one hand he believed the red race as being equal to the white race. In a double contradiction for a deist he says of slavery “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just” and rejected the argument that inferiority could justify enslaving one group over another. Yet he kept slaves, had an affair and children with Sally Hemings and advocated a policy of colonization – which meant free the slaves and extradite them back to a native country, for fear that black free men may be free with daggers seeking vengeance. Jefferson remarked: “Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”

The doctrine that force should be used rather than appeasement also can be found, less successfully in the march to Canada (a miscalculation of what it would take by Jefferson) where the burning of Toronto was the tit for tat that led to the burning of the White House (that first point friends in DC failed to mention as they impressed the latter upon me). The Barbary Wars, where Jefferson made the case for a US Navy to protect citizens from kidnap and piracy while Adams suggested appeasement and paying of ransom and tribute in response. As President, Jefferson saw through his determination, without need to trouble Congress.

The factions between the Federalists and the Republicans (sovereignty of states) is also well covered. It could be argued that Jefferson stating that states had a duty to break away from a central government that threatened their liberty was advocating a view that would lead to the Union being threatened. The issue of slave states, in the south and not in the north brings the issue to a head for Lincoln. Yet to do so was not the way Lincoln himself saw it when he said in 1859:

All honor to Jefferson: to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that today, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.

Christopher Hitchens writes of how historians view Jefferson:

Modern and postmodern historians are fond of using terms such as “inventing America” or “imagining America”. It would be truer to say, of Thoma Jefferson, that he designed America, or that he authored it.

This being the case, it would be lazy or obvious to say that he contained contradictions or paradoxes. This is true of everybody, and of everything. It would be infinitely more surprising to strike upon a historic figure, or indeed a nation, that was not subject to this law. Jefferson did not embody contradiction. Jefferson was a contradiction, and this will be found at every step of the narrative that goes to make up his life.

Jefferson saw Jesus as a human figure, rather than a supernatural one, and the Jefferson Bible is an attempt to leave the New Testament with the philosophy of Jesus, and to offset Paul’s perversion of the doctrines of Christ. About the belief or non belief in god/s that his neighbour may have as a private opinion he did not care for because it “neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg”. However, Jefferson made a remark about the Christian fundamentalists of 1800 during the election, and these words stand true today about the will to allow the liberty of the human mind to use reason and rationality:

The returning good sense of our country threatens abortion to their hopes. They believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.

What Hitchens has done well is an account of the man, rather than the myth, and for this the reader must be thankful. He even debunks other biographers accounts of Jefferson. That this is done in a book that can be read on a Sunday afternoon, with a prose that makes it vivid makes it less a biography then the adventures of Jefferson.


The Jefferson Bible



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2 responses to “Christopher Hitchens: “Thomas Jefferson: Author of America”

  1. Pingback: George Bush at Jefferson’s House on Independence Day « Homo economicus’ Weblog

  2. Pingback: When is a christian not a Christian? « Homo economicus’ Weblog

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