Saturday, April 12, 2008

Review: Thomas Jefferson, Author of America



Christopher Hitchens’ “Thomas Jefferson: Author of America” certainly isn’t written for beginners. To be able to understand it, one has to have familiarity with not just early American history, but also with the intellectual movements that were a part of it. Thomas Paine is written about as casually as John Adams, and the affair of Sally Hemmings is only moderately explained.

Trusting that you have at least an elementary understanding of this era in history and of this great figure of that era, “Author of America” is an enjoyable supplement that explores many of the lesser known aspects of Jefferson’s life. Hitchens explores Jefferson’s battles with the Barbary pirates, carefully hinting at the similarity between their rhetoric and that of the Islamic terrorists of today without mentioning current events, the affair between Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, whereby Hitchens rejects claims that there was a “master-slave” relationship whereby Jefferson dominated Hemmings, the looming question of slavery and the love-hate relationship that Jefferson had with public life.

By the end of the book, one great impression that I walked away with was that Jefferson never was a great political or military leader, but more of an intellectual and scientist who was pushed into that position by the times he lived in. Jefferson notes this paradox himself, saying in a letter to Pierre Dupont de Nemours, “Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science, by rendering them my supreme delight. But the enormities of the times in which I have lived, have forced me to take a part in resisting them, and to commit myself on the boisterous ocean of political passion.”

The hypocrisy of Jefferson’s relationship with the issue of slavery looms very large in the book, and he never reconciled himself with it by the time he died. Along with the prediction that Unitarianism would one day be the largest religious sect in America, his prediction that economics would slowly and bloodlessly eventually do away with slavery has become historically laughable. Despite his militant response to the enslavement of Americans by Muslim pirates, it is illustrated in the book that he politically passive to the continuation of enslavement of Africans and even personally continued the crime by holding slaves at Monticello.

Hitchens shows surprising restraint, not letting loose with venom on historical figures in the way he has done with Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton and Henry Kissinger. He isn't a historian, but he acts like it in "Author of America," helping readers to learn new aspects of Jefferson and making them look at him in a new way.

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