Thomas Jefferson is undoubtedly the most complicated and contradictory of the Founding Fathers. No other man has been so revered (save, perhaps, for George Washington) and has now been so thoroughly contested despite his status in the pantheon of heroes adorning Washington D.C. (the city he helped bring into existence) and Mount Rushmore. It is fitting, then, that an equally complicated and contradictory writer—Christopher Hitchens—wrote a superb little biography of his American hero.
There are many faces to Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson the liberal and progressive. Jefferson the conservative and libertarian. Jefferson the slaveholder. Jefferson the anti-slavery politico. Jefferson the man of letters. Jefferson the politician. Jefferson the son of the Enlightenment. Jefferson the son of the classics. Jefferson the southerner. Jefferson the Americanist. The fact that there are many faces to Jefferson testifies to his enduring mythology and allure in American culture, history, and ideology.
That there are many faces to Jefferson doesn’t reveal the man of complications and contradictions, per se, as it does that everyone wants to legitimize their own beliefs and ideologies by staking a claim to Jefferson. Jefferson, more than any other Founding Father, gives the illusion of continuity with the so-called American experiment. This is no different with Hitchens, the brilliant former polemicist and essayist, whose affinity with anti-theism and the more militant and abolitionist side of the Enlightenment ought to be well-known to anyone with scant familiarity with Hitchens’ work. As such, the Jefferson that Hitchens portrays is equally skeptical toward divine revelation and a man of the Enlightenment (at the neglect of Jefferson’s own Unitarianism and study of the classics).
Nevertheless, Hitchens presents a concise biography of America’s complicated authorial hero and third president. Moreover, Hitchens—perhaps fond of his own Anglo-Saxon revolutionary inheritance—goes to some lengths in detailing some of Jefferson’s early battles that they were shaped not by the universal principles of the Enlightenment, but by the particular history and genealogy of the Anglo-Saxon peoples. “Since Jefferson always founded American claims of right upon the ancient Saxon autonomy supposedly established by the near-mythical English kings Hengist and Horsa, who left Saxony and established a form of self-rule in southern England (he even wished to see their imagined likeness on the first Great Seal of the United States), we are confronted at once with his fondness for, if not indeed his need for, the negation of one of his positions by another” (p. 8). As Hitchens continues, “Strangely, perhaps, for one who was shortly going to be celebrated for proclaiming universal principles, Jefferson grounded his fundamental case upon an essentially tribal appeal” (p. 18).
Was Jefferson the revolutionary of the abolitionist and emancipationist Enlightenment? Or was he the proponent of a more radicalized tradition of Anglo-Saxon autonomy, self-rule, and democracy? What Hitchens’ language hints at is the latter rather than the former. It was the former, those Enlightenment ideologues, who drew from Jefferson to give the illusion of continuity with Jefferson. Perhaps Hitchens falls into the same trap, though not without recognizing the debt Jefferson’s ideals of liberty and self-rule owed to Anglo-Saxon customs and history.
In nine brief but exhilarating chapters, Mr. Hitchens covers the whole of Jefferson’s life and the highlights contained therein with his usual pomp and personal animus bleeding through the pages. Whenever dealing with issues of religion, Hitchens’ own antireligious sentiment spill out over Jefferson’s own struggles with the established Episcopal Church in Virginia. As Hitchens reminds us, Jefferson’s famous “wall of separation” language was in his battle to disestablish the Episcopal Church (with its Tory and monarchical leanings) as the state church of Virginia (a position it had enjoyed since the commonwealth’s original founding by English charter settlers and traders). Herein Hitchens also reminds us of the energetic spirit of Jefferson.
Most Americans probably remember Jefferson, if he is remembered at all, as either a notorious slaveholder or the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence. But after penning the Declaration, he resigned his place in the Continental Congress to become a legislator in the Virginia House of Burgesses and then, during the height of the Revolutionary War, governor of the nascent state of Virginia. He was a scientist, writer, and architect. He expended his energy in many ways and capacities. But the fact that after he had “designed” America, as Hitchens claims, Jefferson returned to his native Virginia, shows the love he had for hearth and home. Perhaps it would have been better for him to remain a member of the Continental Congress, as Hitchens ponders, because as governor he presided over the embarrassing loss of Richmond to the redcoats and had to flee the city, and his Monticello estate, to escape capture by Tarleton’s dragoons.
Throughout this short and readable biography, made readable and excitable because of Hitchens’ own style and flair, we are informed of engaging and exciting short excursions and stories—like the aforementioned flight from Monticello to escape Tarleton’s dragoons. We are privy to his complicated and strenuous role as Secretary of State, where he was often the odd man out due to his support for the French Revolution while Hamilton and Adams were decisively opposed to it, and Washington equally so—though not as publicly antagonistic to the revolution as Hamilton and Adams were.
Unlike most recent works on Jefferson, Hitchens presents a sympathetic portrait of Jefferson on the issue of slavery. As Hitchens shows, Jefferson was, perhaps, the most anti-slavery politico in the early republic. Here we must distinguish between anti-slavery and abolitionist politics. Anti-slavery, as the Civil War historian James P. McPherson has stated, was about stopping the expansion of slavery (though not calling for its abolition). Abolitionist not only wanted to stop the expansion of slavery but legally (or militantly) abolish the institution. As America spread westward, Jefferson began to draw the maps for future states. He ensured that the new western territories would be free from slavery. As a writer and president, he wrote some remarkably prescient commentary on how slavery would divide the country unless eliminated as quickly as possible and ended the slave trade. Yet Jefferson was a slaveholder. He likely fathered the children of Sally Hemings. And he believed the African race to be intellectually and politically inferior to the European peoples and the Native Americans too! When revolution broke out in Haiti, Jefferson sympathized with the plight of the aristocratic slaveholding class which found refuge in southern cities, especially Charleston, instead of the Afro-Caribbean slaves embracing the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity.
The penultimate chapter, dealing with Jefferson’s Presidency, Hitchens focuses on three key events that go further back than Jefferson’s ascension to the Presidency: the confrontation with the Barbary Pirates; Louisiana Purchase; and the Lewis and Clark expedition. In dealing with the Barbary Pirates, Jefferson established the United States as a respectable power capable of defending itself and defeating others. In the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson presided over the doubling of the United States and set the country on the path of further westward expansion and, perhaps unintentionally, to disunion through the emerging crisis of slavery. In the Lewis and Clark expedition, Jefferson oversaw a great scientific and cartographic moment in American history which also helped to fuel America’s eventual conquest of the Pacific Northwest.
Christopher Hitchens’ short biography is a window into the revolutionary, religiously skeptic, and Enlightenment, vision of the Founding Father who also established the United States in its modern and powerful form. Hitchens’ short portrait of Jefferson is also stimulating, enlightening (pardon the pun), and exhilarating. Thomas Jefferson would be proud, in this regard, that a claimed son of his was able to bring alive this most livening man whom we owe so much and would be wise to recover from the critics and iconoclasts. Hitchens, a master of irony in his life, regularly points out the many ironies of Jefferson and his legacy. The ironies of Jefferson make him claimable to so many—though no one will ever likely be a thorough Jeffersonian because Jefferson had many faces in his own life. But the late Christopher Hitchens comes about as close as one could be in being a thorough Jeffersonian, at least as imagined in the mind of Hitchens.
Thomas Jefferson: Author of America
New York: HarperCollins, 2005; 188pp.
*For my own undergraduate history thesis, published as an article, on the many claims to Thomas Jefferson, read: “Claiming Thomas Jefferson: The Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian Genesis of American Progressivism,” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History, Vol. 5, Iss. 1 (2015)
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