Thomas Jefferson, Author of America: A book review by Bob Morris

Thomas Jefferson: Author of America
Christopher Hitchens 
Harper Perennial (2009)

Who was behind “the opaque curtain”?

About this time of year, I re-read brief biographies of my favorite U.S. Presidents such as this one, written by one of the most thoughtful and (yes) thought-provoking frequentlly most controversial of contemporary authors.

This is one of several volumes in the HarperCollins Eminent Lives series. Each offers a concise rather than comprehensive, much less definitive biography. However, just as Al Hirschfeld’s illustrations of various celebrities capture their defining physical characteristics, the authors of books in this series focus on the defining influences and developments during the lives and careers of their respective subjects. In this instance, Thomas Jefferson.

Hitchens suggests that Jefferson “did not embody contradiction. Jefferson was contradiction, and this will be found at every step of the narrative that goes to make up his life.” It is remarkable to me that Hitchens was able to cover so much which occurred from Jefferson’s birth into relative wealth on April 13, 1743, until his death on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence of which he was its principal author. Early on, Hitchens acknowledges what he calls an “opaque curtain” which so often frustrates efforts to “see” Jefferson clearly at various stages throughout his life. Early in the narrative, Hitchens cites several of young Jefferson’s social “fiascos” such as a crass and unsuccessful attempt to seduce the wife of a close friend. Why? First, because they demonstrate that “Jefferson was ardent by nature when it came to females, and also made reticent and cautious by experience.”

Also, because generations of historians have written, “until the present day, as if [Jefferson] were not a male mammal at all.” Later, Hitchens rigorously examines Jefferson’s (yes, contradictory) relationship with Sally Hemings. First, he guides his reader briskly but without haste through Jefferson’s youth, education (College of William and Mary), several years of practicing law, and then the initial phase of his public service when elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses (1769-75). Jefferson aligned himself with the revolutionary faction, writing A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774) which helps to explain, somewhat, his ambivalent attitude toward the colonies’ deteriorating relationship with Britain’s monarch and parliament. In 1770 he began designing and building Monticello to which (in 1772) he brought his new wife, Martha Wyles Skelton. She bore him six children, only two of whom survived into maturity. She died in 1782.

Jefferson was among those who called the First Continental Congress (1774) and as a delegate to the Second Congress (1775-7), he was primarily responsible for drafting the Declaration of Independence which was adopted on July 4, 1776. He then returned to Virginia where, as a member of its legislature (1776-9) and led efforts to create a state constitution,then served as governor (1779-81), during which time he proposed that Virginia abolish the slave trade and assure religious freedom. His proposals were rejected. In 1789 George Washington appointed Jefferson secretary of state. In that position he became head of the liberal Democratic-Republican faction (as it was then called) and opposed the more conservative Federalist policies of Hamilton, Madison, and Washington.

He resigned as secretary of state at the end of 1793 to devote himself to his estate at Monticello.

At that time, arguably the most eloquent spokesman for the ideals of the Enlightenment, Jefferson owned about 125-150 slaves, treating them as property because he regarded Africans as inferior beings. In 1796 he was elected vice-president under Federalist John Adams. Four years later, he defeated Adams and Aaron Burr for the presidency. For reasons which are not entirely clear, his arch rival, Hamilton, supported him when the Electoral College vote was tied. The greatest achievements during the Jeffersonian presidency are the defeat of the Barbary pirates which allowed maritime commerce to flourish, the Louisiana Purchase which more than doubled the size of the new nation, and the Lewis and Clark Expedition which generated an abundance of valuable information to guide and inform the inevitable westward expansion. Jefferson retired to Monticello in 1809, concentrating on his scholarly and scientific interests while helping to found the University of Virginia (1825). He designed its campus as well as the Virginia state capitol and several mansions. In 1813 he began what became an extended and remarkably cordial exchange of letters with his former political adversary, John Adams. Both died on the same day, July 4th, 1826.

Here are a few brief excerpts which, I hope, provide at least some indication of Hitchens’ brilliant achievement:

On Jefferson and Thomas Paine: Both “had the gift of pithily summarizing what was already understood, and then of moving an already mobilized audience to follow an inexorable logic. But they also had to overcome an insecurity and indecision that is difficult for us, employing retrospect, to comprehend.”

Re the Enlightenment: “Jefferson was not a man of the Enlightenment only in the ordinary sense that he believed in reason or perhaps in rationality. He was very specifically one of those who believed that human redemption lay in education, discovery, innovation, and experiment.”

On rebellion: In a letter to Abigail Adams, Jefferson observed that “The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere.”

Then later, after learning of the bloodshed associated with (Daniel) Shays’ Rebellion, in a letter to Adams’s son-in-law, William Smith: “What signify a few lives lost in a generation or two? The tree of liberty must from time to time be refreshed with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.” 

In response, Hitchens suggests that “the key word here must be not `patriots’ but `tyrants’ — since the only candidate for the latter description was the government that Jefferson was [at that time] serving as an ambassador.”

Later, when commenting on the campaign of 1796, Hitchens notes that “Despite Jefferson’s almost Olympian detachment from the process, he was subjected to a series of vitriolic assaults by poster and pamphlet, accusing him of being an atheist, an abolitionist, and a sympathizer with bloody-handed Jacobinism. The element of truth in all three accusations is retrospectively amusing. given their authors’ failure to appreciate Jefferson’s patent genius for compromise.”

As these and other portions of Hitchens’ narrative indicate, Jefferson “contained sufficient `multitudes,’ in Whitman’s phrase [from Song of Myself], to contradict himself with scope and generosity. He ranged himself on many sides of many questions, from government interference with the press to congressional authority over expenditures, and from the maintenance of permanent armed forces to the persistence in foreign entanglements….At the end, his capitulation to a slave power that he half-abominated was both self-interested and a menace to the survival of the republic. This surrender, by a man of the Enlightenment and a man of truly revolutionary and democratic temperament, is another reminder that history is a tragedy and not a morality play.”

Thank you, Christopher Hitchens, for writing Why Orwell Matters and now this biography of Thomas Jefferson because, in doing so, you have helped me to appreciate even more the wisdom of Voltaire’s suggestion that we cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.


Posted in

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.