February 16, 2006


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Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, by Christopher Hitchens (HarperCollins, 2005, 188 pages)

Here’s a chance to consider an American political figure as a complex being, a person you might both agree and disagree with. Thomas Jefferson, after all, was a Democratic-Republican.

Times were different but Christopher Hitchens brings a contemporary feel to this blissfully brief sojourn with the nation’s third president, as well as a strong feeling of continuity with the present.

We’re reminded that the founders, like us, did not always agree amongst themselves; Jefferson and John Adams, for instance, went from friendship to animosity and, at the end of their lives, back to a respectful correspondence. (Their conflict stemmed from opposing views on the role of the federal government.)

Jefferson sometimes disagreed with himself, as well, most famously when it came to slavery: he speculated that blacks were inferior both mentally and physically, but fathered children with, and seems to have respected, his black slave Sally Hemings (whose grave, Hitchens says, lies somewhere beneath the parking lot of the Hampton Inn at Charlottesville); he kept slaves on his own plantation, but spoke of slavery as unjust and advocated its abolition. As Hitchens puts it, Jefferson displayed “a bad conscience, evidenced by slovenly and contradictory argument.”

Apparently that can happen to even the most educated (which Jefferson was) Enlightenment philosopher.

Nonetheless this man gave us the Declaration of Independence (he had “the gift of pithily summarizing what was already understood,” Hitchens says). He served as governor of Virginia, later represented Virginia at the Confederation Congress, was the United States’ ambassador stationed in Paris, then became Secretary of State under George Washington and eventually was elected President – though that last part wasn’t easy. It seems Jefferson and Adams had a whole Bush-Gore-style hair-pulling (wig-pulling?) electoral college fight over the election of 1800. There was evidence of vote tampering in Georgia (though, Hitchens says, it wouldn’t have changed the outcome) and it ultimately took 36 ballots in the House to break a tie and make Jefferson the president.

This little book – little enough to stow in a large pocket – has no index, no glossary, no bibliography. It is rather like an extended lazy-Sunday magazine article: enjoyable, digestible and smart.

Thomas Jefferson is part of HarperCollins’ “Eminent Lives” series of “brief biographies by distinguished authors on canonical figures,” which promises installments on Freud, Shakespeare, Beethoven and others and has already included bios of George Washington and Ulysses S. Grant. A

—Lisa Parsons

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