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Thomas Jefferson: Author of America (Eminent Lives) Hardcover – Deckle Edge, May 31, 2005

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Editorial Reviews Review

In this unique biography of Thomas Jefferson, leading journalist and social critic Christopher Hitchens offers a startlingly new and provocative interpretation of our Founding Father. Situating Jefferson within the context of America's evolution and tracing his legacy over the past two hundred years, Hitchens brings the character of Jefferson to life as a man of his time and also as a symbolic figure beyond it.

Conflicted by power, Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and acted as Minister to France yet yearned for a quieter career in the Virginia legislature. Predicting that slavery would shape the future of America's development, this professed proponent of emancipation elided the issue in the Declaration and continued to own human property. An eloquent writer, he was an awkward public speaker; a reluctant candidate, he left an indelible presidential legacy.

Jefferson's statesmanship enabled him to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase with France, doubling the size of the nation, and he authorized the Lewis and Clark expedition, opening up the American frontier for exploration and settlement. Hitchens also analyzes Jefferson's handling of the Barbary War, a lesser-known chapter of his political career, when his attempt to end the kidnapping and bribery of Americans by the Barbary states, and the subsequent war with Tripoli, led to the building of the U.S. navy and the fortification of America's reputation regarding national defense.

In the background of this sophisticated analysis is a large historical drama: the fledgling nation's struggle for independence, formed in the crucible of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, and, in its shadow, the deformation of that struggle in the excesses of the French Revolution. This artful portrait of a formative figure and a turbulent era poses a challenge to anyone interested in American history -- or in the ambiguities of human nature.

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From Publishers Weekly

In this brief yet dense biography, the newest in HarperCollins's Eminent Lives series, Hitchens (A Long Short War, etc.) proposes that Jefferson "designed America" when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, establishing "the concept of human rights, for the first time in history, as the basis for a republic." Hitchens is quick to point out, however, the obvious contradiction-that Jefferson was both an advocate for freedom and a slaveholder. Beginning with his aristocratic upbringing, which Jefferson purportedly viewed with "indifference," this biography explores both the private and public aspects of Jefferson's life, from his political philosophies to his affair with his slave Sally Hemings. In an attempt to set the facts straight about Hemings, Hitchens explains that, while technically a slave, she was actually related to Jefferson's wife and was treated "more like a privileged housemaid." Presenting countless excerpts from Jefferson's writings, Hitchens closely analyzes the President's words to reveal the Enlightenment ideas that shaped American policy, such as the separation of church and state and the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. This opinionated, lively narrative sheds light not only on Jefferson's complex personality but on the politics of his time, making it both a fascinating character study and an excellent review of early American history.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Series: Eminent Lives
  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Eminent Lives; First Edition edition (May 31, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060598964
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060598969
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.8 x 7.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (156 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #210,228 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was the author of Letters to a Young Contrarian, and the bestseller No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family. A regular contributor to Vanity Fair, The Atlantic Monthly and Slate, Hitchens also wrote for The Weekly Standard, The National Review, and The Independent, and appeared on The Daily Show, Charlie Rose, The Chris Matthew's Show, Real Time with Bill Maher, and C-Span's Washington Journal. He was named one of the world's "Top 100 Public Intellectuals" by Foreign Policy and Britain's Prospect.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

160 of 168 people found the following review helpful By Andrew S. Rogers VINE VOICE on July 4, 2005
Format: Hardcover
I've read two volumes in the Eminent Lives series now, and have been very impressed with both. Paul Johnson's George Washington: The Founding Father (Eminent Lives) and Christopher Hitchens' essay on Thomas Jefferson are very different books. But each was in its own way remarkable. I think it's safe to say that this is a book that few readers will soon forget.

As Hitchens notes early on, Jefferson was more than just a "man of contradictions." He more or less embodied contradiction. Few writers, in my experience, are better equipped to identify contradictions, expose hypocrisies, and "call B.S." when necessary, than Christopher Hitchens. He did it with (or to) Clinton, he did it with Kissinger, and it seems only right to have spent a few hours on this Fourth of July exploring with him the evolving ideas and motivations of Mr. Jefferson himself.

Today, conservatives, libertarians, and leftists, Republicans and Democrats, anti-government "militias" and activist social-engineer types all claim Jefferson as one of their own. And each does so with some justice. Hitchens does an excellent job of walking through Jefferson's shifting opinions on questions like the proper powers of government, centralization versus "states' rights", the necessity of revolution, international relations, and much more. This is far from a comprehensive biography of Jefferson, and it certainly lacks the Olympian objectivity we get from most modern biographers. Hitchens has strong opinions, especially about religion, and he's not in the least hesitant about making those part of his discussion. Unlike another reviewer I wouldn't recommend this title for someone who has never read much about Jefferson before. But given Hitchens' keen eye and sharp pen, I think it certainly ranks among the best *interpretations* of Jefferson I've yet seen.
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121 of 132 people found the following review helpful By Pascal Tiscali on December 25, 2005
Format: Hardcover
I bought this biography because I like Christopher Hitchens' hard-hitting journalism, e.g. his "Trials of Henry Kissinger". Hitchens tells it like he sees it, which is generally pretty left-wing, but he doesn't toe the party line, e.g. his continued support for the war in Iraq. I thought he was the perfect man to explain Thomas Jefferson, because he would have assimilated Jefferson's ideas into his own active life shaped by the school of hard knocks.

However, I am disappointed in this book, for the following reasons:

First, the book seems to have been written hastily - facts are thrown in here and there, associations to other events in Jefferson's life, without sufficient explanation, and violating the chronology of the narrative. This makes the book confusing to read, espcially if the reader is not already familiar with Jefferson's life.

Secondly, the book places a lot of emphasis on issues that are "Politically Correct" at the present time. In fact, Hitchens adopts a kind of sermonizing tone with regard to these issues, which the hastiness of his scholarship renders unconvincing. It reads like the kind of grandstanding you see in journalists giving speeches at universities.

Nonetheless, there is something to be learned in this book, and Hitchens' unique background does enable him to select some interesting moments to highlight in Jefferson's life and writings. I would recommend this book only as a companion to a fuller biography of Jefferson, such as "American Sphinx" by Joseph J. Ellis.
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52 of 55 people found the following review helpful By The Sanity Inspector on October 4, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This is a photographic negative of Jefferson pocket bios of earlier eras. There are terse acknowledgements (with detailed faults appended) of the significance of the Louisiana Purchase, the founding of the University of Virginia, and etc., but a whole chapter of outrage devoted to Sally Hemings. Hitchens makes Jefferson's failure to solve the dilemma of The Peculiar Institution the central fact of his career, if not the main theme of this book.

So, can a fair biography of Thomas Jefferson be written by someone who still reveres the genie of Bolshevik revolution, Leon Trotsky? Trotsky, who would certainly not have turned into a Jeffersonian democrat, had he ever gotten the whip hand in Russia? Well, generally speaking, yes. Jefferson gets a predictably rough ride in these pages. His famous contradictions are not excused, and unqualified admiration is given only for his many scientific interests and his anticlericalism. And one wonders if such charity as Hitchens does extend to Jefferson is a result of his galvanized respect for the American project in the wake of 9/11. As many enemies as Hitchens has made over the years, though, no one serious has ever accused him of being ignorant. Hitchens has read deeply and wide--he ticks off an impressive bibliography in his introduction--is aware of his own leanings, and his writing has the familiar learned but curdled j'accuse tone it always did. (Plus, students picking up this small book for a homework assignment will probably need to look up words like "uxoriousness", for example.)

Hitchens is of course a well-known cultured despiser of religion, and he is drawn to those passages in Jefferson's writings which reflect the same attitude.
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