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Thomas Jefferson: Author of America (Eminent Lives) Paperback – May 5, 2009
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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.
Discover More Eminent Lives
Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code by Matt Ridley
Freud: Inventor of the Modern Mind by Peter Kramer
Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power by Ross King
Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time by Karen Armstrong
George Washington: The Founding Father by Paul Johnson
Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy's Guide by Joseph Epstein
--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
... The Philosophy of Jesus in 1805, was described on its cover as “an abridgement of the New Testament for the use of the Indians, unembarrassed with matters of fact or faith beyond the level of their comprehensions.” This certainly matched Jefferson’s view that Indians should be protected from Christian missionaries, but some Unitarians have speculated that it also provided him with a respectable cover story for his otherwise profane exercise of cutting up the holy book with a razor blade and throwing away all the superfluous, ridiculous, and devotional parts. (This is an exercise that I have long wanted to repeat in the case of the multi-volume hagiography of Jefferson himself, penned so laboriously by Dumas Malone.)
Could it be that he has done this, in effect, here? Surely there had to be a lot of pedantic assemblage of fact behind the "brief life" Hitchens has compiled, like a latter day Plutarch, of a noble American.
Noble? In the sense of a man who did great things, not one who was above hypocrisy, deceit, and bigotry. Hitchens, who clearly admires Jefferson, is nonetheless honest about where his hero falls short:
... “Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or lesser suffusions of color in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immovable veil of black, which covers the emotions of the other race?” Other more recent clichés of the duller sort seem to have found their first expression in the Notes: “In music they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tone and time. Whether they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved.”
This is not the parlor game of proving that the Founders were politically incorrect. In fact, these remarks probably WERE politically correct, which is part of the problem with enforcing orthodoxy at any time. But let us let Jefferson have the last word (in his First Inaugural):
Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all republicans, we are all federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.
"Between the years 1530 and 1780, it has been calculated by the historian, Robert Davis, as many as a million and a quarter Europeans were kidnapped and enslaved by Muslim autocracies on the the northwest coast of Africa. this trade, which combined piracy, ransom, and enforced servitude, was not the equal of the infamous Middle Passage in which so many bartered black Africans lost their lives, nor was it as organized and commercialized as the "triangular" trade ins laves that flourished between Europe, Africa, and the Americas. But it did in some ways result from that trade, too, in that European interlopers had disrupted an earlier North African Arab involvement in a north-south transport of African slaves. Many well-authenticated chronicles of the period tell of "Barbary" raids on coastal towns as far away as England and Ireland, as well as numberless abductions from, and of, vessels in the Mediterranean and other seaways. It appears, for example, that practically every inhabitant of the Irish village of Baltimore was carried off in 1631. Samuel Pepys and Daniel Defoe both allude to the trade in their writings, Robinson Crusoe himself spending hard time as a captured slave. James Thomson's famous 1740 popular song "Rule Britannia," with its refrain about Britons "never, never, never" being slaves, was composed with the Barbary terror in mind.
The new United States could hardly approach this with equanimity. It did not have a navy with which to protect its commercial ships, or with which to threaten retaliation. Its trade had declined, in fact, as result of having lost such protection from the British Empire...
During the time that he and John Adams were, respectively, the ministers to Paris and London, Thomas Jefferson conceived a great loathing for this state of affairs. In 1784 the American ship Betsey, with a crew of ten, had been then captured by a Moroccan corsair while sailing with a cargo of salt from Cadiz, in southern Spain, to Philadelphia...
Seeking clarification, Adams invited Jefferson to London for a private meeting with the Ambassador of Tripoli. On this occasion, Ambassador Abdrahaman mentioned some startlingly high tariffs for ransom of hostages, for cheap terms of "perpetual peace," not forgetting to add his own personal commission on the negotiation. Since the United States had not offended the Muslim powers in any way -- it had not taken part in the Crusades, for example, or the Spanish monarchy's reconquest of Andalusia -- Adams and Jefferson asked to know by what right this levy was being exacted. As Jefferson later wrote, to Jay and to Congress, on March 28, 1786:
'The Ambassador answered us that it was founded on the Laws of the Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have answered their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners.'
It is hard to imagine a better summary of all that Jefferson disliked, both about monarchy and religion, but he did not dilate on this point, preferring to recommend to the administration that it refuse all payment of tribute, and prepare at once to outfit an American naval squadron to visit the Mediterranean. In the longer run, he wrote, what was needed was an international concert of powers (A Coalition of the willing?, asks Commander Kelly), composed of all those nations whose shipping was being subjected to predatory raids. 'Justice and Honor favor this course," he wrote, not omitting to add that it would also save money in the end.
John Adams was not at all of the same opinion. He agreed that "Avarice and Fear are the only agents at Algiers." and that "it would be a good occasion to begin a navy," but he was certain that Congress would never appropriate the money of a punitive expedition, and meanwhile the United States had no navy to speak of. 'From these premises I conclude it would be wisest for us to negotiate and pay the necessary sums without loss of time.' As for the piratical Islamic powers, 'We ought not to to fight them at all unless we determine to fight them forever." In my view, Jefferson's opinion of Adams began to decline from that point."
And so it was that the second and third Presidents of the United States learned about the vital need for creating a Navy and strengthening the US Marine corps (born in 1775 at the Tun Tavern in Philadelphia) while representing their nation in London. Thomas Jefferson purchased a copy of a Koran from a London bookseller during his brief stay not merely out of theological curiosity, but also in order to "learn more about a potential enemy."
Hitchens became an American citizen late in his life. He and his unique perspective are sorely missed today.
Christopher Kelly, author with Stuart Laycock of America Invades: How We've Invaded or been Militarily Involved with almost Every Country on Earth and Italy Invades