Thomas Jefferson’s ‘Eminent’ Life, Contradictions and All

Posted June 27, 2005 at 4:16pm

Throughout his lifetime and in the nearly two centuries since his death, so much has been made of the contradictions that pervaded the life of Thomas Jefferson that entire libraries could be filled with books devoted to just this subject.

An avowed champion of the American agrarian tradition, Jefferson also spent two terms as president forging the new United States into an economic and industrial power that could take a seat at the table of international affairs alongside France and Great Britain. A patriot who decried standing armies as one of the most tyrannical forms of control of the British crown, Jefferson also helped create a new U.S. Navy, sent American troops to the shores of North Africa and spent most of his later years in office preparing for war against European powers. And, perhaps most notably, Jefferson, the craftsman of the Declaration of Independence and author of the phrase “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal,” was also a lifelong slaveholder.

But for journalist, author and political commentator Christopher Hitchens — whose new book “Thomas Jefferson: Author of America” came out earlier this month as part of Harper Collins and Atlas Books’ “Eminent Lives” series — to say that Jefferson’s life simply contained paradoxes would be “lazy” and “obvious.”

“This is true of everybody and everything,” Hitchens writes at the beginning of his book. “It would be infinitely more surprising to strike upon a historic figure, or indeed a nation, that was not subject to this law. Jefferson did not embody contradiction. Jefferson was a contradiction, and this will be found at every step of the narrative that goes to make up his life.”

It’s an interesting premise coming from Hitchens, who is himself a bit of a political contradiction. Once an aggressive leftist who made his name criticizing the Vietnam War, American foreign policy in South America and Central America and the first Gulf War, Hitchens is known today as a neo-conservative who enthusiastically supported U.S. military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Following the compact biography format established by publisher James Atlas last fall when when he launched the Eminent Lives series, Hitchens takes on Jefferson in a mere 188 pages.

In many ways, Hitchens said, the project was much more than simply a study of the life of a solitary historical figure. After Atlas proposed that he take on the project, Hitchens said he realized that, “I’d been reading about, thinking about and arguing about him without ever having to concentrate on him … [because] one is always writing about Thomas Jefferson if one is writing about America. His name is coupled with the word Democracy.”

Hitchens said Atlas gave him only one condition when he agreed to write the book: “that we could exhibit any opinion we chose, but we must tell the story. You must hang out the line of life, but you can hang any washing on that line.”

But simply giving the basic facts of Jefferson’s life is quite an investment in words.

“It was a real challenge to condense,” Hitchens said. Jefferson “was in power for nearly a quarter of a century, and that’s after writing the Declaration … and before [founding] the University of Virginia and all the while writing thousands and thousands of letters.”

Cutting through all the historical opinions and interpretations of Jefferson to capture the essence of his life in a relatively short book was a project that Hitchens said somewhat resembled the third president’s effort to create the “Jefferson Bible.” That project, which Jefferson took on in his later years, stemmed from the social philosopher’s longtime desire to create a new and more concise version of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, which separated fact from myth. In creating his book, Jefferson literally removed all the supernatural elements from the Bible with a razor blade and then pieced the story back together again.

For Hitchens, the project brought new insight into both Jefferson’s personality and his political legacy.

“I think I was a bit startled, a little alarmed, at how relatively humorless he was,” Hitchens said. “In fact, he appears to have no sense of humor at all. That’s not to say he was without wit, but he was a rather forbidding and cold man, rather ruthless too. These are probably in some ways good traits for a politician.”

Hitchens added that he was also “amazed” to find out “the extent to which he compromised on slavery and had very much protracted its existence and extended its practice.”

Throughout his biography, Hitchens lays bare the good and the bad of Jefferson, neither making excuses nor overly condemning the founding father. From Jefferson’s relationship with his slave Sally Hemmings — the half sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha — to his view on America’s Indian population, Hitchens tries to understand Jefferson’s opinions and actions within the context of his life.

By the time of his death, Hitchens writes, Jefferson “ranged himself on many sides of many questions. In a large number of these cases, his justification for reversal or inconsistency was the higher cause of growth and strength of the American Republic. In a smaller number, it is not difficult to read the promptings of personal self-interest. 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.”

Dedicated to C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb (whom Hitchens said he chose because of the work Lamb has done “in creating a network that really has tried to instruct the electorate” and for building an audience of book lovers), “Thomas Jefferson: Author of America” is one of two Eminent Lives books released by Harper Collins this month. The other is by journalist Paul Johnson on George Washington.