Thursday, March 29th, 2012

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson by Christopher Hitchens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve done a disservice to this book: I read it over the course of two months. It’s not a long book or a particularly challenging book; but things kept coming up and I didn’t get to spend as much time on it as I’d have liked.

As a practical effect, this means that I jumped from chapter to chapter with weeks between them. This is not conducive to either retention or reflection. So I am left without much to say about Mr. Jefferson or his times. And that’s almost a tragedy since, while I was physically reading it, I thought that this book offered several insights into both of those subjects.

Of course, this is far from an exhaustive volume on the subject. It’s short and Hitchens jumps around in the timeline, skipping great swaths of Jefferson’s life and cutting out many (undoubtedly important) details. Instead, Hitchens picks and chooses what he writes about to focus on Jefferson’s place in American morality and spirituality.

The issue of morality, of course, is overwhelmed by Jefferson’s feelings an actions around chattel slavery: the great moral evil of my people. Hitchens paints a picture of a Jefferson at war with himself over his own innate selfishness, his drive to be a force for good and justice, and his fear of what would happen to powerful white men like himself if the slaves were freed and able to take revenge for the cruelties they’d been subjected to.

Hitchens never draws Jefferson as an exonerated saint or a cartoon villain: instead, he shows Jefferson as a flawed human trying to deal with a complicated situation and making the wrong choices.

In contrast, Jefferson’s rational and Enlightened view of religion is much more inline with Hitchens’ own views. In discussing Jefferson’s religious activities, he does not intend to bury Jefferson and instead uses his own words as counterexamples to modern demagogues attempting to usurp Jefferson for their own causes.

And that’s largely where the book ends. It contents itself with slavery and religion (and, to a far more minor degree, Federalism and Republicanism). If you want more about Jefferson, you’ll need to find it elsewhere.

But, even if this is will be only a short stop in your Jeffersonian education, I do recommend it. The topics that Hitchens explores are important and Jefferson did a lot to shape modern America in regards to them. It’s also a well-written book: it’s charming and funny while never being dry.

I look forward to re-reading it again some day soon. Hopefully, I will find myself able to devote more attention to it then. Because I think it deserves it.

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