Thoughts on Christopher Hitchens’ Thomas Jefferson: Author of America

Jefferson

Robert Frost has been much on my mind lately – probably because my birthday is approaching. Along with Philip Larkin, Frost is the poet that best captures for me the slow but orderly forward motion of time. At the same time – because in another cavity of my mind I am forever seventeen – I have also been spending an inordinate amount of time with the HAMILTON SOUNDTRACK lately. A few days ago, these two threads of thought merged, and I began searching my memory for the remaining lines to a short, little-known Frost poem from the nether regions of his Collected that starts “Harrison loves his country too / But wants it all made over new.” I think at first I confused “Harrison” for “Hamilton,” but I fixed that error quickly and started wondering which Harrison the poem was about. Certainly not William Henry, of skinny-dipping-in-the-cesspool fame; maybe Benjamin? Even he would have been ancient history by the time Frost wrote this poem.

But this is not a post about Frost – or about Larkin, or even about the HAMILTON SOUNDTRACK, at least insofar as any post I write this month can avoid being in some small way about said soundtrack. This is a post about Christopher Hitchens’ short biography of Thomas Jefferson. I enjoyed this book quite a bit, both for what I learned about Jefferson and for the pleasures of reading Hitchens. I’m not enough of a historian to really “review” this book, but I do have some things to say about what I learned from it and about Hitchens as a biographer.

Prior to reading this book, my impressions of Jefferson were fairly standard-issue: the Declaration of Independence, Sally Hemings and Jefferson’s troublesome non-legacy on the matter of slavery, followed by the architecture of Monticello and the University of Virginia, his broad-ranging Enlightenment interests, the Louisiana Purchase, Louis and Clark, the nickel, the two-dollar bill, the whole third-president thing, France. Fresh on my mind as it is, the HAMILTON SOUNDTRACK inclined me to think of Jefferson as loud and diplomatically aggressive – which, according to Hitchens, he was not. According to Hitchens, Jefferson was actually a lousy public speaker and often frustrated with the fact that his words didn’t come as easily to his lips as they did to his pen. So much for the cherished American tradition of getting one’s history lessons from Broadway.

Hitchens strikes me as a perfect biographer for Jefferson, in that it takes an iconoclast to appreciate an iconoclast. He dwells with just the tiniest bit of humor on some of the sillier of Jefferson’s youthful notions, such as the fact that he spent much of the 1770’s dilating on the idea that Americans were the rightful descendants of the ancient Saxons, while the British of his era were descended from the Norman invaders. In his discussion of Jefferson’s A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774), Hitchens notes wryly that “a client who wished for an attorney who could plead on either side of a case would have done well to engage [Jefferson]” (18) and also points out the irony in the fact that Jefferson, who would soon be known as the author of the most famous words ever written on universal human rights, “grounded his fundamental case upon an essentially tribal appeal” (18). Hitchens was unclear on whether Jefferson thought the colonists were direct lineal descendants of the Saxons, but I don’t think that’s exactly what he meant. He saw the Saxons as a people who voluntarily left mainland Europe for England, only to be chased there and oppressed by the Normans in 1066, and he saw parallels to the colonists whose relatively recent ancestors had left England voluntarily and were now being harassed and oppressed by the British crown. He seems not to recognize that the colonists had left English under the auspices and protections of the same crown against which they were now revolting. (I am not being an anti-revolutionary. Perish the thought. I am just pointing out a flaw in the design of the young Jefferson’s argument.) Hitchens gets a bit of a giggle in when he reports that Jefferson was so taken with this Saxon idea that he wanted to put the “imagined likenesses” (8) of the “near-mythical English kings Hengist and Horsa” on the Great Seal of the United States – and the giggle is both well-deserved and contagious. Another unrelated giggle comes from Hitchens’ note that when Jefferson sat down to map out how he wanted to divide up the territory west of the Alleghenies – a plan that was later adopted in the formation of states like Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, and Indiana – he gave the territories extremely silly names like “Cherronesus, Assenenisipia, and Metropotamia” (51).

Metropotamia!

Hitchens doesn’t give Jefferson a free pass on his failure to abolish slavery, but he doesn’t dwell on the matter either. I think he probably knows that this area is well-trodden by scholars and doesn’t need to be overworked – and I think, even more so, he recognizes that a mind like Jefferson’s is always going to be characterized by contradictions. Hitchens does quote from the well-known paragraph that was cut from the Declaration of Independence against Jefferson’s vehement wishes – a paragraph that makes direct reference to the equality of both Africans (the phrase ‘African Americans’ would be anachronistic here) and Native Americans – and he also cites many other examples of times when Jefferson, a bold negotiator and able compromiser, had to act publicly in ways that violated his private beliefs. If Jefferson had been more stalwart in defending his ideals, he would likely not have been the diplomat that he was, helping to establish the United States as a respected nation on the world stage. He was a complicated guy. Hitchens also employs some 20th-century psychology to speculate that Jefferson “subconsciously sought to blame a distant authority for this alien presence, or serpent, in the American Eden” (29).

Hitchens clearly appreciates – as do I – Jefferson’s anti-clericalism and almost-atheism. Noting that Jefferson was slammed in the press in the 1800 election for being “an atheist, an abolitionist, and a sympathizer with bloody-handed Jacobism,” Hitchens muses that “the element of truth in all three accusations is retrospectively amusing, given their authors’ failure to appreciate Jefferson’s patent genius for compromise” (108). The last chapter of the book is devoted to Jefferson’s “declining years,” which he spent designing the University of Virginia (and engaging in ongoing battles to get it accredited), fine-tuning Monticello, writing, and using a razor blade to cut the Bible up in little pieces and then putting the pieces back together in a way that left out all the parts he objected to. (Good Lord – the things people had time for in the early 19th century.) The resulting volume, which Jefferson called The Philosophy of Jesus, carried the unfortunate epigraph “…for the use of the Indians, unembarrassed with matters of fact or faith beyond the level of their comprehensions” (180-181). The condescension is cringeworthy, but elsewhere it’s clear that Jefferson’s amendments to the Bible were essential to his own view of what was and wasn’t valuable in the Bible as usually printed (and which Jefferson shelved in his library at Monticello under “ancient history”) – and Hitchens also mentions that in giving the Indians this pared-down edition emphasizing the moral teachings of Jesus, Jefferson meant to give them ammunition against missionaries, who liked to confuse native peoples with some of the more esoteric later books of the New Testament. Fair enough. Hitchens also lets his own iconoclasm show when he notes that more than once he wanted to give the same razor-blade treatment to some of Jefferson’s earlier biographies – and I suppose in some ways, that’s what he’s done in writing this volume, which clocks in just under 200 pages.

Hitchens also reports that it seems as if Jefferson – while holding the office of President – personally taught Meriweather Lewis to read and write before sending him off with William Clark on their mission of exploration of the world west of the Mississippi. This detail more than anything else in this volume makes me want to give Jefferson a kiss. Hell, I want to kiss the whole 19th century. How adorable to have so much time on one’s hands, and to use that time so well.

Let’s return for a moment to that poem that I started with – the Robert Frost poem that starts “Harrison loves his country too, / But wants it all made over new.” I finally found the poem today (a Google search of those lines yielded nothing [!!]; I had to get out my hard copy to locate the title and then go back to Google) – and the title is, believe it or not, “A Case for Jefferson.” The internet is mostly silent on this poem: I found only the most oblique of references in a Mark Van Doren article mostly occupied in comparing Frost to Thomas Hardy, as well as the abstract of an article in a journal called First Principles, which identifies this poem as an example of Frost’s “essential conservatism” and states that this poem “describes the archetypal American ideological revolutionary.” This revolutionary is – I’m quoting Frost now – “Freudian Viennese by night. /** By day he’s Marxist Muscovite. / It isn’t because he’s Russian Jew. / He’s Puritan Yankee through and through” (393). The consistently end-stopped lines are profoundly distracting, though the poem’s worst sin is a strange deviation from its rhyme scheme in the final line that I suppose is supposed to represent an expectation that is established and not fulfilled, which is the sort of thing that happens when a person wants his country made over new. In other words, this poem is no “Birches.” Yet I find it unendingly interesting that this poem, which I did not know was called “A Case for Jefferson,” popped unbidden into my head while I was reading this book about Jefferson. I don’t know what Frost means in this title, exactly – maybe that Jefferson, who famously said “I like a little rebellion now and then. It’s like a storm in the atmosphere” (68), was also a master of subtlety and diplomacy. If Jefferson could handle the “case” of “Harrison” in this poem, he could perhaps induce him to continue his revolutionary thoughts without resorting to violent action (the poem’s exact words are “blowing it all to smithereens”). If so, then the entire 21st century is “a case for Jefferson.”

(**Freud pops up in a Frost poem, you ask? I know!)

Hitchens never uses this word, but the Jefferson he outlines in this book seems sublimely patient. He suffered both political and personal failures, which he handled by retreating to Monticello – not to mope but to write treatises and design porticoes and invent new kinds of plows. The image of a sitting president teaching a grown man to read suggests a patience almost unimaginable today. He was so patient that he was able to consign one of the decisions closest to his heart – that of the abolition of slavery – to the years after his death. I know that the classic response is to see Jefferson’s backing away from this issue as an act of cowardice, and on some level I share that assessment. But there is also great patience there, and a little bit of humility too, in this recognition that human lives have limits, even in the 18th and 19th centuries when time ran more slowly, and that patience and acceptance of these limits are elements of wisdom.

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This entry was posted in Christopher Hitchens, Non-fiction - History, Nonfiction - General, Nonfiction - Memoir/Biography, Reviews by Bethany, THE HAMILTON SOUNDTRACK, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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