A lucid, gently critical view of the great president and empire-builder and most literate of politicians.
Barring the discovery of a trove of unknown documents, it’s unlikely that anyone will soon find anything new to say on the matter of Thomas Jefferson, and Hitchens (Love, Poverty, and War, 2004, etc.) ventures no discoveries. Yet he has a pleasing way of juxtaposing the known facts with a more nuanced view of his subject than the portraits offered by critics such as David McCullough and worshippers such as Dumas Malone. At the outset, for instance, Hitchens recalls the well-worn datum that Jefferson died on the very same day as his long-time rival John Adams, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence; Hitchens adds a nice note to the discussion, though, by citing a letter Jefferson had written only days earlier, in which he thundered, “The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” It complicates matters, Hitchens allows, that the “author of America” ignored a fifth of the population when making such pronouncements, though he well recognized the depravity of slavery, and that the same brilliant radical did his best to ensure that the lands of the Louisiana Purchase would be open to the slave trade—and that the minds of Southerners would not be tainted by schools that taught abolitionist “anti-Missourism.” On many such controversial matters, Hitchens decides, Jefferson was motivated by what he thought to be the better interests of the Republic, though “in a smaller number, it is not difficult to read the promptings of personal self-interest.”
A politician driven by self-interest? The very thought in the matter of the master of Monticello tells us that we live in revisionist times. Hitchens’s slender study complements several lives of Jefferson while displacing none, and it’s well worth reading.