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Thomas Jefferson: Author of America (Eminent Lives)

af Christopher Hitchens

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7251232,092 (3.77)18
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 continued to own human property. He negotiated the Louisiana Purchase with France, doubling the size of the nation, and authorized the Lewis and Clark expedition, opening up the American frontier. The Barbary War, a lesser-known chapter of his political career, led to the building of the U.S. Navy and the fortification of America's reputation regarding national defense. In the background is 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. --From publisher description.… (mere)
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I read this book a while back when it first came out and couldn't get over the fact of how much the author disliked Jefferson. I can't recommend this book. Unless you hate Jefferson and like the author :) ( )
  mh2o2o | Dec 28, 2020 |
ayoooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo ( )
  ncharlt1 | Sep 28, 2020 |
Having just visited Monticello and gone on the "extended tour", I was again intrigued by TJ. Picking up Hitchens (short, though compact) review of Jefferson's political career and his driving philosophies (as well as his personal deviances from these), was an interesting though incomplete and opinionated view of an incredible and flawed man. It primarily focuses on his (reluctant) political career from the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, his representation in France as the American Minister, his tenure as Secretary of State, and his Presidency. It is a great rambling summary of his political leanings (Republican as opposed to Federalist) and his interactions with his political adversaries and his great friends. Hitchens picks certain achievements as "America changing" and argues why. I was less familiar with his decision about the Barbary pirates and the creation of the US Navy and enjoyed learning this. While I've long been a fan of TJ and especially his focus on education, reading this only made me re-realize how human and brilliant and focused he was in so many directions. Not a perfect man, in many respects, but definitely one worthy of study and appreciation. Now onto his book on Gardening... ( )
  amillion | Feb 18, 2020 |
A short and astute biography of one of history's most important figures, Thomas Jefferson. Essayist Christopher Hitchens has always been engaging on Enlightenment principles and the founding of independent America, and he is in his element here in discussing "the only revolution that still retains any power to inspire" (pg. 188).

His thesis is that the United States' third president, and the primary author of its Declaration of Independence, can be said to be the 'author of America'. The man oversaw the country's development "from colonial settlement to continental nationhood" (pg. 168), and amongst Jefferson's many achievements, Hitchens pinpoints the war on the Barbary states, the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition as evidence of his unimpeachable influence. It is a heady argument and one well-made by Hitchens. Primarily an essayist, commentator and polemicist, Hitchens is rarely at his best in historian mode, but this book is perhaps the finest of his histories.

If there is one flaw, it is that Jefferson's political development over the years on sore subjects (such as slavery) is told rather than shown, and despite Hitchens' best efforts it is still hard to get the measure of his subject. The famous stark contrast between Jefferson the rationalist and author of independence, and Jefferson the slave-owner, remains as stubbornly unresolved as ever. Hitchens does very well to address the slavery and Sally Hemings questions, but who Jefferson was, in all his 'multitudes' (pg. 188), remains elusive.

The somewhat-unspoken conclusion Hitchens makes comes from his focus on Jefferson's role as prescient nation-builder. Even as he criticises the famous line that 'if Jefferson was wrong, America is wrong; and if America is right, Jefferson is right' (pg. 186), Hitchens seems to acknowledge that the two are inextricably linked. The American experiment is Jefferson's experiment. So what drives this ambition? What drives this country of pastoral settlers to dominate a vast continent and, from 1945 onwards, the world? What makes a country founded on secular and rationalist lines indulge in piety and racial policy? And what makes a man motivated by principled opposition to tyranny maintain and defend his right to slaveholdings? What makes a lawyer, keen to administer his Virginian estate, even join the fight against the British Empire? The hypocrisies and contradictions of America can also be found in Jefferson, its author, just as its many achievements. Perhaps the most apposite image in Hitchens' book is of Jefferson's famed Monticello estate. Built with windows that minimise the view of slaves on the grounds, the house yet faces ever westward, into the country's future. ( )
  MikeFutcher | Jul 13, 2019 |
Hitchens' well-written, lucid biography of the US statesman is certainly no whitewash; the portrait he paints shows Jefferson as a flawed figure who shaped the United States both through his drive and enlightenment principles but also through his willingness to sometimes ignore those principles to achieve his goals, occasionally goals that were pure self interest.

Most interestingly, Hitchens successfully places the man and his beliefs in the context of his era. In almost every respect Jefferson was a man ahead of his time, but more so in some ways than others. For instance, while he detested slavery, he in no way believed that blacks were the equals of whites, or that the two 'races' were capable of living together.

This is also a book about the American experiment. As Hitchens notes in the closing pages, the American revolution is perhaps the only revolution that has not ultimately consumed itself. But mostly a reminder that, however visionary and revolutionary, it is impossible for anyone to not be a product of their time. As he says in closing, this is "a reminder that history is a tragedy and not a morality tale." ( )
  Pezski | Jun 8, 2017 |
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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 continued to own human property. He negotiated the Louisiana Purchase with France, doubling the size of the nation, and authorized the Lewis and Clark expedition, opening up the American frontier. The Barbary War, a lesser-known chapter of his political career, led to the building of the U.S. Navy and the fortification of America's reputation regarding national defense. In the background is 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. --From publisher description.

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