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Thomas Jefferson: Author of America (Eminent Lives) [Paperback]

Christopher Hitchens
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

5 May 2009 Eminent Lives

In this unique biography of Thomas Jefferson, leading journalist and social critic Christopher Hitchens offers a startlingly new and provocative interpretation of our Founding Father—a man conflicted by power who wrote the Declaration of Independence and acted as ambassador to France yet yearned for a quieter career in the Virginia legislature. A masterly writer, Jefferson was an awkward public speaker. A professed proponent of emancipation, he elided the issue of slavery from the Declaration of Independence and continued to own human property. A reluctant candidate, he left an indelible presidential legacy. With intelligence, insight, eloquence, and wit, Hitchens gives us an artful portrait of a complex, formative figure and his turbulent era.



Product details

  • Paperback: 188 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial (5 May 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060837063
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060837068
  • Product Dimensions: 20 x 14 x 1.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 309,435 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was the author of Letters to a Young Contrarian, and the bestseller No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family. A regular contributor to Vanity Fair, The Atlantic Monthly and Slate, Hitchens also wrote for The Weekly Standard, The National Review, and The Independent, and appeared on The Daily Show, Charlie Rose, The Chris Matthew's Show, Real Time with Bill Maher, and C-Span's Washington Journal. He was named one of the world's "Top 100 Public Intellectuals" by Foreign Policy and Britain's Prospect.

Product Description

About the Author

Christopher Hitchens is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and a visiting professor of liberal studies at the New School in New York City. He is the author of numerous books, including the controversial international bestseller God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.


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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Who was that man behind "the opaque curtain"? 2 Oct 2007
By Robert Morris TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
This is one of several volumes in the HarperCollins Eminent Lives series. Each offers a concise rather than comprehensive, much less definitive biography. However, just as Al Hirschfeld's illustrations of various celebrities capture their defining physical characteristics, the authors of books in this series focus on the defining influences and developments during the lives and careers of their respective subjects. In this instance, Thomas Jefferson.

Hitchens suggests that Jefferson "did not embody contradiction. Jefferson [in italics] was [end italics] contradiction, and this will be found at every step of the narrative that goes to make up his life." It is remarkable to me that Hitchens was able to cover so much which occurred from Jefferson's birth into relative wealth on April 13, 1743, until his death on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence of which he was its principal author. Early on, Hitchens acknowledges what he calls an "opaque curtain" which so often frustrates efforts to "see" Jefferson clearly at various stages throughout his life. Early in the narrative, Hitchens cites several of young Jefferson's social "fiascos" such as a crass and unsuccessful attempt to seduce the wife of a close friend. Why? First, because they demonstrate that "Jefferson was ardent by nature when it came to females, and also made reticent and cautious by experience." Also, because generations of historians have written, "until the present day, as if [Jefferson] were not a male mammal at all." Later, Hitchens rigorously examines Jefferson's (yes, contradictory) relationship with Sally Hemings.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An honest appraisal 5 July 2008
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Although I gave Bill Bryson's biography of Shakespeare only 3 stars, I did like the idea of the Eminent Lives series being published by Harper Press, particularly as the subject - no matter how famous - has his or her life captured in around 200 pages.

I thought Thomas Jefferson in the hands of citric commentator Hitchens would be a good combination and so it proved with the founding Father of the greatest democracy in the world being subjected to an unsentimentalised appraisal of the type he would have to expect were he in office today. As might be expected, it is part polemic, but all the better for it.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Good 4 Dec 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
A tough read but compelling non the less. Hitchens own political pendulum mirrors Jefferson's often contradictory actions on political challenges of their respective lives.
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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  113 reviews
149 of 157 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A worthy object for Hitchens' distinctive style 4 July 2005
By Andrew S. Rogers - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I've read two volumes in the Eminent Lives series now, and have been very impressed with both. Paul Johnson's George Washington: The Founding Father (Eminent Lives) and Christopher Hitchens' essay on Thomas Jefferson are very different books. But each was in its own way remarkable. I think it's safe to say that this is a book that few readers will soon forget.

As Hitchens notes early on, Jefferson was more than just a "man of contradictions." He more or less embodied contradiction. Few writers, in my experience, are better equipped to identify contradictions, expose hypocrisies, and "call B.S." when necessary, than Christopher Hitchens. He did it with (or to) Clinton, he did it with Kissinger, and it seems only right to have spent a few hours on this Fourth of July exploring with him the evolving ideas and motivations of Mr. Jefferson himself.

Today, conservatives, libertarians, and leftists, Republicans and Democrats, anti-government "militias" and activist social-engineer types all claim Jefferson as one of their own. And each does so with some justice. Hitchens does an excellent job of walking through Jefferson's shifting opinions on questions like the proper powers of government, centralization versus "states' rights", the necessity of revolution, international relations, and much more. This is far from a comprehensive biography of Jefferson, and it certainly lacks the Olympian objectivity we get from most modern biographers. Hitchens has strong opinions, especially about religion, and he's not in the least hesitant about making those part of his discussion. Unlike another reviewer I wouldn't recommend this title for someone who has never read much about Jefferson before. But given Hitchens' keen eye and sharp pen, I think it certainly ranks among the best *interpretations* of Jefferson I've yet seen.
113 of 120 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Opinionated and idiosyncratic 25 Dec 2005
By Pascal Tiscali - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I bought this biography because I like Christopher Hitchens' hard-hitting journalism, e.g. his "Trials of Henry Kissinger". Hitchens tells it like he sees it, which is generally pretty left-wing, but he doesn't toe the party line, e.g. his continued support for the war in Iraq. I thought he was the perfect man to explain Thomas Jefferson, because he would have assimilated Jefferson's ideas into his own active life shaped by the school of hard knocks.

However, I am disappointed in this book, for the following reasons:

First, the book seems to have been written hastily - facts are thrown in here and there, associations to other events in Jefferson's life, without sufficient explanation, and violating the chronology of the narrative. This makes the book confusing to read, espcially if the reader is not already familiar with Jefferson's life.

Secondly, the book places a lot of emphasis on issues that are "Politically Correct" at the present time. In fact, Hitchens adopts a kind of sermonizing tone with regard to these issues, which the hastiness of his scholarship renders unconvincing. It reads like the kind of grandstanding you see in journalists giving speeches at universities.

Nonetheless, there is something to be learned in this book, and Hitchens' unique background does enable him to select some interesting moments to highlight in Jefferson's life and writings. I would recommend this book only as a companion to a fuller biography of Jefferson, such as "American Sphinx" by Joseph J. Ellis.
43 of 46 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Everything he loved and everything he hated 4 Oct 2005
By The Sanity Inspector - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is a photographic negative of Jefferson pocket bios of earlier eras. There are terse acknowledgements (with detailed faults appended) of the significance of the Louisiana Purchase, the founding of the University of Virginia, and etc., but a whole chapter of outrage devoted to Sally Hemings. Hitchens makes Jefferson's failure to solve the dilemma of The Peculiar Institution the central fact of his career, if not the main theme of this book.

So, can a fair biography of Thomas Jefferson be written by someone who still reveres the genie of Bolshevik revolution, Leon Trotsky? Trotsky, who would certainly not have turned into a Jeffersonian democrat, had he ever gotten the whip hand in Russia? Well, generally speaking, yes. Jefferson gets a predictably rough ride in these pages. His famous contradictions are not excused, and unqualified admiration is given only for his many scientific interests and his anticlericalism. And one wonders if such charity as Hitchens does extend to Jefferson is a result of his galvanized respect for the American project in the wake of 9/11. As many enemies as Hitchens has made over the years, though, no one serious has ever accused him of being ignorant. Hitchens has read deeply and wide--he ticks off an impressive bibliography in his introduction--is aware of his own leanings, and his writing has the familiar learned but curdled j'accuse tone it always did. (Plus, students picking up this small book for a homework assignment will probably need to look up words like "uxoriousness", for example.)

Hitchens is of course a well-known cultured despiser of religion, and he is drawn to those passages in Jefferson's writings which reflect the same attitude. But I doubt that Jefferson, for all his disdain of "priestcraft", ever had one-half the hatred of religion that Hitchens does, and Hitchens' treatment of this aspect of Jefferson's character is the only part I see verging on projection.

Hitchens repeatedly scores Jefferson on his half-hearted approach to the slavery question. In one bit he condemns Jefferson's apprehension of the prospect of bloody revolution in Haiti, though of course Jefferson's premonition of wholesale massacre was later proven correct. Is this a consequence of once having been a devotee of political theories that result in mass liquefaction of "reactionary" populations, perhaps? (Hitchens does grant him--barely--his effort to pass legislation that would have required the end of slavery by 1800.) And Hitchens' leftist instincts are again on display in a passage about the Embargo Act. Contrast his depiction of it as an endeavor of proto-Wilsonian idealism, as opposed to Paul Johnson in _History of the American People_ painting it as an example of proto-Wilsonian muddle-headedness. Hitchens sardonically dismisses the harm that Americans took in their "pocketbooks" during the life of the Embargo Act, while praising the policy as a rare example of trying to conduct international conflicts peacefully. Someone who has not been in the habit of thinking that "the masses" belong either on the barricades or knitting potholders on some proletarian commune would not be so callous towards ordinary people's livelihoods.

Yet there are clues that Jefferson has found a place in Hitchens' heart as well as in the historian's dock. He includes a letter from Jefferson that contains this phrase:

"...cut off from my family & friends, my affairs abandoned to chaos & derangement, in short giving everything I love, in exchange for everything I hate..."

Hitchens obviously had this phrase in mind in an interview he gave about his reaction to 9/11:

"Here we are then, I was thinking, in a war to the finish between everything I love and everything I hate. Fine. We will win and they will lose."

I learned a few new things from this biography, and looked at some old things in new ways. Its admirable concision and clear points deliver the goods. It's only to be expected that, given any pundit's lack of transparency, this book will contain almost as much of the author as of the subject. Since any assertion about Jefferson brings other scholars leaping into print with their rebuttals, this should not be taken by the reader as the last word on Thomas Jefferson. There's little danger of that anyway: given the avalanche of learned tomes about our third President and his prodigiously seminal ideas, there may never be a last word.
136 of 157 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Man Who "Authored" American Democracy 12 Jun 2005
By Roy E. Perry - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
On April 29, 1962, at a White House dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners, John F. Kennedy said, "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."

As Kennedy's quip indicates, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), the third President of the United States (1801-1809), was one of the most brilliant men to occupy the White House. A man of the Enlightenment, he was a voracious reader ("I cannot live without books," he said), well-versed in both science and the humanities.

The newest volume in HarperCollins' "Eminent Lives" Series, Christopher Hitchens' Thomas Jefferson is a compact and sophisticated look at "the author of America," the chief architect of our democratic system of government, whose eloquent words in the Declaration of Independence still ring down through the years since 1776: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

An inveterate opponent of dictators and demagogues of every stripe, Jefferson's words still inspire freedom-loving people throughout the world. "I have sworn upon the altar of God," he said, "eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

According to Hutchinson, Jefferson threw down this gauntlet against any and all political and priestly authorities that arrogantly asserted their power to enslave, oppress, and intimidate. "The tree of liberty," Jefferson asserted, "must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." Needed words--these ... but dangerous words if their truth is twisted by ruthless insurgents.

Hitchens' work is not an exhaustive treatise; it is, rather, a compact survey, written in a sophisticated style, of the salient points of Jefferson's life and works. One finds here, of course, his relationship with Sally Hemings, a slave at Jefferson's Monticello who fathered several of his children; the Louisiana Purchase from France; and the war against the Barbary pirates (which inspired the line in the Marine Corps hymn: "from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli").

"It would be lazy or obvious," writes Hitchens, "to say that he [Jefferson] contained contradictions or paradoxes. This is true of everybody, and of everything. 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 [is] found at every step of [this] narrative."

Was Jefferson's anticlericalism a manifestation of Deism or atheism? Concerning his question, Hitchens sends mixed signals. On one hand, he writes, "As a 'Deist,' he did not believe that God intervened in human affairs at all." (So much for doctrine of providence and the efficacy of prayer.) On the other hand, he points out, "As his days began to wane, Jefferson more than once wrote to friends that he faced the approaching end without either hope or fear. This was as much as to say, in the most unmistakable terms, that he was not a Christian."

After finishing this volume, I felt vaguely disappointed with the book's total effect, although it's difficult to explain the reason for such discontent. Nevertheless, Hitchen's mini-biography, a credible summary view of Jefferson's life, is more laudatory than critical, and receives a passing grade, if not outstanding marks.

Roy E. Perry may be reached at rperry1778@aol.com
30 of 34 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, if overwrought 4 Aug 2005
By J. A Magill - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
That Thomas Jefferson's writing of the Declaration of Independence constitutes the central moment of the War of Independence cannot be disputed. However, in this concise and often interesting biography, the erudite Christopher Hitchens goes too far in attempting to portray Jefferson as "the author" of the American nation. Yet, in embodying many of the young nations deepest contradictions, Jefferson could in many ways be seen as the American ideal in microcosm. While this as well as Jefferson's almost schizophrenic complexity makes him an almost irresistible subject for any biographer.

Hitchens choice of subject, while interesting, could hardly be described as surprising. Often acerbic, but always clever, the contrary Hitchens takes great pride in infuriating his progressive cohorts be taking the opposite position of his political fellows, his early and continued support of the Iraq War being a prime example. So, in choosing Jefferson, now often reviled for his the hypocrisy of at once proclaiming universal human rights while at the same time holding men and women in bondage. To these attacks Hitchens does not excuse Jefferson but rightly points out they are obvious, boring, and wearisome as a cudgel with which to attack the third President.

Seemingly Hitchens has three agendas in this short work. First, to defend Jefferson against those on the left who attack him by reminding them of his commitment to the very core idea of liberalism, that people can through education and effort better themselves and deserve the opportunity for such betterment. Second, to liberate Jefferson from the bizarre argument now emanating from the religious right that he and his fellow founders of the United States intended to create a "Christian country," a suggestion laughable on its face to any with any knowledge of the period. Third, and less obvious, Hitchens seems to wish to use Jefferson to attack the recently ascendant Hamilton whom Hitchens sees as the patron saint of the current American political alignment which he detests.

To the first effort Hitchens does well. Regarding the second he shines, particularly with his use of some of Jefferson's more memorable quotes. The third point, however, fails. Interestingly, in many ways Jefferson seems the archetype for the current attitude of the current administration. With his ability to justify anything, from lying to George Washington as he coordinated an attack on the President's administration within the cabinet, to his praise of the French Revolution even as it descended into savagery, to the willingness of the original advocate of limited Federal power to assert robust authority when it suited him in the White House, Jefferson in ways proves the perfect amoral actor, able to justify anything that suits his current needs.

While Hitchens occasionally strays to the over zealous in his support of Jefferson, that does not detract from the books excellent qualities and entertaining style. Indeed, with Jefferson, straying too far to one extreme or another seems a pitfall in which all of his biographers eventually fall.
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