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 email@example.com