Jefferson is like the superstar of American history. If there is one figure that dominates the story of America’s founding and its forging more than any other, it’s probably Jefferson. His fingerprints are all over our way of life and our very way of thinking, our ‘national identity.’ That certain something that makes someone an American as opposed to Irish, or Polish, or Japanese, or Kenyan. Whatever land our ancestors came from, whatever country our parents were born in, when we call ourselves American, we embrace some aspect of Jefferson. And Christopher Hitchens’ brief but informative biography of the man reminds us why.
Hitchens himself was American by choice. He came here for various reasons of his own, but he chose to become a citizen because he believed in the things that make this nation special. And I think Jefferson plays no small role in that. This book covers Jefferson’s career in politics, from the Revolution and France through his Presidency and legacy. It faces his many contradictions, not the least of which his rather famous two-faced stance on slavery. And no surprise from Hitchens, the book discusses Jefferson’s rather intense disdain for organized religion.
The segments I found most interesting were his time in France (including his relationship with Sally Hemings, which seems like fertile ground for fascinating stories and ethical questions) and his instigation of the Lewis & Clark expedition. But there are plenty of fascinating anecdotes and quotes, about his lengthy disagreements with John Adams, his constant inner battle with the idea of slavery, his love of science and reason, his hatred of superstition and tyranny, and his amazing words.
I say this a lot, but the best history books are the ones that make you want to read more, to learn more, to see things from more perspectives. And this book certainly lives up to that. American history, especially pre-1900, has never held a great deal of my interest. But this book has given me a few bits of foundation to build upon, a few crumbs to get my appetite up. Once more, my hat is off to Christopher Hitchens who managed to make every subject a bit more interesting.
Thomas Jefferson: Author of America
Author: Christopher Hitchens
Publisher: Atlas & Co.