Friday, June 4, 2010

An Interesting Person on an Interesting Person

A review of Christopher Hitchens’ Thomas Jefferson: Author of America (2005)

(Rating: 4 of 5)

I have always found Christopher Hitchens to be a fascinating individual. A man who has spent time all over the political spectrum, whom I have had the pleasure to watch on Bill Maher’s Real Time. Politically speaking I do not agree with him on much of anything although I do think he is one of the greatest thinkers of our time. He was once regarded by Gore Vidal to be his heir apparent, however he (Vidal) no longer feels this is the case.

In this little 188-page biography for the Eminent Lives series, Hitchens writes about the United States of America’s third President, Thomas Jefferson. Hitchens is clearly a Jefferson fan; he took his American citizenship oath at the steps of the Jefferson Memorial. In this book, he details Thomas Jefferson’s political career from an early legislator to his time as President of the United States. He also spends one brief chapter on President Jefferson’s post-presidential years. Through out the work Hitchens tries to explain what it is that makes Thomas Jefferson so important and Revolutionary.

“Jefferson was not a man of the Enlightenment only in the ordinary sense that he believed in reason or perhaps in rationality. He was very specifically one of those who believed that human lay in education, discover, innovation, and experiment…. He studied botany, fossils, crop cycles, and animals. He made copious notes on what he saw. He designed a new kind of plow, which would cut a deeper furrow in soil exhausted by the false economy of tobacco farming. He was fascinated by the invention of air balloons, which he instantly saw might provide a new form a transport as well as a new form of warfare. He enjoyed surveying and prospecting and, when whaling became an important matter in the negotiation of a commercial treaty, wrote a treatise on the subject himself.” p.43-4

Although a romantic, Hitchens does not shy away from criticizing Jefferson if and when he feels it is necessary. He points out some of Jefferson’s hypocrisy both political and personnel. To Hitchens, Jefferson’s greatest accomplishment was his dedication to the ideal of religious freedom for all.

“So Jefferson took the same view of Haiti as he had of Virginia: the abolition of slavery could be as dangerous and evil as slavery itself. He did not, through this blinker of prejudice, at first discern that events in Haiti would one day provide him with an opportunity of historic dimensions.” p.101

This is a great little one-stop biography, even if you are not a fan of Mr. Hitchens himself that should not stop anyone from enjoying this work. Hitchens writes with whit and humor, and he makes analogies to events that have occurred long after Jefferson’s own time and before it. The book is like reading a 200-hundred page article that he has written for Vanity Fair.

{Video is from C-Span}

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