Monday, July 9, 2012

A Popular Portrait of Jefferson

Dan Allosso

In the spirit of the Historical Society's recent conference on talking to the general public about history, I thought I'd share some of my initial reactions to a recent popular biography: Christopher Hitchens's Thomas Jefferson: Author of America (Harper, 2009).  In a short volume that seems to have achieved both commercial success and good reviews, Hitchens portrays Jefferson as not only the author of America (writer of the Declaration and purchaser of Louisiana), but as a symbol of the conflicts that have always been close to the heart of the “republican experiment.”  Given Hitchens’s notoriety, it’s impossible to completely separate the author from the subject; so this is not really a standard biography.  It’s sort-of half biography and half Hitchens’s reflections and evaluations.  But in this critical role, Hitchens may be providing a useful corrective to the hagiographical (or anti-) chronicles of Jefferson’s life we’re more accustomed to reading.

Although Hitchens is not a historian, he does a pretty good job of inserting names, dates, and events that provide both context and a sense of the culture Jefferson involved himself in.  This is a short book (208 pages), so there’s a limit to the amount of detail that can be jammed in, but Hitchens chooses some elements that illuminate Jefferson’s character.  And he offers perspectives you wouldn’t normally get from a historian, such as when he observes that the fact Thomas and Martha delighted in reading passages from Sterne’s Tristram Shandy to each other suggests “we are studying a man with very little sense of humor.”

In another interesting moment, Hitchens describes Jefferson as the “republican equivalent of a philosopher king, who was coldly willing to sacrifice all principles and all allegiances to the one great aim of making America permanent”  (p. 14).  While this sense of a permanent guiding mission may be ahistorical (although we find it in some academic biography, too), Hitchens makes a strong case for long-term connections in Jefferson’s story.  At one point, he recounts Jefferson’s dismal performance as governor of Virginia during the Revolution, which he contrasts with Alexander Hamilton’s record.  Too frequently, we seem to lose sight of the ongoing political weight of issues like these – if only in the sheer volume of data coming at us in traditional biographies.  And when Jefferson wrote his famous Notes on the State of Virginia, Hitchens calls attention to the fact he was responding to a questionnaire sent him by Francois Barbé-Marbois, who not coincidentally was the future negotiator of the Louisiana Purchase.  The sense of continuity and relatedness of events Hitchens brings to such a short retelling of Jefferson’s life is really helpful.

As one of America's leading atheists, Christopher Hitchens would of course be expected to show his interest in Jefferson as a prototype of the secular American, and he doesn’t disappoint.  But his coverage of Jefferson’s anticlericalism and “Enlightenment” orientation is much less strident than it might have been.  Hitchens does connect Jefferson with Edward Jenner and the cowpox vaccination, and he does point out that “Dr. Timothy Dwight, then president of Yale and to this day celebrated as an American divine, was sternly opposed to vaccination as a profane interference with God’s beneficent design” (p. 44).  But he also goes after Jefferson’s hypocritical attitudes about slavery and race.  “A bad conscience, evidenced by slovenly and contradictory argument, is apparent in almost every paragraph of his discourse on this subject,” Hitchens concludes (p. 48).  But he grants, quoting Jefferson, that a “The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances”
(p. 49).

Hitchens tells the story of Jefferson as a remarkable human being, who achieved incredible things while failing to completely transcend his nature as a male mammal living in the eighteenth century.  And he calls attention to parts of Jefferson’s historical role (in abandoning the Haitian Revolutionaries and in sending the Marines to North Africa) that it might be useful for us to remember.  In a passage that I found funny, Hitchens suggests that Dumas Malone (the ultimate academic biographer of Jefferson) “had great difficulty considering the question of carnal knowledge at all” (p. 61).  This seems a little harsh, until Hitchens reminds the reader that as late as 1985 Malone insisted that “for Madison Hemings to claim descent from his master was no better than ‘the pedigree printed on the numerous stud-horse bills that can be seen posted around during the Spring season’” (p. 65).  I appreciate the freedom Hitchens had as a non-academic author, to trash “Jefferson’s most revered biographer” in a way that clearly needed doing.

In the end, Hitchens’s conclusions about Jefferson match his understanding of his adopted nation.  “The truth is,” he says, “that America has committed gross wrongs and crimes, as well as upheld great values and principles” (p. 186).  Thomas Jefferson: Author of America is part of Harper-Collins’s “Eminent Lives” series for general readers, but it might be useful as a short, accessible supplementary text for high school and undergraduate students in a U.S. survey.  For that purpose, I think the author’s perspective as a non-academic and the fact that he has a clearly-stated position are among the book’s most valuable assets. 


Anonymous said...

Interesting post, my reading of the quote from Malone suggests that one could neither confirm or deny the authenticity of Madison Hemmings claim but Malone does not deny the possibility. Nevertheless, the analogy is a crude one, is this Hitchen's point or does one require a more nuanced reading?

Gabriel said...

Great review! It is often a rich read when a public intellectual writes a biography of another public intellectual!

dan allosso said...

Thanks Gabriel. I think that's part of the fun with this Hitchens book -- he's a character in his own right, so it's got that extra dimension.

Anon: I think the gist of Hitchens' objection to Malone on the Hemings claim was that he used race-horse breeding as his analogy, which was not only incredibly insensitive, but flipped the ownership relationship upside-down. Luckily, DNA has closed that debate.