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Hardcover Thomas Jefferson: Author of America Book

ISBN: 0060598964

ISBN13: 9780060598969

Thomas Jefferson: Author of America

(Part of the Eminent Lives Series)

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Book Overview

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. Situating Jefferson within the context of America's evolution and tracing his legacy over the past two hundred years, Hitchens brings the character of Jefferson to life as a man of his time and also as a symbolic figure beyond it. Conflicted by power, Jefferson wrote...

Customer Reviews

5 ratings

Ten Star book The author has a real gem here...

Mr. Hitchens has another gem in this excellent book. As a reader of many books on Thomas Jefferson, I found this book to have tid bits I never knew. Like on page 22 where on reads that it was because Mr. Jefferson was famed as a drafter of resolutions, writer of great explicatory force, and thoughtful compromiser, that he was called upon to draw up the Declaration of Independence. Page 23 'There is no other example in history, apart from the composition of the King James version of the Bible, in which great words and concepts have been fused into poetic prose by the banal processes of a committee.' Page 26 'Thomas Jefferson, indeed, is one of the small handful of people to have his very name associated with a form of democracy.' Page 43 'Jefferson was not a man of the Enlightenment only in the ordinary sense that he believed in reason or perhaps rationality. He was very specifically one of those who believed that human redemption lay in education, discovery, innovation and experiment.' Page 44 Jefferson, too, considered himself a scientist. 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 the 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 of 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.' Have read some on Sally Heming, but the author writes some interesting aspects not focused on by other authors. 'Sally Hemings was the grandaughter of one while slaveholder and the daughter of another, John Wayles. Mr Wayles was also the father of Thomas Jeffersons wife, Martha, so that the wife and the later Mistress were in fact half sisters. To say that there was any taboo on 'inter-racial' sex or 'miscegenation' at Monticello would therefore be to exaggerate considerably. And. although she was certainly a slave by virtue of being Jeffersons legal property, Sally as I shall now call her had not been subjected to the indignities and humiliations of fieldwork and the lash. ..... She had been in the room when Martha Jefferson died and had heard Jefferson promise his dying wife never to marry again.' I would simply note that visually Ms. Heming was probably much lighter skinned than someone like Hallie Berry whose father was black. Thus Ms. Heming would have had the small amount of black blood that would legally have made her black, but would visually have made her white. Page 171 Declining Years, one reads 'The establishment of the University of Virginia was one of only three of his achievements that Jefferson felt worthy of commemoration on his headstone. But its page 180 onward that I don't think most lovers of Jefferson have heard about. Namely the fact that Jefferson bel


Christopher Hitchens is one terrific writer. What a great way with words he has. He doesn't sound like some professor spewing out a sleep-enhancing lecture. Quite the contrary. Yet, "Author of America" is quite a scholarly presentation. His words are right down to earth. It reminds me of another book I read called, "West Point: Thomas Jefferson: Character Leadership Education", by Norman Thomas Remick. Plainspeak, though (please forgive me Mr. Remick) the writing cannot hold a candle to Mr. Hitchens' writing. But, I must say, Mr. Remick put out the best "engineered for interest" book I have ever read. What is "engineered for interest"? Well, after reading Christopher Hitchens' "Author of America" you can always check it out and find out. You should have plenty left in you to do it, for the Hitchens book is a dream to read, not taxing at all, smooth as you have ever seen. Mr. Hitchens, a hearty congratulations on a job well done.

Who was behind "the opaque curtain"?

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. First, he guides his reader briskly but without haste through Jefferson's youth, education (College of William and Mary), several years of practicing law, and then the initial phase of his public service when elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses (1769-75). Jefferson aligned himself with the revolutionary faction, writing A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774) which helps to explain, somewhat, his ambivalent attitude toward the colonies' deteriorating relationship with Britain's monarch and parliament. In 1770 he began designing and building Monticello to which (in 1772) he brought his new wife, Martha Wyles Skelton. She bore him six children, only two of whom survived into maturity. She died in 1782. Jefferson was among those who called the First Continental Congress (1774) and as a delegate to the Second Congress (1775-7), he was primarily responsible for drafting the Declaration of Independence which was adopted on July 4, 1776. He then returned to Virginia where, as a member of its legislature (1776-9) and led efforts to create a state constitution,then served as governor (1779-81), during which time he proposed that Virginia abolish the slave trade and assure religious freedom. His proposals were rejected. In 1789 George Washington appointed Jefferson secretary of state. In that position he became head of th

Vital, probing, powerfully Informed

I have spent the weekend before Monday July 4th with Christopher Hitchens' dense (in the very good way) Thomas Jefferson and regret having the weekend end. If you suspect an underlying love for the man in Hitchens' view, he keeps it well under control, and here is nothing like the hagiography of some of the other treatments. Perhaps it takes someone with the Hitchens spark to see this iconic figure in classical marble as a sensual man with a fox-like sense of politics, as well as sometimes considerable "elasticity" when it comes to strict Constitutional questions. Hitchens did his homework for this compact book without a wasted word along the way, and I think he here controls his famous Wildean wit and plays close to the vital facts in respect of a man he considers a great formative figure in American life. Plenty of solid sure information here with a fillip of Hitchens wit just when we want it (so we don't forget the author of the book itself is a brilliant writer to reckon with). Hitchens is the right man for this, for Jefferson had the wit too, along with such scorn for English ways (he wrote to James Madison that the English ambassador's wife "established a degree of dislike among all classes which one would have thought impossible in so short a time". Good discussion of the Louisiana Purchase, Lewis's and Clark's expedition, the successes and failures Jefferson had in helping frame the Constitution, his actions against north African terrorism of a sort, the decisions he made that helped prolong slavery and solidify it, and bring about the Civil War. Hitchens offers serious criticism of Jefferson too, and I myself could spot little bias in his book. Fascinating material on the relationship with his slave mistress Sally Hemings, who, Hitchens posits, in the face of other far more harsh judgments and his own recogniztion of the master-slave dynamics, might have found her master an attractive, fascinating, sensual, perhaps even loving man. A first rate introduction and more than that for those of us who are not historians, and surely of interest to the historians themselves.

A worthy object for Hitchens' distinctive style

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.
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