Deborah's Reviews > Thomas Jefferson: Author of America

Thomas Jefferson by Christopher Hitchens
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's review
Jul 21, 12

Read in July, 2012

I've been a fan of Christopher Hitchens for a while. His writing style is deceptively simple but every line oozes the kind of knowledge I yearn to possess. That was one of the main reasons I was drawn initially to his short biography of Jefferson. As an immigrant to the US I like to try and update my US history but a lot of the presidential biographies are just too overfacing. This book is also in the same series as the Shakespeare bio by Bill Bryson and I really enjoyed that too.

If I expected short to be synonymous with 'easy to read' I was mistaken but it was well worth the effort. Hitchens does a wonderful job of portraying Jefferson, warts and all, without the usual biographer's need to cover every dish at the banquet. He leaves some parts of his history almost untouched (he rarely digresses into his family life for instance and life pre-politics is also mentioned rarely and briefly). It's a book you could go back to again and again having read around the subject more. I suspect I would have appreciated it more had I read more on Jefferson prior to this book but frankly I didn't really have the urge. For those needing a blow by blow account of all the detail of his life and this period of history, it probably isn't a natural first choice either. But I loved the trip back and forth through US political history, the backdrop of the French revolution and its interplay with Jefferson's role as Secretary of State and President, and the delightful way Hitchens doesn't demean or over-flatter his subject but illustrates perfectly how political accidents play out better for some than others. The chapter dealing with the Barbary piracy issue, Louisiana purchase and Lewis and Clark expedition is masterful - I would never have believed I could learn so much and be challenged to want to read more by one short chapter.

Of course it wouldn't be Hitchens if he didn't make something of Jefferson's religious beliefs and the lengths he needed to go to to hide the full details of those at the time. Here is a president who would have gyrated in his grave at the addition of 'under God' to the pledge of allegiance. Yet again though, Jefferson's own ambiguity when using religious quotations and allegories to illustrate some of his political points are skilfully highlighted. The slavery issue is also dealt with well, sketching in enough detail available from Jefferson's own writing to show the unpleasantness of some of his views without doing the usual 'shock, horror' approach or brushing it under the carpet as something that went on at the time but was perfectly acceptable. Hitchens, in very few lines, shows us one of the least pleasant aspects of Jefferson's history and beliefs without pandering to Jefferson himself or our own modern sensitivities on the subject.

The saddest note came for me when, on looking around for more information I discovered that Hitchens had died in 2011. Writing of this caliber doesn't come along too often.

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