The Books: “Thomas Jefferson : Author of America” (Christopher Hitchens)

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51EVWDR2JAL.jpgNext book in my American history section is Thomas Jefferson: Author of America by Christopher Hitchens.

I admit it. I’m a Hitchens addict. I am also a US History addict – so this book was a particular delight. It’s part of the REALLY cool “Eminent lives” series. They’re little books – this is not a full-blown biography – it’s more of a very pointed analysis of certain events. In that typical Hitchens voice which I find so addictive. How does he do it? How does he write so much and still manage to drink so much alcohol? The guy is everywhere. His book reviews, his columns for Vanity Fair, his columns for Atlantic, his books, his op-ed columns – I’m in awe. It was really fun to see his interpretation of Jefferson.

And because Hitchens is also such a wordsmith – I figured I’d excerpt the section where he analyzes the Declaration of Independence.

From Thomas Jefferson: Author of America (Eminent Lives) by Christopher Hitchens.

It was partly as a result of a compromise that Jefferson was appointed to the committee charged with drawing up the Declaration. The author of the resolutions calling upon the thirteen colonies to announce independence, to form “a confederation and perpetual union,” and to seek overseas recognition and military alliances was Richard Henry Lee, himself a Virginian. But he was needed at home, and Congress needed a Virginian just as it needed some New Englanders and some delegates from the middle colonies. John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, and Robert Livingston of New York comprised the rest of the drafting group.

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. And, as with the extraordinary convocation of religious scholars that met at Hampton Court under the direction of Lancelot Andrewes in 1604, and with the later gathering of polymaths and revolutionaries at Philadelphia in 1776, the explanation lies partly in the simultaneous emergence, under the pressure of a commonly understood moment of crisis and transition, of like-minded philosophers and men of action. Modesty deserves its tribute here, too: a determination to do the best that could be commonly wrought was a great corrective to vanity. Thomas Jefferson’s modesty was sometimes of the false kind. We have too many instances of him protesting, throughout his political ascent, that the honor is too great, the burden too heavy, the eminence too high. (Rather as the Speaker of the House of Commons is still ceremonially dragged to his chair on his inauguration, as if being compelled to assume his commanding role.) However, someone had to pull together a first draft, and we have it on the word of his longtime rival John Adams that Jefferson’s reticence in the matter was on this occasion fairly swiftly overcome. He was generally thought to be the better writer and the finer advocate: one might wish to have seen a Franklin version — which might at least have contained one joke — but it was not to be.

Several years were to elapse before Jefferson was acknowledged as the author of the Declaration, or until the words themselves had so to speak “sunk in” and begun to resonate as they still do. So it is further evidence of his amour propre, as well as of his sense of history and rhetoric, that he always resented the changes that the Congress made to his original. These are reproduced, as parallel text, in his own Autobiography, and have been as exhaustively scrutinized as the intellectual sources on which Jefferson called when he repaired to a modest boarding house for seventeen days, with only a slave valet named Jupiter, brought from Monticello, at his disposal.

The most potent works, observes the oppressed and haunted Winston Smith in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where he’s read the supposedly “secret” book of the forbidden opposition, are the ones that tell you what you already know. (And, in the “Dictionary of Newspeak” that closes that novel, a certain paragraph of prose is given as an example of something that could not be translated into “Newspeak” terms. The paragraph begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident …”) Jefferson and Paine had this in common in that year of revolution; they had the gift of pithily summarizing what was already understood, and then of moving an already mobilized audience to follow an inexorable logic. But they also had to overcome an insecurity and indecision that is difficult for us, employing retrospect, to comprehend. Let not, in such circumstances, the trumpet give off an uncertain sound. So, after a deceptively modest and courteous paragraph that assumes the duty of making a full explanation and of manifesting “decent respect,” the very first sentence of the actual declaration roundly states that certain truths are — crucial words — self-evident.

This style — terse and pungent, yet fringed with elegance — allied the plain language of Thomas Paine to the loftier expositions of John Locke, from whose 1690 Second Treatise on Civil Government some of the argument derived. (It is of interest that Locke, who wrote of slavery that it was “so vile and miserable an Estate of Man … that ’tis hardly to be conceived that an Englishman, much less a Gentleman, should plead for it,” was also the draftsman for an absolutist slaveholding “Fundamental Constitution” of the Carolinas in 1669.) Jefferson radicalized Locke by grounding human equality on the observable facts of nature and the common human condition. Having originally written that rights are derived ‘from that equal creation,” he amended the thought to say that men were “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” thus perhaps attempting to forestall any conflict between Deists and Christians. And, where Locke had spoken of “life, liberty, and property” as being natural rights, Jefferson famously wrote “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We differ still on whether this means seeking happiness of rather happiness itself as a pursuit, but given the advantageous social position occupied by most of the delegates at Philadelphia, it is very striking indeed that either notion should have taken precedence over property. The clear need of the hour was for inspiration (and property rights were to be restored to their customary throne when the Constitution came to be written), but “the pursuit of happiness” belongs to that limited group of lapidary phrases that has changed history, and it seems that the delegates realized this as soon as they heard it.

Thomas Jefferson, indeed, is one of the small handful of people to have his very name associated with a form of democracy. The word was not in common use at the time, and was not always employed positively in any case. (John Adams tended to say “democratical” when he meant unsound or subversive.) But the idea that government arose from the people and was not a gift to them or an imposition upon them, was perhaps the most radical element in the Declaration. Jefferson was later to compare government with clothing as “the badge of lost innocence,” drawing from the myth of original nakedness and guilt in the Garden of Eden. Paine in his Common Sense had said, “Society is produced by our wants and government by our wickedness.” As a compromise between government as a necessary evil – or an inevitable one – and in the course of a bill of complaint against a hereditary monarch, the Declaration proposed the idea of “the consent of the governed” and thus launched the experiment we call American, or sometimes Jeffersonian, democracy.

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1 Response to The Books: “Thomas Jefferson : Author of America” (Christopher Hitchens)

  1. Bradford Lowell Drake says:

    I believe Hitchens was a borderline deist. After all, he did write the definitive book on Thomas Jefferson:the deist and framer of U.s. constitution…I love them both!

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