Living in Thomas Jefferson's Fictions Discussions of the life of Thomas Jefferson often revolve around great issues of liberty and slavery, idealism and hypocrisy. But his words helped transform an uprising into a revolution, and as president, he transformed a group of states along the Atlantic seaboard into a continental power. The always-provocative Christopher Hitchens describes him as the man who designed America.
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Living in Thomas Jefferson's Fictions

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Living in Thomas Jefferson's Fictions

Living in Thomas Jefferson's Fictions

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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Right now, though, a conversation about a much earlier and no less controversial president. The life of Thomas Jefferson revolves around the great issues of liberty and slavery, human rights and gutter politics, idealism and hypocrisy. His words helped transform an uprising into a revolution. As president, he transformed a cluster of quarrelsome states along the Atlantic seaboard into a continental power.

The always provocative Christopher Hitchens describes Jefferson as the man who designed America. Hitchens is the author of a new appreciation of our third president that argues, among other things, that Jefferson was the principal architect of the only political revolution that retains any power to inspire. If you have questions about Jefferson as scientist, revolutionary, slave owner, visionary or as politician, our number is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. And our e-mail address is

Christopher Hitchens writes for Vanity Fair and The Atlantic, among other publications. His new book is part of the Eminent Lives series. It's called "Thomas Jefferson: Author of America." And Christopher Hitchens joins us here in Studio 3A.

Nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS (Author, "Thomas Jefferson: Author of America"; Vanity Fair): Very nice of you to invite me.

CONAN: It cannot have been very easy to immerse yourself in the life and works of a man who you say had absolutely no sense of humor.

Mr. HITCHENS: Gosh, I think that was the most depressing part, maybe the only really depressing or--Shall I say?--boring part of the enterprise, was to discover that he thought Laurence Sterne's "Tristam Shandy" was funny and kept on getting funnier and that he would read it aloud to his wife on those long evenings, and she'd read it to him back; both of them apparently convulsed with mirth. This was very lowering to the spirit.

The best description of him I've come across--of course, we don't have a portrait. We don't--well, we have portraits; we don't have a picture, a photograph. We don't have recordings and so forth. But reading Gore Vidal's "Burr," I got the impression that somehow, in the way that Vidal can do this, he had captured this rather humorless, rather ruthless, rather dry, foxy man.

CONAN: Hmm. We don't think of Thomas Jefferson--those expansive words about human rights--we don't think of him as a ruthless man.

Mr. HITCHENS: No, but he was. I mean, he would compromise on practically any of his principles. I mean, slavery is obviously the largest one, and I'm sure you're going to ask me about that later, but...

CONAN: Sure.

Mr. HITCHENS: ...whether or not the Constitution's original intent should always be observed--for example, the matter of the Louisiana Purchase, he totally trampled on all that. Compromised with Hamilton about the bank which he hated in order to have the capital in Washington, DC, effectively in Virginia--oh, I mean, it's one long record of contradiction. Of course, that's true of many politicians. The unifying theme, though, is that Jefferson would do anything to make the United States into a world power. He was a real nation builder, and he was absolutely focused always on that, I think, very pitiless about it. And I think you mentioned the Eastern seaboard in your introduction. The United States could well have ended up as being the equivalent for North America of what Chile is in the Southern Hemisphere, a long, thin country stuck between the ocean and the mountains, while others divvied up the rest. He's the one who made certain that that did not happen.

CONAN: He, among others--obviously, you're focusing on Thomas Jefferson, but Washington, among many others, played an important role in all of this. But we think of Jefferson first of all, though, almost as a philosopher coming out of the principals of the Enlightenment.

Mr. HITCHENS: Yes. By the way, that has something to do with his ruthlessness, too, in that I can't prove that he was an atheist, obviously, but a very important element in his makeup was a great contempt for organized religion and for established churches, and that had two effects. One, it caused him to write the beautifully done Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom, which I maintain is the embryo of the First Amendment to the Constitution in Philadelphia.

But when that discussion in Philadelphia was going on, he'd gone to Paris, where he was a tremendous enthusiast for the French Revolution, partly because of its extreme anti-clericalism, as well as anti-monarchism. And it's there that you get the ruthlessness in him. He wrote at one point to a very close friend--and these letters have been much disputed, but they're certainly authentic--that he'd rather have seen the whole Earth depopulated and left with only Adam and Eve to start again than to have seen the French Revolution be defeated by the forces of clergy and reaction. He was a real good hater and a good fighter.

CONAN: Hmm. That was in the context of his famous quote of, "The tree of liberty must be watered from time to time with the blood of patriots."

Mr. HITCHENS: Yes. Well, tyrants and patriots.

CONAN: Tyrants, excuse me. Yes.

Mr. HITCHENS: Yes. Many people--I forget now which it was that Timothy McVeigh had on his T-shirt when he was arrested.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HITCHENS: It may say `tyrants and patriots,' or it may just say `tyrants,' but Jefferson carefully said it would take the blood of both. I don't think the statement is original to him; it was made quite a lot by revolutionaries in those days. And the image of the tree of liberty certainly predates Thomas Paine, who made great use of it, who, by the way, was very often at Jefferson's elbow.

An honorable thing about Jefferson, I think, is that even when Thomas Paine, a great secularist and great rationalist, fell into--What shall we call it?--great disfavor in the United States and became an unpopular figure, having been a hero for the Revolution, Jefferson never abandoned him. All the others did. Washington did, Gouverneur Morris did, but Jefferson always stuck by his old revolutionary pal.

CONAN: Well, let's look on the other side of the ledger then, his friendship with Aaron Burr, the great political opportunist, the man who would do virtually anything, and not necessary to make the United States a great nation, but himself a great man.

Mr. HITCHENS: Absolutely. And Jefferson, when Burr got into trouble, said that he'd always known what an unreliable, opportunist, ruthless, selfish, corrupt guy he was. Which was quite something to say for someone with whom you jointly ran for the...

CONAN: For the presidency.

Mr. HITCHENS: I mean, what does it say about your choice of friends? I mean, this is the way in which one cannot say catch Jefferson out, but can detect in him a real willingness to use short-term tough methods, if he could be persuaded by his slightly humorless righteousness, that that long run was the right thing to do.

CONAN: And as vice president of the United States under George Washington, clearly working to undermine his boss.

Mr. HITCHENS: No question. I mean, things began to split then between people who supported the continuation of something like the English connection on a new basis and those who wanted the French Revolution to succeed and to defeat England, and Jefferson was definitely the leader of the French faction.

Talking, by the way, about that period and about vice presidents and presidents, if you want to feel a sort of tug of nostalgia or--no, not nostalgia, melancholy, look at who were the choices in the election of 1796, I must be talking about...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HITCHENS: ...Adams vs. Jefferson. You had your choices between two candidates. One was the chairman of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the other was the president of the American Society of Arts and Letters. I sometimes feel we've fallen off a little from that standard. Not only did the electorate have its choice, but in those days, whoever came second became vice president.

CONAN: So...

Mr. HITCHENS: So they could vote and did for both.

CONAN: Not so bad.

Mr. HITCHENS: Oh, dear, dear, if only we could find candidates like that these days.

CONAN: Our number, if you'd like to join our conversation with Christopher Hitchens about Thomas Jefferson, is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. E-mail us:

And let's go to Drew. Drew's with us from Wichita, Kansas.

DREW (Caller): Hey, good afternoon. Mr. Hitchens, I always have heard the phrase--I'd like your opinion on the general sentiment that we live in a nation that is of Jefferson's dream, but the actual world we live in is of Hamilton's design. What are your thoughts on that?

Mr. HITCHENS: Well, I think Jefferson used to wear the medals of his defeats rather--I mean, in other words, I think you're right, that the essential point of that excerpt is correct. Had Jefferson won the battle to prevent Hamilton forming a national bank and restoring American credit, we would have had a much harder time of becoming a nation, but Jefferson was able to use the measures that Hamilton had imposed for his own purposes. Jefferson would have opposed having a Navy of the strength that John Adams built and, indeed, did oppose all that kind of expenditure. But as soon as the Navy was built, he sent--Jefferson sent it as soon as he was elected president to crush the Barbary slave states of North Africa, who were kidnapping and enslaving hundreds of thousands of Americans and Europeans. Actually, unfortunately, it's the only slave trade he ever succeeded in putting down, but he did it with Adams' Navy. So, yes, it was the medals of his defeats to a considerable extent.

DREW: What...

Mr. HITCHENS: And, of course, the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the country, involved him flagrantly concealing from Congress what it had to know about using the power of the purse to bring this about.

DREW: That was always one of the things that has always been one of the great dichotomies, is that Jefferson is, you know, the icon of the individualist. The ultimate of what we hope for, I guess, in Americans is their individual liberty. But at the same time, so much of what he did--as you pointed out with some of the ruthlessness--is to use the tools at hand. How do we look at some of this juxtaposition and see, I guess, really the brilliance of the man?

Mr. HITCHENS: Well, it's interesting in that people think of Jefferson as being, as it were, the left of the Founding Fathers. And in my memory, in New York, the Marxist School, way back from the '30s--it also called itself the Jefferson School in New York. And many Marxists used to say that they were only Jeffersonians in a hurry. In a way, this is extraordinary, because Jefferson's concept of individual liberty was that of the free agrarian yeoman farmer living in almost Athenian proximity with his neighbors and cultivating the land. That was his vision of the ideal society. Whereas Hamilton is the one who says, `No, America's future is in the mercantile and the industrial and the financial, and only by this means will we become a thriving power.' So it is; it's a contradiction at the very opening stages of the American idea.

CONAN: And a root--you know, a...

Mr. HITCHENS: And I'm afraid to say--I'm sorry, it may be so obvious--excuse me...

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. HITCHENS: ...but it's almost too obvious to mention, but one can't leave it out. Everybody knows what the dark side of that agrarian tobacco economy was in Virginia and the Carolinas and Georgia. And we can't say that that hasn't stayed with us in its consequences to the present day.

DREW: Thank you so much.

Mr. HITCHENS: You're welcome.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Drew.

Christopher Hitchens' new book is "Thomas Jefferson: Author of America." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get another caller on the line. Tom is with us, Tom calling from Minneapolis.

TOM (Caller): Yes. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

TOM: I liked to hope that Jefferson gladly foresaw the eventual demise of slavery, but I've heard other people say that you can find racist attitudes towards blacks in his writings. And I wonder what's more accurate?

Mr. HITCHENS: Well, both are partly true. He was an abolitionist. What he writes in "Notes on the State of Virginia" about slavery is something really that is complete in itself. You don't need anymore for the abolitionist case. He not only says how appalling it is--that's to say the fate of the slaves themselves--but also how corrupting and brutalizing it is for those who inflict it. He has a very, very complete account of why it should go, and also he firmly says that one day it will.

As to racism, yes, he did speculate on whether or not Africans were an inferior species or different species, in fact, since he was living in pre-Darwinian times; only just. Did you know Abraham Lincoln was born on the same day as Charles Darwin, the very same day? An interesting fact. They were all just before--they couldn't see beyond that horizon at that stage. But he did say, even if that's true, even if it turns out that they're not quite as good as we are, that wouldn't license slavery. He was quite firm on that. And he said to white people, `If you think that, then any stupid person among you could be justifiably enslaved by the intelligent. Isn't that what you want?' The rednecks didn't quite know how to answer that point.

However, his view was that there should be emancipation, but that after emancipation, blacks couldn't continue to live among or with whites; he didn't think it was possible. So the condition for emancipation, he thought, was that slaves and their descendents would have to go back to Africa or be resettled in the Caribbean or in new settlements in Africa. And that is--we would call that racist, I think. Then there's the odd, of course, fact that he had a very long love affair with a woman who he owned, who he inherited from his father-in-law, who was his wife's half-sister, and produced several children by her, whose descendents have mainly been brought up on the white side of the color line. So in a strange way, his own patrimony disproves his own belief that there couldn't be coexistence between black and white Americans.

CONAN: Tom, thanks very much for the call.

TOM: Thank you very much. Fascinating.

CONAN: Interesting, yes, indeed.

Let me ask you about an episode in Jefferson's life. One of the important distinctions between him and many of the other leaders following the success of the Revolution. He did not serve in the Revolutionary Army. He was governor of Virginia throughout the war, and one of those governors tending to resist Washington's call for more money and more troops at the time. And there was an awkward incident right at the end. He'd removed the capital to Charlottesville near his home. He was then acting governor. His term had actually expired, but he was still acting governor, and appeared at least to have fled in the face of British troops.

Mr. HITCHENS: Well, he certainly fled, but I think the people wouldn't probably have blamed him just for that. He was unarmed and so was most of his entourage. They got enough warning of the arrival of the redcoats. There was a kind of Southern Paul Revere who made a dash through the night to say Colonel Tarleton's forces were coming. They just managed to get away.

It's not just the ignominy of the flight, though I think that weighed with him. It's that shortly after that, his term actually physically expired. I mean, he was term limited and, therefore, left the governorship without even prolonging it by a day. Now he may have been, being pedantically legal, saying, `I don't want to seem as if I'm using an emergency to prolong my governorship,' but to many, it looked as if he'd funked it, and the charge never left him and I think never stopped annoying him. And meanwhile, his great rival, Alexander Hamilton, had led a dashing charge at...

CONAN: Yorktown.

Mr. HITCHENS: ...Yorktown and had distinguished himself, covered himself with glory. I think he was forever eaten up a little bit by that, as any man who is ever accused of physical cowardice always is.

CONAN: One of the points you make at the end of the book--and I'm afraid we just have a little time left--is that Jefferson was obviously a very complicated man and helped design a very complicated country, that is--neither is a saint, neither is entirely a sinner.

Mr. HITCHENS: Absolutely right. He expresses all the contradictions of the Revolution and of the society at that time. I think what I would say was of enduring value for him was his insistence of separation of church and state, his willingness to take risks in expanding the size of the country and populating it, his essential optimism from a rather pessimistic man, and his belief in the Enlightenment. I think--and in science, and he was a tremendous scholar and librarian. We owe an enormous amount to him for the accumulation of knowledge. He was part of a tremendous revolution of physicists and scientists and people of medicine and chemistry, like Priestley in Philadelphia.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HITCHENS: These are wonderful moments in American history, and his refusal to cleanse us of the fatal stain--some people call it the original sin--of slavery is, obviously, the greatest thing to contribute to the other side of the scale.

CONAN: Thank you very much.

Mr. HITCHENS: Thanks for asking me.

CONAN: Christopher Hitchens' new book, "Thomas Jefferson: Author of America." He was kind enough to join us here in Studio 3A.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

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