Thoughts on books, often interpreted through the high-brow prism of cartoon (read: Archer) references. Wait! I had something for this...
If anyone could cram Thomas Jefferson into under 200 pages it would be Christopher Hitchens (and even for him it’s a stretch). Yet, from the Barbary Pirates to Sally Hansen, the Louisiana Purchase and TJ’s oft-times nefarious VP, he manages to fit in quite a bit. While Hitchens is often the one to lay the smack down on those whose slates appear too clean (e.g. Mother Theresa), in this work he addresses Jefferson’s shortcomings as well as the overzealous accusations thrown his way over the past few years. Hitch borrows from Whitman and explains how Thomas Jefferson truly “contained multitudes.”
With respect to “the slave question,” Hitchens certainly points out Jefferson’s oftentimes contradictory positions. In Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln describes a duality that bears marked resemblance to Jefferson:
“The public mind seizes quickly upon theoretical schemes for relief,” he pointedly told Frances, who had long yearned for a presidential proclamation against slavery, “but is slow in the adoption of the practical means necessary to give them effect.”
I think the basic assumption is well stated by David Sedaris in his hilarious story, “6 to 8 Black Men,” describing the Dutch Christmas customs he jokes*:
The six to eight black men were characterized as personal slaves until the mid-1950s, when the political climate changed and it was decided that instead of being slaves they were just good friends. I think that history has proved that something usually comes between slavery and friendship, a period of time marked not by cookies and quiet hours beside the fire but by bloodshed and mutual hostility.
I give this not as an excuse for Jefferson’s flagrant hypocrisy and inaction with regard to slavery (including going against the expressed will of a friend that, when he was deceased, Jefferson should free his slaves). However, it does seem to capture some of the ésprit behind TJ’s constant vacillation.
This book was too short to be a meaningful Jefferson biography, but it was an enjoyable, classic Hitchens piece rife with his sardonic humor and modern parallels.
* Part of Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim