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Alan Abrams

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Thomas Jefferson: Author of America
By Alan Abrams   
Rated "PG" by the Author.
Last edited: Tuesday, April 03, 2012
Posted: Tuesday, April 03, 2012

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Jefferson, Genius, and Morality

on Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, by Christopher Hitchens

In this thin volume, Hitchens purpose is to explore the contradictory nature of Jefferson's ideals and his actions--most significantly, his moral revulsion of slavery--but his relentless support of the policies that sanctioned it--also--his opposition in principle to a strong, central government--in contrast to his almost peremptory actions as chief executive. Other reviewers have discussed this in detail, so I won't elaborate further. Hitchens--who otherwise seems to have little patience with hypocrisy--is rather tender in his treatment of Jefferson. But he ultimately condemns Jefferson for his capitulation to slavery, and suggests that he bears great responsibility for the ensuing woes the nation was to endure--"...another reminder that history is tragedy and not a morality tale."

I picked this book up in the museum shop at the edge of Monticello. For its limited scope--little more than a critical sketch of the man's eventful life and prodigious accomplishments--it is still satisfactory and satisfying. I was seeking something provocative when I saw Hitchens' name on the cover, and I got it.

Nevertheless, Hitchens stops somewhat short of a more incisive study--of the nature of genius, and its relationship to profound contradiction. Was Jefferson merely the victim of a weakness of character, or perhaps--was it necessary for Jefferson to develop and inhabit a position or a philosophy, before he could fully understand it and assimilate it--so that he could ultimately act in its reverse, when the circumstances demanded it? Hitchens stops short of peeling that onion.



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