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Reviewed by:
  • Thomas Jefferson Author of America
  • Brian Steele (bio)
Thomas Jefferson Author of America By Christopher HitchensHarperCollins Publishers, 2005188 pp. Cloth, $19.95

Christopher Hitchens, whose recent drift from the left has caused no little anxiety among former comrades, has used the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, among other venues, to retroactively (or is it simply anachronistically?) lay Thomas Jefferson's blessing on the Bush Doctrine of preemptive war for the purposes of exporting democracy. Now, claiming Jefferson's imprimatur is nothing new in American history, but only a tortured reasoning could see in Jefferson's Mediterranean policy to protect American trade against "state"-sponsored pirates a precise analogy for Mr. Bush's advocacy of "regime change," which flies in the face of everything we know about Jefferson's insistence on recognition of de facto regimes and about his perhaps less admirable belief that very few people on earth were capable of handling liberty in the way Americans could.

Before the French Revolution, which he eventually came to see as a sort of sequel to the American one, Jefferson thought a constitutional monarchy was the best the French people could manage without falling into that abyss "licentiousness." Years of despotism had created a people "not yet ripe for receiving the blessings to which they are entitled." Jefferson later thought the same about the South American republics that were fighting for independence from Spain. Many of them "must end in military despotisms" and none would replicate the U.S. experiment. "History," he told Alexander von Humboldt, "furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government." Force alone, then, [End Page 113] could not maintain liberty where the people had been "ground to powder" by tyrannical governments. Jefferson, to be sure, hoped that the "ball of liberty" would one day roll over the entire earth, and he defended the right of "every people" to "establish what form of government they please and change it as they please" (what he called the "catholic principle of republicanism"). But a crusade to destroy a de facto regime in hope of creating a lasting republic formed no part of Jefferson's conception of political reality.

So it might seem reasonable to dismiss Hitchens' new biography of Jefferson as a simplistic attempt to provide justification for the present foreign policy. But this would be a mistake. For one thing, the Jefferson Hitchens offers us here is not unnaturally twisted into an anticipator of the Bush Doctrine. Though he occasionally blurs the distinction between the "extension of democracy" and its attempted export by force, his suggestion that Jefferson's principles were universal and "thus emphatically for export" is reasonable, and he never pushes this theme dogmatically. But more importantly, unlike a veritable host of Jefferson scholars in recent years, Hitchens pays less attention to Jefferson's inconsistencies or contradictions than to what gave Jefferson's public life a measure of coherence: consistent concern for national survival.

Hitchens, in short, re-directs our attention to the primacy of nation in Jefferson's thought and to the ways in which Jefferson "was coldly willing to sacrifice all principles and all allegiances to the one great aim of making America permanent". Hitchens rarely engages the historiography explicitly, but here we have a hint of a reversal of the way Jefferson is typically understood.

It is in the chapters on Jefferson's presidency (the strongest in the book) that Hitchens best exploits this argument, though it is clear in his discussion of the 1790s as well. Here, Hitchens succinctly interprets Jefferson's purchase of Louisiana, his sponsorship of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and his use of military force to protect American trade (and sovereignty) in the Mediterranean from what Hitchens calls the "Barbary terror." In each case, Hitchens argues, Jefferson concentrated with "astonishing single-mindedness" on "nation-building." Even the disappointments of the second term, Hitchens implies, were failed attempts to strengthen the nation's institutions and international standing. Hitchens seems to appreciate the embargo in much the way Jefferson himself did: as a "high-minded . . . and impartial" alternative to war that might have worked if Americans hadn't run out of patience.



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pp. 113-115
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