Thomas Jefferson, Author of America – Christopher Hitchens

Hitchens, Jefferson and I all share a birthday (13 April – but in Jefferson’s case you have to re-jig it for the Gregorian/Julian calendar shift. I wonder if TJ celebrated his birthday on 2nd April or 13th, after 1758?).So far, I’ve read two of the books in the series Eminent Lives – the other being the Shakespeare one by Bill Bryson, and neither disappoints.

Hitchens tackles his subject with obvious gusto and his usual flair for crap cutting. It’s evident from his other work that Jefferson holds a particular fascination for him, and as a contrarian Englishman well embedded in the core of American politics, he’s superbly well placed to do the job. Oh, and the fact that he’s a sparkling writer and a cunning polemicist helps.

So it’s a slim, gripping work which covers some of the most fascinating times in American history, from battles with the English, the slave trade, the Louisiana purchase, the French Revolution and the politicking which led to the formation of the Union (and the fascinating development of the constitution, and especially the separation of church and state).

Oh, and the truth behind the Sally Hemings affair.

Unfortunately (and I don’t blame Hitchens for this) there’s simply too much fascinating material to cram into a very small book, so there is necessarily a sense of over-compression. But if it leads you wanting to read more, that’s not a bad thing. Particularly, it fails to mention anything about Jefferson’s role as (first) comptroller of the US Patent office, which was an impressive job for someone vehemently anti-patent. Still, Hitchens didn’t know about my obsession with intellectual monopolies when he put pen to paper, so I’ll forgive him.

Still, Chris, thanks for mentioning on several occasions, while I still had 3 books to go, that Tristram Shandy’s a dreadful, unfunny book and the fact that he keeps on referring to it in his correspondence is evidence of Jefferson’s humour vacuum. We’ll have to disagree on that point (well, ok, I’ll grant you books 6,7,8 and 9), even if we do share a birthday.

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