In his brilliant and detailed study Lincoln at Gettysburg, Gary Wills shows how the “new birth of freedom” promised in Abraham Lincoln’s legendary address requires nothing less than a remaking of the American Revolution by infusing the Constitution with values found in the Declaration of Independence—reconnecting America’s moral foundation to its legal framework.
Lincoln is here not only to sweeten the air of Gettysburg, but to clear the infected atmosphere of American history itself, tainted with official sins and inherited guilt. He would cleanse the Constitution….He altered the document from within, by appeal from its letter to the spirit…
It is impossible to understand the life and legacy of Thomas Jefferson, that cornerstone of America’s moral foundation, without grappling with the seeming paradox that his life’s work both helped to cause, and provided a solution for, this infected atmosphere.
The latest book from Christopher Hitchens, a slender biography entitled Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, draws a provocative portrait of Virginia’s favorite son, showing Jefferson in all of his brilliance as well as his baffling contradictions. Hitchens is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair whose work regularly appears in The Atlantic, Slate, Harpers and elsewhere; and he is a Visiting Professor of Liberal Studies at New School University in New York (in the interest of disclosure, I was a member of the first class he taught there in 1998). As an erudite student of political philosophy, Hitchens is well suited to write an essay that is neither hagiography nor hatchet job, but rather a nuanced study of a monumental and contradictory personality.
In his contradictions, Thomas Jefferson can be said to embody the character of the United States itself:
The truth is that America has committed gross wrongs and crimes, as well as upheld great values and principles….It has an imperial record as well as an isolationist one. It has a secular constitution but a heavily religious and pietistic nature. Jefferson is one of the few figures in our history whose absence simply cannot be imagined…
As author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson “allied the plain language of Thomas Paine to the loftier expositions of John Locke…” and in doing so, he “radicalized Locke by grounding human equality on the observable facts of nature and the common human condition.” The radical idealism of the Declaration leads directly to the greatest of Jefferson’s incongruities.
It is a well known fact that Jefferson’s original draft contained a strong condemnation of slavery—a paragraph that was excised in committee. In theory, Jefferson understood the horrors of slavery and often worked toward ending that peculiar institution. In practice, of course, the third president of the republic was a slaveholder himself who never once freed any of his slaves—that is, except for the children of Sally Hemmings, and then only because he was their father.
Hitchens does not shy away from the Hemmings question like so many other biographers, and he does not attempt to explain away or justify Jefferson’s attitudes toward slavery. His inconsistencies on this question, rather, are essential to any understanding of the man.
Jefferson is depicted as a brilliant but stubborn man—prone to false modesty, incapable of forgetting a slight and adept at turning animosity to his advantage. He is, of course, best remembered as an icon (though Jefferson would detest the word) of the Enlightenment; author of American democracy and inspiration to the philosophes of 1789. Hitchens shows how Jefferson, as George Washington’s Secretary of State, used his ties with Jacobin France as a buffer against his enemies Alexander Hamilton and John Adams whom he felt were too close to the Crown, but ended up like one of the “starry-eyed fellow travelers” who were undeterred by Stalin’s show trials and refused to disbelieve in the god that failed.
Jefferson’s career belies F. Scott Fitzgerald’s oft-repeated line that there are no second acts in American lives. He was able to weather this storm, as he had the disaster of the Virginia governorship before it, biding his time and waiting for the advantage to swing back his way. Jefferson’s political saga suggests a new definition of genius: the ability to make opportunity appear to be destiny.
His moment to rise again came in the 1800 presidential election, in which, Hitchens wistfully notes, the “electors were offered a choice between the president of the American Philosophical Society and the founder of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.” Jefferson won a very tightly contested race with Aaron Burr, and in doing so, irrevocably changed the course of American history.
Of Jefferson’s presidency, Hitchens says, “the record as it comes down to us makes it possible to state that without Thomas Jefferson as president, it is in the highest degree improbable that the United States would exist as we know it today, or even as it was a century ago.” In his first term, with the Barbary Wars, the Louisiana Purchase and the Louis and Clark expedition, Jefferson solidified American independence and increased the young nation’s prestige and power, presaged the expansion of the Union and Manifest Destiny, and, perhaps most importantly, helped set in motion a tragedy that would not play out until 1865 at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives.
In his waning years, Jefferson retired to Virginia, to his farm and to his slaves. He sided with the Southern slaveholders in the debate over the Missouri Compromise (which Hitchens calls “a child of the Louisiana Purchase”). A private 1826 letter made public after Jefferson’s death raised the specter of secession and “helped create the moral basis for the ‘state’s rights’ ideology of John Calhoun.”
Always aware of slavery’s stain, but afraid of its alternatives, Jefferson ultimately preferred to defer the question to the next generation. In doing so, he nearly helped to destroy the America that he had literally authored into existence in 1776. Abraham Lincoln’s bold act was to embrace the ideology in Jefferson’s words and to exhibit the moral courage to follow the meaning of “all men are created equal” to its inevitable conclusion. According to Gary Wills, through the Gettysburg Address (and posthumously, with the adoption of the 13th and 14th Amendments), Lincoln was able, with Jeffersonian ideals, to redeem the “recalcitrant stuff of that legal compromise,” enshrining equality in the Constitution and giving it the force of law.