America for Export: Hitchens on Thomas Jefferson

I think Christopher Hitchens is slipping.

That I came to his new book, Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, expecting a “line” is surely a sign that he is losing his independence. While he remains a “contrarian” voice, his contrariness is becoming more predictable and is almost taking on the flavor of a party line. In sum, I find less surprises from Hitchens anymore. And it’s all because he seems to almost biologically recoil from anything remotely religious, especially “Islamo-fascism” (as he puts it)–though he seems less averse to the versions of Christian fasicism that traffic under the banner of “compassionate conservatism.”

Of course, the conjunction of Hitchens and Jefferson warrants a reading, and readers will find Hitchens willing to paint an honest portrait of a fascinating figure. But despite his criticism of longstanding hagiographies, one gets a sense that Jefferson is let off the hook a bit too quickly on a few points. Indeed, having just finished Hitchens’ Why Orwell Matters, I was surprised at the degree to which Hitchens was more suspicious and iconoclastic with respect to Orwell and more inclined to charitable, benefit-of-the-doubt interpretations when it came Jefferson (particularly on matters of slavery–if Jefferson “half-abominated” slavery, did he not also half-embrace it? One wonders if the latter significantly cancels out the rhetoric of the former). This seems especially true after having just emerged from Gore Vidal’s less flattering account of Jefferson through the eyes of Aaron Burr (in Burr).

Hitchens’ charity toward Jefferson stems, I would suggest, from a kind of apologetic project. As becomes clear in the book, Hitchens is looking to this “author” of America as a historical validation of his own endorsement of the Bush administration’s unilateralism and neo-conservative foreign policy. This is coupled with Hitchens’ sympathy with Jefferson’s antipathy to institutional religion of any stripe. Both of these are combined in the opening pages where Hitchens notes that Jefferson “trenchantly restated the view that the American Revolution was founded on universal principles, and was thus emphatically for export. He laid renewed stress on the importance of science and innovation as the spur of Enlightenment, and scornfully contrasted this with more faith and credulity” (p. 3). That, in a nutshell, is the gist of why Jefferson matters today. Thus he ends on the same note (pp. 187-188).

This dual emphasis on exportation of the American experiment and anti-religious sentiment is crystallized in Hitchens’ enlightening analysis of an oft-overlooked episode in American (or Western) history: The Barbary Wars. Their re-description today is charged with a sense of repetition: the scene involves rogue ‘nations’ (Algiers, Morocco, Tripoli) controlled by “Muslim autocracies” terrorizing the coasts and shipping lanes of Europe and, increasingly, the young American Republic. (Hitchens especially highlights the Barbary appeals to the Koran and what amounts to sharia law.) In the face of Barbary barbarism, Thomas Jefferson emerges (in Hitchens’ tale) as the, well, ‘resolute’ cowboy who refuses tribute and commands the outfitting of a naval squadron. Faced with a Saddam-like nuisance in Yusuf Karamanli, Jefferson “coolly decided to take this latent delcaration of war at face value. He secured agreement from his cabinet on the dispatch of a squadron, and further determined not to trouble Congress with the matter” (p. 133). In short, Jefferson’s decision was unilateral even from a domestic perspective (and quite likely illegal), but that all receives a wink and a nod from Mr. Hitchens because of the spectacular results: “Over the next four years, the Barbary coast was effectively ‘pacified’ by a unilateral American expedition. […] In essence Jefferson’s policy was an unalloyed triumph for peace, and the freedom of trade from blackmail, through the exercise of planned force” (133, 135). One almost wonders if Jefferson landed on the deck of the USS Constitution with a banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished.”

It’s hard to tell whether we’re getting Thomas Jefferson in George Bush’s image, or vice versa. In either case, it seems that the price of Hitchens’ being “right” about America’s various current wars involves a loss of his independent streak–and hagiography by other means.