“Enlightenment,” Immanuel Kant said, “is the triumph of the human being over his self-imposed immaturity.”
The American Revolution was not the first revolution with roots in the Enlightenment. In the 1760s, Denmark had gone through a revolutionary transformation, but eventually the events were reversed. In due course, the ideas would return to the Scandinavian kingdom, but by then the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers were well underway to become not only history, but also legend.
It can, for obvious reasons, be difficult for our time to view the American revolutionaries as mere humans, but that is what they were – wonderfully complex human beings with great minds and determination, frailties and massive contradictions.
Christopher Hitchens’ Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, is an essay on a man whose absence in our history “simply cannot be imagined.” The man doubled the size of the U.S through the Louisiana Purchase; he was the initiator of The Lewis and Clark Expedition – the Apollo program of its day – and he helped put an end to the enslavement of Americans and Europeans by “Muslim autocracies on the north-west coast of Africa.” (It has been calculated that between 1530 and 1780, a million and a quarter Europeans were kidnapped and enslaved because of the notions of the rulers of Algiers, Morocco, Tripoli, and Tunis, so, yes, it was a bit of a quandary.)
And these examples are, of course, just a small part of Jefferson’s immense list of life-time achievements. But Hitchen’s – known for his keen, critical eye – is not blinded by the light of Jefferson. He writes about the man, not the legend, and he covers a lot of ground in 188 pages. “[I]t would be lazy or obvious,” Hitchens states, “to say that he contained contradictions or paradoxes. This is true of everybody, and of everything. It would be infinitely more surprising to strike upon a historic figure, or indeed a nation, that was not subject to this law. Jefferson did not embody contradiction. Jefferson was a contradiction, and this will be found at every step of the narrative that goes to make up his life.”
Hitchens’ book is a sharp account of Jefferson, written in a prose that is clear and easy to grasp. Thomas Jefferson, a man who believed in the redeeming qualities of education and discovery, may have saluted it.