The Heritage Foundation
It is good of Hitchens to point all this out. Unfortunately, as a recent crossover to the prowar side, he can't resist cozying up to his new friends inside the Beltway or getting in a dig at his former friends on the left. He engages in a bit of Muslim-bashing with regard to the arrogant Yusuf Karamanli, the hostage-taking ruler of the Barbary Coast whose comeuppance at the hands of US forces is celebrated in the opening line of the Marine Corps Hymn ("From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli..."). He also engages in de rigueur French-bashing, huffing and puffing that our revolutionaries were so much better than those "fanatical and pitiless Jacobins" who were increasingly influential in Paris after 1789. Where "the French Revolution destroyed itself in Jefferson's own lifetime," he writes, and more "revolutions have destroyed themselves and others" in the years since, the American Revolution "remains the only revolution that still retains any power to inspire."
Somewhere, Hitchens's erstwhile adversary Paul Johnson must be nodding in approval. But the rest of us can only cover our faces in embarrassment. Not only was the American Revolution a popgun in comparison to the thermonuclear bomb that was the French, but--brace yourself, Christopher--the republic to which it gave rise is now viewed as somewhat less than inspiring by roughly 95 percent of the world's population. Among other things, Hitchens's newfound patriotism prevents him from coming to grips with his subject's legacy. It is one thing to take Jefferson apart, but quite another to put the pieces back together in such a way as to explain who he was, how he got that way and what his contorted personality means for the nation he did so much to shape. The task is not all that hard. Jefferson's conservatism, his agrarianism and his racism are all things that he passed on to the nation as a whole. So is his enormous capacity for self-pity (something Hitchens touches on repeatedly), his blindness to his own faults, his total incapacity for anything approaching self-criticism, his self-righteousness, his resentment of the world at large. These are qualities that have never been more evident in the United States than in the years since 9/11. If Jefferson truly "designed" or "authored" America, as Hitchens maintains, then the whole world is now wrestling with the results.
This is the point Hitchens could have made. Instead, he abruptly winds up his study with the fatuous statement that Jefferson's "capitulation to a slave power that he half-abominated...is another reminder that history is a tragedy and not a morality tale." History certainly has no shortage of tragic moments. But it is a tragedy as a whole only for the right, which believes that attempts at collective self-amelioration are doomed to failure. For the rest of us, it is a morality tale --a complicated one filled with ironies and contradictions, but a morality tale nonetheless. This is why Jefferson's story is so interesting: It offers an object lesson in how not to make one's way through the moral thicket of race, democracy and national development. The old Hitchens could be shallow and lazy, but he wouldn't have ignored the obvious conclusion about Jefferson's troubling political impact. The new Hitchens prefers to maintain a discreet silence. A dose of reality is the last thing the faith-based community in Washington apparently needs.