James Atlas, the bow-tied editor in charge of HarperCollins’s “Eminent Lives” series of short biographies, is not known for his sense of humor, but in publishing Paul Johnson and Christopher Hitchens back to back, he’s revealed a mischievous streak that had previously gone unnoticed. Johnson, the New Statesman editor turned right-wing author of such bestsellers as Modern Times (1983), A History of the Jews (1987) and Intellectuals (1988), once denounced Hitchens for launching an attack on Mother Teresa that he termed “loathsome and mendacious.” Hitchens, the ex-Trotskyist turned supporter of Bush’s invasion of Iraq, has attacked Johnson over the years as not only a drunken, wife-beating, racist snob but a drunken, wife-beating, racist snob who, when not assailing the morals of others, has been known to enjoy a good spanking at the hands of his friendly local dominatrix. In short, not the sort of couple you’d expect to find sharing a candle-lit dinner at some quiet bistro. Yet here they are, together at last, with nearly simultaneous bios of two of America’s most sainted founders. Not altogether surprisingly, given Hitchens’s recent turn to the right, they even end up agreeing on a thing or two, most notably America’s role as a beacon of morality in a troubled world.
One cheers America from the right, the other from the center-left. Johnson’s book, unquestionably the duller of the two, is pretty much what you’d expect from a writer beloved of Norman Podhoretz, Newt Gingrich and Oliver North—worshipful, patriotic, eager to portray the first President as the ideological forerunner of today’s GOP. Washington, Johnson writes, imbued the United States with the sort of sterling-silver principles that have enabled it “to survive a near-fatal Civil War, to become the world’s largest economy” and “to take in the poor of the planet and turn them into the richest people in history.” The upshot at the dawn of a new millennium is that America is now “set to play the leading part in making the earth secure and democratic.” If you approve of one George W., apparently, you must approve of the other; and if you see the invasion of Iraq as anything less than a war for democracy, then you must oppose Washington and everything he stood for. “Washington played, and still plays, a unique role,” writes Johnson, “both as founding father and exemplar of moderation and wisdom”–two qualities that opponents of American imperialism apparently lack.
This is absurd, of course, but it is also unfair to Washington, who is less of a plaster saint and therefore more interesting than his biographer makes him out to be. For example, Johnson sneeringly dismisses suggestions that his subject was anything other than exemplary with regard to slavery and race. “Thousands of blacks served under Washington in the war,” he states, “and he was deeply impressed by their dogged courage and loyalty, and by the refusal of the great majority to take advantage of British offers to free them if they deserted.” Besides begging the question of why musket-toting slaves would not make a break for freedom as soon as they had the opportunity, this statement is seriously misleading. Eventually, Washington did come to appreciate the performance of black soldiers under his command. But he opposed the use of slaves, as Henry Wiencek shows in his monumental 2003 study An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, and even tried for a time to bar free blacks from the ranks as well. He also opposed a plan to offer slaves their freedom in return for military service–possibly, Wiencek argues, because he was preparing to sell a group of his own slaves at the time and was worried that such an act might drive down the price.
Johnson writes that Washington clothed his slaves well, “drew the line at hunting fugitive slaves with dogs” and “refused to punish them by whipping except in extreme cases” (whatever that might mean). The truth is once again very different. According to Wiencek–whom Johnson cites in his bibliography but otherwise ignores–“Washington’s own records indicate that the slaves were miserably clothed,” while those who had merely fallen short in their work were threatened with whippings. As for dogs, Wiencek says, they were employed on at least one occasion in 1773.
“Washington had no illusions about black slaves,” Johnson adds, “whom he thought poor workers except under the closest supervision.” Presumably, his slaves had no illusions about their owner, either, who engaged in no productive labor other than supervising his captive workforce.
This is not to say that Washington did not realize slavery was leading to disaster. But given the political economy of which he was a beneficiary, whatever steps he took to deal with the problem were bound to be halting and contradictory. He had to discipline his slaves in order to make a profit, and he had to continually acquire more “livestock,” as Johnson calls the human beings under his control, so as to insure his place in the top rungs of Virginia society. At one point, in an apparent effort to show that he is not a complete troglodyte, Johnson chides Washington for failing to see to it that an antislavery provision was incorporated into the Bill of Rights. But the Bill of Rights would never have been ratified if he had. With plantation slaves flocking to British lines, the Revolutionary War left the South more racially polarized than ever before, while the Constitution surrounded slavery with so many legal safeguards as to render it all but impregnable. Washington was nearly as much a prisoner of the slave system as the slaves themselves.
Johnson misses the boat in other ways, too. He describes Washington as someone born to greatness, gushing about his commanding presence, his magnificent physique, graceful dancing abilities, “impeccable English ancestry” and so forth. But what he overlooks is Washington’s status as an outsider. He was the product of an intensely provincial society, a bit like Galway, Ireland, or the Outer Hebrides, only many times more remote. This explains his severe self-discipline, his almost masklike reserve and the curious maxims he was continually copying into his notebook as a youth, things like “Kill no vermin, as fleas, lice, ticks etc. in the sight of others” and “Sing not to yourself with a humming noise nor drum with your fingers and feet.” A young gentleman coming of age in London or Paris would have had an abundance of real-life models on which to base his behavior. But Washington, growing up 3,000 miles away on the edge of the wilderness, did not, which is why he had to make do with advice books and plays like Addison’s Cato, the tale of a reluctant Roman general who longs for the simple farming life. They were among the few sources he had for information on how to comport himself, so he made the most of them.
Provincialism was not entirely a weakness, however. As with the Corsican-born Napoleon, growing up on the periphery gave him a certain perspective that others lacked, a better appreciation of the big picture. This is what explains Washington’s growing sense of nationalism and the strategic vision that allowed him to turn his enemy’s weaknesses to his own advantage. Johnson writes that Washington “fought the war over nine of the thirteen states and got to know large parts of the country with painful intimacy but also with a glowing regard for their potential.” True, but it was his sense of their potential that led him to take on the revolutionary command in the first place. Johnson, moreover, gives little idea of the lengths he was prepared to go to in carrying out his ideas. Not only did Washington ally himself throughout the 1790s with Alexander Hamilton, the brilliant young Northern dynamo whose efforts at fostering industrial growth directly threatened the interests of the Southern plantocracy, but when war with Napoleonic France seemed imminent in 1798, he insisted that Hamilton be among those in charge of military defense. This was tantamount to a declaration of war on his fellow landowners. If Bonaparte had invaded, he would most likely have done so via Virginia, where he probably could have counted on a warm welcome from planters who were heavily pro-French. By putting Hamilton in command, Washington was preparing to unleash the slaveholding South’s bête noire on his own state. Johnson describes Washington as a man who united his country but gives no indication that he was also prepared to divide it.
Hitchens is a much more sophisticated political observer, with a juicier topic to boot. Unlike Washington, Jefferson did not shield himself behind an impenetrable visage. He was not the least bit opaque. Rather, he comes across as a clear candidate for the psychiatrist’s couch: self-pitying, twitchily neurotic, all but crippled by his gaping psychological wounds. Hitchens tries hard to be fair but continually stumbles across yawning contradictions and outright lies that cause him to throw up his hands in despair. During the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, for instance, he notes that Jefferson tried to insert a paragraph charging George III with first foisting slavery on a reluctant South and then encouraging blacks “to purchase that liberty of which he had deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he also obtruded them.” Slavery’s real victims, apparently, were not the black people groaning under the lash but the white people applying it. When the paragraph was deleted, Jefferson blamed “Georgia and South Carolina, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves,” and then “our northern brethren,” who “had very few slaves themselves, yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.” It seems never to have occurred to him that it was cut simply because it was absurd and would have made the Continental Congress a laughingstock.
Similarly, when Daniel Shays led a rebellion by indebted farmers in western Massachusetts in 1786-87, Jefferson was the picture of revolutionary insouciance. “The tree of liberty must from time to time be refreshed with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” he offered (the same words, by the way, that Timothy McVeigh had emblazoned on his T-shirt when arrested after the Oklahoma City bombing). But when slaves rose in revolt in Saint-Domingue (now known as Haiti) in 1791, Jefferson was beside himself with fear: “Never was so deep a tragedy presented to the feelings of man…. It is high time we should foresee the bloody scenes which our children certainly, and possibly ourselves (south of the Potomac) will have to wade through, & try to avert them.” Revolutionary violence was no big deal as long as the revolutionaries in question were white. Laying out his plans years later for the University of Virginia, Jefferson vowed that it would “be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth where it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” At the same time, Hitchens observes, he made sure that antislavery ideas would be kept at a distance.
One could go on, and indeed Hitchens does for close to 200 pages. His book is a sign of a growing re-evaluation of the Founders that is itself a delayed response to the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and ’60s. For years, left-leaning intellectuals have viewed the Revolutionary period through simple-minded populist lenses, with Hamilton as the leader of (hiss! boo!) finance capital and Jefferson as the champion of (hooray!) the common man. But we now know that the only common people Jefferson championed were rural whites, while his ultimate loyalty was to the slaveholding elite. He was a provincial, but rather than rising above it à la Washington, he surrendered to it completely. To quote Hitchens, he was a devotee of “Virginia First” who extolled states’ rights, defined democracy in exclusively local terms and disparaged national consolidation as inherently tyrannical.
One of the strengths of Hitchens’s book is the balanced view he takes of Hamilton. Although he describes Hamilton as “conservative,” a well-nigh meaningless term in this context, he clearly prefers his “mercantile modernism” to Jefferson’s reactionary agrarianism. America faced three compelling tasks in the 1790s: It had to strengthen the national government and hence national democracy; it had to do something about what Henry Adams would later call “a cancerous disease of negro slavery”; and it had to modernize the economy. Hamilton was the only one with even a remote idea of how to advance on all three fronts, while Jefferson was an obstacle to each. Jefferson’s program would have destroyed the new republic if implemented in full. In fact, it nearly did destroy it when Southern firebrands carried his ideas to their logical conclusion in 1860-65.
“It may still be argued,” Hitchens observes, “that Jefferson was a Dixiecrat avant la lettre.” His 1799 Kentucky Resolution calling on the states to nullify federal laws they considered unconstitutional became “the great political prop of the pro-slavery faction,” while his secessionist mutterings in response to a series of domestic improvements proposed by John Quincy Adams in 1826 “helped create the moral basis for the states’ rights ideology of John Calhoun.” Hitchens gives credit where credit is due. Jefferson took vigorous action to punish the Barbary corsairs of North Africa who had taken Americans prisoner and were holding them for ransom, although he notes that Jefferson was able to do so only because the Federalists had overridden his and James Madison’s objections in creating a small but formidable navy in the 1790s. The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 was also a triumph. Yet here, too, Hitchens observes that in devising a rationale for such an unprecedented exercise in federal power, Jefferson, the original strict constructionist, had to resort to the sort of fancy constitutional footwork that he had previously denounced.
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.