There is a tendency to think of Thomas Jefferson either as a brilliant father of our country or the scandalous lover of a mixed-race mistress.
Christopher Hitchens has little patience with either view in this slender, witty book, and rightly so. The former renders Jefferson as bloodless as his profile on a nickel. The latter is more about advancing revisionism than understanding a president.
Hitchens, the author of 12 books and a contributor to The Atlantic and Vanity Fair, assuredly has his own agenda as one of the more opinionated writers on the current literary stage. But as a journalist, he brings balance and reason to yet another culture war squabble over the life and times of one of America's defining historic figures.
In Hitchens's view, Jefferson was as flawed as anyone else. He should not be adored or condemned but understood as both impressive and unimpressive -- with the exception of his tolerance of slavery, of which Hitchens is unforgiving.
To call Jefferson contradictory would be ''lazy or obvious," Hitchens writes. ''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 crafts that narrative conversationally, the mark of a storyteller more than of a scholar. He traces Jefferson through the pivotal events of the day, from the Revolutionary War and Jefferson's Republican opposition to Federalism in the evolution of American government, to his presidency and dealings with England and France as America expanded west, to his later years, as slavery whispered of war.
Jefferson emerges as a tormented man, from his ''affected indifference" as a youth to his aristocratic pedigree, the secrecy of his affair with Sally Hemings, and his later years as a slaveholding champion of individual rights who felt slaves should be freed but expatriated to Africa.
Jefferson, Hitchens concludes, ''had, in the course of a long political life, contained sufficient 'multitudes,' in Walt Whitman's phrase, to contradict himself with scope and generosity. He ranged himself on many sides of many questions, from government interference with the press to congressional authority over expenditures, and from the maintenance of permanent armed forces to the persistence in foreign entanglements.
''In a large number of these cases, his justification for reversal or inconsistency was the higher cause of the growth and strength of the American Republic. In a smaller number, it is not difficult to read the promptings of personal self-interest. At the end, his capitulation to a slave power that he half-abominated was both self-interested and a menace to the survival of the republic. This surrender, by a man of the Enlightenment and a man of truly revolutionary and democratic temperament, is another reminder that history is a tragedy and not a morality tale."