Thomas Jefferson
RB Bernstein, 2003
Thomas Jefferson
Christopher Hitchens, 2005

Before I read these short biographies, I had learned the usual stuff about Thomas Jefferson:

  • He and Alexander Hamilton initially represented the libertarian and authoritarian poles of American politics. Hamilton wanted the president to serve for life, radically centralized the economy, and tried to get himself installed as the head of an imperialist army; Jefferson envisioned the country as a loose confederation of small farms, pioneered the doctrines of states' rights and nullification, and cheered on the insurrections that Hamilton sought to crush. At least, he did so right up until he became president himself. Then Jefferson did an about-face and had the executive branch take on all sorts of new powers: buying vast tracts of land, conducting military strikes on foreign continents, chartering surveying expeditions. Over and over in American history we see libertarianism revealed as the frustrated despot's attempt to fashion a political philosophy out of sour grapes. Jefferson wasn't even the first president to discover that government power seems a lot less odious when you're the one in the big chair.

  • Jefferson was the first, and possibly only, geek president. John Adams was erudite, but Jefferson went beyond the usual grounding in Greek and Latin. He tried to keep up with science, and was particularly interested in archaeology, going on digs, collecting fossils, and debating with leading naturalists. (When George Washington went on surveying expeditions, he was looking for land to add to his estate; when Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark to reconnoiter the Louisiana Purchase, he was more interested in any cool rocks and plants they might find.) He was big into architecture, and his estate Monticello was less a home than a gigantic toy which he outfitted with all sorts of gadgets of his own devising: dumbwaiters, swivel chairs, riggings for pens that made copies of the letters he wrote. He literally wrote the book on the state of Virginia and then compiled his own edition of the Bible with the supernatural parts taken out. His personal book collection forms the core of the Library of Congress.

  • The rumor that Jefferson had had several children with a slave, frequently dismissed by historians as wishful thinking of the part of black people, was borne out by DNA evidence.

So what did these books add? Not a whole lot, actually — they corroborate what's in the textbooks. I did learn that Jefferson was a terrible speaker, that he was notorious for lacking a sense of humor, that he favored casual clothing and padded around the Oval Office in slippers. I also noticed a running theme in which Jefferson would blab his uncensored feelings about his colleagues in letters which the recipients would then publish in newspapers — one of the perils of living two centuries before friendslocking, I guess. That's about it. I guess I'd have to read the six-volume Malone bio for additional depth, but I'm not going to. Instead, here's what I've gathered about Jefferson on the basis of these two books.

It's interesting that Hitchens, known for takedowns of public figures — Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger — wrote positive books in rapid succession about George Orwell and Thomas Jefferson. In The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell complained that far too many of those who shared his political leanings were motivated not by compassion for the "ordinary man" but by a chess player's compulsion to rearrange the institutions of society into a more effective alignment. That's not how life works, Orwell contended — in Coming Up for Air, he wrote elegiacally of the revolution he saw coming in the years ahead, of the serious young men bashing each other's faces in with wrenches. John Adams had seen the American mob in action, and came away with the conviction that the masses needed a strong hand to keep them in line. But Jefferson didn't live in Boston. Jefferson spent the lead-up to the war in the 18th-century equivalent of the 101st Fighting Keyboarders, writing pamphlets; even after the war started, it remained for Jefferson an opportunity to toss ideas around, drafting bills in the Virginia legislature. Only at the very end of the war, when as governor he had to flee from an invading British army, did it briefly become less abstract.

And so Jefferson's experience of Paris, where he was posted as an ambassador, was very different from Orwell's; esconced in his estate along the Champs-Élysées, occasionally nipping out to watch the proceedings of the National Assembly, Jefferson saw the revolution much in the manner of Orwell's chess player, as the replacement of one system of government — one designed chiefly to supply Marie-Antoinette with shoes — by a much better one. And if a few innocent people went to the guillotine, well, what's a chess game without a few pawn sacrifices? Here are a couple of Jefferson's statements on the matter of revolt:

  • "the spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. it will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then. it is like a storm in the Atmosphere."

  • "what signify a few lives lost in a century or two? the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. it is it's natural manure."

First of all, if nothing until now has convinced you that this man was a geek, the fact that he insisted on starting sentences with lower-case letters should serve as conclusive proof. (Yes, that affectation was around before the Internet.) But more importantly, he's talking about people killing each other, using the language of meteorology, of horticulture, of a scientist looking at the entirety of a system and not caring overmuch about individual data points or, as those of us with a slightly less abstract bent might call them, human lives. *

Jefferson was faced with the concrete reality of the mob eventually, though. After his presidency, Jefferson spent his last years attempting to realize a lifelong dream: establishing a university in Virginia, unfettered to any church, with an elite faculty from all over the globe, where students, whose admission would be based solely on merit, would be free to embark upon any course of study they wished rather than follow a set curriculum. Classes began in 1825, some of them in such exotic departments as architecture and political science. "This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind," the octogenarian Jefferson declared. But the first class of students was made up of those sons of the Virginia aristocracy who couldn't get into Harvard or Princeton or William and Mary. They were drunk pretty much around the clock and spent the term running around and fighting — the campus was in a state of constant riot, the professors hiding in their apartments. Finally, the administrators called all students together to listen to a message from the third president of the United States and father of the university. And on this occasion, Thomas Jefferson did not commend the rebellious students for nourishing the tree of liberty or compare their conduct to a storm in the atmosphere. He burst into tears.

Syndromes and a Century
Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2007

#5, 2007 Skandies

Too slow, gave up. Let's see what the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes have to say:

"floats by like a dream"
"less and less dependent on narrative"
"Don't watch it for plot, or character development"
"Don't think of it as film. Think of it as a series of paintings that talk to each other"
"auteur of languor"


Seriously, "auteur of languor"? Sounds like breathless copy off the cover of a Silver Age DC comic. "Batman and the Flash combat the combined cruelty of the Clown Prince of Crime and the Auteur of Languor!"

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