Reading through the crackle of 4th of July fireworks:Thomas Jefferson (Christopher Hitchens) and Luther Martin (Bill Kauffman)

The neighborhood kid’s firecrackers and bottle rockets have finally calmed down—so annoying to a man like me, flat on his bed, from another painful back injury.  Even as the stupid little pop-pop-pops where driving me nuts, I took some patriotic inspiration and roared through two serious books pertinent to the rocket’s red glare.  Or, more precisely, to the debates and characters and ideologies that raged in the late half of the 18th century and into the first decades of the 19th, giving shape to this great nation.  (I believe I first heard from Os Guinness the notion that the U.S. was the first nation ever to be created by intent, by an idea.)  So between the jabs of pain I read a spectacular little biography of Thomas Jefferson, one I’d been meaning to study as it seemed one of those perfect matchings of author and subject.  I refer to the contemporary Enlightenment modernist and religious skeptic Christopher Hitchens and his compact volume Thomas Jefferson: Author of America (HarperCollins; $15.95.) This controversial, world-renowned scholar has done a book on Thomas Paine, too, which I am sure I will read soon. 

jefferson hitchens.jpgIt is hard to underestimate the robust scholarship, wide reading and great learning that are presented in Mr. Hitchens’ book.  Just under 200 smallish pages, it is in the lovely and respected Eminent Lives series. (Other fabulous match-ups in this series include historian Paul Johnson on George Washington and world religion scholar Karen Armstrong on Muhammad.)

I am simply unable to (I can blame it on the back pain and Vicodin, but I am sure even at my best I cannot) do justice to how much ground Hitchens covers, how insightful he is about Jefferson’s worldview—his involvement in the French Revolution, of course, his scientific ways, his scoffing at orthodox Christian faith.  And he shows the excitement of the years leading up to the Revolution, and the serious debates that followed. (More on that, below.)  I had little idea of the large international intrigue during the Jefferson’s presidency, as he shrewdly played off the interests of Great Britain, Spain, and France (think, Napoleon Bonaparte!) Mr. Hitchens knows the best Jefferson scholarship (and roundly mocks the worst) even tossing great accolades to Gore Vidal’s great novel Burr.  The questions of Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings are well described without breathy moralism, briefly cutting through some of the controversy in that area.  (Of the massive amounts of letters Jefferson wrote, the ones that would most likely cover this have gone missing.)

Jefferson’s years serving in DC are well covered as is his evolving views, and his desire to do agrarian work at Monticello, his founding of University of VA, and the start of the Library of Congress after the first batch were burned in the War of 1812. (Some congressmen were not sure they wanted his books, laden as they were with atheism and French Revolution works.) Hitchens makes a case that besides writing the first draft of the Declaration, his greatest legacy was perhaps the Louisiana purchase and the spectacular achievement of planning and funding of the extraordinary Lewis & Clark expedition.

Hitchens is deeply interested in revolution, and is well schooled in and influenced by the Marxian critique of power.  He is a (British) atheist on the left living in Washington who supported the U.S. war in Iraq. Hitch is renowned for his sharp tongue and he despises any who might subvert liberty; his awareness of and work against Islamo-fascism drew him to become a strange bedfellow of the American right.  Oppression of non-Muslims inspired by the Koran plagued Jefferson’s foreign policy and led to the Barbary wars, and the first time the flag of the American empire was planted on foreign soil, in Tripoli, Northern Africa.  Of course, the most serious on the serious right in America are in many ways Jeffersonian. (It was Jefferson’s nemesis, the New York Federalist, Alexander Hamilton, who stood for markets and wealth and a consolidation of centralized power.) As I said, it seemed a nearly perfect task for the redoubtable, anti-imperial, Mr. H. to write about all this.

Of course there is the awful topic of slavery—the only slaves Jefferson ever freed where his own children to Hemings.  That such an awful inconsistency would plague such a great scholar and activist for liberty needs even deeper exploration, even though Hitchens brings it up often.   For what it is worth, this is no hagiography!  (By the way, I have a friend who I respect completely, a scholar and Christian leader himself, who is working on a manuscript that is very, very good, comparing the respective views and actions regarding abolition of William Wilberforce and Thomas Jefferson and what leadership lessons can be learned.  If any prominent editors are looking in, do give me a call, as this is a manuscript that I pray gets picked up soon.)  

I know there are other major books on Jefferson. Hitchens proclaims that Merrill Peterson’s is the finest and best written of the condensed biographies, only surpassed by th great work of R. B. Berstein.  Other books are given helpful summaries in the moving acknowledgments, moving, mostly, for his description of the Jefferson room at the Library of Congress.


The next book I devoured (skipping a few pages here and there when I couldn’t adequately concentrate) included a very moving library tribute also.  Bill Kauffman, one of my favorite writers, dedicated kind words to a few smaller libraries, the Maryland Historical Society and such. It isn’t surprising as Kauffman is the consummate homeboy.  (You remember, I sure hope, my rave review a few years ago of his “sense of place” story of returning to his small town to take up a buying local campaign and coach a little league team, endearingly entitled Dispatches From the Muckdog Gazette, or his more politically-minded collection of essays on weird and wonderful front-porch revolutionaries, Look Homeward America, or the almost equally weird and wonderful study of anti-war conservatives, Ain’t My America.)  So, Kauffman’s a small town wise-ass, and he may be the only author alive able to make the detailed blow-by-blow speeches of the Constitutional Convention interesting, and even funny.  Man, can this guy write. 

forgotten 2.jpgThis, too, seems a nearly perfect combo of biographer and bioed.  I do not mean anything demeaning to the down-home Mr. Kauffman, but this book is called Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet: The Life of Luther Martin (ISI; $24.95) It is in the  “Lives of the Founders” series published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a thoughtful, paleo-conservative think-tank who publishes the likes of Richard Weaver, Russell Kirk and, yes, Edmund Burke.  Kauffman is an anti-Empire, anti-war, “front-porch revolutionary” and we can only guess why he is drawn to write about good-hearted and eccentrics; perhaps it is his counter-cultural wont, or maybe a bit of the gospel.  He likes Dorothy Day and Wendell Berry, after all, and has a healthy blue-collar suspicion of the big-wigs and abstract talkers, which may be why ISI publishes him, although it seems to surprise me a bit;  he is anything but stuffy, unlike, uh, well, most
of their other prestigious authors.  So, anyway, quite naturally, Bill loves the anti-Federalists who worked hard to defeat the writing of the Constitution in that summer of 1787 (the secret writing of the Constitution was done under strict rules which Kauffman summarizes as “What happens in Philadelphia, stays in Philadelphia.”) When these protesters lost, they worked hard to defeat its ratification in the states, a story told well here. These guys were for localism, decentralized government, anti-military and a Bill of Rights.  Antis included the likes of Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams and George Mason (did you know these great revolutionaries resisted the Constitution?!)  Luther Martin was esteemed in their midst, but never achieved their fame; he was a character—a radical who was ruffled, uncouth, a rough-speaking sot who was as known for being long-winded as un-sober.  He nearly drove people crazy with his sprawling 15-hour speeches (sometimes given over two days) and yet was highly regarded as one of the most compelling jurists of his times.  He could lecture about things his hearers didn’t think mattered, only to show—sometimes, at least—that obscure details did matter.  Similarly, Kauffman is not terrible well-known but knows US history as well as anyone.  And he does go on and on.  About some really, really arcane stuff.

And, like our Esquire & Judge, the pontificating Martin, just when the sledding gets tough, and the eyes start to drop over the page, the most outlandish thing is said, the most controversial notion documented, dots connected in new and stunning ways, and I once again can’t put the darn thing down. A detailed book on one of the Founding Fathers we never heard of?   Life is short, why bother? My back hurts and these darn bottle-rockets are killing me.  Luther Martin? Really?  Well, I literally don’t want to skip the boring parts of this tedious book because I know if I did, I just might miss something illuminating, important, inspiring or downright outrageous.  Kauffman is vital and impressive and his passion for the man—he calls him the “Confounding Father”—comes through on every page, even the complex or saddest ones. 

Like Hitchens’ Jefferson, Kauffman’s Forgotten Founder is no hagiography.  How could it be; Luther Martin was a mess of a man, a troubled genius, a beloved character, broke, drunk, but always kindly, except for those he came to cross swords with, most notably, Thomas Jefferson. (When, early on, we learn that Martin came to detest Jefferson, who was close to his republican, localistic, Anti-Federalist persuasion, Kauffman wryly writes, “Patience, dear reader.  No shortcuts via the index, please.”)  Which, just to prove my independence, I promptly checked, only to find a list of every person from this era you’ve ever heard of in history class, and then some; L. Martin was connected and nearly legendary (even if often scorned.)  Martin’s wife was the daughter of the great Jonathan Edwards, and his lack of Calvinist piety most likely broke his in-law’s hearts.  Yet, he was known as a Biblically-literate man, and more than one roommate on a patriot’s trip noted him using the Book of Common Prayer before sleep. 

I say again that Kauffman is a feisty and clever writer, tossing out asides like one about the famous 1700s George Clinton not being the funky parliamentarian (if that isn’t the best quip you’ve heard all day, you might not get it, so google, quick.) He is usually pithy in his all too true observations.  When quoting a Fed framer during the convention who talks highly about being above local concerns, not bound by particular places, but having a grand vision of the global vision, Kauffman quips, “Behold: the Founder as IBM recruiter!”

Kauffman shows how Luther Martin was a complicated thinker and a confusing man.  He spoke and ruled as a judge (he became the Attorney General for the State of Maryland) in favor of abolition and had heart-felt concern about the plight of Africans.  Yet, he owned slaves at one point, even as he worked as a pro bono lawyer for a very committed Christian abolition society.  Confounding, indeed.

I am not sure I can agree with Mr. Kauffman, who ends the book admitting (as he does throughout) that Martin had faults and wrong views and, well, issues.

As we survey the minatory contours of the U.S. government and see a powerful central state involved in perpetual warfare around the globe, a tax-gathering apparatus with its grip on every paycheck, states and localities reduced to mere administrative units of the central state, this anti-Federalist suspects that for all his vices, for all his inability to shut the hell up, for all the gallons upon gallons of rotgut he imbibed, Luther Martin was not a reprobate, but a prophet.

Go here for a nice overview of the book, some blurbs and endorsements, and a good interview with Kauffman about it. 

It seems to me that many of us don’t know as much about this time period and these thinkers and these debates as we should.  They still reverberate, of course.   As the usually contrarian Hitchens writes near the end of his wonderful study, “Jefferson is one of the few figures in our history whose absence simply cannot be imagined: his role in the expansion and definition of the United States is too considerable, even at this distance to be reduced by the passage of time.”  Few would disagree.

Yet, Hitchens continues, writing about the sinister ways Jefferson’s phrase (in his last letter) of the American “experiment” has been also alluded to or used by despotic socialists, Nazis, Ho Chi Minh and other communist dictators.  He concludes, though, “The French Revolution destroyed itself in Jefferson’s own lifetime.  More modern revolutions have destroyed themselves and others.  If the American Revolution…has often betrayed itself at home and abroad, it nevertheless remains the only revolution that still retains any power to inspire.
Beyond these two books there are other classic and well-known works on the subject.  Well loved recently is David McCullough’s award-winning John Adams and the Pulitzer winner, Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis.  Do you know The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World 1788-1800 by Jay Wink (HarperPerennial; $17.95)?  One reviewer wrote of it “Riveting…Spectacular…Dazzling…One of those books you want to buy for friends and family.  And our country’s leaders.”  The serious Gordon Wood wrote in the New York Review of Books that it is “unusally engaging…Winik is not a political scientist but a storyteller, and a superb one.”   

While not a specific history of our land, Os Guinness has written wisely and urgently aboutcase for civility.jpg the “first freedom” found in the Bill of Rights, and the need for a vision of the public square that can allow robust debate about the deepest things.  I’ve often recommended his Case for Civility, And Why Our Future Depends on It (HarperOne; $23.95), but kept thinking of it as I read these other two biographies this weekend.  How does freedom of and from religion work out in a pluralisistic culture?  And can we keep the bonds of our union together?  A must, must read!

political visions.jpgI have also I have I have also suggested this one before but, again, I dare not leave this topic without the invitation for us who are Christians to do serious study and discernment of the spirit of the age, the shaping ideas then, and now.  No better serious resource can be found that the brilliant Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey & Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies (IVP; $20.00) by David T. Koyzis, whose book traces the ideologies of the Enlightenment that so influenced Federalists and Anti-Federalists alike, supporters of McCain & Obama, progressives and traditionalists. It is slow going, but would be very rewarding as a summer read and we highly commend it. 


The U.S. holiday weekend is over.  My meds are making me sleepy.  The folks in the neighborhood apparently still have some blasting fireworks, noise but no show.  These books are not like that: these are noise and show, sound and fury, fun writing and very, very serious content.   Regardless of your political persuasion, I would think that dipping into these printed fireworks will be an education, and perhaps will light up the contours of our times for you.

Oh: I mentioned that both authors, Hitchens and Kauffman, thanked librarians and that Hitch wrote a bit about the Library of Congress, both his own use of it, and the creation of it under Jefferson.  Libraries make another brief appearance in Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet; Kauffman quotes childrens writer Jean Fitz, in her Shhhh!  We’re Writing the Constitution, who noted that Luther Martin talked too long and bored people.  And that he stole books from the Philly library.  Obviously that is in poor taste, but it does remind me: if you don’t want to buy these from us, you can get ’em at the local library.   But in the amount some of you might stack up in library over-due fees, you might as well buy ’em…  

4 thoughts on “Reading through the crackle of 4th of July fireworks:Thomas Jefferson (Christopher Hitchens) and Luther Martin (Bill Kauffman)

  1. Hello Byron:
    Thank you for your superbly even-handed treatment of Christopher Higgins’ biography of Jefferson. In all frankness, I have to admit that I have found Higgins somewhat flippant at times and far from convincing in most contexts, but your careful analysis has caused me to rethink my assessment of the author. Higgins seems to have presented Jefferson fairly and with a high measure of scholarly sophistication — an accomplishment in and of itself given Higgins’ diverse interests. Even so, David McCullough’s occasional and less-than-flattering treatment of Jefferson in the historian’s biography of John Adams has nuanced my appreciate of Jefferson. Jefferson was, to be sure, an extraordinary man and a great president, but he was also an individual with large weaknesses. He was not exactly the secular saint he is sometimes made out to be. Thanks again for the recommendation. Much appreciated….

  2. My apologies for misspelling Mr Hitchens’ name. Ah, for a better proof reader’s eye. Steve

  3. Thanks, Steve. You know, I never thought I’d compliment Hitchens here at BookNotes; he is too often flippant and arrogant, it seems to me. But he restrains himself here—most likely because he admires Jefferson in so many ways. Anyway, I wondered if some Christian readers, esp, might shy away from him, but I found the book to be a great read. Although, remember, I am a bit loopy from pain medication!
    I did a bit of editing myself, correcting a line or two, if anybody notices. Thanks again!

  4. I’ve ordered the Jefferson book. 🙂
    I’m going to hear Os at Duke Div. in Oct. Looking forward to that.
    Take care!

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