This past Thursday evening, The Lady and I were on the Mountain in the golden late summer twilight, walking through Monticello. We pretty much had free run of the house, going from room to room at our own pace, with a guide in every room to answer questions. Of course, I had my own guide: The Lady was there to point out all the wonderful things I'd missed on previous tours of Monticello. With the sunset angling into the Parlor, you could understand why Jefferson loved his "little mountain."
We were there because The Lady won a lottery of sorts. Monticello staff are allowed to sign up for what are known as the Evening Conversations; talks and lectures given by eminent scholars and authors of things Jeffersonian. Names are drawn at random, and The Lady drew the last one for this year; a talk given by Christopher Hitchens on his new book, Thomas Jefferson: Author of America.
Monticello does these things right. As we exited the house onto the west lawn, there was a bar where we stopped off for a glass of wine. We walked around taking advantage of the gorgeous weather. There was a table set up with Hitchens's book for sale, and I took advantage of that. A large tent with a podium and seating was set up on the lawn with the seats facing the house.
The Lady said that the talk would begin promptly at 7:00, which indeed it did, with Dr. Dan Jordan, President of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, welcoming everyone and introducing Annette Gordon-Reed, Professor of Law at New York Law School, author of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. Gordon-Reed was there to introduce Hitchens and had a lively time of it, wielding the term "pugnacious" not once, but twice, to describe her long time friend and colleague. She intimated that they had been up till odd hours the evening before arguing many subjects as way of proof.
Hitchens came to the podium and gave a wonderful talk on his book and Jefferson's relevance to and within the ongoing American experiment, focusing on his contributions to the formation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution (as exemplified by the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.), projecting American power at home and abroad (The Louisiana Purchase and the war with the Tripoli), and the complicated fact of slavery.
Hitchens is an engaging and erudite speaker. He wove examples of his American experience into his talk, having emigrated from the UK. He's obviously fascinated with the American experiment, seeing it as work in progress, making the point that America is a nation by design and, unlike any other, this design is written down and its plan is followed.
Jefferson's place in all this a complete contradiction. The man who removed from the Declaration "property" and replaced it with "pursuit of happiness" was himself a holder of enslaved human beings. Though he professed to be in favor of emancipation, he did nothing himself to move in that direction, and in fact turned down the chance to follow Thomas Paine's advice to begin America anew without slavery at the time of the Louisiana Purchase, thus ensuring an eventual civil war over the issue. And yet, America would not be without Jefferson.
When speaking of Jefferson and the projection of American power and democracy, one can see that Hitchens has his eye on current events, though he's quite subtle about it and content to keep to the subject at hand until the question and answer portion of the program. Hitchens ducked out of the tent, lit a cigarette and came back to the podium to receive questions from the audience.
The first question had to do with Intelligent Design and the Establishment Clause. Hitchens attacked the subject from a number of angles. His claim that Jefferson was not a christian is based in part on his having said about his upcoming death that he "had no fear and had no hope"; a decidedly un-christian sentiment. Jefferson had taken the bible and excised all but the pertinent moral lessons to be had there, literally leaving all the mysticism, miracles and such on the cutting room floor. America not being a christian nation was illustrated by the fact that god is nowhere mentioned in the Constitution and that, in fact, Congress explicitly stated that America was not a christian nation by approving the first treaty with Tripoli. With that background, he blasted the teaching of a clearly religious view as science in the public schools as a clear violation of the Establishment Clause: government was trying to impose a religious view on the people.
The second question was inevitable given the audience. I suppose Hitchens is used to this now. He holds views on the Iraq War that do not go hand in hand with the views of of what I'm sure was and overwhelmingly liberal audience. The question had to do with parallels with the Tripoli War of Jefferson's time and current events. Hitchens just smiled and dove into his answer, stating very matter of factly that, whereas he understands why President Bush refers to Islam as a "religion of peace", it is not. Giving specific examples of how Wahabism has commanded war upon unbelievers, just was the Barbary pirates used the Koran as the justification to enslave American sailors. He stated that our struggle against Islam is inevitable and noble; that we should relish the opportunity to war with those whose stated goal is to utterly destroy us and everything we believe in and stand for. This was met with little applause.
Someone rose to make the point that the United States was not the only country with the separation of church and state codified in it's constitution: Turkey had codified secularism. Hitchens promptly disabused the questioner's notion by illustrating the difference between secularism and religious freedom and that Turkey is sorely lacking in the later, pointing out that being christian, jewish or even of certain muslim sects is not an easy, and sometimes dangerous, thing.
The fourth, and final, question was a followup to the second. The questioner was clearly attempting to be provocative. Given that he feels that we are under attack from Islamists how could we justify a war in Iraq, a country unrelated to al-Quaeda and other belligerents. This was what I was waiting for and Hitchens delivered. He patiently explained that given the views stated in the previous answer, it made perfect sense to go to war in Iraq; Iraq being the keystone situated between to belligerent theocracies, Iran and Saudi Arabia. By going to war in Iraq, we are on the offensive and they are on the defensive in a life or death struggle. This obviously did not go over well as I was the only one to offer applause.
This ended the program on a somewhat awkward note, and Dr. Jordan jumped in to thank his guest and the folks that had made the evening possible.
Hitchens proceeded to the book table to sign books. I had purchased mine earlier and got in line. When I got up to him, he was very pleasant and conversational. I thanked him for his views on Iraq and he looked a little surprised.
He took a drag on his ever present cigarette and said, "Well, that went over with a thud."
I replied, "Yeah, you managed to chuck up into quite a few bowls of cornflakes this evening."
Hitchens smiled mischievously. "Oh, yes, I suppose I did."
He laughed and thanked me for purchasing his book and coming up for the talk. The Lady and I made our way over to the buffet for a bite and some more wine.
With wine in hand, under a clear evening sky, we walked the serpentine path around the lawn to view the house lit up. All in all, a wonderful experience.