The Spectacle Blog

Hitchens on Jefferson and the Founding

By on 11.9.05 | 3:00PM

Christopher Hitchens' lecture on Jefferson's role in the American founding was a delight. Hitchens broadly outlined Jefferson's contributions to the American experiment in the areas of the Enlightenment, internal nation building, the projection of national power, and the separation of church and state. The writer entertained a substantial Q&A period, followed by lunch and a lengthy discussion with the Witherspoon Fellows.

Here are some highlights in no particular order:
-In one notable Q&A exchange, an audience member challenged the Sally Hemmings affair, and Hitchens argued persuasively that the forensic evidence sufficiently supports that case without the DNA evidence.
-Hitchens said Jefferson established an important executive power precedent when he bowed to John Marshall's authority in turning over all relevant materials for the Aaron Burr treason case.
-Jefferson acted against his federalist principles in maintaining a standing army and executing the Louisiana Purchase. He regarded both as unconstitutional, but justified them in the pursuit of American greatness.
-Hitchens conceded that in Jefferson's letter to the Danbury (Conn.) Baptists, where the phrase "wall of separation of church and state" originates, Jefferson meant that his role as a federal officer prevented him from intervening in this matter between the church and the state of Connecticut more than he was making a secularist case.
-On deism: "It's the worst of both worlds."
-On the King James Bible: "[Not using it] is one of the great limitations of secularism. It lacks the great metaphors."
-Hitchens said Jefferson would be "outraged" that Canada still exists if he returned today and would wonder what the manhood of America has been up to if the Union Jack still flies in Ottawa.

Hitchens and folks at FRC got along just fine. They were respectful, engaged, and inquisitive, and Hitchens was quite gracious. Look out for Hitchens' forthcoming book on Thomas Paine next year.

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