How Christopher Hitchens Came To Love Thomas Jefferson

A wartime lexicon.
Dec. 17 2011 11:36 AM

The Road to Monticello

How Christopher Hitchens came to love Thomas Jefferson.

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The late Christopher Hitchens

Photograph by Getty Images.

See Slate’s full tribute to the life of Christopher Hitchens. Read Slate’s complete collection of Christopher Hitchens' columns.

It is hard to believe it was six years ago that Christopher and I took a road trip to Thomas Jefferson’s mountaintop home, Monticello. Christopher was to do a talk about his short biography, Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, and I was to introduce him. I came down to Washington from New York the night before to stay in his home so that we could set out early and get there at a leisurely place. The pre-trip evening was convivial, with good conversation with Carol and their daughter Antonia, who made occasional appearances.

We set out the next morning in a rental car with Christopher, somewhat unsurely I thought, at the wheel. For the next few hours we rode along talking about everything under the sun, except Iraq. At lunchtime, Christopher pulled off the highway and, true to form, managed to find perhaps the best restaurant in Culpeper, Va.

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That we were doing this at all was slightly unreal. We had known each other since 1986 when I was still a young lawyer. A devoted reader of Christopher's column in The Nation, I was thrilled to be able to hear him speak one evening at Columbia University. After his talk, I asked about his book on the Elgin Marbles, and he promised to send me a copy. He sent it, and from that moment on we became friends, correspondents, and occasional lunch and dinner companions when he was in Manhattan.

Over the years Christopher was (it hurts so to write that) unfailingly supportive as I made the transition from lawyer to writer/professor. When I published my first book on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, he sometimes managed to work me, and the title, into his writings and public appearances when he did not have to. So, it meant a great deal to me when he got the Jefferson bug (much to his delight, he and the Sage shared a birth date), and I was able to talk to him about a subject that was to become my life’s work.

We began with a T.J. fest over an early lunch in the East Village that stretched throughout the afternoon until we ordered dinner and continued talking until he had to go teach his class at the New School. Almost before I knew it, the book was done, and we were on our way to the Mountain. The evening went wonderfully. Lots of people showed up and bought books. Christopher got into an argument with a devout Catholic at dinner. So, he was well pleased, as was I to be able to show off my friend in that setting. I’ll never forget the ride down the mountain that night with Christopher flying along the winding road cut out of deep forest, a road that is treacherous even in the daytime. The staff at Monticello has not forgotten him either. Many times over the years people have asked, “Remember that time you and Christopher Hitchens came to Monticello …?” I do, and always will.

See Slate’s full tribute to the life of Christopher Hitchens. Read Slate’s complete collection of Christopher Hitchens' columns.

Annette Gordon-Reed is the author of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy and The Hemingses Of Monticello: An American Family, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. She is the Charles Warren professor of American legal history at Harvard Law School, professor of history in the faculty of arts and sciences, and the Carol K. Pforzheimer professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

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