American sphinx : the character of Thomas Jefferson

by Joseph J. Ellis

Hardcover, 1996




New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 1997, c1996.


Offers a reassessment of the life, image, and career of Thomas Jefferson, examining his complex personality, controversies about the man and his beliefs, and his accomplishments.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Josh_Hanagarne
This was an interesting look at a peculiar and, in most ways, an inspiring man. American Sphinx doesn't assume that the reader comes to the table with voluminous knowledge, which is refreshing; the book fills in the gaps in clear language and there is very little slow-going. It's hard to believe that there was a time when the majority of the country didn't lay eyes on the president; and that the president could be reclusive if he chose. Jefferson didn't make speeches and hated the limelight. His passion was for words, family, and dreams of a utopia that never came to pass. A great read.… (more)
LibraryThing member michaelhattem
Despite my own personal inclinations towards Jefferson, it is not the criticism of America Sphinx that I find slightly disturbing but, rather, the somewhat disingenuous pose that Ellis assumes. A quick reading would almost make Ellis look sympathetic to Jefferson and this, I believe, is by design. However, a closer reading reveals more than a few heavy-handed moments of what appears to be disdain, even bordering on contempt. It’s no secret that Ellis, like many contemporary historians, finds Jefferson distasteful, especially in light of his previous work on John Adams.

Ellis claims that he is attempting to “steer an honourable course between idolatry and evisceration,” the two poles most identifiable in Dumas Malone’s biography and Conor Cruise O’Brien’s book on Jefferson and the French Revolution, “The Long Affair.” While American Sphinx is undoubtedly somewhere between those two extremes, it most certainly leans towards evisceration. Even the moments in which Ellis seems sympathetic to Jefferson come to appear somewhat contrived as though they are mere qualifications meant to keep Ellis on the “honourable course” which he has set for himself.

Ironically, Ellis’s book is fraught with as many contradictions as he claims for Jefferson. For instance, on page 79, he discusses the death of Jefferson’s wife and the alleged pledge he made to her not to remarry. He says, “We cannot know for sure whether, as family tradition tells the story, he promised his dying wife that he would never remarry. The promise he made to himself undoubtedly had the same effect. He would never expose his soul to such pain again; he would rather be lonely than vulnerable.” If we cannot know for sure whether he made a promise to his wife, how can we know anything about a promise he made to himself. Later on in the same chapter on page 110, he recounts Jefferson’s whirlwind “affair” and “rhapsodic adventure” with the married miniaturist, Maria Cosway, which culminates in the famous and more-than-vulnerable “Dialogue between the Head and the Heart.” He also, apparently, begins his affair with Sally Hemings in Paris, which Annette Gordon-Reed and Fawn Brodie have portrayed as a reciprocal relationship, rather than that of the common master-slave sexual paradigm. Two relationships begun within a few years of this “promise he made to himself,” one highly intense and the other lasting almost four decades, hardly makes Jefferson seem like a man who had promised himself to be lonely.

The title and supposed aim of the book is a bit misleading as well. It’s not so much a study of Jefferson’s character as amateur pop Psychology. This is especially ironic when in the 65th footnote to the third chapter he criticizes previous biographers’ attempts to posthumously psychoanalyze Jefferson. Ellis’s use of this theory of mental compartments or Jefferson’s “psychological agility” in the “orchestration of internal voices” seems more a way to avoid truly understanding Jefferson’s character and comes off as one of the contrived qualifications I mentioned before. Yet here it serves a purpose beyond mere qualification. It seems to be THE tool which Ellis has devised to allow him to walk. or think he’s walking, that tightrope between idolatry and evisceration. None of this even mentions the irony of Ellis’s interpretation considering his own use of “mental compartments,” and so the problem of projection enters into Ellis’s subject analysis.

We get another illustrative contradiction when on page 102 he speaks of “Jefferson’s personal belief that slavery was morally incompatible with the principles of the American Revolution.” However, using this idea of mental compartments in the aid of self-deception, on page 106 he writes, “it was nonetheless a disconcerting form of psychological agility that would make it possible for Jefferson to walk past the slave quarters on Mulberry Row at Monticello thinking about mankind’s brilliant prospects without any sense of contradiction.” In one sentence he is claiming that Jefferson saw the incompatibility or contradiction and in another he does not. This is followed by one of the more memorable lines in the entire book when he writes, “He had the kind of duplicity possible only in the pure of heart.” It is as if Ellis hopes the subsequent qualifying statement will disguise the evisceration which it follows.

What American Sphinx is exactly I’m not quite sure, but, it does not strike me as a “character analysis.” If Ellis could be so wrong in his psychological analysis of Jefferson’s “character,” or more accurately, personality, by refusing to even entertain the idea that Jefferson had had a relationship or even an affair with Sally Hemmings, how much faith should we then put in his analyses of other aspects of Jefferson’s “character?” Sometimes I wonder how much of Jefferson’s “contradictory” nature is actually derived from those looking at him. Ideologies in the 20th century have come to be seen as rigid constructs ,but Jefferson was never a rigid thinker or politician. By trying to define Jefferson, or, perhaps more detrimentally, Jeffersonianism, we lock Jefferson in a box of our own construct with a single hanging light bulb inside which has the effect of illuminating these “contradictions” but hiding Jefferson himself in a shadow in the corner.

In Ellis’s defense, Jefferson is probably the most enigmatic of subjects that a historian or biographer can take on and in many ways he deserves a lot of credit for what he has attempted here. However, I believe the truth of Jefferson, if there actually is A truth of this larger-than-life figure whose intellectual net is cast over the entirety of America’s politics, ideology and identity, it must lie somewhere between the hyperbole of Malone and the “vicious attacks” of O’Brien. Ellis tried to walk that line but too often strayed from it to have succeeded completely.
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LibraryThing member dallasblue
Thomas Jefferson was a brilliant enigma - a tortured mind to be sure. This book provides a great, detailed account of his life and his actions. Not just a recounting of historical events, it talks about why he did the things he did.
LibraryThing member derekstaff
Not a typical biography. Ellis focuses on key points of Jefferson's life, such as the writing of the Declaration, his efforts as Vice President to undermine the Federalists, his work to establish the University of Virginia, and his retirement.

Ellis notes that Jefferson is both one of the most celebrated of the Founders, and one of the most enigmatic. Ellis asserts that this is due to the fundamental inconsistencies (or hypocrisies, for the less charitable) of Jefferson's ideology, and what some might call his extreme naivety. Ellis validates his case with those episodes of Jefferson's life. This isn't, however, some philippic against Jefferson; Ellis recognizes Jefferson's great contributions, but is interested in exploring Jefferson's humanity.… (more)
LibraryThing member lukelea
Maybe the best short biography of Jefferson. Particularly good on his later years, which were a kind of nightmare tragedy brought on by the contradictions between his stake in slavery, his ideals, his love for his family, taste for luxury, and his spendthrift ways.
LibraryThing member auntmarge64
What a great book! It's not a biography and largely skips several periods in his adult life (such as his second presidential term), which was a bit disconcerting for someone with little knowledge of his life. But enough is included to give the reader the necessary background to follow the discussion at the center of the book: that is, what made Jefferson tick, and how did he juggle the many, many contradictions between his publicly stated philosophy and the actions he took in his personal life? The answer appears to be a real psychological disconnect. Ellis concludes that Jefferson was not mentally ill, but having known at least one person with a similar personality very well in my life, I'd have to say it was at least an unchangeable personality disorder: the ability to think, with integrity, that your philosophy and life decisions reflect each other, when to observers they clearly don't. As proved to be the case with Jefferson, this includes an inability to entertain evidence about those contradictions and make adjustments to be more consistent.

The Epilogue is one of the best summations I've ever read. Especially helpful is Ellis' summation of the various changes to the American landscape which in effect killed off many of the underpinnings to Jefferson's legacy:
1 - the Civil War, ending not only "slavery but the political primacy of the South and the doctrine that the states were sovereign agents in the federal compact."
2 - the end of the Frontier and the urbanization of the population between 1890-1920.
3 - the New Deal, providing a more centralized government, now required to regulate the "inequities of the marketplace and discipline the boisterous energies of an industrial economy". In effect, the "death knell for Jefferson's idea of a minimalist government."
4 - the Cold War (requiring maintenance of a massive military) and civil rights legislation repudiating the "racial and gender differences that Jefferson regarded as rooted in fixed principles of nature."
5 - changes in the scientific understanding of the natural world (Freud, Darwin, Einstein).

As much as I dislike the way of politics, which seems to have been as vicious and corrupt then as it is now, we've ended up with a political balance which has worked for us in the (very) long haul. It's an interesting problem to wonder how this country would have fared if Jefferson had not been president and been able to force his anti-Federalist views on the government just as the country was finding itself.
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LibraryThing member drneutron
There's been a lot of words written about Thomas Jefferson. It seems like everyone has tried to claim his legacy to further their own cause. In American Sphinx, Joseph Ellis tried to get past the ideal Jefferson to the real man and his real thoughts, especially in the political arena. He mostly succeeds in this goal - this book is a great exploration of Jefferson. Rather than a biography, Ellis uses vignettes of Jefferson's life during significant periods to explore how his thinking changed throughout his life and to reveal the man behind the American saint. The format assumes some knowledge of Jefferson's life and early American history, so this may not be the best place to start for novice. I read it just after reading McCullough's biography of John Adams, which provided the historical context for Ellis' analysis.… (more)
LibraryThing member JBD1
An alright bio of Jefferson, but slightly convoluted at times.
LibraryThing member weakley
This book was a disapointment to me. I agree with the comments of some of the other reviewers in order to write a biography about someone, it might be best if you actually liked or respected them in the first place.

I failed to see any one aspect of Jefferson that the author thought much of. The book was a constant litany of Jefferson's failings, and explanations of how anything extraordinary about the man were exceptions rather than the rule.

All in all not what I wanted to be reading.
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LibraryThing member TooBusyReading
The best and worst of American history are inextricably tangled together in Jefferson...

This book, subtitled The Character of Thomas Jefferson, is not a biography in the traditional sense. Although much of it is biographical, it is more a look into the mind of the man, the reasons for his ideas and his opinions.

I've not read any other biographies solely about Jefferson, and probably should have started with a different one. There was no attempt to cover all major events, or even all periods of Jefferson's life. For someone not very familiar with these events, I wanted more. There was very little about his stint as vice president or even his second term as president. I wanted more who, what, where, when along with the why.

The first chapter, “Jeffersonian Surge: America, 1992 – 93” seemed dry to me, and if the book had continued to be as dry, I'm not sure I would have finished it. Some parts were not as interesting to me as others, but overall, I enjoyed the book.

Jefferson was a walking contradiction. Most of us know that he opposed slavery in theory, yet owned and sold slaves. He also had conflicting ideas about the Native Americans, celebrating their cultures yet willing to deport them.

“...we presume that our strength and their weakness is now so visible that they must see we have only to shut our hand to crush them, and that all our liberalities to them proceed from motives of pure humanity only.”

He was expert at writing for his given audience and comes across as sometimes disingenuous. He was an idealist who couldn't always find practical applications for his idealism, who also couldn't keep his personal life in order.

The edition I read was published in 1998, updated from the original edition, but still several years old, and a bit dated on the Sally Hemings information. Because the DNA evidence does not interest me as much as this look into Jefferson's character, I found this book interesting and well worth the time spent reading it.
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LibraryThing member FordStaff
The author makes no claim that this is a full traditional biography. If that is what you expect you will be found lacking. This book does not give an account of the events throughout Jefferson's entire life but instead glimpses into certain periods to illuminate the evolution of his character and political thinking. For this purpose you will not be found lacking.

I believe this to be a fair review of Jefferson although perhaps negative to those reverential of this Founding Father. I always admired Jefferson's absolute belief in freedom of religion but knew very little of his other political beliefs. Most of them have no place in modern America mostly because he was at heart an unadulterated idealist to the point of unreasonableness (It is nice Madison was there to ring him in from his more radical excesses). Also vast changes in the political spectrum due to scientific and social advances have rendered much of his political thinking irrelevant. This idealism is part of the cause for what I disliked least about Jefferson which was his light versus darkness version of political discourse. In order to sustain this Idealism he needed to delude himself many times in his life as he did up to and towards the end with such thing as the belief in gradual emancipation of slaves as a viable option and in the belief that the lottery would save him from his personal debts.

As a man he comes off very well in the revolutionary era and loses my esteem in the party wars and during his presidency. Overall he gets an above average if only slight. This is a very vague verdict on my part for it seems that Jefferson is almost impenetrable. It is no minor task accurately judging Jefferson as Joseph Ellis makes clear with testimony from many Jefferson Scholars with differing opinions so I will make it clear that my judgment is based on the picture painted in this book (and unknown prejudices whether of ignorance or other such afflictions of mankind, for prejudice manifests in many forms). Others will offer different results from the same book and each side has evidence to call upon, but I think none can argue that Jefferson was not a fortunate addition to the excellent group of men who forged the United States of America (at least during the revolutionary era). This book is excellent for those who wish to have an understanding of this man.
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LibraryThing member bontley
I didn't care for the structure, the glossing over of his second presidential term. Informative but sparse.
LibraryThing member rivkat
Thomas Jefferson again! The man had an enormous capacity to write beautiful sentiments and then not live up to them, that’s for sure. Ellis, writing before the DNA testing became definitive, expresses doubt about the Sally Hemings story as inconsistent with Jefferson’s fear of race mixing, but he doesn’t exclude the possibility. Basically, what Jefferson’s detractors see as his two-facedness, his fans see as flexibility and desire to smooth over conflicts. (By telling different people different things.) Most notably, Ellis discusses Jefferson’s free-spending ways in private as contrasted to his fear of public debt; instead of seeing this as a contradiction, he charitably attributes Jefferson’s anti-debt stance to his awareness of his own financial precarity, because Jefferson—like many of his compatriots—didn’t understand the difference between personal and national accounts. So “your debts are paid ‘cause you don’t pay for labor” is only partially true.… (more)
LibraryThing member Chris_El
Recognized to this day as one of the great men of the American revolution. This book tackles the elusive character of Thomas Jefferson. He was against slavery, but owned slaves. He was against a strong government, but was a strong president.

While a very public figure he was also a very private figure. The author here discusses the character and life experiences of Jefferson and the controversies surrounding him. And interesting and thoroughly researched book.… (more)
LibraryThing member mybucketlistofbooks
Good review of Thomas Jefferson's character. Not a chronological look at Jefferson's life. Rather the author looks at various times in Jefferson's life and the incidents that occurred during them, to elucidate his political and world view.

This book contains a fair amount of what some deride as historic-psychobabble - the tendency to try and psychoanalyze historic figures to find the origins of their greatness or perfidy (depending on your point of view). In this case, while it does at times feel like the author is attempting to use it to justify examples of Jefferson's blatant hypocrsy (slavery, debt, constitutional interpretation), in this case his arguments are backed up by logical interpretation of the evidence he uses. Not saying I agree with all of it, but it is a worthy attempt.

Definitely worth reading for anyone with an interest in Thomas Jefferson.
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LibraryThing member jonfaith
A provocative survey of an enlightenment thinker and statesman who could never outdistance his contradictions. My friend Mark Prather selected this for samizdat and a number of us read such and with a formality of discussion. The passage of a couple decades would likely have adjusted those younger impressions.
LibraryThing member maneekuhi
Ellis's 368 page bio of TJ focuses on five major periods in his lifetime with summaries of the intervening gaps. Throughout the book though, Ellis keeps coming back to Jefferson's basic principles and beliefs that drove his major decisions and leadership style throughout his life. This story covers an incredible period in the life line of our country as our founders struggled to understand the meaning of events long after they had occurred. The book is very comprehensive without being overly long. My only criticism is that I found it less readable than other history books I have enjoyed, specifically Doris Kearns Goodwin's. As far as the Sally Hemings question goes, DNA testing wasn't as sophisticated when this book was published in the early 90's, and Ellis concludes that the the charge against Jefferson's paternity is remote. However, I understand that subsequently, when additional testing was performed, Ellis changed his viewpoint as did most, but not all historians.… (more)
LibraryThing member jerry-book
Complex man. I hated the older jefferson but loved the younger Jefferson.



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