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American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson [Paperback]

Joseph J. Ellis
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (205 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Well timed to coincide with Ken Burns's documentary (on which the author served as a consultant), this new biography doesn't aim to displace the many massive tomes about America's third president that already weigh down bookshelves. Instead, as suggested by the subtitle--"The Character of Thomas Jefferson"--Ellis searches for the "living, breathing person" underneath the icon and tries to elucidate his actual beliefs. Jefferson's most ardent admirers may find this perspective too critical, but Ellis's portrait of a complex, sometimes devious man who both sought and abhorred power has the ring of truth. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Penetrating Jefferson's placid, elegant facade, this extraordinary biography brings the sage of Monticello down to earth without either condemning or idolizing him. Jefferson saw the American Revolution as the opening shot in a global struggle destined to sweep over the world, and his political outlook, in Ellis's judgment, was more radical than liberal. A Francophile, an obsessive letter-writer, a tongue-tied public speaker, a sentimental soul who placed women on a pedestal and sobbed for weeks after his wife's death, Jefferson saw himself as a yeoman farmer but was actually a heavily indebted, slaveholding Virginia planter. His retreat from his early anti-slavery advocacy to a position of silence and procrastination reflected his conviction that whites and blacks were inherently different and could not live together in harmony, maintains Mount Holyoke historian Ellis, biographer of John Adams (Passionate Sage). Jefferson clung to idyllic visions, embracing, for example, the "Saxon myth," the utterly groundless theory that the earliest migrants from England came to America at their own expense, making a total break with the mother country. His romantic idealism, exemplified by his view of the American West as endlessly renewable, was consonant with future generations' political innocence, their youthful hopes and illusions, making our third president, in Ellis's shrewd psychological portrait, a progenitor of the American Dream. History Book Club selection.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From School Library Journal

YA. In studying historical leaders, students rarely get a look at the individuals behind the myths that have grown up around them. Here, Ellis does an excellent job of showing that Jefferson was a human who made many decisions and some mistakes. On the one hand, he was a great historical figure who is due respect; on the other, he was a debt-ridden man with family problems. Ellis does not have an agenda to promote; he has a story to tell, and he tells it well. In a book that reads like fiction, he combines exciting plot turns with information. At the end, readers may not know for certain that Jefferson's life had a happy ending; but they will see him as flesh and blood instead of as a stiff statue or fixed painting in the Capitol rotunda. This absorbing study concludes with an appendix dealing with the Sally Hemmings scandal as well as extensive notes and an excellent index.?Rebecca L. Woodcock, formerly of Alderman Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

The richly documented life of Jefferson holds endless fascination. Ellis, a history professor, gives weight to the man's brilliant, if sometimes shortsighted, social and political theories. We learn little here of Jefferson's formative years as a Virginia lawyer and not much of his passions for cuisine, architecture, and labor-saving gadgets. Did he father children by his slave Sally Hemings? The author rejects their rumored affair, saying we will never know. Sadly, Jefferson was unable to see a solution to slavery, short of deportation. The Founding Father's years as ambassador to France and two terms as President are well told. A large section sums up his life and politics, through his correspondence with John Adams. Reader Susan O'Malley negotiates the admirably crafted long sentences well. Although Jefferson is still an enigma, we do feel we know him better. This set should be a lasting favorite in popular biography collections, especially in the South. Warmly recommended.AGordon Blackwell, Eastchester, NY
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

The author of Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams (1993) entitles his latest work aptly, for the true nature of our third president resided behind a disguising, nearly unreadable countenance. Ellis endeavors to peer beneath the enigmatic facade and succeeds in taking a meaningful reading. He exerts great care in not taking Jefferson out of context, which is easy to do when attempting to define the man's continued relevance to American political life. Analyzing various important junctures of Jefferson's life (his tenures as minister to France, secretary of state, and, of course, president, among others) and major aspects of his personal consciousness (from his conduct of romance to his attitude toward slavery), Ellis points out that wide gaps always stood between Jefferson's ideals and the realities that existed around him. Although not the best place for a novice to learn about Jefferson, this serious, rigorous analysis concludes with a particularly thoughtful essay on Jefferson's importance and meaning to contemporary society. Brad Hooper --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Kirkus Reviews

In the latest of a spate of books on his legacy, Ellis (History/Mount Holyoke Coll.; Passionate Sage, 1993) argues that Thomas Jefferson was neither the saintly hero of myth nor the devious hypocrite depicted by some revisionist studies, but a protean character whose complex qualities evoke the best and worst aspects of our history and culture. Ellis notes that, unlike the largely forgotten John Adams, Jefferson is an iconic figure who maintains a continuing symbolic significance for modern Americans, either as an apostle of democracy or as an exemplar of the racism that has disfigured American history. Studying five crucial periods in his life, Ellis traces the unique mix of the brilliant and the fallible in Jefferson's character. We see him in turn as the young, sensitive, high-strung drafter of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia in 1776; a seasoned diplomat in Paris in 178489; a gentleman farmer (179497); a besieged president (180104); and finally, an elder statesman (181626). Ellis points out that Jefferson's career had disasters as well as successes. He was, for instance, a failure as governor of Virginia (his administration left the state's economy in shambles). He also argues that Jefferson's thought cannot easily be taken out of its historical context. Crucial aspects of his outlook have been outmoded by time: Such concepts as slavery, states' rights, and the primacy of the agrarian in American life were wiped out by the Civil War. The growth of a multicultural society and the development of a culture of equal rights for minorities and women undermined his vision of an Anglo-Saxon society dominated by men. Nonetheless, Ellis asserts that there are enduring aspects of Jefferson's legacy--including his emphasis on individual rights, an abhorrence of centralized government, and a belief in the necessity for religious freedom- -that continue to shape our political culture today. A thoughtful and respectful, but not worshipful, reassessment of the enduring meaning of Jefferson's life and work. (History Book Club main selection) -- Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

“Fascinating … an erudite and illuminating study.” —The New York Times
 
“This elegant book on Jefferson sets a standard—history at its best.” —Chicago Tribune Editor’s Choice
 
“A brilliant, unconventional look at Jefferson … beautifully written, cogently argues, full of both zealous scholarship and lively imagination.” —Cleveland Plain Dealer
 
“Magnificent.… Ellis has a Jeffersonian gift for language.” —Newsweek
 
“Lively and provocative … first-rate.” —David McCullough

From the Inside Flap

For a man who insisted that life on the public stage was not what he had in mind, Thomas Jefferson certainly spent a great deal of time in the spotlight--and not only during his active political career. After 1809, his longed-for retirement was compromised by a steady stream of guests and tourists who made of his estate at Monticello a virtual hotel, as well as by more than one thousand letters per year, most from strangers, which he insisted on answering personally. In his twilight years Jefferson was already taking on the luster of a national icon, which was polished off by his auspicious death (on July 4, 1896); and in the subsequent seventeen decades of his celebrity--now verging, thanks to virulent revisionists and television documentaries, on notoriety--has been inflated beyond recognition of the original person.

For the historian Joseph J. Ellis, the experience of writing about Jefferson was "as if a pathologist, just about to begin an autopsy, has discovered that the body on the operating table was still breathing." In American Sphinx, Ellis sifts the facts shrewdly from the legends and the rumors, treading a path between vilification and hero worship in order to formulate a plausible portrait of the man who still today "hover[s] over the political scene like one of those dirigibles cruising above a crowded football stadium, flashing words of inspiration to both teams." For, at the grass roots, Jefferson is no longer liberal or conservative, agrarian or industrialist, pro- or anti-slavery, privileged or populist. He is all things to all people. His own obliviousness to incompatible convictions within himself (which left him deaf to most forms of irony) has leaked out into the world at large--a world determined to idolize him despite his foibles.

From Ellis we learn that Jefferson sang incessantly under his breath; that he delivered only two public speeches in eight years as president, while spending ten hours a day at his writing desk; that sometimes his political sensibilities collided with his domestic agenda, as when he ordered an expensive piano from London during a boycott (and pledged to "keep it in storage"). We see him relishing such projects as the nailery at Monticello that allowed him to interact with his slaves more palatably, as pseudo-employer to pseudo-employees. We grow convinced that he preferred to meet his lovers in the rarefied region of his mind rather than in the actual bedchamber. We watch him exhibiting both great depth and great shallowness, combining massive learning with extraordinary naïveté, piercing insights with self-deception on the grandest scale. We understand why we should neither beatify him nor consign him to the rubbish heap of history, though we are by no means required to stop loving him. He is Thomas Jefferson, after all--our very own sphinx.

From the Back Cover

"Fascinating . . . an erudite and illuminating study." --The New York Times

"This elegant book on Jefferson sets a standard--history at its best." --Chicago Tribune Editor's Choice

About the Author

Joseph J. Ellis is the Ford Foundation Professor of History at Mount Holyoke College.  Educated at the College of William and Mary and Yale University, he served as a captain in the army and taught at West Point before coming to Mount Holyoke in 1972.  He was dean of the faculty there for ten years.

He is the author of four previous books:  The New England Mind in Transition, School for Soldiers: West Point and the Profession of Arms (with Robert Moore), After the Revolution: Profiles of Early American Culture, and Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams.  American Sphinx is the winner of the National Book Award.

Ellis lives in Holyoke, Massachusetts, with his wife, Ellen, and three sons.

From AudioFile

"'If Jefferson was wrong, America is wrong. If America is right, Jefferson was right.'--James Parton 1874." With this quote, Ellis begins the biography that won him the 1996 National Book Award. As his myth has grown and prospered, our third president has become the darling of many, and often warring, interest groups. What would Jefferson say today about taxes, about civil rights, abortion? Nobody knows. Hence the title. Susan O'Malley's straight-forward reading is clear and forceful, if unexceptional. Why was a woman chosen to read a book by a man, about a man? This is unclear, but then it has often gone the other way. B.H.C. (c) AudioFile, Portland, Maine --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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