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345 of 387 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant but not a Good Introduction to Jefferson. A Great Second Book
"American Sphinx" by Joseph Ellis is an excellent book about Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and a man of astonishing achievements. However, it is not a standard biography of Jefferson and it is not a good introduction to Jefferson, because it does not tell some of the most important history involving Jefferson. Instead, "American Sphinx"...
Published on September 25, 2004 by Todd Carlsen

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77 of 89 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good, But Not The Easiest Read
After reading this book, I must say it is informative, and the author's conversions of his learned interpretations into historical facts are interesting. But, it is not the easiest read. It is very academic, lecture-like, and hard to get into. I also read the book I found here on Amazon.com called "West Point:...Thomas Jefferson" by Norman Thomas Remick, which was much...
Published on May 26, 2002


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345 of 387 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant but not a Good Introduction to Jefferson. A Great Second Book, September 25, 2004
This review is from: American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (Paperback)
"American Sphinx" by Joseph Ellis is an excellent book about Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and a man of astonishing achievements. However, it is not a standard biography of Jefferson and it is not a good introduction to Jefferson, because it does not tell some of the most important history involving Jefferson. Instead, "American Sphinx" is a well-written critique of Jefferson.

I strongly suggest R. B. Bernstein's concise, yet excellent, biography Thomas Jefferson for a great introduction to Thomas Jefferson. That unbiased book is the best brief biography of Jefferson. Then read American Sphinx as a second book. Also consider Dumas Malone's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Thomas Jefferson (six volumes). So many important things about Jefferson are missing from "American Sphinx."

Ellis previously wrote a fine biography of John Adams to revive the reputation of Adams (deservedly so), overshadowed by Jefferson. Adams and Jefferson bitterly disagreed on some issues, and Ellis admittedly agrees more with Adams. Therefore, it is no surprise that readers come away with a less than impressive opinion of Jefferson after reading "American Sphinx". Ellis is brilliant and accurate, but some favorable aspects of Jefferson are missing.

Ellis states in his biography of Jefferson, "My approach is selective... to focus on the values and convictions that reveal themselves in these specific historical contexts... Our chief quarry, after all, is Jefferson's character, the animating principles that informed his public and private life." Ellis selectively emphasizes Jefferson's contradictions.

Ellis even writes that some people recorded that Jefferson's eyes were clear blue, while others (and portraits) suggest that they were hazel or green - a contradiction! So? Jefferson's achievements and how he achieved them - sometimes through wily political maneuvers - are more important.

"American Sphinx" struck me as the equivalent of a book about Mozart's public persona. Would that be a representative account of the life and music of Mozart, as well as the historical impact of his work? Jefferson should be judged by his achievements, and he achieved so much, even if he could be wily and hypocritical.

Thomas Jefferson was an architect (including Monticello), inventor, musician, prolific writer, scholarly lawyer, and observant scientist (in several fields). He once said, "I cannot live without book." He achieved the Louisiana Purchase, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which really matched his keen interest in natural science, and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which embodied Jefferson's deep convictions about religious freedom. Yet Ellis hardly covers these fascinating aspects in detail. Jefferson was a planter farmer, author, governor of Virginia, foreign diplomat (and celebrity abroad), secretary of state, president, co-architect of Virginia's constitution, founder (and architect) of the University of Virginia, political philosopher, vice president, and much more.

Jefferson believed in the enlightened rights of man as reflected in the Declaration of Independence, and he advocated the Bill of Rights to ensure that they were specifically expressed in the Constitution. Jefferson more than any other major leader of the Revolution believed in those lofty ideals, which were radical for the time and which Ellis correctly points out could be naively optimistic. Jefferson was a revolutionary and a dreamer.

He also was a legal reformer, supporter of the arts, and a public education advocate - far ahead of his time. He believed in equal opportunity in the context of his time, although he could be quite arrogant towards those of lesser achievement and, like almost everyone else at that point in American history, did not yet believe that women and people of color were equal in civil matter. As president, he was a splendid head of state. Yet these details are hardly covered by Ellis.

Jefferson's most enduring achievement is the Declaration of Independence. Although Jefferson borrowed from ideas circulating in the colonies, Ellis writes generously that "The vision he projected in the natural rights section of the Declaration of Independence, then, represents yet another formulation of the Jeffersonian imagination. The specific form of the vision undoubtedly drew upon language Locke had used to describe the putative conditions of society before governments were established. But the urge to embrace such an ideal society came from deep inside Jefferson himself... The American dream, then, is just that, the Jeffersonian dream writ large." Jefferson was a man of ideas and ideals.

Jefferson sincerely introduced a radical measure into Congress to completely ban slavery in any of the non-original states. Unfortunately, the measure fell short by just one vote. Devastating! Think about what history would have been like had Jefferson achieved that goal. Few people in American history did more to further the long-term cause of freedom than Jefferson.

He articulated the American creed of "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" and then worked diligently to ensure that it was cemented into the fabric of America's political tradition.

Abraham Lincoln was deeply motivated by Jefferson. When the Missouri Compromise unraveled and the south began to export slavery westward, Lincoln was livid. He was willing to accept slavery in the southern states, but he would not tolerate slavery expanding westward. Lincoln's position was Jefferson's position (or what Lincoln believed to be Jefferson's position). Lincoln borrowed from Jefferson's own words to define the meaning of the Civil War. Lincoln said, "Four score and seven years ago, our founding fathers brought forth to this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the principle that all men are created equal.... this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom." Read a good biography of Lincoln.

Some of Jefferson's ideas as president were bad. Fortunately, his advisors talked him out of many of his bad ideas. His second administration was not very good. He also was probably a better person in his younger years, becoming viciously politically motivated in later years to defeat Hamilton.

Jefferson quit his sincere fight in his early years against slavery once he experienced a severe collapse in his financial condition and realized that slavery was a lost cause. He tried his best and then moved on. Why destroy yourself socially and financially for something that has no chance of success? He considered African American to be inferior racually, which is not surprising considering the slaves he saw were deprived of education like he had, and his views today would be considered racist. He later became paranoid and feared a slave rebellion, which caused him to become an advocate of states rights.

The brilliant Jefferson learned to be a cunning politician. He could tell one person one thing and another person a different thing. To survive in the very nasty political arena, he had to be clever. Mobs would tar and feather people. Thousands died in the revolution. Economic interests had considerable power. Other founding fathers had strong wills and very different ideas.

Alexander Hamilton praised the virtues of monarchy and resisted a Bill of Rights. Under a fake name, Hamilton savaged Jefferson with vile and false newspaper commentaries.

John Adams disagreed with Jefferson's democratic vision for America. Adams held a dim view of human nature (not without some truth) and thought that Jefferson's democratic ideas were radical. The Federalists, such as Adams and Hamilton, wanted America ruled by a small group of elites. This caused a break between Jefferson and Adams, who had been good friends.

Thomas Jefferson was George Washington's secretary of state, the most prestigious position besides president. But Jefferson resigned after sharply disagreeing with the Federalists in Washington's administration, especially Hamilton. Hamilton's financial ideas were brilliant (read "An Empire of Wealth" by John Gordon Steele) but Jefferson the revolutionary was suspicious of Hamilton's motives and ruthless tactics.

When Vice President John Adams became president and turned into an autocrat through the Alien and Sedition Acts, Jefferson's worst fears were confirmed. So he ran for president and defeated Adams in a very nasty campaign by both sides. It was a bitter political struggle and Jefferson won.

Ellis skips this explosive era of the Adams administration, and he only passively refers to the outrageous Alien and Sedition Acts. Ellis passively attributing them to the Federalists and not specifically to Adams. This works to the advantage of Adams and against Jefferson. Ellis is brilliant but not complete. You really need to read another Jefferson biography first.

Once Jefferson became president, he worked diligently to entrench his Jeffersonian democratic ideals and to wipe out the Federalists. Some historians call this the Second American Revolution. First Jefferson worked hard to establish his ideal of the separation of church and state. Then he used the symbolism of the presidency to promote democratic government for the people. Jefferson hated the corrupt aristocratic order that dominated the European powers, including both the clergy and the aristocracy. (Read Sean Wilentz's Bancroft Prize-winning "The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln" or Joyce Appleby's biography of Jefferson.)

Within a short time the Federalists were completely extinct. Briefly there was only one party - the party of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson the politician was completely dominating - a truly remarkable achievement. His craftiness must be put into this context. He was results oriented - and just look at the results he achieved!

Jefferson also came very close to acquiring Florida, later acquired by James Monroe, his former aid and fellow Virginian. Despite Jefferson's rhetoric about limited federal power, he actually acted to strengthen the federal government considerably.

"American Sphinx" is a brilliant book and would be a good 2nd read about Jefferson. However, I recommend first reading Bernstein's brief "Thomas Jefferson. Also consider the insightful Light and Liberty: Reflections on the Pursuit of Happiness or Merrill Peterson's huge Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation.

One last thought. Ellis is one of the greatest writers on the American Revolution period, and I very much enjoy his books. I highly recommend his books. I simply recommend that you read a standard biography of Jefferson before your read "American Sphinx."
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88 of 101 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars American Sphinx No More, February 7, 2002
By A Customer
This review is from: American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (Paperback)
Undoubtly a first class piece of work, in spite of the author's own character flaws. But, having taken the recommendation of another review ("Sphinx?, November 4, 2001), I ordered the book, "West Point" by Norman Thomas Remick, and found it brought Jefferson's character into clear focus. Whereas, you can't beat Joseph J. Ellis' books for scholarship, I would say that anyone who is interested enough to be reading this review should read the Remick book after finishing "American Sphinx".
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84 of 97 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Jefferson: Sphinx, Clear Focus, March 28, 2002
By A Customer
This review is from: American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (Paperback)
I enjoyed reading "American Sphinx" by Joseph J. Ellis. It's a well written description of Thomas Jefferson as an enigmatic, sphinx-like figure of American history. I recommend it. I also recommend "West Point: Character, .... Thomas Jefferson" by Norman Thomas Remick. It brings Thomas Jefferson into clear focus.
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69 of 79 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Must Read for TJ and US Revolution History Fans, December 16, 2001
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This review is from: American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (Paperback)
Joseph Ellis projects an interesting analysis of the illusive Thomas Jefferson in "American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson." Brilliant but contradictory, most historians glorified the author of the Declaration of Independence for nearly 200 years. Recently, with the emergence of John Adams as an equally accepted visionary Founder, the strange and conflicting sides of Jefferson have been given equal attention to those that reflect the genius from Monticello, Virginia.
More than any other American historical figure, Jefferson was incredibly aware of his future role in history, and thereby his legacy. Much of the documented historical record, both that written by him and that written to him, reflect the facts that he chose what future generations would see. Ellis breaks down five periods of Jefferson's life: (1) the period around the writing of the Declaration, (2) the years in Paris as American envoy, (3) the years in semi-seclusion during the second Washington administration, (4) his first Presidential term, (5) and his years in retirement the decade prior to his death. The main premises of Ellis' work are that Jefferson was elusive in description, contradictory in philosophy, and often devious in action.
After reading Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis (see my review dated 7/23/01) I had enormous expectations for his previously penned biography of Thomas Jefferson. It is a good scholarly account, but falls short of the enormously readable "Founding Brothers" work that won the Pulitzer Prize. Ellis teases you by revealing the many two-faced aspects of Jefferson's character, but shies away from drawing the conclusions that Jefferson's personality was bizarre. The third President was generally a person who could make himself believe anything he wanted, that his position and beliefs were always righteous, as long as it helped him get or preserve what he wanted.
Ellis does reveal the many aspects that prove Jefferson such a contradiction. Those include his inability to speak in public compared to the tremendous talent as a writer and analyst. The fact that he betrayed one of his most loyal and devoted friends for decades (John Adams), to secure the goals of the Virginians in the roots of the Founding, also speak loudly to his complex nature. What most people do not realize was that though he was extremely reticent that our country not become encumbered to a national financial consolidation, he was among the most atrocious of debtors and virtually ruined his family through decades of irresponsible personal spending. Finally, everyone now knows his amazingly illogical position regarding slavery, and the facts proven by modern DNA mapping techniques that demonstrate that he fathered children by his slave Sally Hemings.
I rate this book most accurately at 4.00 out of 5.00 stars. It is a must read for devotees of the Revolutionary period, and for those interested in Jefferson or John Adams. Ellis could have rated higher by really getting in depth in the many complex facets of Jefferson's personality, ability the author demonstrates better in other works. The book is worth reading and valuable for reference work.
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77 of 89 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good, But Not The Easiest Read, May 26, 2002
By A Customer
This review is from: American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (Paperback)
After reading this book, I must say it is informative, and the author's conversions of his learned interpretations into historical facts are interesting. But, it is not the easiest read. It is very academic, lecture-like, and hard to get into. I also read the book I found here on Amazon.com called "West Point:...Thomas Jefferson" by Norman Thomas Remick, which was much easier and more interesting to read. Because all the research the author used for the book is either material that Jefferson himself read or Jefferson himself wrote, I must say I came away with a much better understanding of Jefferson than I did with the Professor Ellis book. But, as a college student, it was an honor to read the Professor Ellis book. I still recommend it to you, as well as, the Remick book.
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37 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Compelling Study of a Founding Father, January 23, 2001
By 
Dana Keish (Ohio, United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (Paperback)
Of all the historical characters I have ever read about, Thomas Jefferson by far is the most complex. His entire life seems to be a contradiction. The writer of the Declaration of Independence, yet he owned slaves all his life, refusing to free them even in his will. Opposed to any kind of centralized federal government, yet under his presidential administration, the US doubled in size with the Federal government purchase of the Louisiana territory. Author Ellis does a superb job of noting these contradictions and many other weaknesses displayed by Jefferson throughout his career. A Francophile, Jefferson was totally unable to predict the violence of the French Revolution, even though he was living in Paris during the time. During the American Revolution, Jefferson wrote the Declaration and then disappeared to Monticello, then leaving men like Adams and Washington to put his ideas into action. This particularly charactertizes the actions of Jefferson- his thoughts were so idealistic as to be incompatible with reality. This is opposed to Adams, a thoroughly pragmatic man. Time and again, author Ellis contrast Jefferson to Adams and in the majority of the instances, Jefferson loses. Yet, the American public is still drawn to Jefferson while Adams does not seem to generate that kind of esteem. Why? Jefferson was an idealist, who talked about the moral goodness of man and thought the human race able to function with very little in the ways of laws, government oversite, etc. These ideas were portayed by Jefferson in his writings which fed the higher nature in all of us. Men like Adams were much more pragmatic- ideas are fine, but what can we make that will actually work in the real world?
This book does a wonderful job of trying to define the character of Jefferson and the title American Sphinx is more accurate. I don't believe we can truly know Jefferson and perhaps that's what makes him one of the most interesting of the Founding Fathers.
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40 of 46 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Terrific Political Synopsis of Jefferson, August 2, 1999
By A Customer
This review is from: American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (Paperback)
I loved this book, which read like a a novel. Ellis found negatives in Jefferson where deserved, and there was the constant comparison (in my mind) throughout the book where Jefferson would be in today's American political structure. I agree with a reviewer who said Jefferson would be appalled by today's politics of the Democratic and Republican parties, and would propably be Libertarian. But then again, Jefferson seemed to be so pragmatic (was the Louisiana Purchase constitutional and/or did Jefferson just want the land for American expansion?), that he could be in either major party (Republican for his strong anti-government views or Democratic for his no prayers in school views). Clearly, though, he would not be a television President, and, thus not electable today. That he was a brilliant writer is indisputable and being the first anti-Federalist President carrying the banner for less government and more individual soverignty makes him a stand-out in that era of brilliant Founding Fathers. Ellis points out that his political philosophy cerainly was inconsistent, and that Jefferson's personality did not lead him to "enjoy" conflict as much as John Adams,leading to the inescapable conclusion that Jefferson was a political philosopher laying the foundation for one major segment of American political thought for the next two centuries. The book did not clarify Jefferson's mental character enough. More about his family background, how he reacted personally to his wife's and daughter's deaths would haave been helpful for this analysis. Why he apparantly lacked "fire in the belly" to take on the issue of slavery when he was President, of which he disapproved but certainly condoned. There was also no mention of the events of the American Revolution, which I find to be the only major failing of the book, as it would have put the protagonists more in the context of that era, and, I believe, made Jefferson stand out more that he already does.
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28 of 32 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars American Icon Revealed, January 12, 2000
This book is a first rate study on an enduring icon in Americam history. Ellis obviously loves his subject matter and brings the great man to life. His writing style is erudite without couching the book in specialized terms that hide more than they reveal. As far a Jefferson is concerned, and what Ellis has brought to our attention, is that he was above all a visionary, concerned with centralized governments with too much power. Interestingly, over two hundred years latter, this is still the concern of many politically minded people. In terms of Jefferson's character, what a fascinating individual. A writer of prose of pure genius. This book sensitively communicates the fact that Jefferson was human, with all the human frailties that go along with the condition. Heroes do have feet of clay, but Ellis has managed to expose Jefferson's defects without pulling him down. Jefferson is even a greater man with all his faults; a far cry from the Romantic image I had of him as a young man growing up, when history was a myth-making exercise not concerned with truth. Ellis should again be commended for this wonderful portrait of America's most famous 'Enlightenment Man', who stands amongst the greatest of his era: Voltaire, Franklin, et al. I recommend this text about one of the most inspirational and intriguing men in American history.
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46 of 55 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sphinx?, November 4, 2001
By 
This review is from: American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (Paperback)
Five star effort by Ellis for what he did. If you want the Sphinx-like enigma of Jefferson to continue, however, don't read the little known book by a little known author who has found the lost piece in the Jefferson picture puzzle that completes the picture, banishes the enigima, and finally brings Jefferson into clear focus for all observers. If you want to halt the Jefferson feeding frenzy (and perhaps you don't, for it has become rather like a sport)-- if you want to finally see and understand Thomas Jefferson clearly -- I suggest you read (and don't be fooled by the title) "West Point" by Norman Thomas Remick. I was shocked! This unknown author has found the "lost chord". I hate to say it guys, but the feeding frenzy is over! All your books on the "mysterious" Thomas Jefferson are obsolete. Throw them on the trash heep!
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105 of 131 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant in spurts, but fatally flawed in its fundamental conclusions, August 8, 2007
This review is from: American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (Paperback)
This book reminds me of physicists who perform mathematical calculations, decide they must be correct, and then strain to make physical reality fit those equations.

First, credit where it is due. The book is written brilliantly. Ellis has a rare mastery of language, something especially noticeable in the dry historical genres. Many times, I marveled at his use of the PRECISE word or metaphor that conveyed his points the best. Unfortunately, his points, in totality, do not convey Jefferson accurately.

Ellis' thesis is that Jefferson was at heart a naive idealist who preferred simple black-and-white, us-versus-them views of the world, and most of Ellis' analysis of Jefferson is seen through this lens. Though insightful initially, and applicable at times, it grew more strained as the book progressed, eventually distorting Jefferson to make him fit the "theory."

I am neither a Jefferson worshipper, nor hater, and I have read thousands of his letters -- Jefferson is not easy to grasp. Initially I thought Ellis had done what most historians deem impossible, and solved this puzzle, but the further his analysis proceeded, the further it diverged from the real Jefferson. Ellis' interpretations are dangerous because he writes so well -- the arguments are beguiling, and the biases and inconsistencies are masked in the honey of the language. Laypeople in particular may be duped.

Jefferson truly believed in individual freedom and very limited government, and though he is clever and subtle, Ellis cannot mask his disdain for this latter view. Ellis is a liberal, and his personal politics have tainted his interpretation of Jefferson. This isn't about a support or dislike of liberalism, it is about historical integrity.

At times Jefferson's views were too idealistic to translate into prudent policy, or a tenable society, but at other times they are the heart of what made America great. Ellis summarily dismisses Jefferson's views on the evils of debt, the tyranny of judicial review, a society with strong states, etc. . . In dismissing these things, and offering interpretations of history that assume the necessity of big government as a backdrop for almost all analysis, he trivializes some of Jefferson's most core beliefs, and the solutions to modern problems that they might offer. Solutions, unsurprisingly, that are based on principles of limited government, low debt, low taxes, empowered localities, limited federal government, etc.

I don't think Ellis was trying to be intentionally distortive. I think deep in his bones Ellis is a liberal, and without realizing it, he considers the small government Jefferson was fanatical about a deranged absurdity. By pecking word by word, sentence by sentence, page by page, at the tenability of limited government, he is, in some subconscious way, simultaneously distorting and demeaning Jefferson's views while advocating his own.

To repeat, many of Jefferson's views were untenable, but I just don't think Ellis is truly unbiased in his analysis. What a shame.

Finally, one must, unfortunately, question the integrity of a man who has fabricated Vietnam War service, and lied to many, including his own students. Ellis also put his name to ads supporting Clinton during the impeachment, and then came public with Hemings' (the slave Jefferson supposedly fathered the children of) information during this impeachment, presumably (but this is not certain) to make what Clinton did seem a historically mundane, and therefore pardonable, act. I could care less about Clinton in this context, but I want a historian who tries to be unbiased, or admits his biases, rather than one who is a documented liar, and distorts every view through the spectacles of collectivism. How surprising that a man who himself lied about his past was willing to forgive a leader that did the same? It is naïve to think that this morality (or lack of it) will not creep into his work, and it has. Character matters, not just in leaders, but in our historians--we all have partisan views, but in analyzing our Founders, I expect more integrity and objectivity from renowned historians.
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American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson
American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph J. Ellis (Paperback - April 7, 1998)
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