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Customer Review

1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Excellent as far as it went, but ultimately incomplete, July 18, 2008
This review is from: American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (Paperback)
A common theme amongst many reader reviews that appeared to be neophytes to American history was that this book is painfully slow and lacking a compelling narrative. While I disagree with the former claim, I agree with the latter. I believe this is a book that best serves more ardent students of history who've already studied Jefferson and are more than willing to wade through a lot of uneventful anecdotes to get to know the man better, which Ellis does a great job on the subjects he covers except Jefferson's position on religion - so for those that want to go deep into history, this is a very interesting, worthy book. Ellis purposefully strips out much of the narrative by design, it is a character analysis (see subtitle of book for goodness sakes!), and therefore a narrative would threaten the very purpose of the book.

Ellis' Jefferson comes off as perfectly brilliant, utopian, progressive, somewhat dogmatic, impractical, subversive, and most importantly - all too human. Ellis does a wonderful job of describing the events where Jefferson was obviously on the wrong side of history as we look back in time - e.g., Jefferson's belief that the states would better defend individual liberty rather than the federal government, especially the Supreme Court which has ultimately become our greatest defender, along with eloquently analyzing his greatest accomplishments and contributions to mankind. Ellis brings Madison and Adams into this study in just the right amounts to provide an understanding of how Jefferson interacted with the other framers along with how Jefferson viewed the Revolution and ratification of the Constitution vs. their very different perspectives.

Ellis's treatment of Jefferson's contributions to promoting the limits of government and its obligation to defend its citizens' liberty rights was well covered from a philosophical perspective but completely lacking from a constitutional perspective. While Ellis covered Jefferson's firm position on the importance of secular government if men were to fully enjoy liberty was noted, this analysis was all too brief given the current times where the religious right continuously mischaracterize Jefferson's position on religious freedom, e.g., President Bush's 2008 Independence Day speech is a good example of a modern day character distorting Jefferson's writings to achieve a political objective perfectly contrary to Jefferson's clearly stated position. Given that Jefferson believed that individual freedom is only possible with a secular government with zero evidence to date he was incorrect; Ellis shortchanges his readers by not spending more time on this critical contribution, especially given Jefferson's radical position, and in hindsight his genius on this subject. In fact, Jefferson's position is still so radical there is no way a modern-day politician could espouse views like Jefferson's and get elected in America.

Ellis also leaves out some out critical time periods in Jefferson's life, like Jefferson's second term as President. Given the paperback's main body comes in at 367 pages, I felt one hundred fifty more pages to include more on Jefferson's religious viewpoints and his second presidential term was well deserved given the importance of Jefferson relative to America's founding ideals passed down by him and the other framers.
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