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American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson Hardcover – Deckle Edge, February 4, 1997

4.0 out of 5 stars 251 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.

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 Book Is Bound with "Deckle Edge" Paper
You may have noticed that some of our books are identified as "deckle edge" in the title. Deckle edge books are bound with pages that are made to resemble handmade paper by applying a frayed texture to the edges. Deckle edge is an ornamental feature designed to set certain titles apart from books with machine-cut pages. See a larger image.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf; 1st edition (February 4, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679444904
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679444909
  • Product Dimensions: 6.7 x 1.4 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (251 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #341,894 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: 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...
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By A Customer on February 7, 2002
Format: 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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Format: 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.
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By A Customer on March 28, 2002
Format: 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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Format: 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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