- Paperback: 440 pages
- Publisher: Vintage Books (April 7, 1998)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0679764410
- ISBN-13: 978-0679764410
- Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 249 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #17,762 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson Paperback – April 7, 1998
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“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 intothe 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 naivete, 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.
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Mr. Ellis does an impressive job of attempting to get into the mind of a most elusive man. By the author's own admission, Thomas Jefferson is a confusing character, perhaps the most confusing person in American history. The man who clearly stated that all men are created equal held on to hundreds of slaves. The man who tried to cry against the slave trade as a moral evil had no problem in selling off some of his own slaves. The man who would write and preach about moral purity would have a decades-long obsession with another man's wife. The man who saw it absolutely necessary to limit the power of the federal government would find a way to excuse the exercise of more federal power than any of his presidential predecessors during the episode of the Louisiana Purchase. But the author takes great pains to portray how each one of these and many other seeming contradictions in Jefferson's life were accompanied by huge amounts of internal intellectual and moral questionings. It would be extremely rare to see Jefferson proceeding with any huge decision until he had wrestled with it in his mind and found a way to make it fit with his own personal set of convictions. While others might, a frequently did, spot contradictions in his character, he himself was convinced that his actions did not contradict themselves but rather that he always acted in accordance with what was right in his own eyes.
And ultimately, this is how normal people act. We don't always do what we or other people expect, but we usually do what we think is right. The author consistently shows that Jefferson would constantly do what he believed to be right, even if it was sometimes based on a worldview that was not entirely compatible with the real world. But I will say no more on that. I don't want to spoil the entire book for you.
I walk away from this book satisfied that I have a greater understanding of the character and thinking of one of the greatest American's ever. The only reason this book gets four rather than five stars is that it does get repetitious looking at the same set of questions over and over again during the different time periods of Jefferson's life. However, since these questions serve to support the author's argument, you cannot really fault him for continuously referring to them.
Now, I don't need a book to agree with my every sentiment. I don't need an author to tell me I'm right. What I need from a book, about an already well-covered subject, is something new and something different. Sometimes I need to be shown the opposition. Ellis has made quite a handful of Jeffersonians upset with American Sphinx. It's not just because he claims that Jefferson's more radical beliefs were baseless, even though he often does categorize them as such, it is because Mr. Ellis makes a damn good argument to the popular contrary. He hasn't changed my views, not even in the slightest, but it wasn't his goal to try to change them at all. Jeffersonian readers need to come down off the defensive and allow for rationality to enter the realm of contemporary scholarship. The goal of Ellis was not to kick dirt on Jefferson's legacy. His goal was to analyze and inquire. His critical look at the foundation of American radicalism was a civil and welcome glance that was taken into kind consideration.
An eloquent book about principality and masks and several truths. In the words of it's author, "All I can say in my defense is that the subject of the chapters that follow, while great, is not a statue".
Most recent customer reviews
Hugely instructive for understanding fundamentals of the American psyche(s).