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American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson Paperback – April 7, 1998
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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 the MP3 CD edition.
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 the MP3 CD edition.
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Perhaps the first thing to understand when reading a book by this author is that it is scholarly, not light reading. There are facts and allegories, to be sure, but mostly there is a philosophical attempt to distill the essence of Jefferson. This is not for the faint-hearted, and Ellis shrinks from nothing.
The very core of the distillate, he argues, is American individualism, the unwillingness to be governed except when faced by a common (unifying) threat. In the absence of such a unifier, Americans inherently distrust government and give their consent only grudgingly. Ellis argues convincingly that this is exactly what Jefferson himself would have wanted, a people who remain possessive about their individuality and who adjust their government as their changing needs may require.
The epilogue of the book, however, strikes me as a bit too pedantic. The author in effect belittles not only the continuous political co-opting of Jeffersonianisms, but he actually names the Internet and chat rooms on AOL (!) as tools which Jefferson would have very much approved of, but which are mostly (entirely?) filled with comments and conversations about Jefferson that are complete and utter nonsense.
Personally, I agree with the former premise and take exception to the latter. Jefferson belongs to us all and no one, not even Professor Ellis, has cornered the market on Jeffersonian Truth.