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American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson

3.6 56
by Joseph J. Ellis

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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


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, 1826); 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 leakedout into the 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 naïveté, 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.

Editorial Reviews

A shrewd, spirited biography of our third president -- one that abstains from both worship and bashing. Winner of the 1997 National Book Award for nonfiction.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's 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.
Library Journal
Historian Ellis (Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams, LJ 4/15/93) does not attempt to give a full-scale biography of the Sage of Monticello. Rather, he offers a balanced meditation on Jefferson's character and ideals. Reaffirming and taking further what some previous authors have stated, Ellis maintains that Jefferson's ambiguous, secretive character was able to support mutually contradictory positions on a variety of issues. Moreover, Jefferson often retreated into romantic illusions rather than face reality. Ellis's work is based on many years of research into this period of American history, and it is perfectly pitched to appeal to both general readers and specialists. Attorney Gordon-Reed (New York Law School) presents a lawyer's analysis of the evidence for and against the proposition that Jefferson was the father of several children born to his household slave Sally Hemings. Gordon-Reed is not concerned with Jefferson and Hemings as much as she is with how Jefferson's defenders have dealt with the evidence about the case. Her book takes aim at such noteworthy biographers as Dumas Malone, who has been quick to accept evidence against a liaison and quick to reject evidence for one. In sum, the Jefferson who emerges from these two books is a great though deeply flawed man. Both books are highly recommended as essential reading for all libraries.
--Thomas J. Schaeper, St. Bonaventure University, N.Y.
School Library Journal
In studying historical leaders, students rarely get a look at the individuals behind the myths that have grown up around them. Here, Ellis does an excellent job of showing that Jefferson was a human who made many decisions and some mistakes. On the one hand, he was a great historical figure who is due respect; on the other, he was a debt-ridden man with family problems. Ellis does not have an agenda to promote; he has a story to tell, and he tells it well. In a book that reads like fiction, he combines exciting plot turns with information. At the end, readers may not know for certain that Jefferson's life had a happy ending; but they will see him as flesh and blood instead of as a stiff statue or fixed painting in the Capitol rotunda. This absorbing study concludes with an appendix dealing with the Sally Hemmings scandal as well as extensive notes and an excellent
-- Rebecca L. Woodcock, formerly of Alderman Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA
Cleveland Plain Dealer
A brilliant, unconventional look at Jefferson.
Brent Staples
The book "is fresh and uncluttered but rich in historical context."
-- New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews

In the latest of a spate of books on his legacy, Ellis (History/Mount Holyoke Coll.; Passionate Sage, 1993) argues that Thomas Jefferson was neither the saintly hero of myth nor the devious hypocrite depicted by some revisionist studies, but a protean character whose complex qualities evoke the best and worst aspects of our history and culture.

Ellis notes that, unlike the largely forgotten John Adams, Jefferson is an iconic figure who maintains a continuing symbolic significance for modern Americans, either as an apostle of democracy or as an exemplar of the racism that has disfigured American history. Studying five crucial periods in his life, Ellis traces the unique mix of the brilliant and the fallible in Jefferson's character. We see him in turn as the young, sensitive, high-strung drafter of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia in 1776; a seasoned diplomat in Paris in 178489; a gentleman farmer (179497); a besieged president (180104); and finally, an elder statesman (181626). Ellis points out that Jefferson's career had disasters as well as successes. He was, for instance, a failure as governor of Virginia (his administration left the state's economy in shambles). He also argues that Jefferson's thought cannot easily be taken out of its historical context. Crucial aspects of his outlook have been outmoded by time: Such concepts as slavery, states' rights, and the primacy of the agrarian in American life were wiped out by the Civil War. The growth of a multicultural society and the development of a culture of equal rights for minorities and women undermined his vision of an Anglo-Saxon society dominated by men. Nonetheless, Ellis asserts that there are enduring aspects of Jefferson's legacy—including his emphasis on individual rights, an abhorrence of centralized government, and a belief in the necessity for religious freedom—that continue to shape our political culture today.

A thoughtful and respectful, but not worshipful, reassessment of the enduring meaning of Jefferson's life and work.

From the Publisher
“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

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
1st Edition
Product dimensions:
6.71(w) x 9.56(h) x 1.40(d)

Read an Excerpt


PROLOGUE Jeffersonian Surge: America, 1992-93

If Jefferson was wrong, America is wrong.
If America is right, Jefferson was right.
--James Parton (1874)

You could reach into your pocket, pull out a nickel and find him gazing into the middle distance--as my liberal friends noted, always looking left. You could go to Charlottesville, Virginia, and see full-length statues of him on the campus he designed, then travel a few miles up his mountaintop and visit his spirit and mansion at Monticello. As of 1993, you could follow the James River down to Williamsburg, a route he took many times as a young man, and see another full-length statue of him on the campus of the College of William and Mary, a recent gift from the college he founded to the college from which he graduated, there looking off to the right--as my conservative friends noted--apparently studying the comings and goings at the adjacent women's dormitory. You could head north out of the Tidewater region, past Civil War battle sites--Cold Harbor, Chancellorsville, Fredricksburg--where both Union and Confederate soldiers believed they fought in behalf of his legacy. And you could cross over the Potomac from Virginia to the District of Columbia and find him in his own memorial on the Tidal Basin, looking straight ahead in this rendition, with plaques on the marble walls around him reproducing several of his most inspirational declarations of personal freedom. Or if you shared his romance with the American West, you could catch him in his most mammoth and naturalistic version on Mount Rushmore.

But these were all mere replicas. In November 1993 a reincarnated Thomas Jefferson promised to make a public appearance in the unlikely location of a large brick church in Worcester, Massachusetts. On this raw New England evening an impersonator named Clay Jenkinson had come to portray the flesh-and-blood Jefferson, alive among us in the late twentieth century. My own sense was that forty or fifty hardy souls would brave the weather and show up. This, after all, was a semischolarly affair, designed to recover Jefferson without much media hoopla or patriotic pageantry. As it turned out, however, about four hundred enthusiastic New Englanders crowded into the church. Despite the long-standing regional suspicion of southerners, especially Virginians (John Adams had said that "in Virginia, all geese are swans"), the appearance of Jefferson was obviously a major attraction.

The American Antiquarian Society hosted a dinner before the event. All the community leaders, including the superintendent of schools, the heads of local insurance and computing companies and a small delegation from the Massachusetts legislature, seemed to have turned out. What's more, representatives from the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities had flown in from Washington. Also present were two filmmaking groups. From Florentine Films came Camilla Rockwell, who told me that Ken Burns of Civil War fame was planning a major documentary on Jefferson for public television. And from the Jefferson Legacy Foundation came Bud Leeds and Chip Stokes, who had just announced a campaign to raise funds for a big-budget commercial film on Jefferson. (From Leeds and Stokes I first learned that another major film, on Jefferson in Paris, was already planned, starring Nick Nolte in the title role.) Their entourage included an Iranian millionaire who said that he had fallen in love with Jefferson soon after escaping persecution by the Islamic fundamentalists in Iran, an experience that gave him unique access to Jefferson's genius in insisting upon the separation of church and state.

It was during the dinner that the germ of the idea made its first appearance in my mind, initially in the form of a question: What was it about Jefferson? Granted, 1993 was the 250th anniversary of Jefferson's birth, so a momentary surge in his reputation was to be expected. But were there any other prominent figures from the American past who could generate this much contemporary interest? There were only two possible contenders, so it seemed to me, both of whom also occupied sacred space on the Mall in the nation's capital, the American version of Mount Olympus. There was George Washington, the "Father of Our Country," who had the largest monument to patriarchal achievement in the world, dwarfing the memorials of the other American icons. Then there was Abraham Lincoln, who had a bigger memorial on the Tidal Basin than Jefferson and was usually the winner whenever pollsters tried to rate the greatest American presidents.

But Washington usually lost out to Jefferson; he seemed too distant and silent. There were no words etched on the walls of the Washington Monument. He was the Delphic oracle who never spoke, more like an Old Testament Jehovah who would never come down to earth as Jefferson was doing tonight. Lincoln was a more formidable contender. Like Jefferson, he was accessible and had also spoken magic words. Ordinary citizens tended to know about the Gettysburg Address nearly as much as the Declaration of Independence. But Lincoln's magic was more somber and burdened; he was a martyr and his magic had a tragic dimension. Jefferson was light, inspiring, optimistic. Although Lincoln was more respected, Jefferson was more loved.

These were my thoughts as we walked across the street to the church where Jenkinson was scheduled to re-create Jefferson. He appeared on the sanctuary steps in authentic eighteenth-century costume and began talking in measured cadences about his early days as a student at the College of William and Mary, his thoughts on the American Revolution, his love of French wine and French ideas, his achievements and frustrations as a political leader and president, his obsession with architecture and education, his elegiac correspondence with John Adams during the twilight years of his life, his bottomless sense of faith in America's prospects as the primal force for democracy in the world.

Jenkinson obviously knew his Jefferson. As a historian familiar with the scholarly literature I was aware of several tricky areas where a slight misstep could carry one down a hallway of half-truths, places where a little knowledge could lead one astray in a big way. But Jenkinson never faltered. He was giving us an elegantly disguised lecture on American history that drew deftly on the modern Jefferson scholarship.

Two things he did not do were also impressive. He did not try to speak with a southern or Virginian accent. He obviously realized that no one really knows how Jefferson talked or sounded, whether the accent was more southern or English or some unique combination. So Jenkinson spoke American. He also did not pretend to be in the eighteenth century. His Jefferson had materialized in our world and our time. He could not be accused of committing the sin of "presentism" because he was not making any claims about being oblivious to the fact that it was now, not then.

Indeed, most of the questions from the audience were about current affairs: What would you do about the health care problem, Mr. Jefferson? What do you think of President Clinton? Do you have any wisdom to offer on the Bosnian crisis? Would you have committed American troops to the Gulf War? Sprinkled into this mixture were several questions about American history and Jefferson's role in its making: Why did you never remarry? What did you mean by "the pursuit of happiness" in the Declaration of Independence? Why did you own slaves?

This last question had a sharp edge, and Jenkinson handled it carefully. Slavery was a moral travesty, he said, an institution clearly at odds with the values of the American Revolution. He had tried his best to persuade his countrymen to end the slave trade and gradually end slavery itself. But he had failed. As for his own slaves, he had treated them benevolently, as the fellow human beings they were. He concluded with a question of his own: What else would you have wanted me to do? A follow-up question at this point could have ignited some intellectual fireworks, but no one asked it. The audience had not come to witness an argument so much as to pay its respects to an icon. If Jefferson was America's Mona Lisa, they had come to see him smiling.

Despite the obviously respectful mood, it still surprised me that no one asked "the Sally question." My own experience as a college teacher suggested that most students could be counted on to know two things about Jefferson: that he had written the Declaration of Independence and that he had been accused of an illicit affair with Sally Hemings, a mulatto slave at Monticello. This piece of scandal had first surfaced when Jefferson was president, in 1802, and had subsequently affixed itself to his reputation like a tin can that rattled through the ages and pages of history. I subsequently learned that Jenkinson had a standard response to "the Sally question," which was that the story had originated with a disappointed office seeker named James Callender who had a long-standing reputation for scandalmongering (true enough) and that Jefferson had denied the charge on one occasion but otherwise refused to comment on it (also true). A few months after I saw him at Worcester, Jenkinson was the main attraction at a gala Jefferson celebration at the White House, where he won the hearts of the Clinton people by saying that Jefferson would dismiss the entire Whitewater investigation as "absolutely nobody's business."

Jenkinson's bravura performance that November night stuck in my mind, but what became an even more obsessive memory was the audience. Here, in the heart of New England (surely Adams country), Jefferson was their favorite Founding Father, indeed their all-time American hero. In its own way their apparently unconditional love for Jefferson was every bit as mysterious as the enigmatic character of the man himself. Like a splendid sunset or a woman's beauty, it was simply there. Jefferson did not just get the benefit of every doubt; he seemed to provide a rallying point where ordinary Americans from different backgrounds could congregate to dispel the very possibility of doubt itself.

In a sense it had always been this way. Soon after his death in 1826 Jefferson became a touchstone for wildly divergent political movements that continued to compete for his name and the claim on his legacy. Southern secessionists cited him on behalf of states' rights; northern abolitionists quoted his words in the Declaration of Independence against slavery. The so-called Robber Barons of the Gilded Age echoed his warnings against the encroaching powers of the federal government; liberal reformers and radical Populists referred to his strictures against corrupt businessmen and trumpeted his tributes to the superiority of agrarian values. In the Scopes trial both William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow were sure that Jefferson agreed with their position on evolution. Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt both claimed him as their guide to the problems of the Great Depression. The chief chronicler of the multiple Jeffersonian legacy, Merrill Peterson, gave it the name "protean," which provided a respectably classical sound to what some critics described as Jefferson's disarming ideological promiscuity. He was America's Everyman.

But at least until the New Deal era of Franklin Roosevelt there were critics. The main story line of American history, in fact, cast Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton in the lead roles of a dramatic contest between the forces of democracy (or liberalism) and the forces of aristocracy (or conservatism). While this formulation had the suspiciously melodramatic odor of a political soap opera, it also had the advantage of reducing the bedeviling complexities of American history to a comprehensible scheme: It was the people against the elites, the West against the East, agrarians against industrialists, Democrats against Republicans. Jefferson was only one side of the American political dialogue, often the privileged side to be sure, the voice of "the many" holding forth against "the few."

To repeat, this version of American history always had the semifictional quality of an imposed plot line--the very categories were Jeffersonian and therefore prejudicial--but it ceased making any sense at all by the 1930s, when Franklin Roosevelt invoked Hamiltonian methods (i.e., government intervention) to achieve Jeffersonian goals (i.e., economic equality). After the New Deal most historians abandoned the Jefferson-Hamilton distinction altogether and most politicians stopped yearning for a Jeffersonian utopia free of government influence. No serious scholar any longer believed that the Jeffersonian belief in a minimalist federal government was relevant in an urban, industrialized American society. The disintegration of the old categories meant the demise of Jefferson as the symbolic leader of liberal partisans fighting valiantly against the entrenched elites.

What happened next defined the new paradigm for the Jefferson image and set the stage for the phenomenon I witnessed in that Worcester church. Jefferson ceased to function as the liberal half of the American political dialogue and became instead the presiding presence who transcended all political conflicts and parties. As Peterson put it, "the disintegration of the Jeffersonian philosophy of government heralded the ultimate canonization of Jefferson." The moment of Jefferson's ascent into the American version of political heaven can be dated precisely: April 13, 1943, the day that Franklin Roosevelt dedicated the Jefferson Memorial on the Tidal Basin. "Today, in the midst of a great war for freedom," Roosevelt declared, "we dedicate a shrine to freedom." Jefferson was now an American saint, our "Apostle of Freedom," as Roosevelt put it; he concluded by quoting the words inscribed around the inside of the Jefferson Memorial's dome: "For I have sworn on the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." Jefferson was no longer just an essential ingredient in the American political tradition; he was the essence itself, a kind of free-floating icon who hovered over the American political scene like one of those dirigibles cruising above a crowded football stadium, flashing words of inspiration to both teams.

The more I thought about it, the clearer it seemed to me that the audience at Worcester offered a nice illustration of what we might call grass roots Jeffersonianism. Scholars and biographers of Jefferson seldom pay much attention to this phenomenon, since it has almost nothing to do with who the historical Jefferson really was, and the mental process at work, at least on the face of it, appears to resemble a blend of mindless hero worship and political fundamentalism. But it seemed to me that lots of ordinary Americans carried around expectations and assumptions about whet Jefferson symbolized that were infinitely more powerful than any set of historical facts. America's greatest historians and Jefferson scholars could labor for decades to produce the most authoritative and sophisticated studies--several had done precisely that--and they would bounce off the popular image of Jefferson without making a dent. This was the Jefferson magic, but how did the magic work?

The obvious place to look was the shrine on the Tidal Basin. According to the National Park Service, about a million visitors pay their respects to Jefferson in his memorial each year. On the March day in 1993 that I visited, several hundred tourists walked up the marble steps, then proceeded to spend a few minutes studying the dignified statue of Jefferson and snapping pictures. Then most of them looked up to the four inscribed panels on the walls and read the words, often moving their lips and murmuring the famous phrases to themselves. The first panel, which attracted more attention than the others, contained the most famous and familiar words in American history: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Actually, these are not quite the words Jefferson composed in June 1776. Before editorial changes were made by the Continental Congress, Jefferson's early draft made it even clearer that his intention was to express a spiritual vision: "We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & unalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness." These are the core articles of faith in the American Creed. Jefferson's authorship of these words is the core of his seductive appeal across the ages, his central claim, on posterity's affection. What, then, do they mean? How do they make magic?

Merely to ask the question is to risk being accused of some combination of treason and sacrilege, since self-evident truths are not meant to be analyzed; that is what being self-evident is all about. But when these words are stripped of the patriotic haze, read straightaway and literally, two monumental claims are being made here. The explicit claim is that the individual is the sovereign unit in society; his natural state is freedom from and equality with all other individuals; this is the natural order of things. The implicit claim is that all restrictions on this natural order are immoral transgressions, violations of what God intended; individuals liberated from such restrictions will interact with their fellows in a harmonious scheme requiring no external discipline and producing maximum human happiness.

This is a wildly idealistic message, the kind of good news simply too good to be true. It is, truth be told, a recipe for anarchy. Any national government that seriously attempted to operate in accord with these principles would be committing suicide. But, of course, the words were not intended to serve as an operational political blueprint. Jefferson was not a profound political thinker. He was, however, an utterly brilliant political rhetorician and visionary. The genius of his vision is to propose that our deepest yearnings for personal freedom are in fact attainable. The genius of his rhetoric is to articulate irreconcilable human urges at a sufficiently abstract level to mask their mutual exclusiveness. Jefferson guards the American Creed at this inspirational level, which is inherently immune to scholarly skepticism and a place where ordinary Americans can congregate to speak the magic words together. The Jeffersonian magic works because we permit it to function at a rarefied region where real-life choices do not have to be made.

And so, for example, in that Worcester church or in the hallowed space of the Jefferson Memorial, American citizens can come together in Jefferson's presence and simultaneously embrace the following propositions: that abortion is a woman's right and that an unborn child cannot be killed; that health care and a clean environment for all Americans are natural rights and that the federal bureaucracies and taxes required to implement medical and environmental programs violate individual independence; that women and blacks must not be denied their rights as citizens and that affirmative action programs violate the principle of equality. The primal source of Jefferson's modern-day appeal is that he provides the sacred space--not really common ground but more a midair location floating above all the political battle lines--where all Americans can come together and, at least for that moment, become a chorus instead of a cacophony.

As a practicing professional historian who had recently decided to make Jefferson his next scholarly project, I found this a rather disconcerting insight, full of ominous implications. Jefferson was not like most other historical figures--dead, forgotten and nonchalantly entrusted to historians, who presumably serve as the grave keepers for those buried memories no one really cares about anymore. Jefferson had risen from the dead. Or rather the myth of Jefferson had taken on a life of its own. Lots of Americans cared deeply about the meaning of his memory. He had become the Great Sphinx of American history, the enigmatic and elusive touchstone for the most cherished convictions and contested truths in American culture. It was as if a pathologist, just about to begin an autopsy, had discovered that the body on the operating table was still breathing.

. . .

NOT JUST ANY man can become Everyman. During the preceding five years, while I was working on a book about the life and thought of John Adams, only a few scholarly friends ever asked me what I was doing or, once apprised, felt any urge to follow up with inquiries that indicated Adams touched their lives in any way. (The most common response from my nonacademic friends was that they knew the Adams face because it appeared on their favorite beer, but they were mistaking John for his cousin Sam.) Working on Jefferson, on the other hand, was like entering an electromagnetic field where lots of friends and neighbors--businessmen, secretaries, journalists, janitors--already resonated with excitement. When my furnace stopped working in the dead of the winter, the local repairman noticed the books on Jefferson piled up in my study. As I held the flashlight for him in the basement while he lay on his back replacing worn-out parts of the heat pump, he talked for a full hour about how critics had maligned Jefferson as an atheist. The repairman was a devout Christian and had read somewhere about Jefferson's keen interest in the Bible. No, sir, Jefferson was a good Christian gentleman, and he hoped I would get that right in my book.

A neighbor who taught in the local high school, upon learning that I was working on Jefferson, promised to send me a book that he had found extremely helpful in distilling the Jeffersonian message for his students. A package then arrived in the mail that contained three copies of Revolution Song, which was not written but "assembled" by one Jim Strupp in order to "provide young people with a contemporary look into the beliefs, ideals and radical thought of Thomas Jefferson." The blurb on the cover went on: "In our country today, true democratic government is betrayed at all levels. As democracies emerge around the world, they are also subtly being destroyed." The hyperventilating tone of Revolution Song was reminiscent of those full-page newspaper ads in which Asian gurus or self-proclaimed prophets lay out their twelve-step programs to avert the looming apocalypse. Actually, the propagandistic model for Revolution Song was even more provocative: "This little book attempts to serve as a democratic alternative to the works of Chairman Mao and other non-democratic leaders." It was designed as a succinct catechism of Jeffersonian thought, a "little blue book" to counter Mao's "little red book." No matter that Mao was in disgrace, even in China, and that communism since 1989 was an ideological lost cause, loitering on the world stage only as an object lesson in political and economic catastrophe. The global battle for the souls of humankind was never-ending, and Jefferson remained the inspirational source, the chosen beacon of the chosen people, still throwing out its light from Monticello, his own personal City on a Hill. Silly stuff, to be sure, but another example of how hauntingly powerful Jefferson's legacy remained at the popular level.

Soon after I had received my complimentary copies of Revolutionary Song, another piece of mail arrived from someone also exploring the Jefferson trail. The letter came from Paris, and the sender was Mary Jo Salter, a good friend who also happened to be one of America's most respected poets. She and her husband, the writer Brad Leithauser, were spending a sabbatical year in Paris, where Mary Jo was continuing to perform her duties as poetry editor of the New Republic and completing a volume of new poems. The longest poem in the collection, it turned out, would focus on the ubiquitous Mr. Jefferson. Although she explained that "98 percent of the facts and 92 percent of the interpretations historians can provide about Jefferson will never get into my poem at all," Mary Jo wondered if I might help with the history, explaining that it would be "a crime to get my substantive facts wrong if one can possibly avoid it."

For a poet of Mary Jo's stature and sensibility, Jefferson was certainly not a political choice, at least in the customary sense of the term. She had no ideological axes to grind, no patriotic hymns to sing. And it made no sense to think that propagandists and poets were plugged into the same cultural grid, which had its main power source buried beneath the mountains around Monticello. So I asked her: Why Jefferson?

That question provoked a spirited exchange of letters over several months. Part of Jefferson's poetic appeal, it turned out, was his lifelong concern with language. He had also been the subject of several distinguished poets of the past; Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, and Robert Penn Warren had taken him on. But mostly, Mary Joe explained, "poets are seized by images," and in Jefferson's case two specific incidents struck her as poetic occasions: The first was his death on July 4, 1826, fifty years to the day after the acceptance of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress and the same day John Adams died; the second was another eerie coincidence--his purchase of a thermometer on July 4, 1776, and his recording a peak temperature of seventy-six degrees Fahrenheit that special day. These were "poignant and eminently visual events," she explained, that captured a poet's imagination. They were the kinds of historical facts that poets usually were required to invent. Whether it was a certain knack or sheer fate, Jefferson's life possessed the stuff of poetry.

The thirty-page poem that Mary Jo eventually produced, entitled "The Hand of Thomas Jefferson," was a meditation on the hand that wrote the Declaration of Independence, was broken in Paris during a romantic frolic with Maria Cosway, then crafted those elegiac last letters to Adams and finally reached across the ages to pull us toward him. When I asked what about Jefferson pulled her, Mary Jo said it was his "accessible mysteriousness," the fact that there appeared to be a seductive bundle of personae or selves inside Jefferson that did not talk to one another but could and did talk to us. This was a bit different from Peterson's "protean" Jefferson, which suggested a multidimensional Renaissance Man. Mary Jo's Jefferson was more like Postmodern Man, a series of disjointed identities that beckoned to our contemporary sense of incoherence and that could be made whole only in our imagination, the place where poets live.

I was not sure where that left historians, who were not, to be sure, obliged to disavow the use of their imaginations but were duty-bound to keep them on a tight tether tied to the available evidence. Watching Mary Jo work made me wonder whether Jefferson's enigmatic character might not require the imaginative leeway provided by fiction or poetry to leap across those interior gaps of silence for which he was so famous. Did that mean that any historian who took on Jefferson needed to apply for a poetic license? It was absolutely clear to me that the apparently bottomless and unconditional love for Jefferson at the grass roots level was virtually impervious to historical argument or evidence. It even seemed possible that the quest for the historical Jefferson, like the quest for the historical Jesus, was an inherently futile exercise. No less a source than Merrill Peterson, the best Jefferson biographer alive, seemed to endorse such doubts when he made what he called the "mortifying confession" that after over thirty years of work, "Jefferson remains for me, finally, an impenetrable man."

Anyone who paused too long to contemplate the wisdom of the quest was likely to be trampled by the crowds, who harbored no doubts. Upwards of six hundred thousand Jefferson lovers were attracted to a major exhibit on "The Worlds of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello," which ran from April to December 1993. Susan Stein, Monticello's curator of art, had made a heroic effort to reassemble most of the furnishings that had been dispersed starting in 1827, when Jefferson's crushing debts forced his descendants to auction off the estate. The result was a faithful replication of what Monticello's interior spaces actually looked like during Jefferson's lifetime. If the rooms of the mansion were in any reliable sense an accurate reflection of his many-chambered personality, they suggested wildly extravagant clutter and a principle of selection guided only by a luxuriously idiosyncratic temperament: Houdon busts next to Indian headdresses, mahogany tables brimming over with multiple sets of porcelain and silver candlesticks, wall-to-wall portraits and prints and damask hangings and full-length gilt-framed mirrors.

Perhaps all our lives would look just as random and jumbled if our most precious material possessions, gathered over a lifetime, were reassembled in one place. By any measure, however, chockablock Monticello resembled a trophy case belonging to one of America's most self-indulgent and wildly eclectic collectors. How did one square this massive treasure trove of expensive collectibles with a life at least nominally committed to agrarian simplicity and Ciceronian austerity? The exhibit suggested that Jefferson lived in a crowded museum filled with the kinds of expensive objects one normally associates with a late-nineteenth-century Robber Baron whose exorbitant wealth permitted him to indulge all his acquisitive instincts. The one discernible reminder of Jefferson's preference for what he called "republican simplicity" was the most valued item in the exhibit: the portable writing desk on which he had composed the Declaration of Independence. It was on loan from the Smithsonian, where it had resided since 1880, and the only other time it had been permitted to travel was in 1943, when Franklin Roosevelt took it with him the day he dedicated the Jefferson Memorial.

Meet the Author

JOSEPH J. ELLIS is the author of many works of American history including Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize; and American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, which won the National Book Award. He recently retired from his position as the Ford Foundation Professor of History at Mount Holyoke College and lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with his wife and their youngest son.

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American Sphinx 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 56 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Before reading this book, I knew very little about Thomas Jefferson. I think that Ellis might have written this book with the idea that readers would already be very familiar with the life and accomplishments of Thomas Jefferson. Although I found some parts of the book difficult to understand, I overall enjoyed it. This book is not so much as a story of Thomas Jefferson¿s life, but a picking-apart of his character. Although it gave information about Thomas Jefferson the historical figure, it mainly focused on Thomas Jefferson the person, revealing that he had strengths and flaws just like any other person. I liked being able to read a biography that didn't simply document the events of Jefferson's life, but gave me a better insight into what type of person he was and how he reacted to the events and accomplishments in his life. For example, when the book talked about Jefferson writing the Declaration of Independence, it connected to it the fact that he was chosen as the writer because he was terrified and horrible at public speaking. I alsofound it fascinating to read about famous historical figures and what their relationships with each other were like. One of my favorite parts of the book was how it detailed the relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and showed how it changed throughout the years. From this book, I learned that Jefferson was a multitalented, brilliant person. He was a great thinker, writer, architect, and political leader, yet through this book I learned that he had a bit of a dark side as well. The book gave me the idea that Jefferson may have had trouble in social situations, for example, it gave an account of a time as a teenager when he nervously tried to ask a to dance and was let down. This portrayal helped me to picture such a famous figure in American history as a real person. Overall, I enjoyed this book. Although I learned multitudes about Thomas Jefferson by reading it, I don't think I would recommend it to a person that doesn't know very much about Jefferson. If you have a little bit of background about Jefferson and his accomplishments, I think you will also enjoy this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The best thing about this biography was its intricate detail combined with its conversational tone. As a result of this duo, every topic discussed in the book is easily and thoroughly remembered. Additionaly, the book is broken down in to titled and dated chapters, making the book useful as a referance for those who don't wish to read cover to cover. If you're going to read only one book on early American history, this should be the one.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A self professed nerd i have begun to read a biography of each president to not only get to know the man but to understand better the history of a country i am proud to call my own. This book while it gives a beautiful description of thomas jefferson as an individual focusing on the duality of the utopia he imagines and the reality of his life as a part of the Virginia Tidewater Elite leaves out years of important history. His second term as president is hardly addressed as are his years spent in Williamsburg learning law and governing the state during the American Revolution. A great resource if you want to know how the man thought, not so good if you want to know the world in which he was thinking.
quixotic_cowboy More than 1 year ago
Rather than another Jefferson biography, Ellis delivers an exceptional series of portraits of the man who's thoughts and words are most often thought of when modern Americans consider "the Founder's Intent". These portraits serve to frame those thoughts into the context of time and place in which they originated. Ellis delivers on his intent of exposing the enigma of this complex man. The reader is left with the desire to open a dialog on the subject of 21st century American society and government and the complex relationships between what is often viewed as the governments proper role and the deep differences between what Jefferson intended it to be and what those who still use his name intend. Another fine edition to Ellis' contributions to our understanding of our founding, and the remarkable individuals who made it happen.
Craig1 More than 1 year ago
Joseph J. Ellis' American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, gives a wonder description of the life and mindset of one of America's founding fathers. Ellis takes the reader from Jefferson's early life as a young man to his writing of the Declaration of Independance, to his death on July 4, 1826. This novel points out the nature of Jefferson's political and personal thoughts and describes how he came to his views. Ellis shows how complicated a man Jefferson was and how his beliefs were not always what his actions portrayed. This is a great book that I highly recommend to the average reader and to those who doing research into the life of America's third president.
edofarrell More than 1 year ago
I've read many books about the men who founded the nation and Jefferson has always been an enigma. The books about the period and the men are often at odds as to who Jefferson really was and the details of his character. No more. This marvelous study by Ellis lay to rest most of my questions about Jefferson. Jefferson's multi-faceted personality is laid out in this fine study. This book is a must for any student of the Revolutionary War period and the politics of early America. Emminently readable, even hard to put down. This is historical writing at its best.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a college student doing work on Jefferson, it is an honor to read the Professor Ellis book on Thomas Jefferson. In my judgement, it is informative and scholarly. And I enjoyed his constant interpretations of historical facts. But, it is not the easiest read. It is very lecture-like and academic. And, I can understand why Professor Ellis named the book "American Sphinx". It does not bring Jefferson into clear focus. Though I found the book useful, for my needs I had to go elsewhere and find a book that brings Jefferson into clear focus. But, I do recommend this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The book has the depth of an author who has done his homework. However, the author, who also has written extensively on President Adams, takes a decidedly Federalist approach to Jefferson. Further, the author gives facts surrounding the life and writings of Jefferson but reaches illogical conclusions that are slightly off base if not more from the logic at hand. If one wishes to understand Jefferson as his detractors would like him to be known, then this is a decent book. If on the other hand one would like the details and make up their own mind about America's 3rd President, avoid this book!
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If you are a fan of the author or just want to know more about Thomas Jefferson this is a fine book. Ellis's later books are better.
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