American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph J. Ellis
Following Thomas Jefferson from the drafting of the Declaration of Independence to his retirement in Monticello, Joseph J. Ellis unravels the contradictions of the Jeffersonian character. He gives us the slaveholding libertarian who was capable of decrying mescegenation while maintaing an intimate relationship with his slave, Sally Hemmings; the enemy of government power who exercisdd it audaciously as president; the visionarty who remained curiously blind to the inconsistencies in his nature. American Sphinx is a marvel of scholarship, a delight to read, and an essential gloss on the Jeffersonian legacy.
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.
Read an Excerpt
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Preface and Acknowledgments.........................................ix
Prologue. Jeffersonian Surge: America, 1992-93.......................3
1. Philadelphia: 1775-76............................................24
2. Paris: 1784-89...................................................64
3. Monticello: 1794-97.............................................118
4. Washington, D.C.: 1801-04.......................................169
5. Monticello: 1816-26.............................................229
Epilogue. The Future of an Illusion...............................291
Appendix. A Note on the Sally Hemings Scandal.....................303
On April 15, 1998, barnesandnoble.com on AOL was proud to welcome Joseph Ellis to our Authors@aol series. Joseph Ellis is the Ford Foundation Professor of History at Mount Holyoke College. He is the author of five books, including PASSIONATE SAGE: THE CHARACTER AND LEGACY OF JOHN ADAMS. His latest book, AMERICAN SPHINX: THE CHARACTER OF THOMAS JEFFERSON, is the 1997 National Book Award winner for nonfiction and is available at Keyword: bn.
JainBN: Professor Ellis, thanks for coming by tonight to chat about your award-winning biography on Jefferson. And, of course, congratulations!
Joseph Ellis: Thank you very much. Question: Hello, Mr. Ellis. I want to know how Mr. Jefferson defended the Louisiana Purchase, being that he had to extend his constitutional powers to do so and at the time he was considered a strict constructionist of the Constitution.
Joseph Ellis: Good question. He defended it rather defensively. He recognized that the commitment to the purchase of half a continent was, by his own likes, a violation of the Constitution as he understood it. And in fact, in historic terms, it was probably the most important executive action in all of U.S. history. But since Jefferson didn't believe in executive actions, it was somewhat awkward for him to take the executive initiative and override the authority of Congress. Nevertheless, he felt he was being presented with a providential opportunity. Even though he'd violated his own constitutional values, it was without question in the long-term interest of the American people, and so he did it. Question: What was your reaction to Conor Cruise O'Brien's October 1996 Atlantic Monthly article, which charged that Jefferson should be expelled from the American pantheon?
Joseph Ellis: I thought that Mr. O'Brien's piece was outrageous, and the notion that Thomas Jefferson would approve and endorse the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, or in any way countenance terrorist acts like the Michigan militia, is a fundamental misreading of Jefferson, and an example of the kind of distortion that, I'm afraid, Jefferson has fallen victim to. There is material evidence in the Jefferson correspondence that might support the belief in radical political behavior, especially in his own day, as related to the French Revolution. But to extrapolate from that, and argue, as Mr. O'Brien does, that Jefferson was a supporter of terrorism or, as he says elsewhere, of the genocidal policies of Pol Pot is both ridiculous and totally unfair. Question: Mr. Ellis, how did you know that Thomas Jefferson hummed all the time? I never read it anywhere else but in your book.
Joseph Ellis: There are about three sources that I used to reach that conclusion. One is an overseer at Monticello, who recalled that Jefferson often hummed. One of his former slaves, when asked to recollect Jefferson's behavior, also talked about him always singing, especially in the fields in Monticello. And his surviving daughter, Martha, also recalled that her father used to hum while reading. So there are three independent sources, all commenting, without reference to each other, on this habit, so I thought that made it a pretty safe generalization. Question: Merrill Peterson wrote that "the historian's obligation to historical truth is compromised...by his sense of obligation to the Jefferson symbol." How has this squared with your own research experience?
Joseph Ellis: I regard Merrill Peterson as probably the person who is still alive knows more about Thomas Jefferson than anyone else. But I disagree. Our only obligation must be to the historical Jefferson and to the record he has left us. Once one begins to compromise that and attempt to bend the evidence to fit some symbolic or iconographic notion of Jefferson -- once one confuses the historic with the mythological Jefferson -- we're in trouble. And I'm trying to recover, as best I can, the way he was, rather than the way we want to remember him. Question: What was it like to teach at an all-women's school after ten years at a world-renowned military academy? Did the difference in the temper of scholarship take some getting used to?
Joseph Ellis: Hmm. Interesting question. My first reaction is that I was much more free to teach the way I wanted, and what I wanted. And rather quickly I came to forget that most of the students in the class were women. The big difference between West Point and Mount Holyoke isn't gender; it's the difference between a professional school, designed to produce army officers, and a liberal arts college that does not have that focused mission. Question: Has Jefferson always been such a controversial topic for historians, or is this an advent of the age of revisionism?
Joseph Ellis: Jefferson has always been a controversial subject, and a figure that all sides seem to want to claim. The North claimed Jefferson in the Civil War, suggesting that they were fighting for the symbols of the Declaration of Independence. The South claimed him, suggesting that they were fighting against an arbitrary power, much like the Britain they fought in 1776. Herbert Hoover claimed him in 1929 in his own recommendations for resolving the Great Depression, and so did Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932. He has always been, even in his own time, controversial and, if you will, a man for all seasons. As I say in the book, it's not just any man who can be Everyman. But he is. Question: Would you consider Jefferson's dream of a society of yeoman farmers today to be a dead letter?
Joseph Ellis: Yes. Jefferson's vision for the American republic as an agrarian society, without industry and without cities, is clearly a dead letter. It's been a dead letter for almost a hundred years. In 1890 the frontier ended, and in 1920 the census revealed that a majority of Americans lived in cities. In that sense, the social values that Jefferson found most attractive were only possible in a world that was premodern, rural, and unlike ours. What he would make of our modern malls, cities, and density of population is impossible to know. Except that he would say that this is not the America that he knew or loved. Question: Mr. Ellis, in your book you describe the slander with Sally as really being the actions of Martha's husband, and explain that Sally's children -- or at least four of them -- were not Thomas Jefferson's. This is different from other authors. How did you reach this conclusion?
Joseph Ellis: Well, I didn't say in the book that the accusations were the result of the slander with Martha's husband. What I said was that the two different stories about Sally Hemings and Jefferson each have some evidence to support them. I myself have concluded that the likelihood of Jefferson's sexual relationship with Sally Hemings is remote. But there is evidence for it, just as there is contradictory evidence against it. There is about to be published in a prominent medical journal a study based on DNA samples that should offer us scientific evidence about the likelihood of the relationship. It should be published in the next two months. Let's wait to see what it tells us. In the meantime, I 'd say that the story of the Jefferson and Sally relationship, even more than the O.J. Simpson trial, is the greatest miniseries in American history. JainBN: Unfortunately, this will have to be our last question tonight. Question: What was Jefferson's presidential style? Did he act to dismantle centralized government while he occupied its highest seat?
Joseph Ellis: Yes, he did. He believed sincerely and acted accordingly in the notion that the President should not be monarchical or imperious. The great exception being the Louisiana Purchase. But in all his styles and his perception, Jefferson attempted to be invisible. He only gave two public speeches in his eight years as President, namely his first and second inaugural addresses. All the business of the presidency was done in writing, so that I actually call him "the textual President." He did, in effect, behave as President in the minimalist way that he promised he would, the only exception being the Louisiana Purchase. JainBN: Thank you, and goodnight Professor Ellis. Please come again!
American Sphinx 3.7 out of 5based on
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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