American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson

American Sphinx, the character of Thomas Jefferson

Who was Jefferson?


Joseph J. Ellis

I’ve been a fan of Thomas Jefferson for many years, ever since I read about the political philosophy he and the other founders carried into the American Revolution of 1776. Like Lincoln, so much has been said and written about Jefferson that it seemed that the subject was overdone, so I’ve avoided reading any of his biographies. But over time I felt like I should sit down and take some time to contemplate this remarkable man. After all, he lived just 90 miles away, and his summer home was just a few miles down the road. Why not get to know a neighbor?

Joseph Ellis wrote this biography in 1998 after writing another biography of Adams. Ellis is an Adams fan, and quite frankly it was obvious to me that there was quite a bit of bias in his work. He says that the idea that there exists a long-running debate between Hamilton and Jeffersonian politics to this day is no longer true (It is still true). He says the matter of Jefferson fathering slave children was settled (As best as I can tell, it’s settled that there was intermingling between the Jefferson line and the Hemmings line. Whether this was an 60-year-old Thomas Jefferson or one of his relatives is still unsettled. Not worth fighting over, but not settled.) Over and over again, he skims over things that might prove very interesting to the reader, like the Virginia Declaration for Religious Freedom or the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and concentrates on things that put Jefferson in a poor light. He has no depth at all on Jefferson’s philosophy or education, and seems at times to be making the point that Jefferson didn’t have the depth of intellect that it’s obvious from history that he did.

But you know what? That’s fine. Jefferson still comes out as a great and interesting character, one-of-a-kind in American history. Because this is a critique, it actually works better as a book praising Jefferson than a dozen other books would. You get to see the darker side of the man, the person who was completely willing to hire and encourage people to viciously attack his enemies while he stood off at a distance. The person who easily felt slighted. The person who had an extremely difficult time bringing people into his heart. All of Jefferson’s foibles are proudly and loudly on display, and the man still comes off looking like easily one of the top ten people in American history.

American Sphinx is a solidly-constructed, well-written book. After reading it I felt like I knew Jefferson. So many of the things that Jefferson did was targeted at us, the generations to come. It was great for us to get acquainted.

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