Review: American Sphinx

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas JeffersonAmerican Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph J. Ellis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In just a few days, I’ll be hitting the road, bound for Virginia. The ultimate destination is Monticello and this book is very much the reason.

After reading a lackluster biography of Thomas Jefferson (by R. B. Bernstein), I decided to tackle American Sphinx in hopes of gaining more insight into the enigma that is Jefferson, third President of the United States, author of the Declaration of Independence, creator of the University of Virginia, and all-around Founding Father Supreme.

I found Joseph Ellis’ meditation on “the character of Thomas Jefferson” endlessly fascinating, full of interesting information, and a pleasure to read. Rather than worshipping at the shrine of Virginia’s favorite son, Ellis brings Jefferson (and his legacy) down to earth, revealing the man, flaws and all, behind the myth.

Rather than working as a straight biography, Ellis examines major periods in Jefferson’s life, beginning with the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and concluding with his retirement to Monticello after a second term as President. Ellis goes beyond the hero-worship and the recitation of historical facts to get inside Jefferson’s head, as much as any historian can.

I came away from this book with a greater appreciation of Jefferson and a better understanding of how his ideals and mythology have been adopted (and twisted) by politicians over time. I was intrigued to learn about the utopian ideals that were central to Jefferson’s beliefs, and how this dream of an ideal society informed among other things, his composition of the most famous work of American prose, The Declaration of Independence.

It was the vision of a young man projecting his personal cravings for a world in which all behavior was voluntary and therefore all coercion unnecessary, where independence and equality never collided, where the sources of all authority were invisible because they had already been internalized. Efforts on the part of scholars to determine whether Jefferson’s prescriptive society was fundamentally individualistic or communal can never reach closure, because within the Jeffersonian utopia such choices do not need to be made. They reconcile themselves naturally.

Wishful thinking. As Ellis points out, the Declaration of Independence, a reflection of Jefferson’s philosophy, is at once a source of inspiration and an unattainable dream. From the very beginning, we’ve been set up to fail. In addition, his world view allowed him to avoid conflict and maintain that the natural order would make it right. He didn’t account for human nature getting in the way and mucking things up.

Time and again, Jefferson aspired to an idealistic world, while ignoring the reality around him. While serving as a diplomat in Paris from 1784-89, he romanticized the French Revolution, which was ascending to its bloody peak during his stay. Most troubling, President Jefferson’s way of selectively looking at the world enabled him to avoid the issue of slavery, kicking the thorny issue down the road for future generations to wrestle with.

Additional interesting items gleaned from this book:

  • Much of the language of Declaration of Independence was borrowed from other sources, including Jefferson’s own writing of Virginia state constitution. I’d naively thought it was 100% original material drafted especially for the occasion.
  • Jefferson was a lousy farmer, Monticello was a terrible site for a farm, and for all his talk, he didn’t get his hands in the dirt much. His dream of retiring to an agrarian life at Monticello was always just that, a dream.
  • Jefferson’s first inauguration as President was a truly momentous occasion, as he was inheriting a fledgling nation at a precarious time, previously run by Federalists and now led by the Republican party.
  • His term came with built-in opposition and simmering distrust that would foment into hatred between Jefferson and his Vice President Aaron Burr and Chief Justice John Marshall.
  • Aaron Burr plotted to secede a portion of the United States as an independent nation, with himself as leader! (I definitely need to read more about this guy.)
  • According to Ellis, Jefferson’s first inaugural address was “one of the two or three most significant inaugural addresses in American history and, apart from the hallowed Declaration, the most artful and eloquent public document that Jefferson ever crafted.”
  • Jefferson was one of “the most secluded and publicly invisible presidents in American history.” All that alone time spent writing left us with an invaluable paper trail and insight into his presidential decision-making process.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in a well-rounded portrait of one of the most important figures in U.S. history, whose genius and idealism served the country so well at a most critical juncture.


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