American Sphinx: The character of Thomas Jefferson
A book by Joseph J. Ellis.
Copyright 1997 Vintage.
Joseph J. Ellis, a historian who was educated at the College of William and Mary and Yale, is a Ford Foundation Professor of History at Mount Holyoke University. He has written four books on historical topics, centered on the time Jefferson was alive, dealing with issues and personalities Jefferson dealt with firsthand. After authoring a book on a politician such as John Adams, Ellis seems to have felt a need or want to focus on Jefferson, presumably because of his status as founding father and main contributor to the constitution.
Elliss thesis in American Sphinx can be summed up by the quote in the prologue by James Parton: If Jefferson was wrong, America is wrong. If America is right, Jefferson is right. However, Ellis gave the impression that he was brought reluctantly to the task of researching and writing so extensively on Jefferson. Perhaps he was spurred on by the rebirth of interest in the Jefferson legacy. In recent years, the exposure of Jeffersons affair and subsequent illegitimate children to a mulatto slave named Sally Hemings, and Elliss own experience of watching another scholar of Jefferson imitate him to near perfection probably inspired Ellis to add a few more notches to his authoring resume.
The influence Jefferson has over Ellis is apparent. He began college at a school founded by Jefferson, and is fond of a statue conspicuously facing the womens dorms on campus. His professional research and scholarship always involved some indirect influence by Jefferson.
Even so, in writing this book, Joseph Ellis has taken an unbiased approach to Jefferson, never smoothing over points and incidents in which Thomas had definitely misjudged. Ellis realizes that in reality, no politician or leading figure can ever amount to the ideal of perfection attributed to some, (i.e. Jesus Christ) but stands by Jefferson in the face of heavy critics who would defame Jeffersons name and work based on issues and or mistakes that happened in life outside the political world.I have also noticed that Ellis, when quoting other Jeffersonian authors, will contradict the reference he quoted, but will not dispute the opinion of the quoted, giving readers full control of the position they take on each situation or reference. This trait in Elliss writing and teaching style is what really grabbed me and got me interested in the book. How wise is the person who realizes that as scholarly as they may be, there may always be a better opinion out there? Joseph has presented to me a most noble way to write. He has circumvented my prejudice against authors who insist that their ideas and methods are the only thoughts that exist.
In terms of the presentation of information, Ellis pieced together the life and work of Jefferson according to eras, or phases in the life of Thomas J. Starting with Philadelphia 1775-1776, Jeffersons story begins as the prominent, educated young man entering a world of radical politicians and commoners striving for their independence. This chapter describes how Jefferson established himself as an excellent literary figure in the developing American insurrection by publishing a pamphlet entitled, A summary view of the rights of British America.This document, though never officially accepted as a plan of action was simple and emphatic, with a dramatic flair that that previewed certain passages in the Declaration of Independence (e.g., Single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of the day; but a series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period, and pursued unalterably thro every change of ministers, too plainly prove a deliberate, systematical plan of reducing us to slavery). [Pg. 34] As the text explains, Jefferson was not very skilled in oration and preferred the quiet sanctuary of his Monticello estate, preferring to take a behind the scenes approach to his revolutionary duties.
Chapter Two, Paris 1784-1789, explains the duties and trials and tribulations Jefferson encountered while working as a diplomat for the newly formed America. Thomas was an integral player for America during these years because he maintained relations with France, who at the time acted as the big brother to the fledgling country and economy.
His years residing almost permanently at Monticello in the next chapter detail his attempt to withdraw himself from the political arena and live out his life as a farmer. At 51 years of age, Jefferson felt as if life had passed him by, and wanted to know the solitude and comfort of a life outside the public eye. From here, against his wishes, he remained secretary of state. (Pgs. 139-140) During these years Jefferson began the first steps in helping to develop the opposition party in reaction to Alexander Hamiltons fiscal policies. (Pg. 145) This time was just as important to the roots of America as his revolutionary days had been.
In 1801, Jefferson was elected as President, and took up his office in the newly appointed capital of Washington D.C. With modesty, Jefferson delivered an inaugural speech whose passages are reputedly unlike any other since. He said, I have learned to expect that it will rarely fall to the lot of imperfect man to retire from this station with the reputation and the favor which bring him into it…I shall often go wrong through defect of judgment. When right I shall often be thought wrong by those whose positions will not command a view of the whole ground. I ask for your indulgence for my own errors, which will never be intentional; and your support against the errors of others, who may condemn what they would not if seen in all its parts. (Pg. 214) Quite profound in comparison to the speeches often heard today by Presidents who would never admit to any wrongdoing. (I did not have sexual relations with THAT woman)
After his term of office was over, Jefferson led an active life in American ideals and politics. However, his life was never the same after his wife died, and many of the current criticisms of Jefferson stem from this post presidential period. It is my firm belief that Jefferson deserved no reprimand for his actions then, or now. To conclude, Jefferson has been turned into a hero to me by Ellis, and probably without Ellis intending to do so. A scholar such as Joseph warrants literary acclaim when he creates a biography that so wonderfully illustrates the life of a man to whom this nation owes so much. It is my intention to reread this book, and perhaps others he has read. Based on the fact that this is a book review, I will jump into Bill Cosbys shoes, pretend Im on Reading Rainbow, and sing a little song about this book.