American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson

by Joseph J. Ellis


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780679764410
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/28/1998
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 165,231
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About 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.

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.

Table of Contents


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 Notes..............................................................309 Index..............................................................353


On April 15, 1998, 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 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!

Joseph Ellis: My pleasure.

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American Sphinx 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 67 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!
FordStaff on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The author makes no claim that this is a full traditional biography. If that is what you expect you will be found lacking. This book does not give an account of the events throughout Jefferson's entire life but instead glimpses into certain periods to illuminate the evolution of his character and political thinking. For this purpose you will not be found lacking. I believe this to be a fair review of Jefferson although perhaps negative to those reverential of this Founding Father. I always admired Jefferson's absolute belief in freedom of religion but knew very little of his other political beliefs. Most of them have no place in modern America mostly because he was at heart an unadulterated idealist to the point of unreasonableness (It is nice Madison was there to ring him in from his more radical excesses). Also vast changes in the political spectrum due to scientific and social advances have rendered much of his political thinking irrelevant. This idealism is part of the cause for what I disliked least about Jefferson which was his light versus darkness version of political discourse. In order to sustain this Idealism he needed to delude himself many times in his life as he did up to and towards the end with such thing as the belief in gradual emancipation of slaves as a viable option and in the belief that the lottery would save him from his personal debts.As a man he comes off very well in the revolutionary era and loses my esteem in the party wars and during his presidency. Overall he gets an above average if only slight. This is a very vague verdict on my part for it seems that Jefferson is almost impenetrable. It is no minor task accurately judging Jefferson as Joseph Ellis makes clear with testimony from many Jefferson Scholars with differing opinions so I will make it clear that my judgment is based on the picture painted in this book (and unknown prejudices whether of ignorance or other such afflictions of mankind, for prejudice manifests in many forms). Others will offer different results from the same book and each side has evidence to call upon, but I think none can argue that Jefferson was not a fortunate addition to the excellent group of men who forged the United States of America (at least during the revolutionary era). This book is excellent for those who wish to have an understanding of this man.
lukelea on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Maybe the best short biography of Jefferson. Particularly good on his later years, which were a kind of nightmare tragedy brought on by the contradictions between his stake in slavery, his ideals, his love for his family, taste for luxury, and his spendthrift ways.
auntmarge64 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
What a great book! It's not a biography and largely skips several periods in his adult life (such as his second presidential term), which was a bit disconcerting for someone with little knowledge of his life. But enough is included to give the reader the necessary background to follow the discussion at the center of the book: that is, what made Jefferson tick, and how did he juggle the many, many contradictions between his publicly stated philosophy and the actions he took in his personal life? The answer appears to be a real psychological disconnect. Ellis concludes that Jefferson was not mentally ill, but having known at least one person with a similar personality very well in my life, I'd have to say it was at least an unchangeable personality disorder: the ability to think, with integrity, that your philosophy and life decisions reflect each other, when to observers they clearly don't. As proved to be the case with Jefferson, this includes an inability to entertain evidence about those contradictions and make adjustments to be more consistent.The Epilogue is one of the best summations I've ever read. Especially helpful is Ellis' summation of the various changes to the American landscape which in effect killed off many of the underpinnings to Jefferson's legacy:1 - the Civil War, ending not only "slavery but the political primacy of the South and the doctrine that the states were sovereign agents in the federal compact."2 - the end of the Frontier and the urbanization of the population between 1890-1920.3 - the New Deal, providing a more centralized government, now required to regulate the "inequities of the marketplace and discipline the boisterous energies of an industrial economy". In effect, the "death knell for Jefferson's idea of a minimalist government."4 - the Cold War (requiring maintenance of a massive military) and civil rights legislation repudiating the "racial and gender differences that Jefferson regarded as rooted in fixed principles of nature."5 - changes in the scientific understanding of the natural world (Freud, Darwin, Einstein).As much as I dislike the way of politics, which seems to have been as vicious and corrupt then as it is now, we've ended up with a political balance which has worked for us in the (very) long haul. It's an interesting problem to wonder how this country would have fared if Jefferson had not been president and been able to force his anti-Federalist views on the government just as the country was finding itself.
Josh_Hanagarne on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was an interesting look at a peculiar and, in most ways, an inspiring man. American Sphinx doesn't assume that the reader comes to the table with voluminous knowledge, which is refreshing; the book fills in the gaps in clear language and there is very little slow-going. It's hard to believe that there was a time when the majority of the country didn't lay eyes on the president; and that the president could be reclusive if he chose. Jefferson didn't make speeches and hated the limelight. His passion was for words, family, and dreams of a utopia that never came to pass. A great read.
TooBusyReading on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The best and worst of American history are inextricably tangled together in Jefferson...This book, subtitled The Character of Thomas Jefferson, is not a biography in the traditional sense. Although much of it is biographical, it is more a look into the mind of the man, the reasons for his ideas and his opinions.I've not read any other biographies solely about Jefferson, and probably should have started with a different one. There was no attempt to cover all major events, or even all periods of Jefferson's life. For someone not very familiar with these events, I wanted more. There was very little about his stint as vice president or even his second term as president. I wanted more who, what, where, when along with the why.The first chapter, ¿Jeffersonian Surge: America, 1992 ¿ 93¿ seemed dry to me, and if the book had continued to be as dry, I'm not sure I would have finished it. Some parts were not as interesting to me as others, but overall, I enjoyed the book.Jefferson was a walking contradiction. Most of us know that he opposed slavery in theory, yet owned and sold slaves. He also had conflicting ideas about the Native Americans, celebrating their cultures yet willing to deport them.¿...we presume that our strength and their weakness is now so visible that they must see we have only to shut our hand to crush them, and that all our liberalities to them proceed from motives of pure humanity only.¿He was expert at writing for his given audience and comes across as sometimes disingenuous. He was an idealist who couldn't always find practical applications for his idealism, who also couldn't keep his personal life in order.The edition I read was published in 1998, updated from the original edition, but still several years old, and a bit dated on the Sally Hemings information. Because the DNA evidence does not interest me as much as this look into Jefferson's character, I found this book interesting and well worth the time spent reading it.
michaelhattem on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Despite my own personal inclinations towards Jefferson, it is not the criticism of America Sphinx that I find slightly disturbing but, rather, the somewhat disingenuous pose that Ellis assumes. A quick reading would almost make Ellis look sympathetic to Jefferson and this, I believe, is by design. However, a closer reading reveals more than a few heavy-handed moments of what appears to be disdain, even bordering on contempt. It¿s no secret that Ellis, like many contemporary historians, finds Jefferson distasteful, especially in light of his previous work on John Adams.Ellis claims that he is attempting to ¿steer an honourable course between idolatry and evisceration,¿ the two poles most identifiable in Dumas Malone¿s biography and Conor Cruise O¿Brien¿s book on Jefferson and the French Revolution, ¿The Long Affair.¿ While American Sphinx is undoubtedly somewhere between those two extremes, it most certainly leans towards evisceration. Even the moments in which Ellis seems sympathetic to Jefferson come to appear somewhat contrived as though they are mere qualifications meant to keep Ellis on the ¿honourable course¿ which he has set for himself. Ironically, Ellis¿s book is fraught with as many contradictions as he claims for Jefferson. For instance, on page 79, he discusses the death of Jefferson¿s wife and the alleged pledge he made to her not to remarry. He says, ¿We cannot know for sure whether, as family tradition tells the story, he promised his dying wife that he would never remarry. The promise he made to himself undoubtedly had the same effect. He would never expose his soul to such pain again; he would rather be lonely than vulnerable.¿ If we cannot know for sure whether he made a promise to his wife, how can we know anything about a promise he made to himself. Later on in the same chapter on page 110, he recounts Jefferson¿s whirlwind ¿affair¿ and ¿rhapsodic adventure¿ with the married miniaturist, Maria Cosway, which culminates in the famous and more-than-vulnerable ¿Dialogue between the Head and the Heart.¿ He also, apparently, begins his affair with Sally Hemings in Paris, which Annette Gordon-Reed and Fawn Brodie have portrayed as a reciprocal relationship, rather than that of the common master-slave sexual paradigm. Two relationships begun within a few years of this ¿promise he made to himself,¿ one highly intense and the other lasting almost four decades, hardly makes Jefferson seem like a man who had promised himself to be lonely.The title and supposed aim of the book is a bit misleading as well. It¿s not so much a study of Jefferson¿s character as amateur pop Psychology. This is especially ironic when in the 65th footnote to the third chapter he criticizes previous biographers¿ attempts to posthumously psychoanalyze Jefferson. Ellis¿s use of this theory of mental compartments or Jefferson¿s ¿psychological agility¿ in the ¿orchestration of internal voices¿ seems more a way to avoid truly understanding Jefferson¿s character and comes off as one of the contrived qualifications I mentioned before. Yet here it serves a purpose beyond mere qualification. It seems to be THE tool which Ellis has devised to allow him to walk. or think he¿s walking, that tightrope between idolatry and evisceration. None of this even mentions the irony of Ellis¿s interpretation considering his own use of ¿mental compartments,¿ and so the problem of projection enters into Ellis¿s subject analysis. We get another illustrative contradiction when on page 102 he speaks of ¿Jefferson¿s personal belief that slavery was morally incompatible with the principles of the American Revolution.¿ However, using this idea of mental compartments in the aid of self-deception, on page 106 he writes, ¿it was nonetheless a disconcerting form of psychological agility that would make it possible for Jefferson to walk past the slave quarters on Mulberry Row at Monticello thinking about mankind¿s brilliant prospects without any sense of contradiction.¿ In one sen
weakley on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book was a disapointment to me. I agree with the comments of some of the other reviewers in order to write a biography about someone, it might be best if you actually liked or respected them in the first place.I failed to see any one aspect of Jefferson that the author thought much of. The book was a constant litany of Jefferson's failings, and explanations of how anything extraordinary about the man were exceptions rather than the rule.All in all not what I wanted to be reading.
drneutron on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
There's been a lot of words written about Thomas Jefferson. It seems like everyone has tried to claim his legacy to further their own cause. In American Sphinx, Joseph Ellis tried to get past the ideal Jefferson to the real man and his real thoughts, especially in the political arena. He mostly succeeds in this goal - this book is a great exploration of Jefferson. Rather than a biography, Ellis uses vignettes of Jefferson's life during significant periods to explore how his thinking changed throughout his life and to reveal the man behind the American saint. The format assumes some knowledge of Jefferson's life and early American history, so this may not be the best place to start for novice. I read it just after reading McCullough's biography of John Adams, which provided the historical context for Ellis' analysis.
dallasblue on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Thomas Jefferson was a brilliant enigma - a tortured mind to be sure. This book provides a great, detailed account of his life and his actions. Not just a recounting of historical events, it talks about why he did the things he did.
JBD1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An alright bio of Jefferson, but slightly convoluted at times.
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