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American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas…

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (1996)

by Joseph J. Ellis

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Good review of Thomas Jefferson's character. Not a chronological look at Jefferson's life. Rather the author looks at various times in Jefferson's life and the incidents that occurred during them, to elucidate his political and world view.

This book contains a fair amount of what some deride as historic-psychobabble - the tendency to try and psychoanalyze historic figures to find the origins of their greatness or perfidy (depending on your point of view). In this case, while it does at times feel like the author is attempting to use it to justify examples of Jefferson's blatant hypocrsy (slavery, debt, constitutional interpretation), in this case his arguments are backed up by logical interpretation of the evidence he uses. Not saying I agree with all of it, but it is a worthy attempt.

Definitely worth reading for anyone with an interest in Thomas Jefferson. ( )
  mybucketlistofbooks | Jan 10, 2015 |
Dont remember if I liked it or not.
  badgerbacker | Jul 17, 2014 |
Ellis's 368 page bio of TJ focuses on five major periods in his lifetime with summaries of the intervening gaps. Throughout the book though, Ellis keeps coming back to Jefferson's basic principles and beliefs that drove his major decisions and leadership style throughout his life. This story covers an incredible period in the life line of our country as our founders struggled to understand the meaning of events long after they had occurred. The book is very comprehensive without being overly long. My only criticism is that I found it less readable than other history books I have enjoyed, specifically Doris Kearns Goodwin's. As far as the Sally Hemings question goes, DNA testing wasn't as sophisticated when this book was published in the early 90's, and Ellis concludes that the the charge against Jefferson's paternity is remote. However, I understand that subsequently, when additional testing was performed, Ellis changed his viewpoint as did most, but not all historians. ( )
  maneekuhi | May 27, 2014 |
I didn't care for the structure, the glossing over of his second presidential term. Informative but sparse. ( )
  bontley | Aug 24, 2013 |
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. ( )
  FordStaff | May 9, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679764410, Paperback)

Well timed to coincide with Ken Burns's documentary (on which the author served as a consultant), this new biography doesn't aim to displace the many massive tomes about America's third president that already weigh down bookshelves. Instead, as suggested by the subtitle--"The Character of Thomas Jefferson"--Ellis searches for the "living, breathing person" underneath the icon and tries to elucidate his actual beliefs. Jefferson's most ardent admirers may find this perspective too critical, but Ellis's portrait of a complex, sometimes devious man who both sought and abhorred power has the ring of truth.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:59:53 -0400)

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Offers a reassessment of the life, image, and career of Thomas Jefferson, examining his complex personality, controversies about the man and his beliefs, and his accomplishments.

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