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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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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 |
I read this book many years ago, but it remains one of my favorite books on Jefferson. It is an amazing look at one of our founding fathers who had great internal conflict about many things. I had the honor of studying under Joe Ellis in college and was disappointed that one reviewer said that Joe did not respect Jefferson. I would disagree with that comment completely. I do not believe that someone could write such a wonderful, thoughtful and elegant biography on a subject that he did not respect. I would highly recommend this book to anyone seeking a more in-depth discussion on the character of Jefferson. It is a dense read though and should not be undertaken lightly. ( )
  weejane | Jan 9, 2011 |
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. ( )
  TooBusyReading | Nov 25, 2010 |
This book was a disapointment to me. I agree with the comments of some of the other reviewers in that...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. ( )
  weakley | Sep 4, 2010 |
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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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