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American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson

by Joseph J. Ellis

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2,382284,761 (3.96)64
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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English (26)  Croatian (1)  All languages (27)
Showing 1-5 of 26 (next | show all)
  pszolovits | Feb 3, 2021 |
I expected more from this book, and from its author. After thoroughly enjoying Ellis's biography of George Washington, I expected to at least respect the highly rated Jefferson biography. Instead I found it to be neither honest nor unbiased, while holding itself out as both. The particularly damning passage, in my estimation, was when Ellis related that Abigail Adams sent Thomas Jefferson a "blunt" letter chiding him for his lack of parenting skills (he hadn't come to England from France to pick up his daughter upon her arrival - Ellis explains that Jefferson was busy). He quoted a few lines from the AA letter and moved on. What he left out - alarmingly important for context in this story - is that Abigail Adams was upset because Jefferson's young daughter, having no memory of her father, was literally tricked onto the boat crossing the Atlantic on his orders, accompanied only by a slave too young to be a suitable nursemaid in Abigail's opinion (plot twist: it was the young Sally Hemmings, probably fourteen or fifteen, who would sail back across the Atlantic in a few years' time in a delicate condition), and Jefferson not only couldn't be bothered to be in London to greet her as he had promised, he didn't bother coming to England at all, instead sending another "servant" to fetch her. The child, understandably, didn't want to get on another boat, or leave Abigail. Abigail thought it was a nasty business through and through and wrote Jefferson a frank letter, but it could have been much worse.

My point in all this is that Ellis skates over inconvenient facts in order to pretend to present an unbiased sketch of Jefferson's character. He barely addresses Sally Hemmings except in the prologue and an appendix entry. He makes no mention of Jefferson's work spreading rumors that Washington was doddering and senile while in office (ironic, as he mentions it in his Washington biography). It is my own fault for selecting a biography about the "character" of Jefferson; I would have much preferred to learn about his governing and decisions, but commentary of that kind lacked depth and was poorly organized (real timeline problems in this book, which one wouldn't think would be possible).

I read this as part of my "Presidents and First Ladies" reading program. After two chapters I ordered a different biographical set on Amazon. This book is too deceptively written to provide any real illumination on the life of a complicated man and his complicated times. ( )
  ErinCSmith | Jul 24, 2020 |
A provocative survey of an enlightenment thinker and statesman who could never outdistance his contradictions. My friend Mark Prather selected this for samizdat and a number of us read such and with a formality of discussion. The passage of a couple decades would likely have adjusted those younger impressions. ( )
  jonfaith | Feb 22, 2019 |
Thomas Jefferson again! The man had an enormous capacity to write beautiful sentiments and then not live up to them, that’s for sure. Ellis, writing before the DNA testing became definitive, expresses doubt about the Sally Hemings story as inconsistent with Jefferson’s fear of race mixing, but he doesn’t exclude the possibility. Basically, what Jefferson’s detractors see as his two-facedness, his fans see as flexibility and desire to smooth over conflicts. (By telling different people different things.) Most notably, Ellis discusses Jefferson’s free-spending ways in private as contrasted to his fear of public debt; instead of seeing this as a contradiction, he charitably attributes Jefferson’s anti-debt stance to his awareness of his own financial precarity, because Jefferson—like many of his compatriots—didn’t understand the difference between personal and national accounts. So “your debts are paid ‘cause you don’t pay for labor” is only partially true. ( )
  rivkat | May 8, 2016 |
Complex man. I hated the older jefferson but loved the younger Jefferson. ( )
  jerry-book | Jan 26, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 26 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (1 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Joseph J. Ellisprimary authorall editionscalculated
Carson, Carol DevineCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Peale, Charles WillsonCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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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