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American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson

by Joseph J. Ellis

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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For a man who insisted that life on the public stage was not what he had in mind, Thomas Jefferson certainly spent a great deal of time in the spotlight--and not only during his active political career. After 1809, his longed-for retirement was compromised by a steady stream of guests and tourists who made of his estate at Monticello a virtual hotel, as well as by more than one thousand letters per year, most from strangers, which he insisted on answering personally. In his twilight years Jefferson was already taking on the luster of a national icon, which was polished off by his auspicious death (on July 4, 1896); and in the subsequent seventeen decades of his celebrity--now verging, thanks to virulent revisionists and television documentaries, on notoriety--has been inflated beyond recognition of the original person. For the historian Joseph J. Ellis, the experience of writing about Jefferson was "as if a pathologist, just about to begin an autopsy, has discovered that the body on the operating table was still breathing." InAmerican Sphinx,Ellis sifts the facts shrewdly from the legends and the rumors, treading a path between vilification and hero worship in order to formulate a plausible portrait of the man who still today "hover[s] over the political scene like one of those dirigibles cruising above a crowded football stadium, flashing words of inspiration to both teams." For, at the grass roots, Jefferson is no longer liberal or conservative, agrarian or industrialist, pro- or anti-slavery, privileged or populist. He is all things to all people. His own obliviousness to incompatible convictions within himself (which left him deaf to most forms of irony) has leaked out into the world at large--a world determined to idolize him despite his foibles. From Ellis we learn that Jefferson sang incessantly under his breath; that he delivered only two public speeches in eight years as president, while spending ten hours a day at his writing desk; that sometimes his political sensibilities collided with his domestic agenda, as when he ordered an expensive piano from London during a boycott (and pledged to "keep it in storage"). We see him relishing such projects as the nailery at Monticello that allowed him to interact with his slaves more palatably, as pseudo-employer to pseudo-employees. We grow convinced that he preferred to meet his lovers in the rarefied region of his mind rather than in the actual bedchamber. We watch him exhibiting both great depth and great shallowness, combining massive learning with extraordinary naïveté, piercing insights with self-deception on the grandest scale. We understand why we should neither beatify him nor consign him to the rubbish heap of history, though we are by no means required to stop loving him. He is Thomas Jefferson, after all--our very own sphinx. From the Hardcover edition.… (more)
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Thomas Jefferson was probably the most complex of those individuals who played a significant role in the founding of the United States of America. The title of Joseph Ellis’s book looking into these complexities is well-chosen. The combination of Jefferson’s romantic political vision, an unwillingness to let reality change that vision, his mixed success at implementing his vision into reality, his reliance on self-delusion, and the deception of others, to avoid facing his many contradictions and to achieve his political and personal ends -- all contribute to Jefferson being an enigmatic figure.

Ellis seeks to unearth Jefferson’s true character through examination of both his strengths and flaws as manifested in several key periods in his life. Rather than give us a traditional biography, Ellis makes deep dives into the significance of his actions/thoughts in those key episodes and filling in as necessary any gaps in the biography that result. The result is a tour de force - - as well as a cautionary tale on the challenges of the historian’s task in connection with Ellis’s attempt to size up the evidence on Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings, as discussed below.

The book ranges from Jefferson’s writings on the causes and goals of the American Revolution as exemplified in the Declaration of Independence through his term as Ambassador to France, his time in Monticello between serving as Washington’s Secretary of State and becoming President, the eight years of his Presidency and ending with his final years at Monticello, his correspondence with John Adams and founding of the University of Virginia. Ellis concludes that Jefferson held a central core of convictions his entire life, even though they were contradictory and became increasingly hysterical in his retirement. Jefferson combined great depth with great shallowness, massive learning with great naïveté and great insights into others combined with self-deception. Perhaps the greatest enigma concerning this aristocratic landowner was that his core legacy for his country was a radical democratic and egalitarian ethos combined with a continual distrust of government and sympathy with those who rebel against it.

Highlights of the book are set forth below.

Jefferson’s Political Vision. Jefferson’s basic vision was set forth in his writings supporting the American Revolution, including his Summary View of the Rights of British America, the Declaration of Causes, and the Declaration of Independence. He asserted a mythical and untrue description of the colonial past - - for example, that the colonies were independent from their foundation. He declared that Parliament and the King had no authority over the colonies. He ascribed to the Whig vision which saw government as corrupt and opposed to liberty. Ellis sees the Declaration of Independence as derived from many influences in Jefferson’s mind: his own previous writings, the Virginia Constitution which had recently been drafted by George Mason (perhaps the most important source), the egalitarian thinking of the Scottish thinker Francis Hutcheson, John Locke’s principle of the sovereignty of the people (but in a more radical form), the Whig theory of British constitutional history and even the model of government among the Native Americans, as well as the vision which Jefferson had himself developed. His vision of America was an agrarian ideal in which those who worked the earth were the chosen people of God. (In his own life, overwhelmed by debt, he was unable to live this ideal and indeed neither could most farmers in the nineteenth century, given the harsh realities of weather and markets.) In Ellis’s words: “Jefferson was not a profound political thinker. He was, however, an utterly brilliant political rhetorician and visionary. The genius of his vision is to articulate 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.” (p. 11).

The Constitution. Jefferson was in Paris while the Constitution was drafted and ratified by the states. Madison had kept him in touch from afar and largely succeeded in obtaining Jefferson’s consent, although Jefferson wanted a bill of rights and limits on presidential power. Nevertheless, many aspects of the Constitution were contrary to Jefferson’s own republican vision and in later years he did not hesitate to criticize or even oppose the operation of the constitutional scheme. Examples include his strong opposition to judicial review and to the need for federal courts in the first place (as exemplified by his opposition to John Marshall), his belief that no American generation could bind its successors, meaning that each generation could redo the Constitution (Madison pointed out to Jefferson that this was unrealistic) and his opposition to a strong president. He strongly supported freedom of speech (despite his slipping back when President). He also invariably sympathized with rebellions against government including Shay’s Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion. His vision of political society was one made up of individuals acting responsibly; he opposed institutional arrangements and checks and balances of the kind embedded in the Constitution as all too much government limiting liberty.

Jefferson’s Presidency. Alexander Hamilton supported Jefferson over Aaron Burr when the tie in the electoral college in the election of 1800 brought the election into the House of Representatives for decision by the states. Despite Jefferson’s strong anti-Federalist views, Hamilton thought that in the end Jefferson was too pragmatic to disassemble the federal government and persuaded the New York delegation to vote for Jefferson over the unprincipled Aaron Burr. Nevertheless, Jefferson signaled in his inaugural address (next to the Declaration of Independence the most important and eloquent document he wrote), that he intended to return the country to the “pure republicanism” of the American Revolution, which entailed rolling back the federal government and its nationalist policies. In the end, Hamilton was correct; Jefferson did not dismantle the central government. However, he did accomplish several measures to pare back the structure created by the Federalists and indeed counted as one of his achievements the destruction of Federalists. Thanks to the peace secured by John Adams in the “quasi-war” with France and Great Britain, Jefferson was able to cut back the navy and the army. Treasury Secretary Gallatin’s plan to pay off the national debt was also a great success, fueled by a strong economy which generated high tax revenues. Finally, Jefferson had success in cutting the number of federal government employees, especially those who were Federalists. However, in other respects, and despite having strong majorities in both the House and the Senate, he did not achieve his republican ideals. While the Judiciary Act of 1801 that created Federal Circuit judges was repealed, Jefferson was unable to weaken the Supreme Court, led by his enemy the Federalist John Marshall, or its assertion of the power of judicial review over the Constitution. He feared federal courts would contribute to the “consolidation” of central governmental power. In addition, when the opportunity to acquire Louisiana from Napoleon appeared, Jefferson asserted broad executive power to take control of the new territory without clear constitutional authority to do so, thus acting as a strong president despite his general objections to presidential power. And his luck began to run out in his second term. He initiated the disastrous embargo against imports from Great Britain which hurt the United States much more than it did Great Britain.

Slavery. Like many in that era, his views on slavery evolved over time. In the abstract, he always opposed slavery. In his Notes on Virginia, written for the French while he was ambassador in Paris, he stated that slavery was incompatible with the ideals of the American Revolution and predicted that planters would emancipate slaves. He dreaded God’s judgment. He also believed that blacks and whites would be unable to live together in harmony so that racial war and extermination were likely outcomes of emancipation. Whites might well have to emigrate from the South. Later he gave up on freeing the slaves in his time and left the task to the next generation -- basically slavery would disappear over time. He combined condemnation with procrastination. As he got older, he became more aware of his own dependence on slavery. The debate over slavery in Missouri brought things to a head. The North including his friend John Adams thought slavery should be prohibited in Missouri, with the understanding that the Constitution had represented a compromise between North and South in which the North deferred to the South on the timing and process for ending slavery in the South. Now the South had shifted to wanting to expand slavery rather than end it as people like Adams expected. This all occurred after Jefferson’s retirement when he had become more isolated from people outside of Virginia and more hysterical in his defense of his beliefs. In an argument that shocked Adams (who saw slavery as a cancer), he maintained that permitting slavery to “diffuse” to the territories of the expanding United States would eventually lead to its disappearance via a kind of dilution (akin to the thinking of Federalist Number 10 that factions would be less likely to gain a foothold in a large republic). And he argued that the proposal to exclude slavery from Missouri was a pretext for banning it in the South altogether. This was an exercise of the “consolidation” of central governmental power, which for him was contrary to the republicanism of the American Revolution. Secession was preferable to consolidation. “It was the old Whig rhetoric but now harnessed to the most provincial interests of Virginia politics.” (p. 326.) Unlike Washington, he did not free his slaves upon his death, except for some household slaves.

Native Americans. In his political vision, Jefferson idealized Native American societies. However, as a politician, he viewed Native Americans as doomed unless they assimilated with the dominant Anglo-Saxon culture. In this regard, he had no hesitancy as president in laying the groundwork for deporting Native Americans, including pushing them beyond the Mississippi. By the same token, he saw expansion into the West as the future of the country. Interests of Native Americans could not be permitted to interfere.

Religion. Jefferson was a strong believer in the separation of church and state and opposed any governmental interference with a person’s religious beliefs. Writing in the 1990’s, Ellis notes that Jefferson would be dismayed that the branch of government he hated the most, the Supreme Court, would be the chief defender of separation. In 2022, given the changes in the Supreme Court, Ellis’s observation has lost its force. In terms of his own religious beliefs, Jefferson defended himself against charges that he was an atheist or at least not a Christian by describing himself as a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus and of primitive Christianity. He rejected the “corruptions” of the organized church and attacked denominations, Protestant and Catholic, for making the simple teachings of Christianity incomprehensible. If he had put aside the need to assert his Christianity to beat off the criticism of political foes, Ellis remarks that “he would have described himself as a deist who admired the ethical teachings of Jesus as a man rather than as the son of God.” (p. 310). The University of Virginia, founded by Jefferson, had no religious affiliation, and Jefferson went so far as to prohibit teaching of theology altogether.

Adams-Jefferson Correspondence. Adams and Jefferson worked together during the revolution, with Jefferson being deferential to the older Adams, but became enemies with the split between Federalists and Republicans that occurred after the ratification of the Constitution. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia encouraged John Adams to reengage with Jefferson, and they started a correspondence in 1812 which lasted fourteen years. Ellis describes their correspondence as a literary monument to the meaning of the revolution. Adams was a realist and empiricist and criticized Jefferson’s idealism and unshakable belief in reason. Jefferson saw history as a clash between the popular majority and despotic elites, and thought the ideals of the American and French Revolutions would spread throughout the world. Adams believed in popular sovereignty but also saw the majority as a danger. He thought there would always be elites and that social equality was an illusion. In his view, the government would have to step in to reduce inequality. Jefferson saw the American Revolution as a clean break with the past, betrayed by the Federalists with the establishment of a strong central government in the Constitution. Adams, sensitive to his own place in history, downplayed the importance of the Declaration of Independence and argued that the short resolution on May 5, 1976 declaring independence was the key step in the revolution. Jefferson, also becoming sensitive to his legacy and aware of the fact that the Declaration of Independence had become an important part of it, naturally pushed back. “If the American Revolution had become a national hymn, [Adams and Jefferson] were its words and music. The ironies abound, since the self-made son of a New England farmer and shoemaker was insisting that neither individual freedom nor social equality was ever a goal of the revolutionary generation, while the Virginia aristocrat with an inherited plantation of lands and slaves was insisting that both were.” (p. 299).
Sally Hemings. The book contains an appendix on the Sally Hemings “scandals” in which Ellis weighs carefully the evidence pro and con that Jefferson was the father of Heming’s children. (The appendix was written prior to DNA testing that occurred after publication of the book.) He cites among other things testimony of Sally’s descendants asserting Jefferson was the father, accusations of the same in the press by his enemies during Jefferson’s lifetime (sourced to his former associate and later enemy, James Callender), the fact that Jefferson’s father-in-law had fathered Sally, the fact that Jefferson, who was often away from Monticello, was always there nine months before Sally gave birth and the general practice of many slaveowners to have sexual relationships with their slaves. Sally’s children were very light in appearance (making it obvious their father was white), and Jefferson emancipated the children before his death. (Jefferson freed few of his other slaves.) He also cites factors that count against the conclusion that there was a sexual relationship. The alternative theory, put forth by Jefferson’s white descendants and others who deny Jefferson’s parentage, was that Jefferson's nephew, Peter Carr, was the father. Despite acknowledging a difficulty in reaching a clear conclusion in light of the quality of the evidence as he sees it, and claiming that the evidence would be inadequate in a court of law for either position, Ellis engages in what he calls “reasonable speculation” and reaches a conclusion that Jefferson’s having a sexual relationship with Hemings was “remote.” Ironically, he seems to come down most strongly on the argument that such a relationship was inconsistent with Jefferson’s character. Specifically, Ellis claims that his immersion in the historical evidence has persuaded him that “for most of his adult life, [Jefferson] lacked the capacity for the direct and physical expression of his sexual energies.” Putting aside that Annette Gordon-Reed’s work and DNA testing has now shifted the consensus to the conclusion that Jefferson is indeed the father of Sally’s children, it is difficult to see how Ellis could reach such a conclusion given the character of Jefferson that he has presented in his book – a character full of inconsistencies, self-deception and deception of others. Why shouldn’t these characteristics come into play in Jefferson’s relationship with Sally, especially when the powerful force of physical love was present? We can easily imagine Jefferson’s mind appealing to considerations such as by not marrying Sally, he remained true to his promise to his deceased wife never to remarry, and because Sally was the daughter of his father-in-law (and half-sister of his wife) the liaison was okay despite Jefferson’s general objections to miscegenation. There the matter might have been left if it had not been for Annette Gordon-Reed’s work and the input of DNA testing, which caused Ellis to change his view and agree with the growing consensus that Jefferson was indeed the father of Sally’s children. But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that in the appendix Ellis had let his own wishful thinking influence his “reasonable speculation.” Not surprisingly, historians also have human flaws.

Personal Style. Jefferson was a lawyer but a poor speaker. His initial writings in favor of the colonies’ position against Great Britain helped him secure the task of writing the Declaration of Independence. During his presidency, he avoided speeches as well as political debate. Cabinet meetings were to approve actions previously agreed upon, not debate policy issues. Discussion of political actions took the form of written drafts that would be circulated and commented upon by Jefferson and members of his cabinet. Accordingly, there is a strong written record of his presidency. He was a refined scholar who thrived in solitary study. He took all criticism personally, including edits to his draft of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson loved his personal library. Because of his financial difficulties, he was forced to sell it to the US government and it became the core collection of the Library of Congress. He prepared a list of all his books - - if he were to return today he would love LibraryThing and indeed his legacy library is on LT. Jefferson was a horseback rider all his life: He rode back to Monticello when his Presidency ended. And in a scene that could have come out of Cat Ballou, Ellis describes how his horse Eagle would lean against the house to make it easier for the aging Jefferson to mount.

Legacy. In many respects, Jefferson’s vision of America was not borne out by subsequent American history: The Civil War destroyed the doctrine that states were sovereign agents in the federal compact, the country shifted from a predominantly rural agrarian society to an urban industrialized one and both domestic and foreign challenges led to stronger central government. However, as Ellis points out “[t]he entire history of liberal reform in America can be written as a process of discovery, within Jefferson’s words, of a spiritually sanctioned mandate for ending slavery, providing the rights of citizenship to blacks and women, justifying welfare programs for the poor and expanding individual freedom.” (p. 63). And the tradition of distrust in government is with us strongly today. ( )
  drsabs | Aug 8, 2022 |
This book is just about as exciting as watching the actual sphinx and expecting it to move. Of the 16+ hours, author spent the first 1.5 in CYA. When it finally did start, the text was covered in academic wrangling over minutia with elaborate elucidation. The man ought to learn how to write like any non-PhD. I gave it one star because I almost puked, just like my cat does every day or so, to clean everything out. DNF. That's enough Ellis for me. ( )
  buffalogr | Jun 24, 2022 |
not being knowlegable about revolutionary american history I found the book to be very informative and has encouraged me to read more of the period. It certainly enlightened me as to how some Americans developed and promote the ideas of less government and more individual responsibility. ( )
  zinkoff | Apr 13, 2022 |
NA
  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 |
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For a man who insisted that life on the public stage was not what he had in mind, Thomas Jefferson certainly spent a great deal of time in the spotlight--and not only during his active political career. After 1809, his longed-for retirement was compromised by a steady stream of guests and tourists who made of his estate at Monticello a virtual hotel, as well as by more than one thousand letters per year, most from strangers, which he insisted on answering personally. In his twilight years Jefferson was already taking on the luster of a national icon, which was polished off by his auspicious death (on July 4, 1896); and in the subsequent seventeen decades of his celebrity--now verging, thanks to virulent revisionists and television documentaries, on notoriety--has been inflated beyond recognition of the original person. For the historian Joseph J. Ellis, the experience of writing about Jefferson was "as if a pathologist, just about to begin an autopsy, has discovered that the body on the operating table was still breathing." InAmerican Sphinx,Ellis sifts the facts shrewdly from the legends and the rumors, treading a path between vilification and hero worship in order to formulate a plausible portrait of the man who still today "hover[s] over the political scene like one of those dirigibles cruising above a crowded football stadium, flashing words of inspiration to both teams." For, at the grass roots, Jefferson is no longer liberal or conservative, agrarian or industrialist, pro- or anti-slavery, privileged or populist. He is all things to all people. His own obliviousness to incompatible convictions within himself (which left him deaf to most forms of irony) has leaked out into the world at large--a world determined to idolize him despite his foibles. From Ellis we learn that Jefferson sang incessantly under his breath; that he delivered only two public speeches in eight years as president, while spending ten hours a day at his writing desk; that sometimes his political sensibilities collided with his domestic agenda, as when he ordered an expensive piano from London during a boycott (and pledged to "keep it in storage"). We see him relishing such projects as the nailery at Monticello that allowed him to interact with his slaves more palatably, as pseudo-employer to pseudo-employees. We grow convinced that he preferred to meet his lovers in the rarefied region of his mind rather than in the actual bedchamber. We watch him exhibiting both great depth and great shallowness, combining massive learning with extraordinary naïveté, piercing insights with self-deception on the grandest scale. We understand why we should neither beatify him nor consign him to the rubbish heap of history, though we are by no means required to stop loving him. He is Thomas Jefferson, after all--our very own sphinx. From the Hardcover edition.

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