Study Guide

American Sphinx

by Joseph J. Ellis

American Sphinx Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Among the giants of American history, Thomas Jefferson stands as one of the tallest. To the common person and the scholar alike, Jefferson has come to symbolize the vision and intellectual spark that founded the nation. No list of great Americans would be complete without him. Yet what do modern Americans really know of Jefferson’s character?

In his biography American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, Joseph J. Ellis sets out to demystify Jefferson and to evaluate “the animating principles that informed his public and private life.” Ellis, Ford Foundation Professor of History at Mount Holyoke College and author ofPassionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams (1993), pledges “to steer an honorable course between idolatry and evisceration” and to avoid the habit of “most biographers [to] take the sides of their subjects.” To that end, Ellis warns readers that in his view the “best and the worst of American history are inextricably tangled together in Jefferson.”

Unlike a traditional biography or history text, American Sphinx is intended to be “selective” and “cinematic,” catching Jefferson “at propitious moments in his life.” Ellis does not believe that another “full scale, multivolume narrative of Jefferson’s life and times” is necessary, and while he hopes that his fellow scholars will read his work, the audience he seeks is ordinary people who are generally interested in Thomas Jefferson.

The book examines Jefferson’s character in five different periods of his life: Philadelphia, 1775-1776, the writing of the Declaration of Independence; Paris, 1784-1789, Jefferson’s ambassadorship to France; Monticello, 1794-1797, Jefferson’s premature retirement in Virginia; Washington, D.C., 1801-1804, Jefferson’s first term as president; and Monticello, 1816- 1826, Jefferson’s true retirement and his enduring correspondence with John Adams. He and Adams both died on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

Unfortunately, despite Ellis’s astute historical knowledge, the structure of his book proves unwieldy and cumbersome. Ellis is incapable of remaining within the strict chronological bounds he has established for himself. Inevitably, he is forced to break free of the straitjacket he has imposed on himself and his subject. For example, just as readers settle down in Monticello in 1794, Ellis moves the narrative back to Washington, D.C., to trace Jefferson’s previous term as secretary of state (1790-1794). Again, when the narrative returns to Monticello in 1816, Ellis inserts a flashback to Jefferson’s second term as president from 1805 to 1810. By the same token, without explanation, the author ignores the formative periods in Jefferson’s life when he served in the Virginia Assembly from 1776 to 1779 and as governor of Virginia from 1779 to 1781. What role did this period of service in state government play in fostering Jefferson’s deep-seated suspicion of the new federal government?

The other drawback in the organization of American Sphinx is that key topics such as Jefferson’s ambiguous views on slavery, his tolerance of inconsistency, or the impact of his immense private debt on his hostility toward the national debt are spread throughout the book, leading to disjointed and repetitive treatments. Having liberated himself from the demands of a full-scale chronological biography, Ellis has squandered the opportunity to address each of Jefferson’s pivotal character traits by searching the entire span of his life for relevant historical and personal evidence. Instead, the reader is left the job of marshaling the facts and linking the moments in Jefferson’s life that illuminate particular aspects of his personality. Even if the “ordinary” reader to whom Ellis addresses his book is up to that task, the results will prove surprising and in some ways disheartening.

One comes away from American Sphinx with the impression that Jefferson was not the idealized hero of American history books but an extraordinarily intelligent man given to rationalization, manipulation, self-deceit, egotism, hypocrisy, and relative morality. In...

(The entire section is 1722 words.)