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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1722

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?

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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 short, as Ellis observes, Jefferson was a quintessential American politician who cast the mold for others to follow, including Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton.

In history, as in his lifetime, Jefferson is plagued by the issue of slavery. In Jefferson’s case, the dilemma is posed not only by the stark contrast between his lifelong ownership of slaves and the lofty words he wrote in the Declaration of Independence extolling equality and human rights but also by the persistent and unresolved claim that he had a sexual relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, who is rumored to have borne several children he fathered. Ellis calls this scandal “the longest running miniseries in American history” and devotes a separate appendix to it. Acknowledging that on “the basis of what we know now, we can never know” whether the relationship ever existed, Ellis concludes that “the likelihood of a liaison with Sally Hemings is remote.” (For the best summary of the case against the liaison, Ellis recommends Virginius Dabney’s The Jefferson Scandals: A Rebuttal [1981]; for the opposing view, he recommends Annette Gordon-Reed’s Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: Historians and the Enterprise of Defense [1997].)

From a historical viewpoint, the more important (and more knowable) issue is Jefferson’s simultaneous participation in and condemnation of slavery. The slave population on his several plantations fluctuated around two hundred, and Ellis concludes that Jefferson’s “financial well-being depended upon the monetary value and labor of his slaves.” Pulling no punches, Ellis describes Jefferson as “a staunch believer in White Anglo-Saxon supremacy” who never questioned his fundamental conviction that “white and black Americans could not live together in harmony.” “It is a wholesale distortion of both his life and his thought,” avers Ellis, “to describe him as a friend to racial integration.” (Apropos of the problems with the book’s structure, the foregoing observations are found 150 pages apart.)

After denouncing slavery in 1781 in his Notes on the State of Virginia and advancing an unsuccessful proposal in the Northwest Ordinance of 1784 to abolish slavery in the new states by 1800, Jefferson receded into “caution and procrastination,” later recommending “expatriation” to Africa or “diffusion” in the western territories. (This shift prompted John Adams to ridicule Jefferson for the astonishing notion that slavery could be ameliorated by spreading it to the West.) In his mature years Jefferson ultimately adopted the amoral view that the slavery “problem” should be passed along to the next generation of American statesmen—“I leave it, therefore, to time.”

Ellis concedes that Jefferson’s eventual position on slavery “invites skepticism for its self-serving paralysis and questionable integrity” but cautions that “latter day moral judgments are notoriously easy to render from the comfortable perch that hindsight always provides.” Ellis is more interested in “recovering Jefferson’s own understanding, no matter how flawed.” He concludes, on the issue of slavery and others, that Jefferson had a “highly developed network of interior defenses” that prevented his different voices from hearing one another (what Ellis calls Jefferson’s “capacity to play hide and seek within himself”) and equipped him with the “psychological dexterity to overrule awkward perceptions, including the day-to-day realities of slave life.”

Equipped with such “mysterious mechanisms,” as Ellis calls them, Jefferson was able to tolerate inconsistencies on a wide range of issues throughout his life. He could vociferously condemn the Federalist Party yet serve as secretary of state in a Federalist administration; he could vehemently warn against the growth of the federal government, the national debt, and executive authority, yet as president exercise “implied” powers to engineer the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the size of the country at a cost of fifteen million dollars. He publicly promoted the rights of all men (except, of course, slaves) to rule themselves democratically, yet privately he expressed the view that the new citizens of Louisiana “are as yet incapable of self- government as children.” In his first inaugural address, he urged eloquently that the American press be allowed to “stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it,” yet when some newspapers attacked his allies, Jefferson suggested that Republican governors file libel suits against the most offensive Federalist editors (“a few prosecutions of the most prominent offenders would have a wholesome effect in restoring the integrity of the presses”).

If modern conservatives and liberals alike are able to cite Jefferson to suit their own agendas (in the Scopes trial, both William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow were sure that Jefferson agreed with their positions on evolution), it is in no small part a result of Jefferson’s deftness in “modulating his message to suit his audience”—a skill that Ellis unconvincingly characterizes as “not so much duplicity as politeness.”

According to Ellis, Jefferson fashioned a leadership style that met the particular requirements of American political culture of his time and is still relevant two centuries later—a style based on “the capacity to rest comfortably with contradiction.” Jefferson coined the language of American political discourse used to this day by political leaders seeking public office who espouse undivided loyalty to personal freedom and individual sovereignty in order to secure the very power to pass laws limiting that freedom and sovereignty. Thus, candidates “claim to despise the federal government they are campaigning to head.”

Charitably, Ellis concludes that the true meaning of Jefferson’s character lay in “the internal agility to generate multiple versions of the truth, the rhetorical skills to propose policies that different audiences could hear favorably, the deep deviousness only possible in a dedicated idealist, the honest aversion to the very power he pursued so effectively.” Ellis ends with the unintentionally ominous observation that if modern Americans could ever persuade Jefferson to run, “he would remain a formidable candidate for national office.”

Despite its structural problems, American Sphinx is a worthwhile and readable study of an American icon, who will continue to capture the human imagination and justify attention for as long as the American experiment of self-government endures.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. February 16, 1997, XIV, p. 1.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 2, 1997, p. 10.

The Nation. CCLXIV, May 26, 1997, p. 29.

The New York Review of Books. XLIV, April 24, 1997, p. 4.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, March 23, 1997, p. 7.

Newsweek. CXXIX, February 24, 1997, p. 61.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, December 2, 1996, p. 47.

The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXXIII, Summer, 1997, p. 541.

The Wall Street Journal. February 11, 1997, p. A18.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVII, February 23, 1997, p. 1.

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