American Sphinx by Joseph J. Ellis
The Character of Thomas Jefferson

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Synopsis

National Bestseller 

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." In American 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 Trade Paperback edition.
 

About Joseph J. Ellis

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Joseph J. Ellis won the Pulitzer Prize for Founding Brothers. His portrait of Thomas Jefferson, American Sphinx, won the National Book Award. He is the Ford Foundation Professor of History at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, where he lives with his wife and their youngest son.
 
Published November 19, 1998 by Vintage. 464 pages
Genres: Biographies & Memoirs, History, Political & Social Sciences, War. Non-fiction

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Kirkus Reviews

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Nonetheless, Ellis asserts that there are enduring aspects of Jefferson's legacy--including his emphasis on individual rights, an abhorrence of centralized government, and a belief in the necessity for religious freedom- -that continue to shape our political culture today.

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Publishers Weekly

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Penetrating Jefferson's placid, elegant facade, this extraordinary biography brings the sage of Monticello down to earth without either condemning or idolizing him. Jefferson saw the American Revoluti

Feb 03 1997 | Read Full Review of American Sphinx: The Characte...

Publishers Weekly

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Penetrating Jefferson's placid, elegant facade, this extraordinary biography brings the sage of Monticello down to earth without either condemning or idolizing him. Jefferson saw the American Revoluti

Feb 03 1997 | Read Full Review of American Sphinx: The Characte...

Book Reporter

Partly because the founders were unable to deal adequately with certain issues such as slavery and the Indian question, or with the proper balance between federal and states rights, Ellis contends, "The very purpose of government was subtly transformed from an ultimate arbiter to a framework for ...

Dec 22 2010 | Read Full Review of American Sphinx: The Characte...

USA Today

The author of Founding Brothers, American Sphinx and His Excellency is back with another intelligent book about the founders.

Nov 08 2007 | Read Full Review of American Sphinx: The Characte...

PopMatters

It’s one thing to read a triumphal view of the American Revolution and the nation’s founding architects—as tend to get published each year right around holiday time—and quite another to come across passages like the following from Joseph Ellis’s American Creation, set in the summer of 1775 as the...

Dec 21 2007 | Read Full Review of American Sphinx: The Characte...

Bookmarks Magazine

Joseph Ellis is best known for his portrayals of the Founding Fathers: Thomas Jefferson in the National Book Award–winning American Sphinx, George Washington in His Excellency: George Washington, and Jefferson, Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Aaro...

Jan 31 2008 | Read Full Review of American Sphinx: The Characte...

California Literary Review

Both the seminal achievements and enduring failures of the American founding were now locked in place.” In the final analysis, Ellis suggests that perhaps the core question posed at the founding – and one which would soon greatly impact the slavery and Native American scenarios – was not whether ...

Jun 23 2008 | Read Full Review of American Sphinx: The Characte...

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