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

Share Button

I bought this book.

I set a goal to read, in order, all of the biogra­phies of the pres­i­dents of the United States who have passed away.

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


Amer­i­can Sphinx is an ele­gant, infor­ma­tive and well researched book, yet a bit strange and dif­fers from other biogra­phies.  In this book, Mr. Ellis tries to fig­ure out what makes Jef­fer­son tick, so some mon­u­men­tal time peri­ods, such as Jefferson’s sec­ond term as pres­i­dent, do not get the treat­ment they deserve.  I think a bet­ter term would be a char­ac­ter study rather than a biography.

The book is divided into five parts:
– Philadel­phia: 1775 –76
– Paris: 1784–89
– Mon­ti­cello: 1794 — 97
– Wash­ing­ton D.C.: 1801 — 04
– Mon­ti­cello: 1816 — 26

As you can see, the book starts at the dawn of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion with Jefferson's arrival in Philadel­phia as the del­e­gate from Vir­ginia to the Con­ti­nen­tal Con­gress and fol­lows him to his later years in Monticello.

Mr. Ellis tries to explain what can­not be explained – the para­dox which is Thomas Jef­fer­son.  The con­tra­dic­tions between Jefferson’s writ­ten let­ters and his actions, his flaws and mis­judg­ments.  Jef­fer­son liked to live the good life, his debts were astound­ing yet he kept spend­ing as if he had a money tree grow­ing in his back yard, yet announced that his goal as pres­i­dent was to get rid of the national debt.  As an admin­is­tra­tor Jef­fer­son lacked the abil­ity to con­front oth­ers and left the state of Vir­ginia in a dire straits after his tenure as governor.

I found Jefferson’s feud with Alexan­der Hamil­ton most fas­ci­nat­ing, maybe because I sub­scribe more to the Hamil­ton­ian point of view about the cen­tral gov­ern­ment (even though I agree with Jef­fer­son about some aspects).  Again, this is where Jefferson’s com­plex para­dox comes into play, because when it suited his agenda, he quickly used Hamil­ton rea­son­ing to jus­tify his actions (such as going for­ward with the Louisiana pur­chase), even though he was a vocal critic of that same reasoning.

While I cer­tainly rec­om­mend this book to any his­tory fan, I'd just like to say that for me it was rather dif­fi­cult to read. I don't know why as I love his­tory and his­tory books — maybe because the text seemed more like a lec­ture than a "story".

My rat­ing for Amer­i­can Sphinx — 3

Please leave a com­ment if you agree or dis­agree with my review, or just to say hello.

Zohar — Man of La Book

Enhanced by Zemanta
Share Button

Enjoy this post? Why don't you sign up for the RSS feed