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American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson

3.9  ·  Rating Details ·  17,086 Ratings  ·  506 Reviews
Following his subject from the drafting of the Declaration of Independence to his retirement in Monticello, Joseph Ellis unravels the contradictions of the Jeffersonian character. A marvel of scholarship, a delight to read, and an essential gloss on the Jeffersonian legacy.
Paperback, 440 pages
Published April 7th 1998 by Vintage (first published February 4th 1997)
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Jan 03, 2017 Brian rated it it was amazing
It started when I was reading Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage, this niggling feeling of discomfort I get when reading a book when the author seems to be taking opportunities to lionize his/her subjects – or at the very least, portraying them in a simplistic, single facet. I’ve had this issue with Ambrose before (and I know enough about his writing to stay away from his excoriated Eisenhower bio), and while I enjoyed his bio of Meriwether Lewis, it was his portrayal of Thomas Jefferson that had me sc ...more
Mar 03, 2016 Darwin8u rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2015
“God was not in the details for Jefferson; he was in the sky and stars.”
― Joseph J. Ellis, American Sphinx


Ellis' biography of Thomas Jefferson's character is a more difficult task than one might imagine at first. Jefferson while brilliant with words is also a founding father of smoke. He was comfortable with ambiguity, but saw things in black and white. He had a great ability to mask his feelings and deceive himself. He was a visionary and prophet in the mountains whose biggest creation was not
Jun 23, 2011 Nathan rated it did not like it
I suppose I knew what I was getting into with this book. The subtitle hints at the fact that this is a pretty thoroughgoing psychological history, rather than a historical narrative. Ellis posits Jefferson as an inscrutable figure shielded from effective analysis by a contradictory philosophy as well as a reserved personality. Both of which may be true, but both of which made this book scanty on real insight. Ellis doesn't spend much time asking why Jefferson was the way he was (a pretty worthwh ...more
Nov 18, 2016 Jonfaith rated it liked it
A provocative survey of an enlightenment thinker and statesman who could never outdistance his contradictions. My friend Mark Prather selected this for samizdat and a number of us read such and with a formality of discussion. The passage of a couple decades would likely have adjusted those younger impressions.
Mike Mcfarland
May 20, 2008 Mike Mcfarland rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: history fans
Shelves: non-fiction
This book is more a series of portraits than a biography. It doesn't tell Jefferson's story in one long arc, but rather captures him at significant periods of his life. This method works well for Ellis (see: Founding Brothers), probably because the broader view allows him to write more lyrically than a stick-to-the-facts biography would allow.

What emerges from Jefferson's portraits is a man with extraordinary powers of self-delusion. These powers enabled him to bemoan slavery while owning slave
Dec 22, 2012 Jeff rated it did not like it
"American Sphinx", Joseph J Ellis. 1996. Historical revisionist, Joseph J. Ellis, ostensibly enjoys championing himself as a renegade historian, unafraid to attempt to topple one the most well respected and admired of America's founding fathers. Recklessly wielding his anachronistic values upon Thomas Jefferson, "American Sphinx" escalates into a full contact assault on one the most important and revered figures in western culture. Thomas Jefferson is no longer the successful plantation owner, b ...more
Jun 11, 2016 Tony rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography
AMERICAN SPHINX. (1996). Joseph J. Ellis. ****.
This work was subtitled, “The Character of Thomas Jefferson.” Ellis had previously written a book on the same theme as this one, but about John Adams. What made this work on Jefferson a bit more difficult to write was the lack of early personal letters and documents that were all destroyed in a fire at Jefferson’s home. Much of Ellis’s comments on Jefferson’s early life were developed on an inferential basis – relying on letters and documents writte
Mar 04, 2008 Suzanne rated it liked it
I loved the title. The iconic image of Jefferson takes a bit of a hit in this non-traditional biography. He was a brilliant, creative, imaginative and inventive man who helped transform our world with his vision on the role of government and in his writings. He was also a deeply flawed human being. He loved beauty and lived so beyond his financial means that, at his death, his beloved Monticello had to be auctioned off. He despised slavery yet, without them, could not afford his lifestyle. Since ...more
Jul 18, 2007 Kelly rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: american history geeks
Thomas Jefferson has always been my favorite of the Founding Fathers. I won't deny that part of it is because I do like a good scandal. :) But the other part is because he's simply fascinating. I've always loved thie combination of ego and indulgence, passion and beautiful reason that he exhibits. I love his writings. This book is by the same guy who did "Founding Brothers" (which is also fascinating and won a Pulitzer Prize), so the guy knows what he's talking about. He doesn't reveal much /new ...more
Jamie Collins
I enjoyed this very much. It's not a straight biography of Jefferson, but as the subtitle says, it's an attempt to analyze his character. The book is very readable if you are reasonably familiar with the important people and events in the early years of America.

It's a fascinating study of the man's inherent contradictions, the most obvious being that Jefferson was a slaveowner who became famous for his writings on equality and personal freedom.

In my 1996 edition of this book, Ellis writes that h
Sep 08, 2010 Damian rated it it was ok
As I read "American Sphinx", an odd thing happened. The more I learnt about Jefferson the less I liked him. The Jefferson of Ellis' biography is an arrogant, obsessive ideologue, whose successes are the lucky results of others' hard work, and whose failures are inevitable given his substantial flaws. As someone who was looking to like Jefferson, this was all pretty disappointing.

Ellis' biography follows Jefferson from his first entrance into public life right until his providential death on Jul
Jun 14, 2009 Julie rated it did not like it
This book is a well disguised attack on Jeffersonian ideals of smaller government...accomplished through lengthy "psychoanalytic" attacks on Jefferson's character. It amazes me that so many find this illuminating and deserving of the Pulitizer Prize. Ellis chiefly does this by showing Jefferson to be a secretive, ultimately anarchic radical who was incapable of perceiving the need for political governance under the Constitution (the "necessary evil" described by Paine in Commons Sense).

Perhaps m
Apr 12, 2012 Matt rated it really liked it
A convincing and pleasurably readable psychohistory of - let's face it - a very eccentric man. Especially interesting are the passages where Jefferson's official actions are placed in the context of deep personal motivations and conflicts. For example, the author suggests that Jefferson's determination to reduce the national debt was largely based on his inability to pay off his own crushing personal debts. What he could not do for himself, he did for his country.

Like his subject, the author se
Steven Peterson
Dec 22, 2009 Steven Peterson rated it really liked it
Thomas Jefferson, according to the author, was an American Sphinx. And, indeed, there is an elusive quality to Jefferson. As the biography outlines, he could be as vicious a political assassin as there was (e.g., his attacks on John Adams through others, while trying to keep his own hands "clean"), but he did not appear to want to accept or confront this in himself.

At one time, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were great friends, founding cousins, as it were, of the new republic. Both added grea
Aug 29, 2009 Audrey rated it it was ok
I really prefer to read biographies in which the author actually has some affection for his subject! Mr. Ellis treated Thomas Jefferson as a neurotic and idealistic man who just happened to experience a few flashes of brilliance because he was at the right place during the right time. Ellis was consistently patronizing and apologetic in his discussions about Thomas Jefferson's thoughts, ideas and actions. I generally expect a biographer to present his subject with an emphasis on his strengths an ...more
Aug 07, 2014 Adam rated it really liked it
I find myself a little disappointed by a lot of the reviews for this book. A lot of the complaints and critiques seem to center around the fact that this does not end up being the book they wished it would be, which is sort of absurd to begin with. This isn't a traditional biography, as the subtitle of the book makes abundantly clear. It is not a character assassination either. Ellis presents a character study via several historical vignettes. I found his presentation of Jefferson as a complicat ...more

I've only read one other book about Jefferson but I've read several others about the founding fathers and I'm absolutely convinced that this is the best I'll ever read about Thomas Jefferson.

Ellis writes incredibly well- poetic, detailed, erudite as all hell, and smoothly- with grace.

He captures what must have been Jefferson's consciousness. Not his mind or soul or heart so much as all three put together and the cloud of ideas and opinions he carried with him, as we all do.

Complex man and a com
Alexander Rolfe
Feb 10, 2016 Alexander Rolfe rated it really liked it
I didn't realize Jefferson was such a wild utopian. One generation should not be able to bind another, with debts, laws, etc? Wow. I found Ellis's elucidation of Jefferson's thinking excellent. He picks out a lot of fun, lively quotes as well. The glimpse I got of Adams through this book makes me want to read John Adams by McCullough next.

I'm docking it one star for being somewhat repetitive, and for the rather tedious tie-ins to today at the beginning and end of the book-- those are dated now,
Feisty Harriet
This isn't quite a biography, although there is a lot of information about Jefferson's often opposing ideas, meaning, he opposes his own ideas, holding opposites as truths on a number of different topics (hence: Sphinx). I am thisclose to ranking it two stars, especially for all the patriarchal "benevolent" slavery-racism that the AUTHOR excuses as "okay" because of the time period. But then also includes sections where Jefferson opposes slavery...? Doesn't match up. I truly think Jefferson beli ...more
Sep 07, 2016 Steve rated it really liked it

“American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson” by Joseph J. Ellis was published in 1996 and won the 1997 National Book Award in Nonfiction. Ellis is a well-known author and history professor focusing on the revolutionary era. He is probably best known for his Pulitzer Prize winning book “Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation” and has written about Presidents Washington and Adams as well.

“American Sphinx” has been described by some as a “psy
Gary Hoggatt
I have read and enjoyed two books by Joseph J. Ellis in the past. Several years ago, I first encountered Ellis with Founding Brothers and found it a great look into the revolutionary generation. More recently, I read His Excellency: George Washington a couple of months ago and really enjoyed Ellis' presentation of Washington (see my review of His Excellency here on Amazon). So it was with high expectations that I started American Sphinx. Unfortunately, those expectations were not met.

Sphinx is n
Nov 29, 2012 Ob-jonny rated it really liked it
This is the book to read if you want to know about the life of Thomas Jefferson. I learned so much from reading this book that I realize that I really had known nothing about Thomas Jefferson until now except the obvious historical facts and that he was an inventor. His actual political views are fascinating to learn and I think they are easy to understand in today's context. He was moderate compared to the extremist southern states rights faction, but he was very suspicious of big government an ...more
Gabriella Gricius
Why Read: Think of me oddly if you'd like, but I love revolutionary American history. There is something incredibly entrancing about learning more about the people who, without a safety net, jumped into the void and created a new country from nothing. Thomas Jefferson has been a controversial character, from his portrayal in Hamilton: The Musical to the podcast the Thomas Jefferson Hour. This book was recommended to me by Clay Jenkinson, the host of the aforementioned podcast and I couldn't resi ...more
Dec 07, 2010 Bill rated it it was amazing
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
May 02, 2011 Darlene rated it really liked it
I finished this biography of Thomas Jefferson a couple of days ago and needed to think about it for a bit. In considering what I learned, I have found this is not a simple book to review. First off, it is not a typically written biography. Ellis did not write it in the usual chronological order that biographies tend to follow.He presented different aspects of Jefferson's life and presidency and alternated forward and backward through time.

By the time I was halfway through this book, I felt as
Michael Hattem
Aug 18, 2010 Michael Hattem rated it did not like it
Recommends it for: no one.
Shelves: early-america
I've read this book a number of times and have read pretty much all of Ellis's output as a leading exponent of what Jeffrey Pasley and David Waldstreicher called "Federalist Chic." While Ellis's writing style is a big factor behind his relative popularity, there are significant problems with this book. However, this book is just one of many in the last ten years which has focused on the "character" of the founders as the key to their "greatness." There is no doubt that the sympathies of the Fede ...more
Joakim Ruud
Jun 04, 2012 Joakim Ruud rated it really liked it
I seldom read biographies, so not sure exactly how to write a review of one. The impulse is to start reviewing the subject character, in this case Thomas Jefferson, rather than the writing itself. I'll try to refrain.

I guess the central question is this: Is the author able to give a credible portrait of the central character and the times he lived in, and to put it all in context for a modern person with no real prior knowledge? I'd say yes. He manages to tread a fine line in describing a person
Nov 25, 2010 Susan rated it really liked it
The best and worst of American history are inextricably tangled together in Jefferson...

This book, subtitled The Character of Thomas Jefferson, is not a biography in the traditional sense. Although much of it is biographical, it is more a look into the mind of the man, the reasons for his ideas and his opinions.

I've not read any other biographies solely about Jefferson, and probably should have started with a different one. There was no attempt to cover all major events, or even all periods of J
Apr 03, 2016 Amelia rated it it was amazing
As the greatest admirer of Thomas Jefferson, I can certainly say that Mr. Ellis's book did him justice; though not because it doused this revolutionary scribe with praise and awe. Mr. Jefferson was a most enigmatic figure, and so it was necessary to maintain a very neutral, unbiased attitude in writing a biography on him. Joseph Ellis controlled his extremely well. He offers the reader everything- both positive and negative. Many reviews state that Ellis ends up portraying a less appealing Thoma ...more
Jack Cheng
May 01, 2016 Jack Cheng rated it really liked it
Excellent examination of Jefferson's character. This is not a biography, but close, as it focuses on the major periods of his life.

Ultimately Jefferson comes across as an earnest idealist who could not always reconcile with practical matters. Slavery is the obvious example of this, as was his obsession with paying down the debt (which led to consequences such as an inadequate navy in 1812). Ellis points out how personal circumstances informed Jefferson's political positions (he was hugely in de
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Joseph J. Ellis, a professor of history at Mount Holyoke College, is a nationally recognized scholar of American history from colonial times through the early decades of the Republic. The author of seven books, he is recipient of the National Book Award in Nonfiction for American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson and the Pulitzer Prize for Founding Brothers. He lives in Massachusetts.
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“Jefferson appeared to his enemies as an American version of Candide; Hamilton as an American Machiavelli.” 6 likes
“In Jefferson's mind great historical leaps forward were almost always the product of a purging, which freed societies from the accumulated debris of the past and thereby allowed the previously obstructed natural forces to flow forward into the future. Simplicity and austerity, not equality or individualism, were the messages of his inaugural march. It was a minimalist statement about a purging of excess and a recovery of essence.” 4 likes
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