American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson
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American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson

3.9 of 5 stars 3.90  ·  rating details  ·  11,299 ratings  ·  403 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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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
Mike Mcfarland
May 20, 2008 Mike Mcfarland rated it 4 of 5 stars
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...more
Jul 18, 2007 Kelly rated it 4 of 5 stars
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
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...more
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...more
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
"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
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...more
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
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...more
Steven Peterson
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...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...more
I was so disappointed with this book. From the very first pages, you could sense the author was antagonistic towards his subject; and this continued throughout the book. I cannot count the number of times Ellis alluded to Jefferson as some kind of narcissistic mental case. As a grandmother to two children with autism, I could easily have seen Jefferson as being on the spectrum! He was incredibly intelligent, and his devotion to the building of Monticello and his love for agriculture as all-encom...more
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 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...more
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...more
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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...more
Joakim Ruud
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...more
This is my third Joseph J. Ellis book, and, like the others, I appreciate his very readable rendition of history. Unlike the very straight foward, decision minded Washington, Jefferson is perhaps best loved as the ideal of himself rather than the true man. Most of his presidency was done at a writing desk, after all. His views on slavery vary greatly from the reality, one of his many ideological paradoxes. Ellis seems to want the reader to admire Jefferson for seeking the ideal, pastoral life, i...more
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
This purpose of this book was to explore Jefferson’s character and how it shaped the man. It is not exhaustive by any means so you have to look to other sources if you want a full run through of all of his life, presidency years, etc.

In essence, Ellis argues that Jefferson had a vision in his head and was the type of person who was (nearly) always true to that vision without taking into consideration the reality of the world around him. There was a certain kind of naivete and “innocent dreamer”...more
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
Joseph Ellis is an excellent writer. His style is almost musical in places. His work was very well-researched and was a joy to read.

Ellis took a look at some of the major turning points in the life of Thomas Jefferson, and paid special notice of how his political views sometimes seemed to be contradictory - and of the times when what he did contradicted what he said.

He really was an interesting man - a leader of the American revolution, an idealist, and an introvert with a scientific and innovat...more
I did enjoy this book and I learned quite a bit. That being said, I have several problems. First, Joseph Ellis really seems to enjoy using large words and repeating himself. There were times that I felt I could skip entire paragraphs or even pages and still know what was being discussed when I picked it back up. Second, there are major chunks of Jefferson's life that aren't discussed at all. Very little is written of his childhood and adolescence. In fact, the book starts with Jefferson's appoin...more
Rob Springer
A book on tape: Ellis took on the president that David McCullough started to write about but gave up in disgust. He was a study in contrasts, and even today is a totem brought out by all sides of our political debates. He wrote the Declaration of Independence, but opposed the new constitution. He wanted the smallest government possible but bought Louisiana from Napoleon. He didn't believe in a Federal navy, but sent the few ships Adams had built to fight the Barbary pirates. He was the inspirati...more
Dan Trudeau
Nov 03, 2008 Dan Trudeau rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Matt Phelan
In all my years of reading about the founding of the USA, I've never been able to wrap my brain around Thomas Jefferson. How could someone be so brilliant yet so blind to the contradictions in their life?

This book brought me to the best understanding I think I can have to his character and thought process. It's still not simple or 100% clear, but let's face it, minds like him are not simple mechanisms. I'd suggest this to anyone interested in the Founding Fathers, as its approach is unique in th...more
Principle author of the Declaration of Independence, partial broker of the Franco-American alliance, third president -- there is no denying Thomas Jefferson's pivotal place within the revolution. He is a constant presence in Joseph Ellis' prior histories concerning the revolutionary period, cast as a complex character -- quixotic one moment, pragmatic the next. American Sphinx shines a spotlight on his contradictory character, being a study in character by way of a biographical sketch.

Little is...more
J.M. Slowik
Beautifully written. A close examination of the 'highlights' of Jefferson's life, which also considers many different perspectives, his essential hypocrisies, and most famous scandal, of course. The author depicts Jefferson, with ample evidence, as a man who preferred to avoid conflict or contention, stalled on the major, inherent problem with the republic, and basically kept secrets from everyone, including and especially from himself. He compartmentalized like no president before or since.

In c...more
Lorena Bathey
I picked this book up at the Monticello museum store. After touring the house and hearing more about Jefferson I was intrigued to know the man, especially since I got an idea for an novel about him and his first wife. This book does give you a deeper insight than just his politics which matters to me and to really understand the man. It's slow cause it's lots of history and facts...but I am interested. Can't always say that about historical books.
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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.
More about Joseph J. Ellis...
Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation His Excellency: George Washington American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic First Family: Abigail and John Adams Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence

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“Jefferson appeared to his enemies as an American version of Candide; Hamilton as an American Machiavelli.” 3 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.” 1 likes
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