Marty's Reviews > American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson

American Sphinx by Joseph J. Ellis
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's review
Feb 16, 2015

really liked it
bookshelves: acquired, bedroom-bookshelf, presidents
Read in September, 2009

After reading a biography on John Adams, for the sake of being "fair and balanced," you simply have to read about Jefferson. I've needed to do this for a while anyway, even before reading about John Adams. This has been because I have had a bone to pick with Jefferson for a while. Initially, as a kid growing up, I treated Jefferson as one of the untouchable Founding Fathers. As I delved deeper into my history major studies, and as I more closely defined my moderate political stance, I came to dislike Jefferson quite a bit. I did not like my sudden distaste for all things Jeffersonian; I am, by nature, not a pessimistic person, especially in judging other people. But I found that Jefferson tapped into one of my greatest pet peeves, and that is mean-spirited attacks and judgments on other people, especially in a political way. This, in turn, was making me have mean-spirited thoughts and judgments on Jefferson, turning me into the hypocrite that I despised in TJ. I needed some reconciliation. So I got this book and hoped for the best.

Fortunately, I think I've got the reconciliation that I needed. That is not to say that Jefferson is back on his pedestal, but thanks to Joseph Ellis's insightful, almost psychiatric speculation on Thomas Jefferson's character, I can at least say that I think I understand him. And with understanding, comes some measure of respect. Especially because I learned that in a lot of ways, I am very much like TJ. We both prefer writing as our best form of communication. We are both very idealistic and have similar thoughts on individual liberties and education, and--to some degree--religion. However, I feel that I have a bit more of a practical side than Jefferson that finally brings out our differences. I think it is this lack of a practical side which gets Jefferson into the partisan territory that I so despise, but knowing that TJ was absolutely sincere in it brings some measure of comfort (as opposed to, perhaps, Hamilton and Madison--but those are both future reconciliations for future times).

While Ellis's strength is in picking apart an enigmatic character, that is also where he is on shakiest ground--because it is nearly all speculation--educated speculation, surely, but speculation none-the-less. For the most part I lapped up his well reasoned approach into the labrynthian Jefferson personality, but any time he took idealist potshots at other characters in disingenuous one-liners, especially with Adams, but also with Washington, then he placed himself on the same idealist plane as Jefferson himself and chipped away at his credibility. Ellis's misreading, in my mind, of these other characters was the main flaw that I found in his other Founding Father exploration with His Excellency, about George Washington. While his assumptions with Jefferson seem to be right on and actually salvaged Jefferson's reputation to some degree, his assumptions about George Washington seem to be digging for the pessimistic but fresh angle and didn't quite fit.

Overall, however, this was an invaluable snapshot into the fascinating mind of Thomas Jefferson, and I will now, with a grain of salt, appreciate Jefferson's role in the forming and playing out of the great American republic.

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