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

American Sphinx by Joseph J. Ellis
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Jun 23, 11

bookshelves: history, franklin-library
Read from June 20 to 23, 2011

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 worthwhile question, I think), instead showing, in rather too much detail how he was: an aristocratic populist, a slaveholding champion of individual liberty. The contradictions are there, to be sure. Ellis just leaves it at that a little too patly.

As a character study, it's fair to say that a good bit of this book is speculative. Ellis recounts the competing ideologies and their theoretical underpinnings of several major characters (there is a good comparison/contrast of Adams and Jefferson here), but he often ignores or forgets the complexity of human nature, reducing a man to a particular ideology's figurehead.

His style is commensurately abstract. Dealing primarily with questions of philosophy and character, he assumes a rather lofty, nebulous tone that conveys his intent well enough, but can start to drone after a while. That's a shame , since the beginning of his discussion hinges on correcting the popular image of Jefferson; I can't imagine that the layperson who ostensibly has this limited view of Jefferson would be interested enough to stick with this dense little book.

This is a history of ideas, of beliefs and of ideals. But too often, it neglects the historical, and in so doing obfuscates
the ideas, beliefs and ideals it tries to explain. Frustrating.
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