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

American Sphinx by Joseph J. Ellis
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's review
Aug 05, 2008

it was amazing
Read in September, 2008

This book is for anyone who has a genuine interest in Thomas Jefferson. Instead of being a lengthy and detailed narrative of Jefferson's life, Ellis' approach is selective. In the preface, Ellis states that another multivolume narrative of Jefferson's life is unnecessary--that he wanted to catch Jefferson during moments in his life and focus in on his thoughts, values, and convictions in their historical context while maintaining a chronological order. I really liked this approach as I am more interested in what Jefferson might have thought about something during the Revolution or during his presidency than all the little details of his life.

Also, not really knowing anything about Jefferson, I thought this book was informative and surprising. As children I think we are taught to mythologize the Founding Fathers, but Ellis also writes that "all mature appraisals of mythical figures are destined to leave their most ardent admirers somewhat disappointed. The best and the worst of American history are inextricably tangled together in Jefferson, and anyone who confines his search to one side of the moral question is destined to miss a significant portion of the story."

I thought Ellis was fair and objective about Jefferson's ideals and hypocrisies. Also, this book was published before the DNA testing which concluded that Jefferson did father at least one of his slave Sally Hemings' children (and probably all of them). In the book, Ellis states that he did not think the relationship was probable. But he has since made a public statement in which he said he was wrong. So don't read this book with a mind to vindicate Jefferson's moral character. Besides it doesn't matter. This is a well-written and intriguing biography and I really liked it.

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