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American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson

3.92  ·  Rating details ·  28,110 ratings  ·  727 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 January 31st 1997)
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Russ Grossman Having read both, I can tell you, if you want a complete Jefferson biography, read the Art of Power. However, American Sphinx explores how and why Jef…moreHaving read both, I can tell you, if you want a complete Jefferson biography, read the Art of Power. However, American Sphinx explores how and why Jefferson handled the most important moments of his life. It's not a complete biography, but definitely a great companion to the Art of Power. There's another one I haven't read yet called Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty I'd like to check out as well.(less)
Russ Grossman I don't think it's a question of "better." They are very different. Meacham wrote a full scale biography of Jefferson, where Ellis focused on his thou…moreI don't think it's a question of "better." They are very different. Meacham wrote a full scale biography of Jefferson, where Ellis focused on his thought processes and feelings about why he did what he did at the most important moments of his life. I'm glad I read both - gave me a more complete picture of the man.(less)

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Dec 25, 2016 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
Jun 16, 2012 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 20, 2011 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
Jan 27, 2013 rated it really liked it
The only American President whom I have read about who seems dark but good. I can see now more clearly how other Founding Fathers distrusted him and kept him at arm's length. A truly strange fellow, hence America, while good and well-meaning is dark and strange, and even as an American I would not be shocked by a reversal of all that we believe in because of the character of one president. From Sphinx, I am grateful that his dark side never was allowed to overshadow the character of the rising r ...more
Jun 05, 2012 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
Dec 26, 2007 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
Sep 08, 2010 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
After my frustration with Meacham's Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, I was hopeful Ellis would give me a better grasp on Jefferson's character. He did not disappoint. Jefferson it is still hard to grasp, he is elusive but Ellis captures Jefferson's contradictions, hypocrisy, a little paranoia, his ideologies and his issue with slavery. Since this was a focused character assessment, it wasn't a true biography. He skips Jefferson's early life, and while he addresses many of the major historical ...more
Dec 22, 2012 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
Frank Theising
Apr 03, 2022 rated it really liked it
Shelves: bio-presidents
American Sphinx is not a standard beginning-to-end biography but more of a character study that attempts to explore the thought life of Thomas Jefferson at key points in his life. As such, I would really only recommend it to those who already have a general grasp of Jefferson’s life and career. As the title suggests, Jefferson was a complicated man who had a wide range of opinions and views over his eight decades of life. As such, there is something in his writings for nearly every conceivable g ...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
Feb 24, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
I am clearly overwhelmed by this book. There are so many things that standout in this analysis of Jefferson and his influences in development of American government. I feel compelled to go into more detail than usual, purely for my own dissection of the aspects that seemed so pertinent to our current political situation. I had read this with the idea of balancing the negative perspective on Jefferson in the book “Hamilton.” Ellis is both critical and complementary, writing on Jefferson’s weaknes ...more
May 06, 2013 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
J.M. Hushour
Jun 19, 2021 rated it it was amazing
"Since this affinity for idealized or idyllic visions, and the parallel capacity to deny evidence that exposed them as illusory, proved a central feature of Jefferson's mature thought and character, it seems necessary to ask where it all came from."

Jefferson. Near-mythical Forefather and father to five children by his slave Sally Hemings. Declaration-writer and holder of one of the worst records for a presidential term (his second). Louisiana Purchaser and dedicated hypocrite whose first term pr
Christopher Saunders
Oct 10, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2020-reads, favorites
Joseph Ellis's American Sphinx expertly probes the life, beliefs and public image of Thomas Jefferson, the Third President, author of the Declaration of Independence and the intellectual motor of the American Revolution. Like Ellis's other works, it's not a conventional biography; instead, Ellis uses specific events to chart how Jefferson's character evolved, or didn't, in reaction to developments around him. Indeed, reaction might be the key, for Ellis's portrait of Jefferson emphasizes the Man ...more
May 26, 2021 rated it really liked it
American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph J. Ellis is part biography, part history, but more so an illuminating character study of the enigmatic third president of the United States.  Ellis analyzes Jefferson through five distinct periods of his life including: in Philadelphia during the Second Continental Congress (1774-75), in Paris as a diplomat (1784-89), at Monticello following resignation as President Washington’s secretary of state (1794-97, during his first presidentia ...more
Mar 04, 2008 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
Lost Planet Airman
An in-depth look at Thomas Jefferson in context of his time; erudite yet accessible. Not sure how to rate it as I have no basis for comparison. Liked it but I am not in love with scholarship, so... 4? 3.5, probably.
Annie Monson
Jun 06, 2022 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2022, non-fiction, history
You know the feeling when you’re reading a five-star book within the first page or two?

Ellis’s comfortable expertise, precise and poetic analysis, and comprehensive synthesis combined with the irresistibility of the Founding Fathers and revolutionary era…? Well, I was hooked.

Ellis’s other master quality is that he is fair about Jefferson: neither overly complimentary, nor excessively critical.

For all of Jefferson’s idealism, contradictions and even deviousness, perhaps we needed him to give us
Steven Peterson
Dec 22, 2009 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
Oct 30, 2016 rated it really liked it
American Sphinx posits that Thomas Jefferson is not a hypocrite but such an ardent political idealist that he compartmentalized the aspects of himself that he psychologically could not deal with and so self deceived himself. Isn't that the very definition of a hypocrite?

I've perused several reviews who believe Ellis is biased negatively against Jefferson, and that's just not true. I think Ellis is an ardent fan of Jefferson, but wisely, he doesn't shy away from Jefferson's faults; however, he a
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
Christine Boyer
Nov 16, 2014 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Jefferson fanatics, early American history, Louisiana Purchase, slavery, Monticello
Okay, this is a specific review. Yes, I liked it. However, beware, it is not for everyone. First, it is not a biography of Jefferson. There is no starting from a baby, learning about family, and going to the end. This is all about Jefferson's key writings and his philosophical ideas with regard to governments. Ellis starts with Jefferson writing the Declaration, then the next chapter is his years as Sec. of State in France, etc. And you can tell that Ellis is a professor because the writing felt ...more
Sep 01, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
After reading Ron Chernow's biography on Alexander Hamilton, my opinion of Thomas Jefferson was very low. I vowed to read a Jefferson bio so that I could learn more about the man and his beliefs and philosophies. Based on this bio, I feel that he was a man who, like Hamilton, was passionate about this country and without question, he was a founding father who dedicated his life to building democracy in America. However, he was a conflicted and manipulative person who was driven by self interest ...more
Aug 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Wow. I can honestly say this is the best TJ biography I have ever read. The narrative is crisp, clear and concise. The author relates Jefferson's life through a series of vignettes that come together to form the book. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the Founding Fathers, American history, and Presidential history buffs as well. An excellent read. ...more
Jul 28, 2019 rated it liked it
The more I read about Thomas Jefferson the less I like him.
Dec 19, 2020 rated it really liked it
Oh Mr. Jefferson, what are we going to do with you?

American Sphinx is my second book about the founding fathers this year, all sparked by my desire to read Hamilton after watching the musical. I still haven't gotten around to that one, but now I've read about Adams and Jefferson!

I wanted to read about Jefferson after reading David McCollough's biography of John Adams because McCollough didn't present Jefferson in a very favorable light, which was surprising to me and I wanted to know if it was
Sara Shefchik
Aug 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
The second half of this book was more intriguing than the first. Ellis gives several examples of paradox in the politics/philosophies of Jefferson. One must consider the context when reading about any of our founding fathers but I can’t help but being pushed away from Jefferson towards Hamilton on the political spectrum of the time. Nonetheless, Jefferson is very intriguing. I now believe that no politician should ever quote Jefferson because he lived in a very different time and his philosophie ...more
Apr 24, 2018 rated it really liked it
I get the sense you either love him or you don't. We're not talking hate, necessarily, just a sliding spectrum of dislike ranging from never having considered the Jeffersonian point of view to a deep concern for what is at best naivety and at worst willful duplicity. Ellis provides only the highlights of Jefferson's life, focusing on periods of accomplishment or intellectual growth, but it is a solid starting point for understanding how Jefferson fits into the early narrative of the American exp ...more
Deacon Tom F
Jun 10, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A very powerful book. The strongest sections were the last two chapters. They served as both a summary as well as a comparative analysis of Jefferson in history.
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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

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