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American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson

3.95  ·  Rating details ·  22,159 ratings  ·  660 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 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)
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)

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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
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
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
Jul 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
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
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
Jul 18, 2007 rated it really liked it
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
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
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
Jan 18, 2020 rated it liked it
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.
Christopher Saunders
Oct 10, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites, 2020-reads
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
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
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
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
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 Frankenfield
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.
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
Jun 14, 2009 rated it did not like it
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
Apr 12, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
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
Aug 29, 2009 rated it it was ok
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
Adam Irving
Mar 24, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Peggy Parsons
Sep 28, 2015 rated it really liked it
I'd give the book a 3 but I'd be rating the subject more than the author. Jefferson was a boring, introverted, man with ridiculous ideas. He preferred writing as a means of communication rather than personal encounters. I believe Jefferson was a plagiarist, from the Declaration of Independence to his thoughts on God stolen from a deist. Thoughts on God was his attempt to prove that he was a Christian when people doubted his faith. Jefferson was in truth a secular humanist. He was a failure as a ...more
Alexander Rolfe
Oct 23, 2015 rated it really liked it
I didn't realize Jefferson was such a wild utopian. One generation should not be able to bind another, with debts, laws, etc? Wow. I found Ellis's elucidation of Jefferson's thinking excellent. He picks out a lot of fun, lively quotes as well. The glimpse I got of Adams through this book makes me want to read John Adams by McCullough next.

I'm docking it one star for being somewhat repetitive, and for the rather tedious tie-ins to today at the beginning and end of the book-- those are dated now,
Oct 26, 2017 rated it liked it
If someone is looking for a Jefferson biography in a sub 400 page book, then they shouldn't read this. If you want interesting looks into Jefferson's mind when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, what he thought about the slavery issue, or why he made myriad decisions while in public service, then read this book. The author does a good job of separating fact from fandom. Jefferson was a good leader, but Ellis makes it clear that he shouldn't be considered America's greatest politician. A s ...more
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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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“Jefferson appeared to his enemies as an American version of Candide; Hamilton as an American Machiavelli.” 6 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.” 4 likes
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