Two Perspectives on Elusive Thomas Jefferson One Biography Is Respectful, the Other Malicious

By Reviewed Myron A. Marty | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), February 23, 1997 | Go to article overview

Two Perspectives on Elusive Thomas Jefferson One Biography Is Respectful, the Other Malicious


Reviewed Myron A. Marty, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


AMERICAN SPHINX

The Character of Thomas Jefferson

By Joseph J. Ellis 365 pages, Knopf, $26 THE LONG AFFAIR Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution 367 pages, University of Chicago Press, $29.95 THOMAS JEFFERSON is an elusive figure, as biographers who have devoted many years to studying his life and work readily acknowledge. Now come two writers new to Jefferson to grapple with his elusiveness. Their inspiration springs from their work with Jefferson's contemporaries, and their perspectives have been shaped by that work. In "American Sphinx," Joseph J. Ellis, a biographer of John Adams and a professor at Mount Holyoke College, treats Jefferson critically, fairly and with a healthy measure of perplexity and respect - much in the manner that Adams himself might have spoken of his longtime friend and rival. In contrast, Irish writer Conor Cruise O'Brien, author of "A Thematic Biography of Edmund Burke," portrays Jefferson as an intellectual forebear of South African apartheid, the Ku Klux Klan, the men charged with bombing the federal building in Oklahoma City, and other extremists, not as an promoter of ideals Americans cherish. He dismisses the reverence Jefferson enjoys as undeserved and pounces on every opportunity to fault Jefferson's biographers for the favorable treatment they accord him. Ellis defines Jefferson's character by scrutinizing five critical episodes in his life. First, though, he mentions the "Jefferson Surge" in 1992-93, when the 250th anniversary of Jefferson's birth gave scholars occasion to examine his life from fresh perspectives. The most significant anniversary event was a conference on Jefferson legacies sponsored by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, and Ellis takes note of the essays from that conference published by the University of Virginia Press in "Jefferson Legacies," edited by Peter Onuf. In the first episode - Jefferson in Philadelphia in 1775-70 - Ellis finds distinctive psychological implications in Jefferson's reclusive pattern of behavior and his sensitivity to criticism of his prose, particularly his draft of the Declaration of Independence. In a long paragraph written by Jefferson but deleted by the assembly, Jefferson condemned George III for waging "cruel war against human nature itself" by establishing slavery in North America, blocking efforts to end the slave trade, and seeking to inspire rebellion by the slaves in the colonists' war with England. The contradictory nature of these condemnations, Ellis says, "was symptomatic of a deep disjunction in (Jefferson's) thinking about slavery that he never reconciled." Ellis sees Jefferson's vision for America, encapsulated as it was in the Declaration the founders eventually agreed upon, as driven by "youthful romanticism unwilling to negotiate its high standards with an imperfect world." That romanticism, he says, planted hopes and illusions "squarely in the founding document of the American republic." It made the American dream "the Jeffersonian dream writ large." To European commentators, he asserts, the American expectations seem excessive and the political thinking "beguilingly innocent." In the four other episodes Ellis examines - Jefferson in Paris, (1784-89), out-of politics years at Monticello, (1794-97), the first years as president (1801-04), and active retirement years at Monticello (1816-26) - contradictions between Jefferson's words and actions exemplify the elusiveness of his character. …

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Two Perspectives on Elusive Thomas Jefferson One Biography Is Respectful, the Other Malicious
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