Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson

Article excerpt

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. By Joseph J. Ellis. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. Pp. xiv, 365, ISBN 0-679-44490-4.)

Some would say that another biography of Jefferson is like another biography of Lincoln, just old wine in new bottles. But Joseph J. Ellis believes there is a reason for another look at Jefferson, to perform an "autopsy" in the author's stretched metaphor. "It was as if a pathologist," he writes, "just about to begin an autopsy, had discovered that the body on the operating table was still breathing" (p. 10). Ellis exposes minute details of the "Great Sphinx of American history" (p. 10), and his vivisection suggests that hyperbolic dichotomies describing the man are wrong. Jefferson is not either a liberal or a conservative, a populist or an aristocrat, antislavery or proslavery, an agrarian or an industrialist, a devoted husband and father or father of slaves. Jefferson is all of these in one complex personality; to Ellis he is "Everyman" (p. 11). "The best and worst of American history are inextricably tangled together in Jefferson," the author claims, "and anyone who confines his search to one side of the moral equation is destined to miss a significant portion of the story" (p. xi).

Ellis concedes that his study is selective. He investigates only "propitious moments" in Jefferson's life. For those who question the choice of where "to zoom in on his thoughts and actions," one is directed to Dumas Malone, Merrill D. Peterson, Eric McKitrick, Paul Finkelman, and Peter S. Onuf, among others (p. xi-xii). Ellis states that he is not writing for fellow historians anyway but for "ordinary people with a general but genuine interest in Thomas Jefferson" (p. xii). Taking him at his own standard he has succeeded in meeting it remarkably well; yet, as the endnotes testify, he has mastered the scholarly literature on his subject.

Ellis first presents Jefferson in 1775 as a methodical yet brilliant essayist on Whig principles. He is next seen in Paris (1784-1789) as a mature, more complicated individual "grown more handsome with age" who is nothing if not overconfident of his abilities and accomplishments (p. 65). As a recluse at Monticello between 1794 and 1797 Ellis plumbs the depths of Jefferson's psyche, especially his views on race and his love of democracy. …

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