“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 “psychological history” of Jefferson, but it is really much more than that: it is part character analysis, part personality profile and part history book. What it is not is a traditional biography or even an abbreviated narrative of Jefferson’s entire life – but as I have discovered by now, this is par for the course for a Joseph Ellis book on a revolutionary-era president.
Instead of following the story of Jefferson’s life in a single, continuous arc “American Sphinx” focuses on five significant periods in his life, observing his thoughts and actions during each of these periods and considering what can be learned about this enigmatic man. In this manner Ellis reflects on the many contradictions Jefferson presents as well as the difficulty he offers those who wish to portray Jefferson either as a hero or a villain, when he is certainly far more complex than that. (Not unlike many of us, he is a little of both…)
But rather than focusing dogmatically on just those five specific periods of his life (while he was in Philadelphia during the Second Continental Congress, in Paris as a diplomat, at Monticello after resigning as secretary of state, during his first presidential term and during his ultimate retirement to Monticello), Ellis pulls as much historical context from the “uncovered” periods as is needed to fully understand appreciate the points he makes and the conclusions he draws.
This book has been called dense by some and, less frequently, one-sided. But it is neither. In contrast to his previous character analysis (“Passionate Sage” about John Adams written three years earlier), Ellis’s book on Thomas Jefferson is surprisingly sprightly and effervescent, lacking the overtly academic feel of the earlier work. And it is remarkably well-balanced; throughout “American Sphinx” Ellis is careful to note Jefferson’s brighter and darker sides, observing his flaws and singing his praises where due.
Of particular interest toward the end of the book, Ellis examines Jefferson’s legacy – noting those aspects which have survived the past two-hundred years undiminished (his emphasis on religious freedom, for instance) and those which have been forced to bend to the will of American history and changing times (for example, his zealous pursuit of limited government in almost all circumstances…except when he was president, of course). It is at this point that one of Ellis’s central points – that Jefferson’s actions cannot be easily judged outside the context of his time in history – is most forcefully made.
Overall, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed “American Sphinx,” particularly as Ellis’s previous character analysis (on John Adams) possessed an overly dry and academic tone. “American Sphinx” on the other hand was colorful and dynamic, while also deep and insightful. But make no mistake- this is not the perfect book for someone just getting acquainted with Jefferson. Even though Ellis replays a great deal of Jefferson’s life in order to fully support his conclusions, this is not a comprehensive account of Jefferson’s entire life. However, as a third or fourth book on Thomas Jefferson, “American Sphinx” truly excels.
Overall rating: 4¼ stars