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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Terrific Political Synopsis of Jefferson
I loved this book, which read like a a novel. Ellis found negatives in Jefferson where deserved, and there was the constant comparison (in my mind) throughout the book where Jefferson would be in today's American political structure. I agree with a reviewer who said Jefferson would be appalled by today's politics of the Democratic and Republican parties, and would...
Published on 2 Aug. 1999

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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Was Jefferson Simply A Failure?
I salute Professor Ellis for a valiant, and very readable, effort to plumb the mind of Jefferson without resorting to misty-eyed "Founding Father" sentiments and myth, as most Jefferson biographers invariably do, albeit often unintentionally. I disagree with the reviewer who found that the author dodged the tough issues and the reviewer who kindly stated that...
Published on 18 Jun. 1998


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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Terrific Political Synopsis of Jefferson, 2 Aug. 1999
By A Customer
This review is from: American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (Paperback)
I loved this book, which read like a a novel. Ellis found negatives in Jefferson where deserved, and there was the constant comparison (in my mind) throughout the book where Jefferson would be in today's American political structure. I agree with a reviewer who said Jefferson would be appalled by today's politics of the Democratic and Republican parties, and would propably be Libertarian. But then again, Jefferson seemed to be so pragmatic (was the Louisiana Purchase constitutional and/or did Jefferson just want the land for American expansion?), that he could be in either major party (Republican for his strong anti-government views or Democratic for his no prayers in school views). Clearly, though, he would not be a television President, and, thus not electable today. That he was a brilliant writer is indisputable and being the first anti-Federalist President carrying the banner for less government and more individual soverignty makes him a stand-out in that era of brilliant Founding Fathers. Ellis points out that his political philosophy cerainly was inconsistent, and that Jefferson's personality did not lead him to "enjoy" conflict as much as John Adams,leading to the inescapable conclusion that Jefferson was a political philosopher laying the foundation for one major segment of American political thought for the next two centuries. The book did not clarify Jefferson's mental character enough. More about his family background, how he reacted personally to his wife's and daughter's deaths would haave been helpful for this analysis. Why he apparantly lacked "fire in the belly" to take on the issue of slavery when he was President, of which he disapproved but certainly condoned. There was also no mention of the events of the American Revolution, which I find to be the only major failing of the book, as it would have put the protagonists more in the context of that era, and, I believe, made Jefferson stand out more that he already does.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Was Jefferson Simply A Failure?, 18 Jun. 1998
By A Customer
I salute Professor Ellis for a valiant, and very readable, effort to plumb the mind of Jefferson without resorting to misty-eyed "Founding Father" sentiments and myth, as most Jefferson biographers invariably do, albeit often unintentionally. I disagree with the reviewer who found that the author dodged the tough issues and the reviewer who kindly stated that Professor Ellis "demystified" Jefferson.
I believe that the book very effectively illuminates the context in which Jefferson expressed and acted upon (or failed to act upon) many of his most cherished ideas and beliefs. What troubles me about the book, however, is its implicit suggestion that Jefferson in a vague sense was essentially a failure who, incredibly, was perpetually "out of the loop" (as we say today) when it came to the critical points of history that occurred in his time, except perhaps for the Declaration of Indpendence. But even there, Professor Ellis reduces Jefferson's role to a quasi-plagiarist who, in apparent denial of his own lack of creativity, publicly seethes at the thought of his fellow revolutionaries editing what Professor Ellis describes as, and what they therefore must also have known was, essentially George Mason's work!
According to Professor Ellis, Jefferson's view of the "Spirit of '76" was a little delusional and inferior to Adams' more accurate recollections. The book basically dismisses Jefferson as a bumbler when it comes to constitutional questions, although Madison was without peer in that regard. John Marshall was clever and legally facile, but not necessarily evenhanded in his constitutional interpretations. As to the role of the new government, Professor Ellis paints Jefferson as almost an irrational "spoiler" who had no positive vision about where he wanted to lead the country.
Perhaps I'm overreading Professor Ellis' conclusions, which, I am sure, he did not intend to come across the way I think they did. On the other hand, Professor Ell! is does usually place Jefferson on the wrong end of the stick when he comes to his closure on the issues he chose to address, such as the American and French Revolutions, slavery, the role of government, North-South relations, the role of the West, finances (personal and governmental), farming, political thought, politics, constitutional thought, sex, family, and friendship. While his analysis of each of these issues is interesting, plausible, and usually even-handed on the surface, Professor Ellis ultimately seems willing to cast as historical fact conclusions that are, in the end, also only "reasonably speculative," like those he admittedly offers with respect to Sally Hemmings.
This book must be read, but with the understanding that if Professor Ellis's treatment of Jefferson is 100% correct, then perhaps rather than building a statue of John Adams next to the Jefferson Memorial, as Professor Ellis suggests in his John Adams' biography, we should remove Mr. Jefferson's statue altogether and let it quitely sink into the Tidal Basin. Professor Ellis, I believe, gave a great effort, but in the end got so close that his view became myopic, with the result being that Jefferson slipped deftly through his analytical fingers.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very well written account of a complex and interesting man., 21 May 1999
By A Customer
This review is from: American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (Paperback)
Excellent book about a very real and three-dimensional man. "Historians", ie. earlier commentators, may scoff and say that nothing new was revealed or that they already knew all that was written here, but that says nothing about how good this particular book was. Mr. Ellis tells a wonderful story here and reveals to the rest of us "commoners" the human being behind the historical figure.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The reader can better understand Jefferson's legacy., 26 Dec. 1997
By A Customer
Ellis account of Jefferson stimulates considerable thought. For example, between 1775 and today why did his stature sore? As Ellis notes, Jefferson, the year before he drafted the Declaration of Independence, joined an elite now known as the Founding Fathers, but just barely. Meanwhile, Washington took on a god-like stature after his military successes. Ellis allows us to clearly see that in those early days, Washington's stature dwarfed that of Jefferson's. But the author helps us see that Jefferson's marginal rise in stock over the last two centuries outpaced that of Washington's.

Ellis gives the reader some ammunition as for the reason--for those who seek it. One reason is that Jefferson addressed issues head on that matters a lot to a broad cross section of Americans today. But perhaps most important, his actions--some incredibly unique--matched his words.

One such match in this book relates to limiting the national government. For instance, as President, he abolished tax collectors and nearly eliminated the national debt. Then in addition, he not only minimized the government, he minimized himself too. For instance, he read his inaugural address in such a low voice, only a handful of people could hear him. Later, rather than verbally trumpet the successes of his administration during the annual state of the union address, he submitted it only in writing with very little fanfare.

Despite his current popularity, his legacy is hotly debated. Some readers will say that his legacy, such as in relation to limited government, is in tatters by pointing to the Great Depression, for instance, and the resulting need for big government. Others might conclude that the Jeffersonian ideals are alive and kicking and will be well into the future. But it is exactly such divergence of opinion coupled meanwhile with his appeal to diverse audiences that makes the book stimulating.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Tries too much for closure, 6 Nov. 1998
By A Customer
This review is from: American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (Paperback)
I enjoyed the first part of this book better than the second. In the beginning, Ellis tries to present a balanced view of Jefferson: a great man with contradictions. But as the book goes on, Ellis seems unable to give sufficient credit to Jefferson's greatness. Ellis is all too willing to put a negative spin on Jefferson's legacy--such as saying that Southern secessionists embraced Jefferson during the Civil War. I saw a show about the legacy of Jefferson with Ellis on the panel. I got the impression (as I did when I read the book) that he wanted to close the book on Jefferson. That's just impossible with someone as complex as Jefferson. He tries too much for closure, as if trying to write the Jefferson biography to end all Jefferson biographies.
What's good about the book? Ellis is a talented writer. I also enjoyed the layout of Jefferson's life. His commentary on John Adams is good. He mentions John Adams throughout the book. Ellis seems more able to understand Adams than Jefferson.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "I TOO ONCE DWELT IN ARKADY", 20 July 1997
By A Customer
The Thomas Jefferson discussed in Joseph Ellis' "American Sphinx" continues to be a subject to be debated for decades to come. Whether you agree with Ellis' (mainly critical) interpretation of Jefferson's motivations, his book cannot but help you clarify your own interpretation of a man who saw clearly a vision of his country that was at odds with many of the citizens he wished to reach.

Readers should note that this book is not a biography; for instance, his second presidential term is scarcely touched upon, except to note its weaknesses and disappointments. "American Sphinx" allows the reader to view Jefferson as a man with human foibles and the more commonly known image as a "Founding Father." I recommend it to you.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Brings the Founding Father to life, and down to earth..., 7 Nov. 2013
By 
C. Ball (Derbyshire) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (Paperback)
Anyone looking for a straightforward biography of Thomas Jefferson would be best off avoiding this book. As the title suggests it is more of an analysis of Jefferson's elusive character, personality and ideology, dipping into his life at various formative periods - his writing of the Declaration of Independence, his time as minister in Paris, his first term as President, his 'retirement' to Monticello, exploring Jefferson as the ultimate contradiction: a slaveholding planter from Virginia who opposed slavery and supported emancipation, a Founding Father who disagreed with the whole notion of government, a visionary idealist who seemed to have no problem denying or ignoring his own principles when it suited.

Of all of the Founding Fathers, Jefferson was the one who believed in government the least, or perhaps more appropriately, he believed in the least amount of government. Modern-day right-wing Republicans would approve. Jefferson was the ultimate idealist, believing very much in the better impulses of human nature. He believed that, as Ellis puts it, "individuals liberated from the last remnants of feudal oppression would interact freely to create a natural harmony of interests that was guided ... by invisible or veiled forms of discipline." It was no wonder he often clashed with John Adams, the ultimate pragmatist, and often needed to be reigned in by his disciple Madison.

I found this a fascinating read, full of real insights into early American history and the characters at the heart of it. Jefferson comes across as very much real in this book, brought down to earth from the airy heights he liked to inhabit in life and the pedestal he has been placed on by generations of Americans: very real, endlessly frustrating, somewhat delusive, occasionally curmudgeonly, and lastingly influential. Jefferson's notion of individual freedom, and not government or organisation or any other kind of collectivistic mentality, as the bedrock of politics and society explains so much about American culture, then and today.
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4.0 out of 5 stars An Historical Refresher, 4 Jun. 1998
By A Customer
Thomas Jefferson had a unique political and philosophical character that sets him apart from all other U.S. presidents. Author Joseph Ellis tries his best to accurately portray Jefferson without getting too technical and contradictory. This is not an easy task, given the person that this book focuses on. Jefferson was a complex idealist and he believed in the ideals of self government without federal interference to an uncompromising degree.
I was surprised that Ellis did not give any coverage to the Adams- Jefferson feud in the election of 1800. There are many pages in this book that cover the reconciliation between the two men that followed Jefferson's retirement from public service. But little, if any, is said about the political showdown leading up to the election of 1800. Also, the author tries to solve the Sally Hemings controversy once and for all. Ellis states that he doesn't think there was any sexual relationship (I think there was) although he admits that there is no conclusive proof, one way or the other.
This biography does a good job explaining the true meaning behind Jefferson's political philosophy. For example, despite what some extremists in the religious community have tried to say, Jefferson was ABSOLUTELY, COMPLETELY, 100% against church- state relations! He did not even allow theology to be taught at the school he founded, the University of Virginia. He felt that a nation based on personal liberty was the ideal utopian state that the new republic should guarantee to all citizens.
I am often disgusted when I see our two major political parties, Republican and Democratic (especially Democrats) try to claim Jefferson as one of their own. Thomas Jefferson would be sickened by both of them if he were alive today! His ideas of personal liberty and free choice would place him in the Libertarian sector, if he could even be placed at all.
Thomas Jefferson is, and will always be, an American icon. We are not likely to ever see another individual in public life quite like the ! man from Monticello.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Worth reading, BUT, 14 Dec. 1997
By A Customer
FYI => Keeping history accurate ... and the truth about Jefferson's motives. Lately, there has emerged a kind of anti-Thomas Jefferson chic by questioning his character; visa vis his "contradictory" and "ambivalent" attitude towards slavery. After all, didn't he keep slaves? The facts are that Jefferson was stuck in the midst of a slave-owning society. He inherited human property along with a very large debt; he never had the choice of emancipating his slaves because of this bizarre circumstance. That is, before having the possibility of freeing his inherited human property (which means giving EACH slave free and clear title to himself!) FIRST Jefferson would have had to retire ALL of his debts. But the Revolutionary War made that impossible. So Jefferson made the best of a bad situation. HOWEVER, lately all kinds of writers who NOW question Jefferson's good character (because of the slavery issue) point to his not putting an anti-slavery statement in the Declaration of Independence, which he wrote. This especially galls me ... because anyone who even superficially reads American history can't help but know this is wrong. Recently, Terry Gross had one such "prize-winning" writer on her nationally broadcast radio show. I couldn't take it any more, and so I wrote the following to her. FS +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ Dadsweet wrote: December 14, 1997 Terry Gross Fresh Air, National Public Radio Re: Thomas Jefferson on Slavery On a recent Best of Fresh Air program, Joseph Ellis missed many chances to correct the record for Thomas Jefferson while publicizing his book, "American Sphinx: A Character Study of Thomas Jefferson." The tragedy of Jefferson's life is, 220 years after attempting to include his graphically ANTI-SLAVERY position in the FIRST draft of his Declaration of Independence, award-winning writer Ellis would make a mystery out of it. After their committee expurgated ALL references to slavery in the first draft, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin returned the Declaration to Thomas Jefferson. He reportedly became furious, and then went into a deep depression. Jefferson lamented, he had given them a perfect document and they ruined it. However, at least NOW the record can and should be corrected ... for Jefferson's sake. The first draft of the Declaration as originally written by Jefferson contains the following, scathing indictment of the British monarchy and slavery. It leads into the anti-slavery section from the still intact lines: " ... He [i.e., King George III] has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontier ..." The missing section on slavery comes next --- **** " ... He [i.e., King George III] waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN [sic, emphasis] king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN [sic, emphasis] should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the LIBERTIES [sic, emphasis] of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the LIVES [sic, emphasis] of another. " The Declaration continues with the lines still intact: "In every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned ... " Clearly, Jefferson considered the African slaves MEN and also PEOPLE, entitled to the same natural rights which he penned into the first few lines of the Declaration of Independence. While Ellis was writing his book on Jefferson, he must have been thinking of someone else. ________________________________ **** SOURCE: "Jefferson: Writings, Autobiography, Notes on the State of Virginia, Public and Private Papers, Addresses, Letters." Literary Classics of the United States, Inc. (1984) New York, pp 21-23 ISBN 0-940450-16-X distributed in the United States by Penguin Books AVAILABLE THORUGH AMAZON.COM
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Inscrutable and Timeless Sphynx of America, 26 July 1999
By A Customer
This review is from: American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (Paperback)
No one has impressed his personality into the American social consciousness and the reality of its political system as much as Thomas Jefferson. Ellis' psychological and character study portrays the complexities and contradictions of this enigmatic figure. He tackles the subject with level headed curiosity and objectivity, rather than the polemics or propaganda which often accompanies breathless tributes to American political icons. An individual capable of the most reasoned idealism and imagination exemplified in the Declaration of Independence, a romantic in his belief in the fundamental goodness of the human condition and its corruption by the exercise of government-- he was also capable irrational suspicion and bitter antipathy to those who differed with him. His trust in individual human nature and distrust of institutions and social organization was representative of the purest manifestation of the Enlightenment in American political thinking during this formative period. So also did he represent the pragmatism & disingenuousness of the slave owning, aristocratic Virginia planters class, to which he was born, and which was so profoundly conflicted with the egalitarian idealism of the new republic. All are admirably explored in this book, which should be read by those interested in the interplay between the subjective character and the political architecture wrought by one of world's great political minds.
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American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson
American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph Ellis (Paperback - 1 May 1998)
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