American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson

Joseph J. Ellis

Language: English

Pages: 440

ISBN: 0679764410

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

National Bestseller 

For a man who insisted that life on the public stage was not what he had in mind, Thomas Jefferson certainly spent a great deal of time in the spotlight--and not only during his active political career. After 1809, his longed-for retirement was compromised by a steady stream of guests and tourists who made of his estate at Monticello a virtual hotel, as well as by more than one thousand letters per year, most from strangers, which he insisted on answering personally. In his twilight years Jefferson was already taking on the luster of a national icon, which was polished off by his auspicious death (on July 4, 1826); and in the subsequent seventeen decades of his celebrity--now verging, thanks to virulent revisionists and television documentaries, on notoriety--has been inflated beyond recognition of the original person.

For the historian Joseph J. Ellis, the experience of writing about Jefferson was "as if a pathologist, just about to begin an autopsy, has discovered that the body on the operating table was still breathing." In American Sphinx, Ellis sifts the facts shrewdly from the legends and the rumors, treading a path between vilification and hero worship in order to formulate a plausible portrait of the man who still today "hover[s] over the political scene like one of those dirigibles cruising above a crowded football stadium, flashing words of inspiration to both teams." For, at the grass roots, Jefferson is no longer liberal or conservative, agrarian or industrialist, pro- or anti-slavery, privileged or populist. He is all things to all people. His own obliviousness to incompatible convictions within himself (which left him deaf to most forms of irony) has leaked out into the world at large--a world determined to idolize him despite his foibles.

From Ellis we learn that Jefferson sang incessantly under his breath; that he delivered only two public speeches in eight years as president, while spending ten hours a day at his writing desk; that sometimes his political sensibilities collided with his domestic agenda, as when he ordered an expensive piano from London during a boycott (and pledged to "keep it in storage"). We see him relishing such projects as the nailery at Monticello that allowed him to interact with his slaves more palatably, as pseudo-employer to pseudo-employees. We grow convinced that he preferred to meet his lovers in the rarefied region of his mind rather than in the actual bedchamber. We watch him exhibiting both great depth and great shallowness, combining massive learning with extraordinary naïveté, piercing insights with self-deception on the grandest scale. We understand why we should neither beatify him nor consign him to the rubbish heap of history, though we are by no means required to stop loving him. He is Thomas Jefferson, after all--our very own sphinx.

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for a Secretary of Navy,” because of the widespread presumption, which proved correct, that the main mission of the job was to scuttle much of the infant American fleet in order to implement the Jeffersonian goal of republican austerity. 33 Most students of the Jefferson presidency explain his leadership style in terms of the positive lessons he had learned from Washington and the negative ones learned from Adams. It is true that Jefferson himself referred to these obvious and opposing models as

is repeated in his autobiography, ibid., I, 113; see also Jefferson to Nathaniel Bacon, August 19, 1821, and Jefferson to William Johnson, October 27, 1822, ibid., X, 192–93, 222–26. 84. Jefferson to William Johnson, June 12, 1823, Smith, III, 1866. 85. James Madison to Jefferson, June 27, 1823, ibid., 1868–70. 86. Ibid., 1944–46, for Jefferson’s draft proposal; Jefferson to James Madison, December 24, 1825, 1943, for the quotation about Madison’s opinion. 87. James Madison to Jefferson,

raised by a stepmother. He never did. She died on September 6, 1782. 6 Jefferson was inconsolable for six weeks, sobbing throughout the nights, breaking down whenever he tried to talk. Word of his extended grieving leaked out from Monticello and caused some friends to worry that he was losing his mind. “I ever thought him to rank domestic happiness in the first class of the chief good,” wrote Edmund Randolph, “but scarcely supposed that his grief would be so violent as to justify the circulating

were unavoidable, in the end tragically so. One of his most famous utterances, trailing only his classic statement on human rights in the Declaration of Independence as an eloquent contribution to American prose history, is the following passage from Notes on Virginia: “Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit of genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which

to make a public statement declaring his withdrawal. But since Jefferson did not permit the perception of his candidacy to gain access to his conscious mind, even though it was being bandied about throughout the Republican network and in several newspapers, he really had no reason to declare his withdrawal. Madison understood the elaborate system of internal valves that Jefferson could turn off and on so deftly. He therefore understood—it was a critical dimension of their remarkable

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