American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson

Joseph J. Ellis / Nov 19, 2019

American Sphinx The Character of Thomas Jefferson Following his subject from the drafting of the Declaration of Independence to his retirement in Monticello Joseph Ellis unravels the contradictions of the Jeffersonian character A marvel of scholarsh

  • Title: American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson
  • Author: Joseph J. Ellis
  • ISBN: 9780679764410
  • Page: 194
  • Format: Paperback
  • Following his subject from the drafting of the Declaration of Independence to his retirement in Monticello, Joseph Ellis unravels the contradictions of the Jeffersonian character A marvel of scholarship, a delight to read, and an essential gloss on the Jeffersonian legacy.

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      Published :2019-08-18T07:44:31+00:00

    About "Joseph J. Ellis"

      • Joseph J. Ellis

        Joseph J Ellis, a professor of history at Mount Holyoke College, is a nationally recognized scholar of American history from colonial times through the early decades of the Republic The author of seven books, he is recipient of the National Book Award in Nonfiction for American Sphinx The Character of Thomas Jefferson and the Pulitzer Prize for Founding Brothers He lives in Massachusetts.


    1. It started when I was reading Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage, this niggling feeling of discomfort I get when reading a book when the author seems to be taking opportunities to lionize his/her subjects – or at the very least, portraying them in a simplistic, single facet. I’ve had this issue with Ambrose before (and I know enough about his writing to stay away from his excoriated Eisenhower bio), and while I enjoyed his bio of Meriwether Lewis, it was his portrayal of Thomas Jefferson that had [...]

    2. “God was not in the details for Jefferson; he was in the sky and stars.” ― Joseph J. Ellis, American SphinxEllis' biography of Thomas Jefferson's character is a more difficult task than one might imagine at first. Jefferson while brilliant with words is also a founding father of smoke. He was comfortable with ambiguity, but saw things in black and white. He had a great ability to mask his feelings and deceive himself. He was a visionary and prophet in the mountains whose biggest creation w [...]

    3. I suppose I knew what I was getting into with this book. The subtitle hints at the fact that this is a pretty thoroughgoing psychological history, rather than a historical narrative. Ellis posits Jefferson as an inscrutable figure shielded from effective analysis by a contradictory philosophy as well as a reserved personality. Both of which may be true, but both of which made this book scanty on real insight. Ellis doesn't spend much time asking why Jefferson was the way he was (a pretty worthwh [...]

    4. A provocative survey of an enlightenment thinker and statesman who could never outdistance his contradictions. My friend Mark Prather selected this for samizdat and a number of us read such and with a formality of discussion. The passage of a couple decades would likely have adjusted those younger impressions.

    5. This book is more a series of portraits than a biography. It doesn't tell Jefferson's story in one long arc, but rather captures him at significant periods of his life. This method works well for Ellis (see: Founding Brothers), probably because the broader view allows him to write more lyrically than a stick-to-the-facts biography would allow. What emerges from Jefferson's portraits is a man with extraordinary powers of self-delusion. These powers enabled him to bemoan slavery while owning slave [...]

    6. "American Sphinx", Joseph J Ellis. 1996. Historical revisionist, Joseph J. Ellis, ostensibly enjoys championing himself as a renegade historian, unafraid to attempt to topple one the most well respected and admired of America's founding fathers. Recklessly wielding his anachronistic values upon Thomas Jefferson, "American Sphinx" escalates into a full contact assault on one the most important and revered figures in western culture. Thomas Jefferson is no longer the successful plantation owner, b [...]

    7. As I read "American Sphinx", an odd thing happened. The more I learnt about Jefferson the less I liked him. The Jefferson of Ellis' biography is an arrogant, obsessive ideologue, whose successes are the lucky results of others' hard work, and whose failures are inevitable given his substantial flaws. As someone who was looking to like Jefferson, this was all pretty disappointing. Ellis' biography follows Jefferson from his first entrance into public life right until his providential death on Jul [...]

    8. AMERICAN SPHINX. (1996). Joseph J. Ellis. ****.This work was subtitled, “The Character of Thomas Jefferson.” Ellis had previously written a book on the same theme as this one, but about John Adams. What made this work on Jefferson a bit more difficult to write was the lack of early personal letters and documents that were all destroyed in a fire at Jefferson’s home. Much of Ellis’s comments on Jefferson’s early life were developed on an inferential basis – relying on letters and docu [...]

    9. I am clearly overwhelmed by this book. There are so many things that standout in this analysis of Jefferson and his influences in development of American government. I feel compelled to go into more detail than usual, purely for my own dissection of the aspects that seemed so pertinent to our current political situation. I had read this with the idea of balancing the negative perspective on Jefferson in the book “Hamilton.” Ellis is both critical and complementary, writing on Jefferson’s w [...]

    10. I loved the title. The iconic image of Jefferson takes a bit of a hit in this non-traditional biography. He was a brilliant, creative, imaginative and inventive man who helped transform our world with his vision on the role of government and in his writings. He was also a deeply flawed human being. He loved beauty and lived so beyond his financial means that, at his death, his beloved Monticello had to be auctioned off. He despised slavery yet, without them, could not afford his lifestyle. Since [...]

    11. Thomas Jefferson has always been my favorite of the Founding Fathers. I won't deny that part of it is because I do like a good scandal. :) But the other part is because he's simply fascinating. I've always loved thie combination of ego and indulgence, passion and beautiful reason that he exhibits. I love his writings. This book is by the same guy who did "Founding Brothers" (which is also fascinating and won a Pulitzer Prize), so the guy knows what he's talking about. He doesn't reveal much /new [...]

    12. I enjoyed this very much. It's not a straight biography of Jefferson, but as the subtitle says, it's an attempt to analyze his character. The book is very readable if you are reasonably familiar with the important people and events in the early years of America.It's a fascinating study of the man's inherent contradictions, the most obvious being that Jefferson was a slaveowner who became famous for his writings on equality and personal freedom.In my 1996 edition of this book, Ellis writes that h [...]

    13. bestpresidentialbios/2013/“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 “psy [...]

    14. I have read and enjoyed two books by Joseph J. Ellis in the past. Several years ago, I first encountered Ellis with Founding Brothers and found it a great look into the revolutionary generation. More recently, I read His Excellency: George Washington a couple of months ago and really enjoyed Ellis' presentation of Washington (see my review of His Excellency here on ). So it was with high expectations that I started American Sphinx. Unfortunately, those expectations were not met.Sphinx is not a b [...]

    15. This book is a well disguised attack on Jeffersonian ideals of smaller governmentlished through lengthy "psychoanalytic" attacks on Jefferson's character. It amazes me that so many find this illuminating and deserving of the Pulitizer Prize. Ellis chiefly does this by showing Jefferson to be a secretive, ultimately anarchic radical who was incapable of perceiving the need for political governance under the Constitution (the "necessary evil" described by Paine in Commons Sense).Perhaps most telli [...]

    16. A convincing and pleasurably readable psychohistory of - let's face it - a very eccentric man. Especially interesting are the passages where Jefferson's official actions are placed in the context of deep personal motivations and conflicts. For example, the author suggests that Jefferson's determination to reduce the national debt was largely based on his inability to pay off his own crushing personal debts. What he could not do for himself, he did for his country. Like his subject, the author se [...]

    17. Thomas Jefferson, according to the author, was an American Sphinx. And, indeed, there is an elusive quality to Jefferson. As the biography outlines, he could be as vicious a political assassin as there was (e.g his attacks on John Adams through others, while trying to keep his own hands "clean"), but he did not appear to want to accept or confront this in himself. At one time, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were great friends, founding cousins, as it were, of the new republic. Both added greatl [...]

    18. I really prefer to read biographies in which the author actually has some affection for his subject! Mr. Ellis treated Thomas Jefferson as a neurotic and idealistic man who just happened to experience a few flashes of brilliance because he was at the right place during the right time. Ellis was consistently patronizing and apologetic in his discussions about Thomas Jefferson's thoughts, ideas and actions. I generally expect a biographer to present his subject with an emphasis on his strengths an [...]

    19. I find myself a little disappointed by a lot of the reviews for this book. A lot of the complaints and critiques seem to center around the fact that this does not end up being the book they wished it would be, which is sort of absurd to begin with. This isn't a traditional biography, as the subtitle of the book makes abundantly clear. It is not a character assassination either. Ellis presents a character study via several historical vignettes. I found his presentation of Jefferson as a complicat [...]

    20. American Sphinx posits that Thomas Jefferson is not a hypocrite but such an ardent political idealist that he compartmentalized the aspects of himself that he psychologically could not deal with and so self deceived himself. Isn't that the very definition of a hypocrite? I've perused several reviews who believe Ellis is biased negatively against Jefferson, and that's just not true. I think Ellis is an ardent fan of Jefferson, but wisely, he doesn't shy away from Jefferson's faults; however, he a [...]

    21. I've only read one other book about Jefferson but I've read several others about the founding fathers and I'm absolutely convinced that this is the best I'll ever read about Thomas Jefferson.Ellis writes incredibly well- poetic, detailed, erudite as all hell, and smoothly- with grace. He captures what must have been Jefferson's consciousness. Not his mind or soul or heart so much as all three put together and the cloud of ideas and opinions he carried with him, as we all do.Complex man and a com [...]

    22. I'd give the book a 3 but I'd be rating the subject more than the author. Jefferson was a boring, introverted, man with ridiculous ideas. He preferred writing as a means of communication rather than personal encounters. I believe Jefferson was a plagiarist, from the Declaration of Independence to his thoughts on God stolen from a deist. Thoughts on God was his attempt to prove that he was a Christian when people doubted his faith. Jefferson was in truth a secular humanist. He was a failure as a [...]

    23. I didn't realize Jefferson was such a wild utopian. One generation should not be able to bind another, with debts, laws, etc? Wow. I found Ellis's elucidation of Jefferson's thinking excellent. He picks out a lot of fun, lively quotes as well. The glimpse I got of Adams through this book makes me want to read John Adams by McCullough next.I'm docking it one star for being somewhat repetitive, and for the rather tedious tie-ins to today at the beginning and end of the book-- those are dated now, [...]

    24. 9/10I've always been more of a John Adams guy than a Thomas Jefferson fan. But every great character needs a great foil, and American Sphinx is a great foil to David McCullough's excellent John Adams biography. I'm not an expert, but this seems like a fair appraisal of Jefferson; Ellis does an especially excellent job of handling the slavery issue, and Jefferson's compelling relationships with Adams and Madison. Still, I do feel the need to read more Jefferson after this, not just because I'm gr [...]

    25. If someone is looking for a Jefferson biography in a sub 400 page book, then they shouldn't read this. If you want interesting looks into Jefferson's mind when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, what he thought about the slavery issue, or why he made myriad decisions while in public service, then read this book. The author does a good job of separating fact from fandom. Jefferson was a good leader, but Ellis makes it clear that he shouldn't be considered America's greatest politician. A s [...]

    26. Having enjoyed Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams, I was not disappointed by Ellis's investigation into the character and intellect of the impossibly complex (and morally compromised) figure of Thomas Jefferson.

    27. This is the book to read if you want to know about the life of Thomas Jefferson. I learned so much from reading this book that I realize that I really had known nothing about Thomas Jefferson until now except the obvious historical facts and that he was an inventor. His actual political views are fascinating to learn and I think they are easy to understand in today's context. He was moderate compared to the extremist southern states rights faction, but he was very suspicious of big government an [...]

    28. Why Read: Think of me oddly if you'd like, but I love revolutionary American history. There is something incredibly entrancing about learning more about the people who, without a safety net, jumped into the void and created a new country from nothing. Thomas Jefferson has been a controversial character, from his portrayal in Hamilton: The Musical to the podcast the Thomas Jefferson Hour. This book was recommended to me by Clay Jenkinson, the host of the aforementioned podcast and I couldn't resi [...]

    29. Biographers have a choice on what to emphasize, their subject, the subject’s times or a combination of their subject and times. Again, the writer’s choice is one of emphasis and not one of exclusion. Ellis, who won the National Book Award in 1997 for American Sphinx, chose to emphasize Thomas Jefferson’s character first and then how he related to such events as writing the Declaration of Independence, representing the United States in Paris, serving as Adams Secretary of State and as Presi [...]

    30. I finished this biography of Thomas Jefferson a couple of days ago and needed to think about it for a bit. In considering what I learned, I have found this is not a simple book to review. First off, it is not a typically written biography. Ellis did not write it in the usual chronological order that biographies tend to follow.He presented different aspects of Jefferson's life and presidency and alternated forward and backward through time. By the time I was halfway through this book, I felt as i [...]

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