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Publisher's Summary

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, 1896); and in the subsequent 17 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 10 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.

©1997 Joseph J. Ellis (P)2021 Random House Audio

Critic Reviews

“Fascinating...an erudite and illuminating study.” (The New York Times)

“This elegant book on Jefferson sets a standard - history at its best.” (Chicago Tribune Editor’s Choice)

“A brilliant, unconventional look at Jefferson...beautifully written, cogently argues, full of both zealous scholarship and lively imagination.”(Cleveland Plain Dealer)

“Magnificent.... Ellis has a Jeffersonian gift for language.” (Newsweek)

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So: they did the DNA and … time to change appendix

Wow. What an idiot Ellis comes off as while concluding that the Hemings story is false. Finally members of Jefferson’s family consented to DNA testing probably 10 years ago now. There is very little question that Jefferson fathered multiple children with Hemmings. Then also that his descendants denied them a seat at the literal table for the next 200 years. For a serious scholar to be so obtuse as to offer an opinion not once but twice in the same book and for that opinion to have been wrong is pathetic.

Also stupid was his conclusion that modern right wing nuts bare a resemblance to TJ because they like dismantling social programs. Yes that’s true, but they are total strangers to TJ in their obsessions with the military industrial complex and America as world police. A trillion dollar war in an Arab desert would literally cause Jefferson’s head to explode as would a trillion dollar disaster of a standing army with thousands upon thousands of professional military men and women. Yet nary a right wing nut over the last 30 years would dare cut 1 dollar from a military budget. These are not Jeffersonians.

Finally Ellis showed his laziness by failing to adequately explore one particularly galling (among many) hypocrisy of the cowardly bigot from Virginia: The fact that as much as he hated the public tit he would gladly suck from
It if he wanted the milk in the form of say a public University. More needed to be done with that. Really.

As an important post script I honestly thought the reader was AI. She was that bad. Like a computer. Painful.

2 people found this helpful