It’s Memorial Day Weekend, the thermometer is hovering near eighty degrees, and the aroma of my neighbor’s charcoal grill is wafting through my open window. This can only mean one thing: It’s time to read!
Nine months out of the year I am a teacher, but three months out of the year—perhaps my favorite three months—I am a student again. It is these three months that allow me to continue to be a teacher at all, to return to the classroom with joy and enthusiasm and the excitement of newfound discoveries.
I had a blast teaching a course on the American Revolution for the first time in my career this past semester, but I finished the term primarily with a list of books that I am determined to read before I tackle the class again. I’ve read five since commencement, and I thought I’d pass along a recommendation of the one I enjoyed most.
The book is American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, by Joseph J. Ellis. The book is hardly new (it came out in 1997), and academic historians who teach on the Revolution will almost all be familiar with it. I was not, but now I am, and I am glad. I loved it. I had previously read Ellis’s later book Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, for which the author won a Pulitzer Prize. Ellis won a National Book Award for American Sphinx, and I have no difficulty understanding why.
The focus of the book, as the subtitle suggests, is Jefferson’s character. Rather than craft a comprehensive biography, Ellis chose to illuminate a series of “moments” or periods in Jefferson’s adult life. In five main chapters he examines the period surrounding the writing of the Declaration of Independence, the years Jefferson spent in Paris during the mid-1780s as ambassador to France, his brief retirement from public life in the 1790s after withdrawing from Washington’s cabinet, the first term of his presidency, and the last ten years of his life. This means that there are some important episodes that don’t make the cut, most notably the furor over the Alien and Sedition Acts in the late 1790s (including Jefferson’s authorship of the Kentucky Resolutions), as well as his controversial efforts at “peaceable coercion” as the Napoleonic Wars unfolded during his second presidential term.
Since I’ve previously written about David Barton’s take on the nation’s third president (see here), it might help to begin by comparing America Sphinx with Barton’s The Jefferson Lies. Most obviously, American Sphinx is a scholarly book, whereas The Jefferson Lies is a polemic by a political activist who has very little sense of what it means to think historically. Ellis’s Jefferson is three dimensional and complex; Barton’s Jefferson is a cardboard cutout who looks a lot like David Barton in knee breeches and a powdered wig.
Ellis refuses either to idolize or demonize his subject. Time and again he sketches Jefferson as complicated and contradictory. He idealized the yeoman farmer (those who till the earth “are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people,” Jefferson rhapsodized in Notes on the State of Virginia), but he actually spent very little time in the fields himself and, in the main, found farming boring. He preached the virtues of republican simplicity but denied himself few luxuries, living almost his entire life beyond his means and dying on the verge of bankruptcy. Most notoriously, he spoke passionately about the evils of slavery, but offered no realistic suggestions for addressing the institution and took almost no concrete steps himself, other than freeing five members of the Hemings family in his will.
The easiest conclusion—made by many in Jefferson’s day and since—is that the master of Monticello was an incurable hypocrite, that duplicity was woven deep into the fabric of his being. Ellis refuses to make this leap. Admittedly, some of the ways that he describes Jefferson tiptoe right up to the line of moral condemnation: Ellis concedes that Jefferson regularly told correspondents what they wanted to hear, regarding “candor and courtesy as incompatible.” He possessed a remarkable “psychological dexterity” that allowed him to rationalize or disregard contradictions, a “cultivated tolerance for inconsistency” that served him well.
But Ellis insists throughout that Jefferson’s duplicity was “the kind of duplicity possible only in the pure of heart.” In other words, Jefferson sincerely meant what he said. He truly believed in the values that he championed. That neither he nor the world perfectly corresponded with the reality that he imagined was a truth that he never confronted, thanks to a highly developed “capacity to keep secrets from himself.” In sum, Ellis’s Jefferson was not blatantly hypocritical but he was significantly flawed, a figure who “combined great depth with great shallowness, massive learning with extraordinary naiveté, piercing insights into others with daunting powers of self-deception.”
Does Ellis have Jefferson pegged? Perhaps. I don’t know Jefferson well enough to say at this point, but I have no qualms about endorsing American Sphinx. Ellis’s sketch of Jefferson is definitely plausible, and for the most part I find it persuasive. Beyond that, Ellis does several things in the book that I admire greatly.
First, his prose is delightful. Ellis has perfected the art of the pithy character sketch. Thomas Paine, we read, was “a practicing alcoholic with the social graces of a derelict.” John Adams was “a man whose own throbbing ego had lashed itself to the cause of independence.” His powerful oratorical style “seemed part bulldog and part volcano.”
Ellis is also adept at physical description. In graduate school one of my mentors was skeptical of anything that even hinted at artistic embellishment. The historian’s job as he conceived of it is to explain what happened, period. Details that had nothing to do with the chain of causation are details that need not be mentioned. His entire philosophy of historical writing was encapsulated in a rhetorical question still seared into my memory: “Who cares that Taft was fat?” Who cares indeed?
Joseph Ellis cares. Throughout American Sphinx, he goes to great lengths to help his readers SEE what he is describing. We learn that Jefferson was 6’2”, with freckles and reddish hair and eyes variously described as green or blue. When standing his posture was typically erect, his arms crossed; when seated he tended to sprawl like an adolescent, “shoulders slouched and uneven . . . part jackknife and part accordion.” When Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams were presented to the King of France, Ellis tells us that “the physical contrast would have been almost comical, “like watching a cannonball, a teapot, and a candlestick announce themselves as the American trinity.”
And yet, he is not just making things up, filling in the gaps in the historical record with the product of his own imagination. Every detail is meticulously documented. Historians who make the past “come alive” can often mislead us about what they are doing, so that the reader comes to think of the historian as akin to a reporter whose job is merely to stick out a microphone and let the facts of the past speak for themselves. Ellis does as good a job as anyone I knew of simultaneously telling a compelling story while making clear that the past is complicated, that our knowledge is incomplete, and that a living, breathing historian is making ongoing subjective judgments in crafting an interpretation. It’s a rare accomplishment.
Finally, I very much admire that Ellis has written this book for a broad audience. At the risk of sounding corny, he knows that his subject belongs to America, not the Academy. Ellis begins American Sphinx by noting Jefferson’s enduring relevance to Americans’ sense of national identity. Americans of a broad range of backgrounds and political persuasions see Jefferson as key to understanding the meaning of the nation’s founding; they are perpetually determined to figure out the Jeffersonian answer to the challenge of the moment.
Ellis notes that academic historians are deeply suspicious of the WWJD (“What would Jefferson do?”) mentality and try to avoid or dismiss the question. “As they see it, the past is a foreign country with its own distinctive mores and language,” he writes. “All efforts to wrench Jefferson out of his own time and place, therefore, are futile and misguided ventures that invariably compromise the integrity of the historical context that made him what he was.” Make no mistake: Ellis has zero sympathy for the Bartonesque approach to the past that uses history as a weapon in partisan politics. At the same time, he recognizes that academic historians’ determination to prevent such “ideologically motivated raiding parties” has had the unintended effect of “making history an irrelevant, cloistered, indeed dead place, populated only by historians.”
The solution, which Ellis ably models, is to take seriously the questions that the broader culture finds important and address them as responsibly and judiciously as possible. This is why Ellis concludes American Sphinx by asking, in the words of early-twentieth-century historian Carl Becker, “What is still living in the political philosophy of Thomas Jefferson?”
The answer, if Ellis is correct: “Not much.”
Ellis sketches briefly how Jefferson’s belief in the sovereignty of the states within a larger system of federalism became a casualty of the Civil War. His vision of an agrarian America and his hope that “our workshops [might] remain in Europe] was shattered by the massive industrialization and urbanization of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Jefferson’s urgent plea for limited government was categorically rejected during Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and his fear of a large standing army was brushed aside by the perpetual mobilization of the Cold War.
In the end, Ellis concludes that the one truly living Jeffersonian legacy is the one David Barton wrote The Jefferson Lies to refute. As Ellis puts it, “the principle that the government has no business interfering with a person’s religious beliefs or practices is the one specific Jeffersonian idea that has negotiated the passage from the late eighteenth to the late twentieth century without any significant change in character or coloration.”
This last leads to my one significant disappointment with American Sphinx. Given his preoccupation with Jefferson’s character, Ellis pays surprisingly little attention to Jefferson’s religious beliefs, and this book is not the place to explore that topic. I have written elsewhere on Jefferson’s complicated religious beliefs and so I’m not going to plow that ground again, but next time I do want to follow up on one other aspect of Jefferson’s influence that Ellis largely passed over. What is living today in the philosophy of Thomas Jefferson? No answer to that question is complete until we have spent some time thinking how the ghost of Thomas Jefferson continues to haunt the American Academy.