Book Review: American Sphinx by Joseph Ellis

22680Title: American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson

Author: Joseph Ellis

Genre: History, Biography, Nonfiction, American History, Politics, Presidents

Publisher: Vintage

Published: April 17, 1998

Page Amount: 440 pages

Blurb From GoodreadsFollowing 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.

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 resist giving it a shot.

Review: On July 4, 1826, fifty years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence: Thomas Jefferson passed away (preceded earlier that day by John Adams). How do you characterize the life of a man who is responsible for so many parts of our government, our country and the hypocrisies that drive one another to distraction today? Ellis tries his very best, and without giving too much away, helped me understand why Jefferson was the way he was.

When reading about the founding fathers, it’s easy to fall into the habit of thinking these men “godlike.” Ellis captures that early on and reminds that although it’s easy to see Jefferson as paranoid and full of conspiracies during the revolution and the after-horrors of partisanship and being the President – it was just how the 1790s were. That feverish mentality would follow every character of this age (They had just started a revolution, remember?). I love this book because it goes deeper into not just saying that Jefferson was feverish,  read everything he could get his hands on, was positive the Federalists were out to destroy the government, and wished so desperately to be in Monticello that he referred to himself as “savage.” No. Ellis goes on to talk about what he might have been thinking, about how Jefferson divided the world into black and whites, the right and the wrong, in order to find that common threat of nationalism that was necessary to create the USA.

The style of writing that takes us through his childhood, the revolution, Jefferson’s life abroad and his stint as President is what you’d expect. It’s an academic book, after all. That doesn’t mean it can’t be uniquely fascinating and mind-blowing at the same time. To give you an idea of what I mean, this is one of my favorite quotes about Jefferson’s ability as a writer: “The genius of his rhetoric is to articular irreconcilable human urges at a sufficiently abstract level to mask their mutual exclusiveness.”

There’s a certain cadence that Ellis employs and I found myself swept along by the narrative and compelled by the choice of words and stylistic decisions. So there’s that. Tempting as it is to focus on the writing, I want to talk about the narrative. Jefferson’s life story is such that one could write hundreds of books about different aspects of it (even if the Shadewell fire destroyed much of his early life) and people have tried. What’s so great about this book is that it doesn’t aim to fit in every little detail and moment of distinction of my third president. Ellis knows he can’t fit it all in, so he makes executive decisions and looks at certain parts rather than others. It’s all part of writing a good biography, and this one… it’s one of the best.

Rating: 5/5 Stars

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