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AMERICAN SPHINX by Joseph J. Ellis


The Character of Thomas Jefferson

by Joseph J. Ellis

Pub Date: Jan. 31st, 1997
ISBN: 0-679-44490-4
Publisher: Knopf

 In the latest of a spate of books on his legacy, Ellis (History/Mount Holyoke Coll.; Passionate Sage, 1993) argues that Thomas Jefferson was neither the saintly hero of myth nor the devious hypocrite depicted by some revisionist studies, but a protean character whose complex qualities evoke the best and worst aspects of our history and culture. Ellis notes that, unlike the largely forgotten John Adams, Jefferson is an iconic figure who maintains a continuing symbolic significance for modern Americans, either as an apostle of democracy or as an exemplar of the racism that has disfigured American history. Studying five crucial periods in his life, Ellis traces the unique mix of the brilliant and the fallible in Jefferson's character. We see him in turn as the young, sensitive, high-strung drafter of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia in 1776; a seasoned diplomat in Paris in 178489; a gentleman farmer (179497); a besieged president (180104); and finally, an elder statesman (181626). Ellis points out that Jefferson's career had disasters as well as successes. He was, for instance, a failure as governor of Virginia (his administration left the state's economy in shambles). He also argues that Jefferson's thought cannot easily be taken out of its historical context. Crucial aspects of his outlook have been outmoded by time: Such concepts as slavery, states' rights, and the primacy of the agrarian in American life were wiped out by the Civil War. The growth of a multicultural society and the development of a culture of equal rights for minorities and women undermined his vision of an Anglo-Saxon society dominated by men. Nonetheless, Ellis asserts that there are enduring aspects of Jefferson's legacy--including his emphasis on individual rights, an abhorrence of centralized government, and a belief in the necessity for religious freedom- -that continue to shape our political culture today. A thoughtful and respectful, but not worshipful, reassessment of the enduring meaning of Jefferson's life and work. (History Book Club main selection)