Cover image for American sphinx : the character of Thomas Jefferson
American sphinx : the character of Thomas Jefferson
Ellis, Joseph J.
Personal Author:
[Large print edition].
Publication Information:
Thorndike, Me. : G.K. Hall, 2000.

Physical Description:
670 pages ; 24 cm
General Note:
Originally published: New York : A.A. Knopf, 1997.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
E332.2 .E45 1996B Adult Large Print - Floating collection Floating Collection - Large Print

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Thomas Jefferson may be the most important American president; he is certainly the most elusive. He has, at different times, been claimed by Southern secessionists and Northern abolitionists, New Deal liberals and neo-conservatives. Now the historian Joseph J. Ellis restores our most enigmatic national icon to human dimensions, with insight, sympathy, and superb style. Following his subject from the drafting of the Declaration of Independence to his retirement in Monticello, Ellis unravels the contradictions of the Jeffersonian character.

Author Notes

Joseph J. Ellis was born in Washington, D.C. on July 18, 1943. He received a B.A. from the College of William and Mary in 1965 and a M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D. from Yale University.

He was an instructor in the department of American studies at Yale University from 1968 to 1969 and an assistant professor in the department of history and social studies at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point from 1969 to 1972. He began his career at Mount Holyoke College as assistant professor in the department of history in 1972 and was made professor in 1979. Ellis was dean of the faculty at Mount Holyoke from 1980 to 1990. He retired from his position as the Ford Foundation Professor of History at Mount Holyoke College.

He is the author of numerous books including After the Revolution: Profiles of Early American Culture, His Excellency: George Washington, American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic, First Family: Abigail and John Adams, Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence, and The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789. He has received the National Book Award in Nonfiction for American Sphinx in 1997 and the Pulitzer Prize for History for Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation in 2001.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

The author of Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams (1993) entitles his latest work aptly, for the true nature of our third president resided behind a disguising, nearly unreadable countenance. Ellis endeavors to peer beneath the enigmatic facade and succeeds in taking a meaningful reading. He exerts great care in not taking Jefferson out of context, which is easy to do when attempting to define the man's continued relevance to American political life. Analyzing various important junctures of Jefferson's life (his tenures as minister to France, secretary of state, and, of course, president, among others) and major aspects of his personal consciousness (from his conduct of romance to his attitude toward slavery), Ellis points out that wide gaps always stood between Jefferson's ideals and the realities that existed around him. Although not the best place for a novice to learn about Jefferson, this serious, rigorous analysis concludes with a particularly thoughtful essay on Jefferson's importance and meaning to contemporary society. --Brad Hooper

Publisher's Weekly Review

Penetrating Jefferson's placid, elegant facade, this extraordinary biography brings the sage of Monticello down to earth without either condemning or idolizing him. Jefferson saw the American Revolution as the opening shot in a global struggle destined to sweep over the world, and his political outlook, in Ellis's judgment, was more radical than liberal. A Francophile, an obsessive letter-writer, a tongue-tied public speaker, a sentimental soul who placed women on a pedestal and sobbed for weeks after his wife's death, Jefferson saw himself as a yeoman farmer but was actually a heavily indebted, slaveholding Virginia planter. His retreat from his early anti-slavery advocacy to a position of silence and procrastination reflected his conviction that whites and blacks were inherently different and could not live together in harmony, maintains Mount Holyoke historian Ellis, biographer of John Adams (Passionate Sage). Jefferson clung to idyllic visions, embracing, for example, the "Saxon myth," the utterly groundless theory that the earliest migrants from England came to America at their own expense, making a total break with the mother country. His romantic idealism, exemplified by his view of the American West as endlessly renewable, was consonant with future generations' political innocence, their youthful hopes and illusions, making our third president, in Ellis's shrewd psychological portrait, a progenitor of the American Dream. History Book Club selection. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

The richly documented life of Jefferson holds endless fascination. Ellis, a history professor, gives weight to the man's brilliant, if sometimes shortsighted, social and political theories. We learn little here of Jefferson's formative years as a Virginia lawyer and not much of his passions for cuisine, architecture, and labor-saving gadgets. Did he father children by his slave Sally Hemings? The author rejects their rumored affair, saying we will never know. Sadly, Jefferson was unable to see a solution to slavery, short of deportation. The Founding Father's years as ambassador to France and two terms as President are well told. A large section sums up his life and politics, through his correspondence with John Adams. Reader Susan O'Malley negotiates the admirably crafted long sentences well. Although Jefferson is still an enigma, we do feel we know him better. This set should be a lasting favorite in popular biography collections, especially in the South. Warmly recommended.ÄGordon Blackwell, Eastchester, NY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

School Library Journal Review

YA‘In studying historical leaders, students rarely get a look at the individuals behind the myths that have grown up around them. Here, Ellis does an excellent job of showing that Jefferson was a human who made many decisions and some mistakes. On the one hand, he was a great historical figure who is due respect; on the other, he was a debt-ridden man with family problems. Ellis does not have an agenda to promote; he has a story to tell, and he tells it well. In a book that reads like fiction, he combines exciting plot turns with information. At the end, readers may not know for certain that Jefferson's life had a happy ending; but they will see him as flesh and blood instead of as a stiff statue or fixed painting in the Capitol rotunda. This absorbing study concludes with an appendix dealing with the Sally Hemmings scandal as well as extensive notes and an excellent index.‘Rebecca L. Woodcock, formerly of Alderman Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.