Sunday, February 3, 2013

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph Ellis


American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph J. Ellis is an exploration of Thomas Jefferson’s life, career and ideas that, while it strives for balance, is highly critical of the American icon. One of the main points of this work is that this founding father was man of both enormous complexity as well as contradictions.

Born in 1743, Jefferson was member of Virginia’s elite planter class. He was a wealthy man whose livelihood was deeply connected to the ownership of slaves. An early critic of British control over the colonies, Jefferson distinguished himself as a brilliant writer and rhetorician. 

While serving in the Second Continental Congress, Jefferson penned his most famous prose as the primary author of the Declaration of Independence. Later, he served as governor of Virginia, Minister to France and America’s First Secretary of State, as well its second Vice President.

Chosen as America’s third President in 1800, Jefferson endeavored to shrink the size of the American government during his terms in office, waged war upon the Barbary States, and attempted to keep the United States neutral in the conflict between Britain and France. His most notable achievement was in securing the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the United States. 

After retirement from the Presidency, Jefferson began an amazing political-philosophical correspondence with John Adams. The two were lifelong friends who had been estranged for several years due to political battles. Their association rekindled as the pair aged. The two carried on the exchange of letters until their respective deaths. The documentation created by this line of communication has been studied by historians and students of government ever since. Ironically, the two died on the same day, July 4th, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

It is difficult for me to comment upon this book in a vacuum. America’s Revolutionary generation has been a lifetime interest of mine. I have read somewhat extensively on Jefferson and his peers. Thus, I come into this work with a fair amount of knowledge as well as a lot of opinions.

Ellis effectively weaves the events of Jefferson’s life with an insightful analysis of the man’s character, psychology and philosophy. In terms of his virtues and sins, as well as his actions and ideas, Jefferson was a man of paradoxes and riddles, hence the “Sphinx” of the title. For instance, while Jefferson’s rhetoric about individual freedom often soared, he had one of the worst records in regards to slave ownership when compared to the other founders.

Based upon this book as well as many additional sources and readings that I have encountered over the years, I am struck by how monumental Jefferson’s achievements and thoughts were in contrast to his extraordinary flaws and just plain bad ideas that he espoused. An important point concerning these character weaknesses is that they are not only highlighted by contemporary critics looking back and judging Jefferson by modern standards, rather, they were initially recognized by his peers. 

Are some people more complex than others? Ellis makes a convincing case that Jefferson’s acts and beliefs were so multifarious that this founder presents an historical enigma that transcends other famous personages. Thus, when it comes to this book, as well as Jefferson himself, there are too many aspects to Jefferson’s achievements, character and philosophy for me to adequately summarize within a single blog post. I would need to write a series of entries in order to do so.

I will therefore focus upon only one of many striking aspects of the Jeffersonian persona that are illustrated in this book. While America’s third President was a titanic political philosopher and thinker, he was also a radical, both by the standards of our time as well as those of his own. In my opinion this sets Jefferson apart from America’s other major founders, who I would describe as being moderate or even conservative in terms of the change that they were attempting to propel. In consequence, today’s extreme partisans on both America’s political right and left wings have embraced many of Jefferson’s ideals.

In what way was he so radical? Unlike George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, etc., Jefferson had no distrust of the mass of common people and had no use for a balanced government. Significantly, he was not even in the United States when the Constitution was drafted (he was Minister to France at the time) and played almost no role in its construction. On multiple occasions, Jefferson espoused his belief in a government comprised of a single one-house legislature elected directly by the people. He believed in a weak Presidency and no Federal Court system. He argued that such institutions could only thwart the people’s will. His belief in the infallibility of the common people (who Jefferson only counted as white men, but, notably for the time, all white men, not just landowners) led him to oppose any “checks or balances” in the power of the people’s legislature. 

Jefferson was not an unabashed advocate of the American Constitution and believed that it was an actual impediment to true republicanism. Ellis writes,

Jefferson tended to view it as a merely convenient agreement about political institutions that ought not to bind future generations or prevent the seminal source of all political power—popular opinion—from dictating government policy. “


Furthermore, Jefferson was an advocate of a citizenry’s right to overturn or secede from an unpopular government through extralegal and, at times, violent means. In one of his most famous quotations Jefferson stated, 

“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it's natural manure.”

Lest anyone believe that Jefferson sounds like a modern day laissez-faire conservative, he also alleged that mercantilism, industrialism and banking were a mortal threat to the nation’s well being. Instead he championed a society dominated by agricultural interests.

Ellis describes his views,

“[Jefferson believed that] America should remain a predominantly agricultural economy and society. Domestic manufacturing was permissible, but large factories should be resisted. Most important, the English model of a thoroughly commercial and industrial society in which the economy was dominated by merchants, bankers and industrialists should be avoided at all costs. “We may exclude them from our territory,” he warned, “as we do persons afflicted with disease,” going so far as to recommend that if one region of the United States should ever become thoroughly commercialized, the remaining agrarian region should secede”.

As Ellis points out, Jefferson lived in a different era. However, in Jefferson’s time these views were not mainstream nor were they shared by Jefferson’s peers.  Hamilton and, to a lesser degree, Washington, Adams and others were frequently appalled and dismayed by Jefferson’s philosophy. 

Other aspects of Jefferson’s views, radical at the time, became the basis for much of what modern society considers individual freedom and rights. 

 Ellis writes,

Alone among the influential political thinkers of the revolutionary generation, Jefferson began with the assumption of individual sovereignty, then attempted to develop prescriptions for government that at best protected individual rights and at worst minimized the impact of government “

Jefferson ultimately was a believer in a republican utopianism. He espoused an agricultural based society with very little government or large institutions. He argued that in such a free society people would take care of themselves. It goes without saying that neither the United States nor any other state evolved in the way that Jefferson would have preferred. It seems clear to me that the state and society that Jefferson espoused would lead to a nation fraught with chaos and instability. Human progress would have been impossible under such a system.

Interestingly, when Jefferson ascended to the Presidency, he took a much more pragmatic and, at times, hypocritical approach than his beliefs would lead one to expect. For instance, he exceeded his executive power when he purchased Louisiana; he also did not dismantle the American banking and finance system that he professed to despise. Unfortunately, in actions that can be characterized as oppressive, he initiated prosecutions against his political and ideological enemies.

Ellis’s book is about so much more than the above commentary concerning Jefferson’s political and social values. This founder’s virtues and accomplishments were indeed immense. Unfortunately, his hypocrisies were also legendary. His views on religion, history and science as well as his personal life also interwove together and had a profound effect on American culture and politics, as well as upon world civilization. Ellis effectively explores all of this and more.

There are many, many reasons to study Jefferson. He is a figure of immense historical importance and one of the most complex people who ever lived. In American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson Ellis has created a highly readable and coherent account of this thinker’s accomplishments, beliefs and failings.


A few years ago I read His Excellency: George Washington which is another of Ellis’s books. I highly recommend that work too.



16 comments:

Sharon Henning said...

This is an extremely interesting review. I don't know a lot about Jefferson but I've got a number of biographies on my TBR pile. The one I was going to read is the Meecham biography. I'll have to look into this one as well.
I can't comment on all the things you said because it's so much food for thought I'll have to chew on it for a while. Would we be better as an agricultural society? Hmmm...

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - Of course jefferson lived in a different time. I cannot imagine an enormous first world nation staying a first world nation and staying an Agricultural society. I think in Jefferson's time that was not so obvious.

I am thinking of beginning the Meecham next.

anenduringromantic said...

There's a bit of a contradiction here, isn't there - between Jefferson's views that majoritarian institutions should be predominant in society, and his views on the primacy of individual sovereignty and rights. Ex hypothesi, majoritarian institutions *can't* be the best guarantors of rights, since these rights are invariably sought to be enforced *against* the majority. Do you find a tension here in Jefferson's thought, or do you think he reconciled it by assuming, along with Aristotle, that the majority would always take the wisest and best decisions regardless?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Gautam - Jefferson would surly not call it a contradiction and his ideas were partially derived from Aristotle's viewpoint . Many of Jefferson's peers indeed pointed out the flaw that you mention. I believe that at the time in American politics the most articulate critic that the masses could and would not guarantee individual rights was John Adams.

Personally I am extremely distrustful of the "mass wisdom" when it comes to protecting the individual and strongly side with Adams.

JaneGS said...

Great review--I would like to read this book, but first I need to tackle Meachem's bio I already have. I think the image of Jefferson as sphinx is apt. I think in the past 200 years he has been deified by a variety of groups, all wanting to make him a symbol of their cause, but most seem willing to overlook the parts that they don't care for. I used to admire him much more than I do these days--those flaws really do run deep--but he is a fascinating figure and one I want to continue reading about.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - You make a very good point about groups cherry picking what they like about Jefferson and lionizing him.

As my commentary was aimed at some of Jefferson's more radical political views I hope that I have not overemphasized his flaws, there was a lot to Jefferson that I did not cover here. His philosophy on individual rights became one of the great drivers of the contemporaray rights revolutions.

I think that I will be starting the Meacham book tonight!

vb said...

wow that is a wonderful review..I loved it especially the way you compared against others..I have always wanted to read about him and it seems like the best one to start with...
and of courseI have nominated you for Liebster award..do check http://booksformee.blogspot.in/2013/02/the-liebester-award.html if you choose to accept the award..and answer my questions..cheers and gud day

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much VB! What to do wit all these awards! Of course I will accept.

The American Founders tended to me very different. I find that people often think that they were monolithic.

Caroline said...

Well, I think it is true that some people are more complex than others and her certainly was. I'm so not familiar with the man but it was very interesting to read about him. Isn't he another example that presidents chnage teir tune once they are elected? A lot just doesn't prove feasible anymore once they are there.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - This is a good point about Presidents and other leaders needing to govern in a more practical manor when they come to power. I actually think that it is indicative of a good leader. Those who do not often go down the road catastrophic failed utopianism.

Book Dilettante said...

Thanks for the enlightening comments on Jefferson and on the book. I never would have guessed he was so "conservative"

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee- In terms of the size of government I think that one could call Jefferson conservative. But in terms of individual liberties but today's standard's the word liberal would be closer. The next thing that comes to mind would be libertarian. The problem with that description is that most libertarians are very pro free enterprise which Jefferson was not. I would say that times were different and that Jefferson would not fit within any of today;s labels.

Guy Savage said...

Now that the film Lincoln is such a screaming success, I wouldn't be surprised to see other American politicians enter the realm of biopic film.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - If you recall about 18 years ago there was a movie Jefferson in Paris. I though that it was OK but not great. With all the controversy over the Sally Hemmings affair I would not be surprised if someone did a film based upon that.

Maria Behar said...

Bravo, bravo, bravo!! Another excellent, well-analyzed review!! The points you make about this book are highly interesting! This biography definitely sounds like an unbiased look at our country's third president, warts and all. Jefferson emerges as not only a complex, self-contradictory individual, but also as a very real human being.

What I find most disturbing about him is the blatant contradiction between his very vocal espousal of individual freedom, and his ownership of slaves. Why didn't he see this contradiction? I suppose we will never know...

I really don't know much about American presidents, I must sheepishly admit. All I know is what I studied in high school, in my American History classes... I think I should do something about this! I spend what little reading time I have available in devouring books belonging to such genres as fantasy, science fiction, and paranormal romance, and very little on those dealing with aspects of real life... Well, I do enjoy reading nonfiction, but I don't usually read biographies or memoirs. Again, I really should do something about this, because there are SO many fascinating people in world history, as well as American history, I really should know more about!

Thanks for this great review, Brian!! I'm adding this book to my Goodreads TBR right away!! :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - Thanks for the good word!

As per this book and other sources Jefferson was troubled by the contradiction in the ownership of slaves. Some of Jefferson's peers such as John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, who never owned slaves themselves and pointed out Jefferson's hypocrisy. Jefferson considered freeing his slaves upon his death but ended up only freeing a few.

He claimed to want all slaves freed but believed that the races could not co-exist peacefully and wanted the freed slaves to be resettled, probably in Africa. Some say such racist views were a product of the time and that we should not judge them based upon our modern standards. However I think we need to contrast these views with say Alexander Hamilton who not only was an abolitionist but who believed in equality among the races. Hamilton may have even assisted some slaves in escaping.

I find history very interesting and that is what my Bachelors is in. But you cannot read everything! Too little time as we have discussed before!