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.
“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.