Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Book Review: American Sphinx

Over the last few months I have become more and more interested in the "Revolutionary Generation". I blame David McCullough's 1776 and John Adams, along with the HBO adaptation for this. But another author, Joseph J. Ellis, also deserves some of the blame. I read Founding Brothers a few months back and really enjoyed his section on John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. I thought I would try another one of his books to attempt to get a better understanding of the writer of the Declaration of Independence and the third President of the United States.

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson is a very unique biography. It is not written in a linear since. Dr. Ellis examines five key moments in Jefferson's life, and discusses them. For example, the first chapter starts with Jefferson arriving in Philadelphia in June of 1775 as a delegate to the Continental Congress. He briefly mentions some of the events leading up to that, but there is no discussion of his birth or any hardships he endured growing up. I haven't seen this type of biography before, and really enjoyed it. Instead of being weighed down with a general biographical sketch, Dr. Ellis was free to talk about the key moments in depth. In addition, the version I bought is the "Vintage" edition, which has been updated since the 1996 edition. Why is this important? Many of the DNA evidence surrounding Sally Heming's decedents came out after Ellis wrote his first version. For the "Vintage" edition, he updated portions of his book, and includes an appendix with his thoughts on the probable sexual relationship between Jefferson and the slave Sally Hemings.

One other difference was that American Sphinx is not an apologist book. It is also not a book written by a professor trying to make a name by trashing a popular historical figure. Until the last chapter, which has a "conclusions" feel to it, it is hard to pin down Ellis' position on Jefferson. Ellis is critical of parts of Jefferson's life we should be critical of, and celebrates many things about Jefferson worth celebrating.

Finally, American Sphinx made me re-examine how I view what our founding fathers would have thought on issues of the day. Dr. Ellis points out that trying to apply Adam's, Jefferson's, or Washington's views to today's issues are dangerous because the world is a different place. American Sphinx is a good book about a god like figure in American Politics. It is worth the read, and might make you reexamine your own views on some of today's issues.


pack04 said...

Speaking of Jefferson I found this quote.
A wise and frugal government, which shall leave men free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor and bread it has earned - this is the sum of good government.

BTW another great book on a person from the "Revolutionary Generation" and Joseph Ellis is His Excellency. It is on George Washington.

Andy D said...

Your the second or third person to tell me that when I said I was reading a Joseph Ellis book. I will have to read it.

Christina said...

Well, Andy, you know that I give a thumbs-up on this one!

I am also reading R.B. Bernstein's 'Thomas Jefferson', still in the beginning stages but finding it very interesting, easy to become engaged...