This book by Joseph J Ellis on the Character of Thomas Jefferson might have been named ‘the enigmatic founding father,’ but then the poetic tone would have been lost from the start. In reading American Sphinx, I have gained a great respect for Messrs. Ellis and Jefferson.
I had my dictionary.com iPhone app working at full capacity throughout the 362 page work, reminding me of my SAT prep class with words such as palpable and compunction. Despite the effort required to interpret the professorial language, I actually enjoyed the opportunity to expand my vocabulary, if only momentarily.
Ellis focuses on periods throughout Jefferson’s life with the purpose of reflecting on his personality and almost fanatical pursuit of limited government and an idealist notion of America that was never fulfilled. I expanded my knowledge on the American Revolution and put to rest an almost God-like notion of Thomas Jefferson. He was a human after all, with just as many flaws as any of us.
He had many slaves, spent money far beyond his means, shied in the opposite direction of public speaking, and in some cases violated his own principles at times of convenience. That is the less flattering picture of the beloved founding father.
But there is a much brighter side. He had a never-ending will of service to his fellow citizens despite his personal desire to retire from the public eye. He single-handedly wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. He served as the third President of the United States for eight years. He founded the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. And he loved our country.
As with HBO’s miniseries, John Adams, Ellis devoted a good portion of the book to the exchange of written correspondence between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in their twilight years. The exchange highlighted Jefferson’s exceptional talents with the pen (to counter his lack of authoritative public speaking ability) and illuminated many of his long-held views and quips on life. They appropriately died on the same day – July 4, 1826 – exactly 50 years to the day after the ‘signing’ of the Declaration of Independence.
Here are several small segments that I particularly enjoyed:
“May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing me to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government…. All eyes are opened or opening to the rights of men. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few, booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for other; for ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.” – JOseph J. Ellis quoting Thomas Jefferson from Jefferson’s written response to attend the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in lieu of his physical presence. The passage was read in his stead on the day that he died, July 4th, 1826.
“He rose with the sun regardless of the season, usually getting five to eight hours of sleep, the length contingent upon the retirement hour, which itself depended on the quality of conversation when there were guests in the house or his interest in the book he was reading that evening.” – Joseph J. Ellis describing T. Jefferson in retirement at Monticello.
“Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing.” T. Jefferson’s standard reply, according to Ellis, when accused of plagiarism.
This was my first book read as a part of my ongoing project to read 60 books by the end of this year. I hope you will join me by reading a book and having a discussion with me, possibly via an internet platform to have some fun with it. You can see the list here: https://livingvalues.wordpress.com/2011/04/26/the-list/ Post a comment to join me in the pursuit of pleasurable reading and an expanded knowledge base!