American Sphinx by Joseph J. Ellis

I opened my readings on Thomas Jefferson with American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph J. Ellis.  Instead of plunging straight into Dumas Malone’s six volume epic, I chose to begin with a one volume book on the third president.  I wanted to learn to swim instead of just jumping into the deep end of the pool so to speak.  American Sphinx, a National Book Award winner was the perfect spot to start my journey.

Joseph J. Ellis is a historian focused primarily on the revolutionary war period in colonial America. A former professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, Ellis has not only won the National Book Award, but received the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation.  He has written 12 books on the revolutionary war period, two of which I have previously reviewed, His Excellency: George Washington (review here) and Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams (review here).  I learned that Joseph Ellis had previously been suspended while at Mount Holyoke for lies told about his life during the Vietnam War period between my last review and this one. I read two articles, one from the Boston Globe, the other from the New York Times, that covered this scandal.  The allegations do not diminish the books for me, but no different than Stephen Ambrose, the man has been weakened in my eyes.

American Sphinx is not a traditional biography, which focuses on the entirety of Jefferson’s life.  Ellis broke the book down into 5 defining sections, offering the reader an opportunity to discover major events in Jefferson’s life.  The first section gives solid insight into Jefferson as a participant in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.  The author provides a massive amount of detail on the writing of the Declaration of Independence.  Ellis’s knowledge of the revolutionary period is on display during this chapter and it is by far my favorite portion of the book.

The author proceeds to take the reader on a whirlwind tour of Jefferson in Paris, Monticello, Washington D.C., and back to Monticello.  In each section, Ellis gives examples of Jefferson’s impact on the politics of the day.  His accounting of Jefferson in retirement during the final chapter of American Sphinx is much better than that of John Adams in Passionate Sage.

The book is not written with an academic bent, much like His Excellency: George Washington, making it an easy read.  The way in which the sections break up the pattern of the book make it a very fast read.  I believe that Ellis provides exciting insights into Jefferson’s life and when mixed with his ability to convey a story to the reader, the recipe for an interesting book comes together.

American Sphinx is a very good book on Thomas Jefferson.  I selected it based on the awarding of the National Book Award and its popularity.  The website has it listed as the 16th most popular presidential book with 17,270 individual ratings for a 3.90 average.  I would agree with these raters and give American Sphinx 4 stars for a rating.  However, I am unsure how I feel about Joseph J. Ellis as a writer/historian going forward.  In learning that he fabricated a war record, he has committed a grievous error for this veteran of the war in Iraq.  He may be able to tell a good story and his research may be 100% accurate, however, I will read his books with more skepticism than before.  I believe a solid line can be drawn when discussing Ellis’ legacy to that of Stephan Ambrose.  Both have actively plagiarized from others- lessening my respect for them as historians.

Overall Rating- 4 Stars


On to Thomas Jefferson!

On to Thomas Jefferson!

I visited Washington DC as a young man, and the Jefferson Memorial was overwhelmingly the favorite spot that my Dad took me on our trip.  I spent my time studying the imposing statue and reading the words inscribed on the walls that surrounded him.  I appreciate the words Jefferson applied to the Declaration of Independence and his stance on limited government.  Jefferson is continually graded as one of the top 4 or 5 presidents and is eternally enshrined on Mount Rushmore.  The third president is one of the leaders I am most excited to read about of all the Chief Executives.

Jefferson was born in Shadwell, VA on April 13, 1743.  He was not born into the Virginia elite, but his father, Peter Jefferson was well respected in the Shadwell area.  Jefferson graduated from the College of William and Mary prior to becoming a lawyer.  Eventually, Jefferson was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses and then the Continental Congress.  In 1776, Jefferson put pen to paper and formulated the Declaration of Independence, which became a transformative document in world history.  Jefferson was elected as Governor of Virginia prior to being sent to France as American’s Ambassador.

Returning from France, he served as the Secretary of State for George Washington and Vice-President to John Adams.  In 1800, Jefferson was elected as President of the United States, a controversial election that can be further researched in Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 (my review here).  He fulfilled two terms as President before retiring to Monticello.  During these terms, he negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, deployed Lewis and Clark, and fought a naval war against the Barbary pirates.  Jefferson exchanged dozens of letters with John Adams, providing present day Americans a fascinating look into their lives. He died the same day as Adams, July 4th, exactly 50 years from the signing of the Declaration.

The journey of reading on Jefferson will take some time this spring.  I currently have 11 books, and believe once Thomas Jefferson: Architect of Liberty is released in late April, it will become 12.  The books I selected are a mixture of biographies and works on snippets of Jefferson’s life.  The first book in the lineup is American Sphinx by Joseph Ellis.  I want to get a one volume overview of Jefferson’s life completed before taking on Dumas Malone’s six volume epic.

Moving through Malone’s works will take the better part of four weeks at 70 pages daily.  His biography written in the Sixties is purported to be the definitive work on the life of our third president.  Kevin Gutzman’s Thomas Jefferson: Revolutionary comes after Malone’s work.  The remainder of the books will follow the timeline of Jefferson’s life, but I will save Pulitzer winner The Art of Power for the final book in my reading.

I am very excited to read and study Jefferson.  I feel I am most closely aligned politically speaking with his views out of all the presidents.  I look forward to discovering how much we have in common.

John Adams: A Wrap

I am advancing on from John Adams, but believe in doing so, I made a mistake in my planning.  This founding father and Voice of the Revolution has been marginalized by history and somewhat by me during my reading.  I did read two biographies of Adams’s life, John Adams (review here) and John Adams: A Life  (review here), but could have undertaken a more in depth investigation on this patriot.  I attempted to gain a full appreciation of Adams by adding two other books to my reading plan- Passionate Sage (review here) and Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 (review here), but missed out by not examining the works by Page Smith.  I should have taken the time to read these two volumes on Adams and have added it to my future reading category.

John Adams was a great man, instrumental in the revolution against Great Britain in the 1770’s.  He gained notoriety after his successful defense of British soldiers who killed colonials during the Boston Massacre.  While not a fan of the English crown, Adams believed all people need an equal defense before the law.  A few years later, he was present in Philadelphia during the Continental Congress and influential in cementing a break between the colonies and London.  He served as a diplomat to France and England, becoming close friends with Thomas Jefferson.  Adams returned to the United States and finished second in the initial presidential election and served two terms as Vice-President for George Washington.  In 1796, Adams was elected over Jefferson and others to be the second Chief Executive of the young country.  Adams was a good president, sacrificing his career in politics by preventing a war with France, which was unpopular with many in the Federalist party.  Adams spent much of his post-presidential life mending fences with former friends after leaving Washington DC.  Part of this rapprochement was with Thomas Jefferson, whom he had a falling out over politics.  The letter writing exchange between these two giants of the revolution has proven to be priceless.  Adams died on the 50th Anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in his home.

The first book I read was  John Adams by David McCullough.  McCullough is a highly regarded historian and this biography shows why.  The book is well written and its adaptation into a HBO mini-series has elevated the reputation of John Adams.  I would recommend this to the casual reader who wants an entertaining telling of Adams’s life that does not get bogged down by reading like a history book.  McCullough keeps a fresh perspective by including a high volume of correspondence between John and Abigail Adams.

John Adams: A Life by John Ferling was my second selection and my favorite biography on Adams.  Ferling really brings to life this complex man.  I appreciated the even handed treatment of Adams from start to finish.  The author writes in a more “historical” tone than McCullough, but the book can easily relate to non-historians.

The third book I read was Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams by Joseph Ellis.  I was disappointed in the book and cannot be counted as a fan.  The book is hard to read and jumbled leading to confusion for the reader.  I found myself bored by much of the examination of the post-presidential life of Adams.  As I mentioned in my review, there are good nuggets of information, but the reader has to pay attention to find them.  I would not recommend this book for the casual reader when there are better books on Adams.

I finished reading about the second Commander-in-Chief with Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 (Pivotal Moments in American History) by John Ferling.   This is a really fun book to read for anyone who thinks politics turned bitter in 2016.  The ground work laid out by Ferling from start to finish was excellent.  Ferling was able to avoid showing partiality to any of the participants in the election.  I really was disappointed when I finished this book up.

Thank you for reading my book reviews!  I am really excited to move to Thomas Jefferson who in the past has been one of my favorite Presidents.

Favorite Book: John Adams: A Life by John Ferling

My Future reading: Page Smith’s two books on John Adams