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


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