American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson Summary

Joseph J. Ellis

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson

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American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson Summary

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American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (1996) by Joseph Ellis is a nonfiction book detailing some of the more critical parts of Jefferson’s life, beginning with his arrival in Philadelphia in 1775.

The book begins with Jefferson’s arrival at the first Continental Congress in Philadelphia in a well-appointed carriage, stylishly dressed and accompanied by three slaves. Clearly an aristocrat, Jefferson was now in the company of prominent political figures like John Adams and Ben Franklin.

Though well educated in the political field, having studied law at the College of William and Mary, Jefferson was a poor speaker. When he was asked to give an address concerning a list of points for the legislators to consider, he told them he was ill and sent the list in his stead. Well-received, the list was given the title “A Summary View of the Rights of British America.” It was then distributed amongst the colonies.

A few years prior, in 1768, Jefferson had begun building the house that would be known as “Monticello.” Though Jefferson wasn’t given to speeches, only giving two addresses during his presidency, he proved very capable of political influence from his home. He would often invite political adversaries to Monticello for dinner and to discuss ideas.

Because of his writing success, Jefferson’s peers chose him for a committee, which included Adams and Franklin, to draft a document justifying the country’s separation from England and the war that would follow. The paper would be called “The Declaration of Independence.” Jefferson was ultimately tasked among the committee members to draft the document, and Adams is quoted as saying that Jefferson had the draft finished in a few days.

Jefferson served two terms as the Governor of Virginia from 1779 to 1781 and worked extensively to improve the state’s economy, despite the war. Still, he was relatively unknown in international political spheres.

Jefferson became close to John Adams and his family after the death of his wife, even living with them at one point. Along with Adams and Franklin, he became an ambassador to France and corresponded regularly with James Monroe and James Madison.

He became George Washington’s Secretary of State in 1790, which was difficult for him as he was beginning to see the need for the US government to be a republic with self-governed states. This opinion was opposed to other views in political circles, like that of Secretary of Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, who preferred a stronger government. Jefferson and Hamilton often had heated, public disagreements.

Jefferson lost his bid for the presidency against John Adams in 1797 and returned to Monticello. Turning from the public eye, Jefferson said, “I have my house to build, my fields to farm, and to watch for the happiness of those who labor for mine.”

His next run for the presidency was successful. Forgoing the fancy carriages and slave accompaniment that he used when taking other offices, Jefferson walked to the Capitol from his boarding house. This simplicity was symbolic of Jefferson’s intentions to follow through on his platform of minimizing the federal government in favor of more independent states. As the transfer of power happened peacefully, Americans realized that they had broken out of the European mold in which transfers of power were usually met with resistance and violence.

During his first year as president in 1801, Jefferson repaid much of the national debt and boosted the economy. There were no warring factions among nations, and he managed the Louisiana Purchase in which he purchased territory from Napoleon that doubled the size of the U.S.

Though Ellis doesn’t detail Jefferson’s second term, he follows Jefferson in his last few years of life, during which he again began corresponding with his former mentor, John Adams.

Jefferson permanently retired in 1809. His formerly red hair was gray and cropped short. He spent his days gardening, writing, and riding his horse, Eagle.

Jefferson and Adams both died on July 4, 1862. Their deaths were precisely fifty years after the publication of The Declaration of Independence.

Ellis does mention Jefferson’s interactions with his slaves. One teenage mulatto slave James Hemings accompanied Jefferson to France, as Jefferson hoped he would learn the French style of cooking. Burwell, one of his slaves, tended Jefferson in his waning years. Despite wanting to “watch for the happiness” of his slaves, Jefferson believed that whites were superior to black people. The only slaves that Jefferson freed were Sally Hemings and her four children.

Ellis states in the book that the popular theory that Jefferson fathered children with his mulatto slave, Sally, cannot be corroborated and calls the likelihood of such a union “remote.”

Anette Gordon-Reed published a book the same year called Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings that opposes this view, pointing to the memoir of Madison Hemings and to the fact that Sally only conceived when Jefferson was at Monticello. Gordon-Reed’s book spurned some interest, and Dr. Eugene Foster and his team began DNA testing that would settle the debate once and for all. In 1998, the results were published confirming that the Jefferson line and the Hemings line had crossed and that Jefferson was likely the father of Sally’s youngest son, Eston Hemings.

The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer interviewed Ellis during a broadcast featuring the new evidence, and Ellis confirmed that he now believed Jefferson had a longstanding relationship with Sally. He called the revelation evidence of “an already-clear pattern of denial in Jefferson’s life…”

This last statement refers to Ellis’s characterization of Jefferson as a man who didn’t usually make his views forthcoming and, explained in a quotation from Charles Frances Adams, “left hanging over a part of his public life a vapor of duplicity.”