American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson


Ellis, Joseph J. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. New York, NY: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1998.

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Biographies are like Bottles of Wine

Biographies are like bottles of wine. They can be too dry or sour, or not have enough body.  There are some that are simply skunky. The early president’s biographies range from fair to funky, and some, uncorked and open, are worthy of your time.

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s ‘Team of Rivals’ is an exemplary Lincoln biography. The Jefferson biography, ‘American Sphinx’ by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Joseph J. Ellis, is its equal. [1] [2] [3] It’s the quintessential Jefferson biography.

It was the publication of American Sphinx that saw Ellis, currently teaching at the Commonwealth Honors College at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, win the 1997 National book Award for Nonfiction.[4] Ellis’ purpose in writing American Sphinx is not to join any brass band parade praising or lynch mob repudiating Jefferson.

The purpose of American Sphinx is to get at the “bedrock Jeffersonian values.”[5] “What I have tried to do,” Ellis writes, “is to recover [Jefferson] and that meaning within the late-eighteenth-century context in which they congealed and to do so in language that embraces Jeffersonian belief in the intelligence of the common American.” [6] What sort of Jefferson, then, emerges from Ellis’ pen? Ellis seems to have revealed the individual behind the myth.

A Portrait of Jefferson…

Whilst the portrait Ellis paints of Jefferson is both elegant in design and penetrating in complexity, it is quite telling that Jefferson is no longer in good graces with certain historians. According to Ellis, Jefferson “had the kind of duplicity possible only in the pure of heart.”[7] Ellis begins American Sphinx 20 June 1775. This is a date which all Virginians should know because it’s the date, representing Virginia as a delegate to the Continental Congress and the drafting of the Constitution of Independence, Jefferson arrives in Philadelphia. This is where Ellis begins his discussion of Jefferson, concluding the publication with Jefferson’s retirement at Monticello.

Taking centre stage of the American Sphinx is not only Jefferson’s contractions but also his inconsistencies. Ellis, being the type of historian he is, covers Jefferson’s political career in full: ambassador to France, Secretary of State, and President of the United States. Ellis writes, “He did not always speak exactly as he felt, either towards his friends or his enemies. As a consequence, he has left hanging over a part of his public life a vapour of duplicity…, the presence of which is generally felt more than it is seen.”[8] Not pulling any punches, Ellis exposes how Jefferson shied away from the public limelight. Considering Jefferson was a two-term president, the Virginian, according to Ellis, only gave two public speeches whilst holding the office of President of the United States.[9]

A Way with Words…

Jefferson was more comfortable writing, an argument which the Declaration of Independence can attest to, than he was speaking publically.[10] Jefferson was the principal architect responsible for crafting the Declaration of Independence. “His authorship of the Declaration of Independence,” writes Ellis, “is regarded as one of those few quasi-religious episodes in American history…”[11]

As it pertains to achieving the stated goals, Jefferson’s first term as president of the United States, according to Ellis, is one of the most successful in the history of these United States. It was in Jefferson’s first term of office, the Louisiana Purchase was made,[12] which would have a dramatic effect on the character of these United States as a whole. Interestingly, according to Ellis, what sets Jefferson apart from the other men who have held the presidency, particularly John Adams, was an apparent “feminine” approach to politics. Jefferson, according to Ellis, “shrank from whatever was rough or coarse, and his yearning for sympathy was almost feminine.”[13]

Jefferson detested direct conflict almost as much as he detested being in the public limelight. Despite this apparent discomfort with direct confrontation, Jefferson was a master “dinner table” politician. [14] “In what became known as ‘the dinner table bargain,’ Jefferson and Hamilton joined together in June 1790-Madison was present too and actually the chief negotiator- in order to forge a compromise that gave Hamilton sufficient votes…”[15]

Final Thoughts…

There is an argument which can be made that the reason Jefferson invited his competitors to dinner to discuss politics is that this was an environment he felt most comfortable in. Jefferson is at ease in an environment he was familiar with, enabled him to not only propose ideas but defuse any possibility of controversy. Ellis notes that Jefferson’s relationship with John Marshall that a good deal of what struck observers at the time and continues to strike many historians today as Jefferson’s eel-like slipperiness can be traced to a preference for a “subtle and indirect style that probably had its origins in the Virginia code of politeness.”[16]


[1] From this point of the paper, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson will be referenced as American Sphinx.

[2] Joseph J. Ellis received the 2001 Pulitzer Prize in History for his book Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation.

[3] Columbia University. ‘2001 Pulitzer Prize Recipients’. Accessed March 27, 2016.

[4] National Book Foundation. ‘1997 National Book Awards Winners and Finalists’. 1990. Accessed March 27, 2016.

[5] Joseph J. Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (New York, NY: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1998), p. xvii.

[6] Ellis, American Sphinx, p. xvii.

[7] Ibid, p. 90.

[8] Ibid, p. 146.

[9] Ibid, p. 192.

[10] U S Government, Declaration of Independence (United States: NuVision Publications, 2004).

[11] Ellis, American Sphinx, p. 54.

[12] Ellis, American Sphinx, pp. 200-210.

[13] Ibid, p. 139.

[14] Catherine Allgor, Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government (United States: University of Virginia Press, 2002), pp. 20-30.

[15] Ellis, American Sphinx, p. 152.

[16] Ibid, p. 175.


Allgor, Catherine. Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government. United States: University of Virginia Press, 2002.

Columbia University. ‘2001 Pulitzer Prize Recipients’. Accessed March 27, 2016.

Ellis, Joseph J. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. New York, NY: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1998.

Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group, 2006.

National Book Foundation. ‘1997 National Book Awards Winners and Finalists’. 1990. Accessed March 27, 2016.

U.S. Government. Declaration of Independence. United States: NuVision Publications, 2004.