Sunday, April 13, 2014

American Sphinx – The Character of Thomas Jefferson: A Review

So many Jefferson biographies don’t give the full picture of the man – they gloss over Jefferson’s hypocrisies and his highly compartmentalized mind, focusing on his grandly idealized vision for his beloved American republic. This one pulls no punches – Ellis tries his hardest to be fair and balanced in his appraisal of Jefferson, and all-in-all, it was an entertaining read. It has many humorous passages (especially in the chapter on scandals) that moved me to read them aloud to my husband so that he could enjoy them as well – which I've found rare in biographies.

I feel that something has to be understood here: Thomas Jefferson was a person, just like the rest of us. Yes, he may have been a Founding Father, but he was not a god. He is not beyond reproach. I know it sounds odd for a libertarian – someone who champions many of the philosophical and political ideas that Jefferson put into words – to say this, but it’s true. He was human; he had faults.

In the beginning, the author gives a note as to what this biography covers and why. He made executive decisions to leave out some parts on Jefferson’s life, because he wanted the book to be accessible to laymen (i.e. those who aren't in academia). So, if you’re looking for a really in-depth study of Jefferson, his philosophy, and his life – then you’re not going to get it here. This is the basics; it gives the layman a chance to become familiar with the broad strokes of Jefferson’s personality, his life and his work.

The historically reliable descriptions of Jefferson differ, but the author’s conclusion based on study is that he was tall, stood ramrod-straight, had reddish-blond hair, and sang under his breath incessantly. He was a poor orator, but a gifted writer – in fact, during his presidency, he only gave two speeches, but he spent an estimated 10 hours a day at his writing desk. I was able to identify greatly with Jefferson – as someone who is also a poor public speaker, loves solitude and rural settings, and is genuinely hurt when my work is altered or criticized, it was rather comforting to know that there have always been people with my temperament. He was a thinker, not a doer – and often had trouble translating his lofty words into real-world solutions to real-world problems (which made his friendship with John Adams all the more surprising). He became disillusioned and changed his position from time to time – as we all have done at one time or another (yes you have – just admit it right now and save time).

Much attention is given to his political views – especially state’s rights vs. strong central government, as well as his views on slavery and his personal debt. This biography rounds out his ideas, and gives context to the situations in which he penned them. Ellis also gives a broad overview of the Sally Hemings scandal, and there's an appendix in the back with a more in-depth treatment. Where I definitely disagree with the author is his handling of Jefferson’s last years. He claims that many historians see Jefferson’s last years/writings as the bitter musings of an angry old man – but Ellis is having none of it. He claims that Jefferson is fervently protecting and promoting the ideals he believed in all along: he’s just concentrating them, or taking them to their logical conclusion. I have a hard time agreeing with this. Jefferson was an idealist, which made his life one of consistent disappointment. We can all imagine having lived such a life – where the people of the country that you had served for 40 years don’t seem to appreciate or understand the way you think things should be. It would make you angry and bitter. I won’t say that he was dotty in his old age – from all accounts he was quite lucid, even in his eighties – but the sadness, anger, and a lifetime of disappointment show poignantly in the letters and actions of his last years. If it were anyone else, we’d say “well, he’s old – give him a break,” and I’d probably say the same thing for Jefferson at this stage in his life. It’s simply cruel to beat up on an old man, even if he is long dead.

In the Epilogue titled “The Future of an Illusion,” it actually says more about the author than the legacy of Jefferson. It’s quite obvious that the author is a Massachusetts academic when he writes about the “third wave” that changed the entire shoreline on which Jeffersonian “sand castles” had been built:

“The third wave arrived in the 1930’s with the New Deal. In hindsight, one could actually see it coming from the early years of the twentieth century, when the effects of urbanization, industrialization, the increased density of the population, and the exponential growth of corporate power over the economy combined to generate a need for a more centralized government to regulate the inequities of the marketplace and discipline the boisterous energies of an industrial economy.” [Emphasis mine]

It’s quite obvious that the author isn't an economist, or he’d realize how utterly ridiculous this sounds - that government intervention was somehow needed. The New Deal DESTROYED the economy, and likely kept the United States in the Depression for much longer than we would have been, had government not intervened. I shouldn't get started on the horrendous abuses perpetrated by FDR - I might never stop.

The author is also rather rough on the Republican Party in the epilogue, but in his defense the Jeffersonian rhetoric is much more common in the Republican Party than the Democratic Party (although, they have co-opted it from time to time, when the occasion suits them). He also makes a good argument that the world has changed a great deal since Jefferson – and I can agree. But what I can’t really agree with is that he comes to the conclusion that Jeffersonian philosophy really only applies to its time and place – I too think it’s quite idealistic, but I argue that it is this quality that makes the Jeffersonian philosophy timeless.

In conclusion, I’d recommend this for anyone interested in the life of Jefferson, his philosophy, or early American politics – but it’s definitely not for in-depth study. It has extensive notes in the back for further research if one chooses to do so, however. 

I’d give it four out of five stars.

A NOTE: Keep in mind that I’m not a historian. I too am just human, and I don’t claim to be perfect, or to know everything about Jefferson, his life, or his views. So before you get mad: I just read a book, and I'm reviewing it. Chill.

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