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Thomas Jefferson confuses modern observers. The author of the Declaration of Independence, one of the most eloquent statements of human rights ever drafted, Jefferson owned scores of black slaves. The champion of the "common man" in American politics, he remained an aristocratic Virginia planter to the end of his days. In his book American Sphinx, Joseph J. Ellis tries to sort out this complicated individual.
Strictly speaking, Ellis has not produced a biography. His book concentrates on the five periods of Jefferson's life that, Ellis believes, provide the best picture of the workings of the mind of the Sage of Monticello: the drafting of the Declaration of Independence in 1775 and 1776, Jefferson's diplomatic mission to Paris in the 1780s, his self-imposed exile at Monticello in the mid-1790s, his first term as president, and Jefferson's last nine years in retirement before his death in 1825. The author discusses only in passing Jefferson's service as Secretary of State and Vice President, his term as governor of Virginia, and his second presidential administration.
Ellis nevertheless has the material for several interesting conclusions. The central tenet of Jefferson's political creed, he claims, was political liberation-escaping the restraints of governments and traditional institutions that prevented people from achieving their full potential. In this he stood apart from most of the rest of the revolutionary generation-George Washington, John Adams, and even Jefferson's own protege James Madison-who were concerned chiefly with the practical question of balancing order and liberty. As Ellis writes, "Jefferson was more a political visionary than a political thinker."
As is generally the case with visionaries who carve out careers in practical affairs, Jefferson learned to overlook inconvenient facts. His livelihood rested on the labor of black slaves, the subjects of an oppression infinitely worse than anything George III planned for the American colonists. To his credit, Jefferson recognized the contradiction, but he never did anything about it. Likewise, he minimized the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, which claimed the lives of tens of thousands, because he supported the effort to demolish the stultifying institutions of ancien regime France-the monarchy, aristocracy, and church.
Despite the eagerness of almost every modern politician to claim Jefferson's mantle, Ellis concludes that the Sage of Monticello had a fairly limited political legacy. Throughout his public life, Jefferson championed states' rights and the yeoman farmer. The Civil War sharply restricted the former, and industrialization has marginalized the latter. One central thread of his program, however, still endures-the fear of government power. The other founding fathers did not exhibit this concern, nor is it common today in other democratic countries. Yet in large part because of Jefferson, it remains a central reality of American politics.
The author may paint too harsh a picture-for instance, Jefferson did found the Democratic party, which is still with us. Nevertheless, Ellis offers a thoughtful perspective on Thomas Jefferson's inner life that should interest both scholars and the general public.
Reviewed by Wyatt Wells.