Wednesday, June 8, 2011

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson
Joseph J. Ellis
368 pages (421 with notes)
Publisher: Vintage

You can read the Goodreads summary here.

After reading John Adams at over seven hundred pages, I decided I needed a shorter biography for Thomas Jefferson and I thought 368 pages was a reasonable length to tell the story of his life without being verbose.  I was right, but it still took me two weeks to get through it.  Anyway, compared to McCullough's John Adams I loved this book so, so much more.  There was some overlap as can be expected, but I liked how Ellis presented facts as facts and theories and theories without superfluous storytelling.  For example, in John Adams McCullough tells us a fancy tale about Jefferson jumping a bush or a statue in France and breaking his wrist in an attempt to impressive a French lady.  In American Sphinx Ellis tells us this is all speculation, there is no proof that this is true.  I'm more inclined to believe Ellis.

I think I most enjoyed the appendix where Ellis explained the controversy about Jefferson and Sally Hemings.  So many people just assume that their affair happened and that there are who knows how many descendants floating around the country.  I for one have always been a little way of that.  There is no way to prove that these "descendants" are in fact descendants without DNA testing, which is not going to happen.  Ellis presents both sides of the story in his appendix and concludes that more likely than not the affair never happened and the "descendants" belong to Sally Hemings and some other man.

On the whole I thought the book was very well done.  It presented an unbiased look at Jefferson's life in major stages from his time in Philadelphia during the revolution, him time in France, his time as President, and his time after that.

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