The American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph. Ellis -1997
April 13, 1743 - Sheffield, Virginia
July 4, 1776 - Declaration of Independence published, Jefferson was the primary author.
Term Third as President of the USA
March 4, 1801 to March 4, 1809
July 4, 1826 - Monticello, Virginia
Joseph Ellis presents Jefferson as a very complex man, open to numerous interpretations. In his opening chapter he details how widely divergent American political factions have claimed him as an icon.
His biggest contribution to the future of the USA while president was the Louisiana Purchase which nearly doubled the territory of the country. The biggest stain on his character was his attitude toward slavery. Ellis tries to explain why the man who wrote the most elegant affirmation of the natural rights ever did not just own slaves but could be very harsh. He had, Ellis details the proof of this, a slave mistress on whom he fathered children. As Ellis details, owners had full sexual access to their property, a child by a slave woman and an owner was a slave. Slave women could not say no.
Ellis details the complicated legal steps Jefferson tried to take to make it look like he wanted to end slavery. He was very concerned about what would be fate of 1.5 million freed slaves. He saw the white race as superior. Here is a direct quote from Jefferson: Notes on the State of Virginia: “they secrete less by the kidnies, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour.” Once out of office, he basically abandoned his probably in bad faith anti-slavery talk.
Jefferson was highly cultured, undoubtedly brilliant. Ellis tries to show the full man.
I am currently reading The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave Breeding Industry by Ned and Constance Sublette. They treat and explain in a fashion that convinces me that Jefferson's anti-slavery rhetoric was designed to make him wealthier, they see him as deliberately lying where Ellis presents him as self deceiving, believing his own rhetoric. This quote from their book is very revealing of his character: "When Jefferson’s slaves got too old to work, he routinely cut their rations in half."
Ellis also goes into his hatred for Alexander Hamilton.
Jefferson championed a vision of a bucolic America, run by plantation owners with a very limited federal government where Hamilton, who was very anti-slavery, wanted a strong central government. Jefferson had people spread rumours that Hamilton was in the pay of foreign countries and embezzled from the Treasury. These were lies and probably Jefferson knew this. Hamilton did have an extra-marital affair and Jefferson's allies made sure this was made public news. His vice president killed Hamilton in a duel.
Jefferson was a poor public speaker and his second term as president is considered by most historians as a disaster.
Jefferson never took part in military action during the war. Ellis goes into the controversy still undecided as to whether he feld in a cowardly fashion when the British army entered Virginia, of which he was governor. Her certainly could have fought.
Once out of office Jefferson moved to his estate at Monticello. Ellis details what a poor business manager he was, he inherited significant wealth but ended up having to sell many of his slaves to pay a portion of his debts. He did start a nail factory run by teenage slaves which was a success. He was always physically fit and a good horse rider. He liked fine wine, good food and loved books.
Joseph John Ellis is an American historian whose work focuses on the lives and times of the founders of the United States of America. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson won a National Book Award and Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for History