American Sphinx | Chapter 5 of 17

Author: Joseph J. Ellis | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 26469 Views | Add a Review

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ANY ASPIRING BIOGRAPHER of Jefferson, recognizing the ink already spilled and the libraries already filled, might do well to recall the young Virginian’s famous words of 1776. Which is to say that no one should undertake yet another book on Thomas Jefferson for “light and transient causes.” In fact “prudence dictates” and “a decent respect of the opinions of mankind requires” that the publication of all new books about that man from Monticello be accompanied by a formal declaration of the causes that have impelled the author to undertake the effort.

My own defense would begin over thirty years ago, when I entered graduate school at Yale to study early American history. It is impossible to avoid Jefferson while attempting to master the story of the American Revolution, since his career crisscrosses the major events of the era. And his ideas, or at least the ideas for which he became the most eloquent spokesman, define the central themes of the story of the emerging American republic. Moreover, I was a native Virginian who, like Jefferson, had graduated from the College of William and Mary. I even had reddish blond hair like Jefferson and had learned how to disguise my insecurities behind a mask of enigmatic silence. It was therefore natural for me, once ensconced in the former cradle of New England Puritanism and Federalism, to identify with Jefferson’s edgy doubts about the arrogant austerities and quasi-Arctic climate of New England.

My eventual mentor in graduate school, Edmund S. Morgan, even had a huge Jefferson portrait on his office wall, the luminous Rembrandt Peale likeness of 1800, which looked down on our seminar sessions with otherworldly authority that I found oddly reassuring. Jefferson and I were kindred spirits, I told myself, allies in this alien world where a southern accent seemed inversely correlated with one’s seriousness of purpose. This youthful infatuation for Jefferson eventually went the way of my southern accent, never completely gone altogether but relegated to the blurry margins, where it lost its distinctive character. Like any young love, however, it became a permanent part of my emotional inventory.

Not that I actually knew very much about Jefferson’s life or thought. My affinity for Jefferson was more personal than scholarly. Only once, when I was scouting about for a dissertation topic, did I consider working on Jefferson. My recollection is that C. Vann Woodward, a fellow southerner also recently arrived in New Haven—though as a mature and not just budding historian—alerted me to the dangers. One should not attempt biography until a bit further down the trail of life, he suggested. As for Jefferson, he was such a sprawling and famously elusive subject that any young historian who sallied forth after him was like the agile youth sent forward against impossible odds in a story about the tragic casualties of war. This excellent advice had the immediate sound of truth. I did not give Jefferson any serious scholarly consideration for another twenty-five years.

As a college teacher I assigned books about Jefferson in my courses, and I developed formal lectures on the Declaration of Independence and Jefferson’s paradoxical stance on slavery. But it was not until I began research for a book on John Adams that I probed beneath the surface of the Jefferson correspondence. It was an odd way for a Virginian to come home again, arriving at Monticello by way of Quincy, but that is how it happened.

Adams had a truly special relationship with Jefferson that developed out of their common cause against English imperial rule and their different roots in the regional cultures of New England and Virginia. As a result, Adams admired, even loved Jefferson; they sustained a fifty-year friendship that culminated in an exchange of letters in their twilight years that most historians regard as the intellectual capstone to the achievements of the revolutionary generation. But Adams also disagreed profoundly with Jefferson’s version of the American Revolution. Indeed he thought that Jefferson’s entire political vision rested on a seductive set of attractive illusions. The more I read, the more I concluded that Adams was right. For the first time I began to see Jefferson critically and ironically.

My clinching commitment to a book-length study of Jefferson came in the process of writing an essay for the inaugural issue of Civilization about Jefferson’s somewhat problematic place in contemporary American culture. If my work on Adams had given me a new perspective, my essay for Civilization gave me a fresh appreciation of Jefferson’s resonance as an American icon. One could work for several years on Adams and enjoy splendid isolation. But working on Jefferson was like entering a crowded room in which there were always several ongoing conversations, and the constant buzz suggested that more was at stake than the resolution of merely historical questions. Jefferson was electromagnetic. He symbolized the most cherished and most contested values in modern American culture. He was one of those dead white males who still mattered.

These evolving thoughts became not just the reasons for writing a book about Jefferson but also the decisive influences on the shape of the book itself. The vast literature on Jefferson has a decidedly hyperbolic character, as if one had to declare one’s allegiance at the start for or against the godlike version of Jefferson depicted in Jean-Antoine Houdon’s marble bust or at least Rembrandt Peale’s saintly portrait. This overdramatized atmosphere actually reproduces the polarized and highly politicized climate of opinion in Jefferson’s own lifetime, when you were either with him or against him, loved him or hated him. True enough, most biographers take the sides of their subjects. But in Jefferson’s case the sides are more sharply drawn and the choices less negotiable. It seems impossible to steer an honorable course between idolatry and evisceration.

That is precisely the course I have tried to pursue in the pages below, inspired by the example of John Adams to believe that affection and criticism toward Jefferson are not mutually exclusive postures, rooted in the assumption that no authentically human creature who ever walked the earth could bear the mythological burden imposed on Jefferson, convinced in my own mind that youthful infatuations must go the way of youth, that all mature appraisals of mythical figures are destined to leave their most ardent admirers somewhat disappointed. The best and the worst of American history are inextricably tangled together in Jefferson, and anyone who confines his search to one side of the moral equation is destined to miss a significant portion of the story.

My approach is selective—one early reader even called it cinematic—but maintains a traditional commitment to chronology. Another full-scale, multivolume narrative of Jefferson’s life and times is clearly unnecessary. My goal is to catch Jefferson at propitious moments in his life, to zoom in on his thoughts and actions during those extended moments, to focus on the values and convictions that reveal themselves in these specific historical contexts, all the while providing the reader with sufficient background on what has transpired between sightings to follow the outline of Jefferson’s life from birth to death. This approach requires that choices be made all up and down the line, and I can only concur with the inevitable critics who conclude that the crucial years as secretary of state or the exasperating experience of his second term as president cry out for fuller treatment. My only defense is to cite the extensive scholarship that already exists, to reaffirm my belief that Jefferson’s story needs to fit between two covers and to admit my self-protective desire to avoid the fate of so many predecessors: a free fall into the Jeffersonian abyss.

Our chief quarry, after all, is Jefferson’s character, the animating principles that informed his public and private life and made him the significant statesman and distinctive man he was. As I have found him, there really is a core of convictions and apprehensions at his center. Although he was endlessly elusive and extraordinarily adroit at covering his tracks, there were bedrock Jeffersonian values that determined the shape of the political vision he projected so successfully onto his world and that remain such a potent influence on ours. Moreover, again as I have found him, Jefferson consistently and tenaciously sustained his allegiance to those core convictions from the time he first appeared on the national stage in 1775 until his exquisitely timed death on July 4, 1826. Jefferson’s much-touted contradictions and inconsistencies were quite real, to be sure, but his psychological agility, his capacity to play hide-and-seek within himself, was a protective device he developed to prevent his truly radical and highly romantic personal vision from colliding with reality. As I try to show in chapter 1, subsequent generations, including our own, have certainly discovered multiple meanings in the Jeffersonian vision, which naturally lends itself to diverse interpretations, but Jefferson himself knew what he meant and meant what he believed.

What I have tried to do is to recover that man and that meaning within the late-eighteenth-century context in which they congealed and to do so in language that embraces the Jeffersonian belief in the intelligence of the common American. This means that the specialized language of scholarly discourse has been translated into ordinary English and the resonant meanings of such loaded terms as “republicanism,” “Whig,” “liberal” and “political party” have not been assumed to be self-evident. While I certainly hope my fellow scholars will read the book, and even find the interpretation fresh and the inevitable blunders few, the audience I had in my mind’s eye was that larger congregation of ordinary people with a general but genuine interest in Thomas Jefferson.

My scholarly debts conjure up comparisons with Jefferson’s massive financial shortfall at the end, which I can only hope to repay in the currency of gratitude. All students of Jefferson owe an unpayable debt to the late Dumas Malone and to Merrill D. Peterson, whose heroic efforts to tell the story of the man and his time start from different assumptions and therefore reach different conclusions from the story I try to tell here, but who have set the biographical standard against which all the rest of us must be judged. The late Julian P. Boyd and his editorial successors at The Papers of Thomas Jefferson project at Princeton have sustained a similarly high standard for assembling the primary sources on which all our stories depend. Finally, the superb staff at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation were unfailingly helpful during my several visits to Monticello. Indeed, a special note of thanks is owed to Daniel P. Jordan, director of the foundation, and Douglas Wilson, director of the International Center for Jefferson Studies, who not only put me up at Kenwood and arranged several public occasions at which I could share my work in progress but also sustained the highest levels of civility and support even as it became clear that God had not given me the grace to see Jefferson as they did.

Individual draft chapters or chapter-sized chunks of the manuscript were read by Howard Adams, Joann Freeman, Ann Lucas, Pauline Maier, Lucia Stanton and Mary Jo Salter. Most or all of the manuscript benefited from the criticism of Catherine Allgor, Andrew Burstein, Eric McKitrick, Peter Onuf, Stephen Smith and Douglas Wilson. The customary caveats apply, meaning that none of these generous colleagues should be held responsible for my interpretive prejudices. Coming to terms with Thomas Jefferson is an inherently argumentative process, and the quality of the advice I received accurately reflected the serious disagreements about his legacy.

Special thanks are due Stephen Smith, the editor of Civilization, who let me try out early versions of my argument in his magazine. The prologue here first appeared in Civilization’s November-December 1994 issue; my discussion of Jefferson’s drafting of the Declaration of Independence in the issue of June-July 1995; my interpretation of Jefferson and slavery in the issue of November-December 1996.

My agent, Gerry McCauley, held my hand and took me to lunch at the appropriate moments. At Knopf my editor, Ashbel Green, along with his assistant, Jennifer Bernstein, ushered the book along with civility and grace.

The entire manuscript was handwritten, then transcribed onto a disk by Helen Canney, whose ability to decipher the slant of my scrawl approached pure art. My three children, Peter, Scott and Alexander, developed a full repertoire of jokes about falling into the Jeffersonian abyss. My wife, Ellen, read each draft chapter as it dribbled out and invariably had stylistic suggestions that I could not afford to ignore.

The dedication at the start is to the historian who, both personally and professionally, embodies the values that my own work strives to emulate.

The appearance of the Vintage edition of American Sphinx in April 1998 permitted me to make several silent revisions to the Knopf hardback edition. These were the kind of minor corrections that careful readers catch after authors and copy editors have done their best to avoid such embarrassments.

Now, however, the Vintage edition requires more extensive revisions in light of the publication of a DNA study by Dr. Eugene Foster that significantly changes the terms of the long-standing debate over Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings. Genuinely new evidence seldom arrives to influence a historical controversy as old and much-studied as this one. But such is the case with the Foster study.

The revisions prompted by this new evidence are too substantial to be made silently. I have made four significant changes: first, added the story of the Foster study to my account of Jefferson’s contemporary relevance (Prologue); second, revised my account of the scandal when it first emerged on the national scene in 1802 (chapter 4); third, added a paragraph on the Jefferson-Hemings relationship at the very end of Jefferson’s life (chapter 5); fourth, inserted a discussion of the Foster study into my account of the history of the controversy (Appendix).

I have changed my mind on the Sally Question, but not on Jefferson. He emerges in this revised edition as more of an American sphinx than ever before, more complicated and inscrutable, more comfortable in his contradictions.


Joseph J. Ellis

Amherst, Mass.

November 1998


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Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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