Monday, July 4, 2016

Review: American Sphinx

American Sphinx
From American Sphinx, by Joseph J. Ellis:
Open quote 

Soon after his death in 1826 Jefferson became a touchstone for wildly divergent political movements that continued to compete for his name and the claim on his legacy. Southern secessionists cited him on behalf of states' rights; northern abolitionists quoted his words in the Declaration of Independence against slavery."

Thomas Jefferson has always been my favorite of the Founding Fathers. But after reading this twenty year old biography by Joseph J. Ellis, I have to concede, no more.

After the jump, my review.

Grade: B+

What's not to like about Thomas Jefferson? He is the author of the most famous phrases in the American canon: "All men are created equal." "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." "Separation of church and state." This biography covers that Jefferson, the one on Mount Rushmore, but it also reveals a less flattering Jefferson. On balance, it caused me to abandon my place on team Jefferson.

Ellis doesn't exhaustively detail Jefferson's life. He skips long periods of it altogether. What we get is Jefferson in Philadelphia in 1776, Jefferson in Paris in the 1780s, Jefferson's first term as President, and Jefferson's later years in retirement at Monticello. Covered only briefly are Jefferson as Governor of Virginia, Jefferson as Secretary of State, Jefferson as Vice President, and Jefferson's disappointing second term as President. Ellis is more interested in exploring Jefferson's thinking, his political philosophy, his character, than in producing a log of his life.

Probably the hardest thing for me to accept is Jefferson's attitude towards slavery. I used to resist imposing my modern sensibilities on people of earlier eras, but Ellis leaves little doubt that Jefferson himself was fully aware of the evils of slavery, having supported modest anti-slavery measures in his early years. After those failed, he passively expected slavery to gradually die out on its own. When that didn't happen either, he finally set aside the issue altogether, explicitly leaving it for future generations to solve. All while he personally held about 200 slaves, even fathering children by one (Sally Hemings). He didn't even emancipate all of his own slaves (including Sally Hemings) upon his own death.

Jefferson's position on Native Americans is as hard to justify today. He favored pursuing war on them until they were driven west of the Mississippi, possibly a harder line than even Andrew Jackson took a generation later. The only survival for them that he would consider was total assimilation. As Ellis puts it: "In short, Indian culture could survive by ceasing to be Indian."

Perhaps most surprising to me, Jefferson was a revolutionary in the mold of Lenin or Mao (Ellis's comparison, not mine). Present in France during the early stages of the French Revolution, he insisted on seeing the savage mob violence as a necessary, healthy step towards individual liberty. "Rather than it should have failed I would have seen half the earth desolated." This attitude carried over to America. When the anti-tax Shay's Rebellion broke out in Massachusetts, Jefferson wrote: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure."

The major political issue in America during Jefferson's presidency was the relative role of the federal government versus the states. Adams and Hamilton favored a strong central government. Jefferson favored a weak one. "The true theory of our Constitution [is that] the states are independent as to everything within themselves, and united as to everything respecting foreign nations." This attitude led Jefferson to oppose a national bank, internal improvements like highways and canals, and federal measures to restrict the spread of slavery in the territories. His attachment to the Union itself is in question in his musings after the Louisiana Purchase: "Whether we remain in one confederacy, or form into Atlantic and Mississippi confederacies, I believe not very important to the happiness of either part." Count me on team Adams and Hamilton.

I highlight these passages because of their impact on my own thinking. Ellis himself presents a balanced view. His interest is in understanding Jefferson's own thinking, not in passing judgment on it. The subtitle of the biography, "The Character of Thomas Jefferson," is an apt description of this biography. Ellis explores what Jefferson thinks even more than what he does. Sadly, I no longer can say I admire all that I learn of his thinking. Complex. Conflicted. Contradictory. Jefferson is all that and more. Thanks to Joseph J. Ellis's enlightening biography, I no longer see Jefferson as the icon I saw before.

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