Portrait of an Enigma

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson

by Joseph J. Ellis
Knopf, 365 pp., $26.00


Up until a few years ago differences of view regarding Thomas Jefferson, to the extent that they existed, tended to occur among scholars within a professional community rather than between professionals on the one hand and voices from the lay public on the other. The latter mostly took their cues from the former, and the resulting majority view of Jefferson was one of fairly solemn and generally undiscriminating veneration.

The variables in that equation appear to be working somewhat differently now. Jefferson’s across-the-board ratings by historical scholars have dropped noticeably from what they once were at the hands of such magisterial tenders of the flame as Dumas Malone, Merrill Peterson, and Julian Boyd. A fair number now seem to be running out of patience with the swooping discrepancies in Jefferson’s character—between words and acts, between some words and other words, between bland exterior and covert vindictiveness, between the man’s lofty conception of reality and the way it actually was.

Among the general public, on the other hand, Jefferson’s standing is higher than ever; a pro-Jefferson exuberance squirts out all over. Joseph Ellis in his new book refers to this as “the Jeffersonian Surge.” The “Surge” came partly as a byproduct of the 250th anniversary in 1993 of Jefferson’s birth, though underlying it was a dynamic that had been inherent from the beginning. Expressions of the surge have included William Jefferson Clinton’s 1993 inaugural journey from Monticello to Washington, intended to show where the President saw his spiritual roots to lie; the Merchant-Ivory movie about Jefferson’s (purported) love life in Paris; Ken Burns’s recent celebratory documentary on Jefferson; and the great success of a Jefferson impersonator named Clay Jenkinson, who has entertained many audiences with accounts of his subject’s life and afterward skillfully parried their questions about how he (Jefferson) would have handled various public issues of present-day concern. Academics have understandably looked on much of this with a sardonic eye. We could have the makings here of a distinct Two Cultures situation.

Ellis begins his own consistently good-humored scrutiny of Jefferson with an arresting insight into what it is in the Jefferson legacy that best accounts for the uncanny phenomenon making the surge possible—that in the sayings of Jefferson, to a degree beyond anything construable from any American statesman’s utterances since, there is something for just about everyone and support for almost any cause. Many illustrations of this marvel may be pointed to, but Ellis locates the kernel of it in the most famous line in the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration in fact underwent a fair amount of editing by the Continental Congress, including the line in question, which now falls a trifle off from the way he originally phrased it.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

His own version had read:

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.