Jacki: Thomas Jefferson

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, by Joseph J. Ellis

Something that I’m already noticing about these presidential biographies as I make my way through them is just how much overlap there is.  Reading John Adams, I learned almost as much about Thomas Jefferson as I did about John Adams.  For most of their political lives they were on a pretty similar path.  They each started as lawyers. They both helped with the Declaration then headed to France.  They both came back, took a little bit of time off then launched into American politics in a big way.  They each served as vice president then went on to become president themselves, then retired and wrote 100,000 letters.  Then even died on the same day.

What I’m saying is this:  I went into this book kind of knowing what was going on.  I was excited because the subtitle of the book is The Character of Thomas Jefferson.  While I knew a lot about Thomas Jefferson’s life, the only real idea I had of who he was as a man was from visiting Monticello and reading a book about his best frienemy.  My goal throughout this challenge is to get to know the history of our country from the perspective of the men who have led it, so finding out more specifically about Thomas Jefferson’s character really appealed to me.

The thing that I thought was kind of funny about this book is that I’m pretty sure that Joseph Ellis harbored some deep-seeded hatred of Thomas Jefferson.  I feel like usually biographers fall in love with the person that they are extensively studying, but it seems like studying Thomas Jefferson had the adverse effect on Ellis.  When it came to breaking down his character, Ellis tended to make Thomas Jefferson look like this self-indulget, hypocritical, neurotic, idealistic, deeply flawed man.  While many of these things may be true, at a certain point it almost became comical how hard the author came down on the subject.

Outside of that, I thought that this was a pretty solid read.  Initially I was a little bit disappointed that this wasn’t a “straight through is life” biography, but I really ended up liking the “snapshot” way that this was written.  Only the most important parts of Thomas Jefferson’s life were explored and I felt like this left the author room to really delve into these areas more deeply than if he were writing a more “all inclusive” biography.

I think that when I’m done with this challenge, there will be a few presidents that I want to go back to and explore a little more deeply and I think that Thomas Jefferson will be one of those without a doubt.  Interesting dude.

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