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An Impenetrable Man : AMERICAN SPHINX: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. By Joseph J. Ellis . Alfred A. Knopf: 365 pp., $26

March 02, 1997|BENJAMIN SCHWARZ | Benjamin Schwarz is executive editor of World Policy Journal

Over the past 25 years historians and pundits have attacked Thomas Jefferson on several fronts. They have criticized his stance on issues ranging from civil liberties to states' rights to the French Revolution and have, above all, castigated him for his pseudo-scientific racism and his belief that there was no place for free black people in American society. Fifty-six years ago, Jefferson was, according to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, America's "Apostle of Freedom," and today liberal commentator Michael Lind likens him to Strom Thurmond, disparaging him as a "Southern reactionary." Irish journalist and diplomat Conor Cruise O'Brien calls him America's "spellbinding and anarchic racist prophet."

Historian Joseph Ellis, who previously wrote an admiring study of Jefferson's political enemy John Adams, has in "American Sphinx" delivered a far more subtle but nevertheless damning blow to Jefferson's already battered reputation. Rather than focus on such chewed-over subjects as Jefferson's racial attitudes, Ellis concentrates on Jefferson's character, which he nicely defines as "the animating principles that informed his private and public life."

This is a famously elusive quarry. Jefferson was riddled with ambiguities and contradictions; he was an exquisitely complicated man. Henry Adams--whose insights into Jefferson's career as secretary of state and president remain unmatched--described over a century ago the difficulty of capturing Jefferson when he noted that "a few broad strokes of the brush would paint the portraits of all the early presidents with this exception. . . . Jefferson could be painted touch by touch, with a fine pencil, and the perfection of the likeness depended upon the shifting and uncertain flicker of its semi-transparent shadows." Jefferson's most authoritative living biographer, historian Merrill Peterson, spent more than 30 years pursuing his subject and still was forced to make the "mortifying confession" that "Jefferson remains for me, finally, an impenetrable man."

Although there are a crop of recent biographies of Jefferson, along with the standard, hagiographic studies by Dumas Malone and Peterson, we have long needed the kind of book that Ellis has written. Few general readers have the stamina to get through Malone's six volumes, while Peterson's 1,009 pages are hardly more inviting; those who do take the plunge find that both Malone's and Peterson's highly detailed studies, which resemble official biographies, too often miss the forest for the trees. Furthermore, both works are essentially political biographies in which the "life" usually takes a back seat to the "times." The recent, popular works by Noble Cunningham and Willard Sterne Randall read like synopses from Malone and Peterson and are limited in much the same way as their big cousins. On the other hand, Fawn Brodie's controversial and now underrated 1974 book on Jefferson suffers from the opposite problem. An "intimate biography," Brodie's work leaves unasked and unanswered questions about Jefferson's place in history and what he means for America.

In many ways, Jefferson has been best revealed not by his full-fledged biographers but by his pen portraitists. Adams, literary critic Leo Marx and historians William Freehling, Stanley Elkins and Eric McKittrick have written elegant and penetrating character studies of Jefferson that are embedded in works on broader subjects. They are all frustratingly brief. In his book-length character study, Ellis wisely chose not to recount Jefferson's entire life, but instead to concentrate on several episodes, including his membership in the Continental Congress, the first term of his presidency and his final retirement. In so doing, Ellis has illuminated several well-known aspects of Jefferson's character, most of which are unattractive. Ellis is especially perceptive and persuasive in painting Jefferson as a master of self-deception, rather than as the hypocrite his contemporary enemies perceived. Jefferson, almost pathologically afraid of internal conflict, had a great talent for avoiding unpleasant realities--exemplified in his artful way of disguising the slave quarters on his mountaintop--and for holding steadfastly and sincerely to beliefs his actions contradicted. He had, as Ellis remarks, "the deep deviousness only possible in the dedicated idealist."

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