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Book Forum: Biography   |    
American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson
ALAN A. STONE, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2002;159:2123-2124. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.159.12.2123
View Author and Article Information
Cambridge, Mass.

By Joseph J. Ellis. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997, 365 pp., $29.95; $15.00 (paper, published 1998 by Vintage).

Joseph Ellis’s 1997 biography of Thomas Jefferson earned the National Book Award and made the popular professor of history at Mount Holyoke College an intellectual celebrity. Ellis emphasized the profound hypocrisy of the man he calls the American Sphinx, but like most academic historians he "denied" Jefferson’s most scandalous hypocrisy, his alleged liaison with his slave Sally Heming. When the much discussed DNA study of Jefferson and Heming’s descendants was published the next year (1), Ellis conspicuously changed sides. He coauthored an article that accompanied the DNA study in Nature(2). There he argued that, taken with other historical evidence, there was now proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Jefferson had fathered some of Sally’s children. When the second paperback edition of his best-selling Jefferson biography appeared, Ellis added an appendix and a few lines to the text to acknowledge his new conclusion about the Sally question. Ellis was suddenly the Jefferson scholar at the center of the Sally controversy, which coincided with the effort to impeach Jefferson’s namesake President William Jefferson Clinton. In the New York Times Ellis (3) compared the sexual peccadilloes of the two men and went on record as opposing impeachment.

The spotlight of public recognition would tarnish if not ruin Ellis’s own reputation. The professor had been posing to his students as a Vietnam veteran, and his course on American culture focused on that war and was taught with a personal "I was there" perspective. His fabrications included a stint as a paratrooper and platoon leader and service on the staff of General Westmoreland. When journalists started putting together background stories on Ellis it turned out that he had actually spent the Vietnam War years doing graduate studies at Yale and teaching history at West Point.

The occasion of this Christmas review suggested the opportunity for a kind of experiment. I would reread the biography now knowing about Ellis’s damaged personal reputation and see how my judgments about his scholarship would be influenced.

It can be said that even against the cloud of scandal, Ellis emerges as a lively and erudite historian who is still well worth reading. His gift is to bring moments in the distant past to life—a kind of screenplay history. He paints a word picture of Jefferson entering Philadelphia in 1776, where he wrote the Declaration of Independence and secured his place in history and on Mount Rushmore. There are similar evocative pictures of Jefferson’s arrival in Paris, Jefferson in Monticello, the day Jefferson became President, etc. Ellis had no original or primary historical data. His account is a lively and erudite commentary on the compendious and highly analyzed Jefferson scholarship.

Ellis is far from an idolatrous biographer of the mythic polymath of Monticello. One elderly Virginian lady, after hearing a presentation of some of Ellis’s views, declared him nothing but a pigeon on the great statue of Jefferson. He does besmirch the idol. For example, according to Ellis the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson’s most memorable achievement, was a cut-and-paste job using his own earlier writings as well as some phrases cribbed from his fellow Virginian George Mason. And of course there is the amazing hypocrisy that Jefferson, the slaveholder, is credited with the phrase "All men are created equal."

One of Ellis’s central efforts is to expose and understand Jefferson’s profound hypocrisy. However, he specifically rejects the approach of Eriksonian psychobiography, which in his view is a failed method of circular reasoning. He complains that Fawn Brodie’s biography (4), which featured the Heming affair, was excessively psychiatric (p. 396). But Ellis is forced to use terms like denial, compartmentalization, and lack of connection between heart and mind even in his nonpsychological explanation of Jefferson’s character. He concedes that Jefferson was obsessive in his hatreds and paranoid in his attitudes, but Ellis believes that this was far from unusual at the time. Because he eschews psychological explanation, his method is essentially descriptive. Therefore, everything depends on his own honesty as a scholar in selecting among the many historical sources that provide different descriptions of Jefferson.

Ellis is more interested in Jefferson’s public politics than in his private psychology, but his own thesis is that they are deeply linked. Jefferson’s politics are a projection of his own self-conception. Ellis presents Jefferson as an idealistic, utopian dreamer in contrast to his friend and enemy, John Adams, who was empirical and realistic. Psychiatrists will be interested to learn that Benjamin Rush, the father of American psychiatry, helped mediate the bitter political dispute between the Federalist and Republican ex-presidents. Rush’s intervention made possible a 15-year correspondence, a mother lode for American historians, on which Ellis draws. Jefferson’s letters to Adams are breathtakingly brilliant (5).

Jefferson, the Republican, hated the Supreme Court and John Marshall because the Court was farthest removed from the popular will that in Jefferson’s mind all government was supposed to serve. Ellis savors the irony that John Adams, whose father was a cobbler, distrusted the common people, while Jefferson, the Virginia aristocrat, idealized them. But in fact, Ellis explains, Jefferson imagined the common people in his own image, white Anglo-Saxon men. Behind his dislike of a strong federal government was his abiding concern that his own liberty would be constrained.

Ellis’s discussion of Jefferson’s sojourn in Paris suffers on rereading because of his failure to revise it in the light of his changed view of Sally Heming and her relationship with her owner. Sally accompanied Jefferson’s younger daughter to Paris. Jefferson, a widower, insisted on sending the young child to the Catholic Convent school the older sister was attending. This despite Abigail Adams’s vehement advice to the contrary. Did Sally’s presence influence his decision? Ellis’s "psychological" conclusion is that Jefferson could not sustain intimacy with his beloved daughters. A Sally liaison might cast that judgment in a different light. Ellis also spends several pages dealing with Jefferson’s well-known Paris love affair with Maria Cosway, a married woman who was much younger than he was. What would the historian have made of that account if he acknowledged that it cooled after Jefferson had brought his teenage concubine to Paris? And how should someone who believes there was a sexual relationship with Sally evaluate Jefferson’s self-righteous condemnation of the pervasive sexual corruption of French society and his claim for the moral superiority of Americans?

One does not have to read Freud to grasp the perverse and incestuous complications of sex and slavery. John Adams in a letter to Benjamin Rush pointed out that every miscegenating Virginia planter had his own children among his slaves. Visitors to Monticello routinely commented on the whiteness of Jefferson’s slaves. Sally Heming, a quadroon, was the daughter of Jefferson’s father-in-law and the half-sister of his wife. Although there are still Jeffersonian scholars who deny it, the American Sphinx probably fathered children by Sally into his 60s, and he knew those slaves were his children. One of Jefferson’s greatest fears was that the slaves would one day revolt and kill their masters. Ellis apparently does not recognize the obvious psychological connections between Jefferson’s fears and his sexual liaison.

Jefferson was in the best position of any American to see and understand what the French Revolution might bring. Ellis is compelling as he describes how Jefferson consistently underestimated the bloodshed, assuring John Adams that the French Revolution would be bloodless and minimizing the slaughter after the fact. Jefferson famously observed that the blood of patriots manured the tree of liberty. But he was not thinking of his own blood, and the blood of other "patriots" never seemed real to him. This blindness to human realities facilitated his radical political judgment. Ellis tells us that Jefferson actually blamed Marie Antoinette for the French Revolution. "I have ever believed that had there been no Queen, there would have been no revolution." And Ellis adds, "The entire tragedy was due (in Jefferson’s mind) not to long standing historical forces that proved unmanageable but to the ill timed meddling of one woman" (p. 308). Can we trust Ellis’s historical judgment as he draws from the many statements by Jefferson, or is this pigeon droppings?

One comes away from rereading Ellis’s biography with what seems a worryingly snide picture of Jefferson. Ellis certainly seems right that hypocrisy is central to Jefferson’s character and that the economics of slavery for his Monticello Utopia and his beloved Virginia is a key. That his 1997 biography failed to recognize Sally Heming’s role in Jefferson’s hypocrisy is a lesson in American racism and the almost sacred power of collective denial in American history and among American historians.

It has been said that every biography is in some sense an autobiography. Ellis, himself a poser, portrays Jefferson very much in that light. Jefferson is depicted constantly and egocentrically posturing to ensure his place in history. Ellis reads the Adams correspondence as though it was written for historians. Yet Jefferson, for some reason that eludes Ellis, chose in writing his own autobiography to omit his two terms as President of the United States. Those were years in which Jefferson changed the course of American history. Most importantly, he scuttled his Republican principles and used the naked power of his office to purchase the Louisiana territory from Napoleon because the price was right. Jefferson left his own Monticello estate totally bankrupt, but more than any other president he made the vision of a nation from sea to shining sea come true. Ellis’s Jefferson, despite all his hypocrisies and despite his biographer’s pigeon droppings, emerges as a man of genius who had what so many modern politicians lack—the vision thing. John F. Kennedy was probably correct when he assembled all of America’s great historians for dinner and remarked that never had so much historical wisdom been gathered at the White House except perhaps on those occasions when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.

Foster EA, Jobling MA, Taylor PG, Donnelly P, De Knijff P, Mieremet R, Zerjal T, Tyler-Smith C: Jefferson fathered slave’s last child. Nature  1998; 396:27-28
[PubMed]
[CrossRef]
 
Lander ES, Ellis JJ: Founding father. Nature  1998; 396:13-14
[PubMed]
[CrossRef]
 
Ellis JJ: The muddled history of impeachment. New York Times, Sept 19, 1998, p A5
 
Brodie FM: Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate Biography. New York, WW Norton, 1974
 
Jefferson T: Letter to John Adams, August 15, 1820, in The Portable Thomas Jefferson. Edited by Peterson MD. New York, Penguin Books, 1975, p 569
 
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References

Foster EA, Jobling MA, Taylor PG, Donnelly P, De Knijff P, Mieremet R, Zerjal T, Tyler-Smith C: Jefferson fathered slave’s last child. Nature  1998; 396:27-28
[PubMed]
[CrossRef]
 
Lander ES, Ellis JJ: Founding father. Nature  1998; 396:13-14
[PubMed]
[CrossRef]
 
Ellis JJ: The muddled history of impeachment. New York Times, Sept 19, 1998, p A5
 
Brodie FM: Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate Biography. New York, WW Norton, 1974
 
Jefferson T: Letter to John Adams, August 15, 1820, in The Portable Thomas Jefferson. Edited by Peterson MD. New York, Penguin Books, 1975, p 569
 
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