Analysis Of Joseph J. Ellis 's ' American Sphinx ' Essay

Analysis Of Joseph J. Ellis 's ' American Sphinx ' Essay

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Joseph J. Ellis is a renowned Historical author and before his retirement, was a History professor at Mt. Holyoke University with a focus on the Revolutionary Era. Subsequently, his original publication of American Sphinx in 1996 won the National Book Award in Nonfiction the following year and in turn, made the text a worthy read based on the enigma that is Thomas Jefferson. As Ellis notes in the book, amidst the chorus of criticism and contradictions in the Jeffersonian character, no scholarly work can claim to understand the man’s real traits. To that end, Ellis informs his readers that his “chief quarry” in American Sphinx revolves around Jefferson 's character and the principles that propelled the man’s public and private life to the proportions with which people regard his memory (xvii). In the author’s words, there is a need to excavate the “bedrock Jeffersonian values” and the standards that warranted and “sustained [Jefferson’s] allegiance” from 1775, the year he climbed on the “national stage,” until his death in 1826 (Ellis xvii). Ellis promises his readers that despite the criticism rained upon Thomas Jefferson’s legacy, the memory of the man raises him as “ the Great Sphinx of American history” and the “touchstone for the most cherished convictions” existing even in present day American culture” (10).
In the perceptions of most, if not all modern day professional historians, Thomas Jefferson no longer deserves the good repute with which the United States and anyone who bothers to learn the history of the country associates the man. Presently, the public continues to visit his much-acclaimed home in Monticello to admire Jefferson’s architectural talent and the innovative machines that testify to his mechanical abilitie...


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...the best he could do with his slaves was to make slavery “almost invisible” in his home (Ellis 223). To that end, Joseph Ellis’ American Sphinx serves a devastating blow to the Jeffersonian legacy and evidently goes against his mentioned desire to prove Thomas Jefferson a “Great Sphinx of American history” (10). If Ellis is right, then Jefferson’s character was indeed wanting as his anti-slavery stand remained indeterminable and concepts of freedom disappeared under political aspirations. If anything, American Sphinx depicts Jefferson’s inability to honor his position on men created equal and whether it was as Ellis argues, because of romanticism or his mind playing tricks on itself, his failure to adhere to his doctrines deems him unworthy. However, he could be not just America’s but the world’s “Everyman” as what he did then is possible even in contemporary times.

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