I spent a good chunk of fall 2015 reading the number one Alexander Hamilton biography ever written, by famed writer and now Broadway famous Ron Chernow. This along with the Hamilton Broadway show has invigorated my passion for American Revolutionary War-era history, as well as the stories of the Founding Fathers, topics I’ve been interested in since an early childhood of social studies classes. I fell in love with the romantic side of it, the battle for democracy against the oppressive monarchy, as well as the harsh reality of early warfare. I also gained a major crush on the Marquis de Lafayette, America’s adopted son and favorite fighting Frenchman – but, hey, so did George Washington, so you can’t blame me.
It also helped that my favorite musical is the quintessential American story 1776, which kickstarted my historical crush on Benjamin Franklin as well as an appreciation for the “obnoxious and disliked” John Adams. But the one who really ending up standing out the most was the redheaded, quiet powerhouse with a quill, who played the violin and delivered the document that would declare an entire nation’s independence: Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson is the subject of my current read, American Sphinx, a book I’ve owned for a long while but just now got around to reading. Unlike Chernow’s book, it’s not a classical biography by any stretch so much as a character study with a psychological bend to it. Interestingly enough, Ellis opens not with a direct examination of Jefferson but the phenomenon surrounding him, something that’s been brewing since he first started practicing law. Considering how many advances has been made in studying his work, his letters, his legacy, it’s hard to say that history is dead. Figures like Thomas Jefferson, who remain polarizing and influential past death, are part of the reason why history stays a living movement.
There’s something about Ellis’ writing style that is incredibly magnetic, almost poetic, and on the same level as Jefferson himself. He states in the opening that he is writing American Sphinx not for the Jefferson scholar but for the lay person who wants to learn more about the man behind the inapproachable mask, and while the prose stays simple and couched in non-academically charged language, it never feels dumbed down.
After reading about Hamilton, who had a long-standing feud with the Virginian, I expected more hagiography on behalf of Ellis for Jefferson, since so many deify him on a regular basis. Luckily, like Chernow, Ellis treats his subject as the human being he is, holding up his successes as well as his faults and issues while maintaining a mostly neutral stance through the narrative so far (I honestly think it’s impossible for a historian to tackle a figure like Jefferson without bias). I’m about to start the Paris section, which spans 1784 to 1789. I actually don’t know a lot about the American diplomacy efforts in Paris beyond Benjamin Franklin, so this will be fun.
Lastly: I can’t help but admit I keep thinking of this song when I see the book cover! Thomas Jefferson’s coming ho-o-ome…