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JOSEPH J. ELLIS is the author of many works of American history including Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize; and American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, which won the National Book Award. He recently retired from his position as the Ford Foundation Professor of History at Mount Holyoke College and lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with his wife and their youngest son.
Historian Ellis (Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams, LJ 4/15/93) does not attempt to give a full-scale biography of the Sage of Monticello. Rather, he offers a balanced meditation on Jefferson's character and ideals. Reaffirming and taking further what some previous authors have stated, Ellis maintains that Jefferson's ambiguous, secretive character was able to support mutually contradictory positions on a variety of issues. Moreover, Jefferson often retreated into romantic illusions rather than face reality. Ellis's work is based on many years of research into this period of American history, and it is perfectly pitched to appeal to both general readers and specialists. Attorney Gordon-Reed (law, New York Law Sch.) presents a lawyer's analysis of the evidence for and against the proposition that Jefferson was the father of several children born to his household slave Sally Hemings. Gordon-Reed is not concerned with Jefferson and Hemings as much as she is with how Jefferson's defenders have dealt with the evidence about the case. Her book takes aim at such noteworthy biographers as Dumas Malone, who has been quick to accept evidence against a liaison and quick to reject evidence for one. In sum, the Jefferson who emerges from these two books is a great though deeply flawed man. Both books are highly recommended as essential reading for all libraries.‘Thomas J. Schaeper, St. Bonaventure Univ., N.Y.
"Fascinating ... an erudite and illuminating study." --The New York Times "This elegant book on Jefferson sets a standard--history at its best." --Chicago Tribune Editor's Choice "A brilliant, unconventional look at Jefferson ... beautifully written, cogently argues, full of both zealous scholarship and lively imagination." --Cleveland Plain Dealer "Magnificent.... Ellis has a Jeffersonian gift for language." --Newsweek "Lively and provocative ... first-rate." --David McCullough
YA‘In studying historical leaders, students rarely get a look at the individuals behind the myths that have grown up around them. Here, Ellis does an excellent job of showing that Jefferson was a human who made many decisions and some mistakes. On the one hand, he was a great historical figure who is due respect; on the other, he was a debt-ridden man with family problems. Ellis does not have an agenda to promote; he has a story to tell, and he tells it well. In a book that reads like fiction, he combines exciting plot turns with information. At the end, readers may not know for certain that Jefferson's life had a happy ending; but they will see him as flesh and blood instead of as a stiff statue or fixed painting in the Capitol rotunda. This absorbing study concludes with an appendix dealing with the Sally Hemmings scandal as well as extensive notes and an excellent index.‘Rebecca L. Woodcock, formerly of Alderman Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA
Penetrating Jefferson's placid, elegant facade, this extraordinary biography brings the sage of Monticello down to earth without either condemning or idolizing him. Jefferson saw the American Revolution as the opening shot in a global struggle destined to sweep over the world, and his political outlook, in Ellis's judgment, was more radical than liberal. A Francophile, an obsessive letter-writer, a tongue-tied public speaker, a sentimental soul who placed women on a pedestal and sobbed for weeks after his wife's death, Jefferson saw himself as a yeoman farmer but was actually a heavily indebted, slaveholding Virginia planter. His retreat from his early anti-slavery advocacy to a position of silence and procrastination reflected his conviction that whites and blacks were inherently different and could not live together in harmony, maintains Mount Holyoke historian Ellis, biographer of John Adams (Passionate Sage). Jefferson clung to idyllic visions, embracing, for example, the "Saxon myth," the utterly groundless theory that the earliest migrants from England came to America at their own expense, making a total break with the mother country. His romantic idealism, exemplified by his view of the American West as endlessly renewable, was consonant with future generations' political innocence, their youthful hopes and illusions, making our third president, in Ellis's shrewd psychological portrait, a progenitor of the American Dream. History Book Club selection. (Jan.)