Tuesday, April 17, 2012


Even though I enjoy reading history, I can't think of many professions that sound more boring and unglamorous than 'historian.' And yet historians do seem to make headlines now and then. Newt Gingrich claims he was a historian for Fannie Mae (or was it Freddie Mac?), and got paid rather exorbitantly for... whatever it was he did for them. Bill O'Reilly, someone who apparently shouts and argues enough to challenge the generally accepted notion of historians as dusty and sedate old duffers, was a high school history teacher and has had a history book at the top of the NYTimes bestseller list since last fall. But for me, one of the more interesting historians is Joseph J. Ellis, a history professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts who won both a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize for his own bestsellers. Professor Ellis is renowned for his character analyses of the leaders of the American Revolution and is credited with igniting the recent interest into the mostly forgotten John Adams (which was further fueled by David McCullough's own later Pulitzer-winning book and subsequent HBO miniseries). But what made Prof. Ellis interesting and newsworthy were some revelations that his own character was seriously lacking.

Apparently, Ellis supplemented his lectures with colorful stories of his involvement in the Vietnam War and the civil rights and peace movements. Among other things, he claimed to have fought in Vietnam as a paratrooper and platoon leader and worked for General Westmoreland in Saigon. The truth was that he was a grad student at Yale and taught history at West Point during those years, and didn't participate actively in any social movements. When the Boston Globe broke the "scandal" the school was forced to suspend him and Ellis issued apologies for his "lies" and "sins."

I have read a number of his books, including First Family and His Excellency and found them to be convincing and insightful looks into the characters of some of the most important leaders in our nation's history. Ellis brings them to life in a way that you feel like you understand them and their motivations a lot better - warts and all. But I wondered how trustworthy someone with such character warts of his own could be as I read American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. Now that I've finished, I think he does a really good job.

Understanding Jefferson has long been a puzzle for historians, and Ellis presents him as a series of contradictions. He famously wrote "all men are created equal" at the same time he owned 200 slaves. He was a strong proponent of paying off the national debt (which he accomplished during his two terms in office) yet couldn't contain his own lavish spending and died so deeply in debt that his beloved Monticello was auctioned off instead of being passed down to his family (they inherited the remainder of his monumental debt). Jefferson was also a fierce advocate of states' rights and against a large federal government, yet his own overreach of federal power and authority was fundamentally unconstitutional when he purchased the Louisiana Territory. Unfortunately, the list goes on.

Ellis does a good job of making sense of the many things Jefferson said and wrote, and how it corresponded with his actions. And Ellis has his usual keen insight for understanding what Jefferson probably thought and his unusual ability to think on “parallel tracks.” He portrays Jefferson essentially as a dreamer and visionary who above all else believed in individual liberty and the inherent rightness of "the will of the people." Unfortunately, not all Jefferson's dreams were all that practical, and frequently his good friend James Madison had to keep him grounded. He also discusses the issue of slavery extensively and is frequently critical (all in context of Jefferson's time and place, of course). (My copy was a later edition with an update after the Sally Hemmings link had since been proven with DNA evidence – and Ellis admits his prior conclusion was wrong.) But Jefferson's contributions are significant, from the Declaration of Independence to the Louisiana Purchase, which became a “fountain of youth” for the country. But while Ellis does an excellent job of illuminating Jefferson's character it's not an especially easy read. I found myself constantly having to re-read parts to make sure I understood what he was saying, and I think having some decent familiarity with Jefferson's life is helpful before tackling this one.

Personally, I'm not concerned that Prof. Ellis' judgment might have been colored or clouded unfairly in his character assessments of Jefferson. None of us are perfect and I find that my own failings and shortcomings provide me with different and hopefully more perceptive insights into the experiences of others. It's unfortunate that Ellis felt the need to embellish his life and contributions, but maybe it shows that he's as human and insecure as the rest of us, and he's had to live with the embarrassment it caused. And I'll keep recommending his books.

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