Sunday, July 6, 2008

What I'm Reading - American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson

As I have mentioned before, I own way too many books. Well, that has a negative connotation to it, which I don't mean, because I don't regret owning so many books (maybe, if I could do it over again, there are a number of sports related books I purchased at a discount from a book outlet website I wouldn't buy again, but they look good on my bookshelves). So the question always is, when I finish one book (as I did this weekend with John Adams) what to do next. I have over 200 books in my ever-growing collection, and I've read only just over 50. Close to another dozen (including Bill Clinton's My Life which I started but never finished before I began Law School) are in some stage of being read. Instead of picking one of those back up (and in truth, some, I'll likely start fresh if/when I pick them up again), being in a very Revolutionary history state of mind, I picked up Joseph Ellis' Thomas Jefferson's biography American Sphinx.

After the over 650 page Adams' biography, Ellis' character study of Jefferson is just under 370-pages of text, so the long weekend allowed me to devour it almost whole (I have only 70-some pages to go and may finish tonight). I continue to be fascinated by the friendship, rivalry, and correspondence between Adams and Jefferson (so much so that my next book will be one I purchased this weekend, Ellis' study of Adams post-Presidential life which goes deeper into the Adams-Jefferson relationship; I also almost purchased a 600-page text containing the actual letters between John and Abigail Adams and Jefferson throughout their lives, but I left that purchase for another day). And as I learn more about Jefferson, I become more conflicted on what to think of him. As Ellis writes, he is truly a unique character in history, full of honest but real contradictions. What I find most interesting are not his internal battles over slavery, but of his thoughts on government and revolutions. His demand for personal freedom is laudable, but his thoughts on letting laws and governments lapse every generation are wild, and his appreciation, and even desire, for sometimes bloody revolutions (which he thought would ensure citizen freedom) are by today's standards dangerous.

I don't leave these books though h a lower opinion of Jefferson, but of a decidedly improved opinion of Adams, whose left-behind and under-appreciated position in American History I am now much more sympathetic. The books too allow you to really see the human side of these American icons, the day-to-day struggles they faced in their everyday lives, which in admiring all they did for this country, we often forget they had. And learning about the early days of Presidential campaigns (where the principals would steadfastly refuse to campaign, but would bankroll and encourage others to engage in scurrilous attacks) makes today's campaigns look tame by comparison.

In any case, another worthy read, which you could tell by how quick I read through it. My plan is to continue on this Revolutionary-era kick, with Ellis' Adams book next (Passionate Sage) followed by his two composites next, the Pulitzer Prize winning Founding Brothers (of which I have read over half of, but so long ago, I'll likely start from scratch) and his newest book American Creation. Then I'll think I'll be done in this time period (despite having biographies of Franklin and Hamilton to go, as well as David McCollough's 1776 to read at some point as well). But, then again, there's always those Adams-Jefferson letters, right?

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3 comments:

Kurt Hunt said...

To add to the pile, I recommend Walter Isaacson's Ben Franklin biography. It's very thorough, but because Franklin did so many different things it never gets dull. You also get interesting angles of Jefferson and Adams.

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