Following reading "Burr: The Fallen Founder", Joseph J. Ellis's 1996 one on the Sage of Monticello - "American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson" was quite refreshing and is a tome of historical accuracy, unlike Nancy Isenberg's revisionism. The author delves into the complex worldview of the 3rd President, yet does not resort to extensive psychoanalysis of the man. Ellis's view of TJ is favorable if one reads between the lines, but he remains an objective historian enough to present Jefferson as a man and public servant where something was missing in his psyche and why he remains controversial and a complex enigma to this day. Ellis is an historian who has a literary sense and "American Sphinx" is entertaining for the layperson, professional historian, and the Wanna Bees such as myself.
But my criticisms are numerous of this book, and some will be explored here. Ellis remarkably does not spend a great deal of time writing on the Hamilton-Jefferson feud of the 1790s, and any biography of these two Founders I would think that narrating this ordeal at length should be a requisite of any biographer. He also glosses over TJ's flip-flop on the slavery issue and does not take him to task enough on it though he hits him at the necessary angle.Instead, Ellis devotes lengthy discussion on the Sally Hemings miscegenation controversy, which I think has little to do with discussing Jefferson's statecraft:one writer that I read once dropped an apt observation that biographers that devote inordinate length discussing their subject's sex life says more about the sexual panache of the writer than of the subject.
I could care less if Jefferson fathered children from an extraterrestial, but of course my opinion doesn't count.
Ellis does mention that Jefferson did truly loathe Alexander Hamilton, but doesn't go into much detail why: TJ was a big snob who only thought that the men who were there in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776 knew the authentic value of "the spirit of 1776", & they were entitled to decide and rule in the Republic. Hamilton was a parvenu immigrant who had energetic, even hyper-active ways that put the country-squire Virginian off, who preferred a genteel, aloof manner of statescraft and in personal relations (but Hamilton managed to rub-off quite well on another Virginian gentleman, George Washington). Jefferson hated British monarchy and became a Francophile and always felt that the Federalists with their push for a strong activistic government were set on restoration of the Hanovers. Ellis himself finds this notion silly and he writes -
"Hamilton's plans for a proactive federal government empowered to shape markets and set forth both the financial and political agendas were certainly not monarchical in character - if anything, they were more a precocious precursor of twentieth-century New Deal values than an archaic attempt to resuscitate the arbitrary authority of medieval kings and courts - but in Jefferson's mind these distinctions made no appreciable difference."
Ellis goes on to write hither and thither throughout the book about TJ's unfounded obsession with 'monocrats' and monarchists, and the author believes that if there was anyone who was a monarchist in the Early Republic it was Aaron Burr - who was Jefferson's first-term Vice-President and member of his Republican Party. Though John Adams(who was TJ's on-and-off-and on chum) wrote some good things about constitutional monarchy, Adams was a republican, though not an emotional, wear-on-the -sleeves type like Jefferson's partisans were. But Aaron Burr was not a monarchist per se - he was unprincipled in personal political power pursuits and one can easily see Burr being just about anything to reach this end; Burr in another century would had been a good Nazi, Communist, Falangist, Tory, Labourite, or Social Democrat - ideology didn't matter to him.
Like many Jeffersonian historians, Ellis gives President Jefferson's 1st Administration(1801-1805) a big thumbs-up and this is an accurate portrayal. Jefferson throughout most of his term(s) in the executive office was a hard-working - near workaholic - President, who was always up at five in the morning and at his desk. His only leisure was an hour or two spent riding his horse in the afternoon, an occasional dinner-party at evening, and he worked again at night until bedtime at 10pm. Jefferson always wanted to avoid heated debates, so seldom chaired full Cabinet Meetings and preferred to meet department heads one on one and he established a disciplined chain of command within the federal bureaucracy. Jefferson, however, was rather monkish in his statecraft and the man-of-the-People never gave a public speech in his entire period as President - he was only recorded as making brief speeches for his two Inaugural addresses. His shyness of speechmaking was probably in lieu that he had a squeaky, near-effeminate voice with an occasional lisp that he was undoubtedly self-conscious of, plus he probably thought that public speaking was pandering (TJ the aristocrat-phobe was always a patrician). Jefferson instead was a master of the Written Word and there was probably no other Founder that could match his wordsmithing. But TJ was even shy about publishing and guarded his correspondence deftly. When he wanted to put into print an onslaught on his perceived enemies, Jefferson would clandestinely pay hacks to do it for him, or badger his surrogate James Madison to pick up his quill and attack. Jefferson's only book was Notes on Virginia that contained some of his cranky theories within that does his mind a disservice. TJ seemed to believe that his draft of The Declaration of Independence said it all that he needed say for public consumption and his posterity?
TJ's 1st Inaugural contained the phrase - "we are all republicans - we are all federalists". Some have always believed that this was a conciliatory olive branch to his Federalist foes, but Ellis disputes this. TJ didn't capitalize either subject in his handwritten speech(in those days English-language writers capitalized all nouns, and Jefferson had impeccable grammar). Rather, President Jefferson was faced with the reality that his 1800 Second Revolution for "pure republicanism" was going to have a check on it, and a big one. It wasn't Hamilton who stood in the way, but Chief Justice John Marshall, who made it clear, tongue-in-cheek, that TJs desired purge of Federalism was going to be tempered by the Judiciary. Marshall was a rarity who was both a Virginian gentleman and a High Federalist;Marshall made both Adams and Hamilton appear moderate in some aspects. According to American Sphinx, Jefferson came to hate Marshall more than he ever did Hamilton or Burr, but Ellis does not explore into the caverns on this. Jefferson always wanted to eliminate the federal judiciary for this very reason and resented the 3rd branch of the government more than anything that he found disquieting about the US Constitution. TJ also believed that the Senate was a carbon copy House of Lords and he was an early champion for term-limits of Senators. He believed that the House of Representatives should had been the sole legislative body(AH's original plan for the House was actually more democratic than TJ's, btw),the only edifice that should govern the Republican Spirit, which he believed that he had the most correct interpretation of.
Jefferson came into the Presidency with a pre-Reaganesque promise: he was going to cut and eliminate internal taxes, reduce the size of the federal government and retire the National Debt(unlike Reagan, Jefferson cut Defense spending to pennies and totally scrapped the US Navy...unlike Reagan, Jefferson reduced the national debt). Publicly, Jefferson picked financial wizard, Albert Gallitin, as head of the Treasury to set -up a schedule of eliminating said National Debt. However, the first order Gallitin was given was to go over all the accounts of the Treasury and National Bank to get evidence that Alexander Hamilton had 'cooked the books' when he served in the department under Washington. This was not merely the old feuding political vindictiveness on TJ's account but related to his own battles with personal debt: no matter how much Jefferson kept dutiful records on his expenses, he never could come up with black ink. Like many spend-thrifts his solution of failed austerity was to go into debt even more. Jefferson couldn't believe that what he felt to be a lesser mortal could have his own private and public accounts in order without "tricks with numbers". Jefferson was always just a step ahead of his creditors and his debt -ridden ways caused him constant headaches; when Hamilton wrote that the National Debt could be a blessing, immediately TJ's ire was raised.
Albert Gallitan was an old foe of the National Bank and debt assumption and was perhaps the only man of his time who could hold his own in a financial debate with AH. However, via Gallitan's search for financial impropriety at Treasury and the BUS, he became a True Believer in the Hamiltonian financial system edifice. Gallitan reported to President Jefferson that Hamilton's accounting was clean as a virgin snow, that the system was on sound footing and it was ideal to maintain the method to schedule payment of the national debt. Gallitan recorded in his journal that Jefferson became crestfallen at this news, and he sat silent with his lips pursed in disappointment. The Sage never admitted that he was in error that AH was cooking the books, but nevertheless kept the National Bank and was partisan for it's recharter. Via moderate tariffs and agrarian exports, the Treasury was stocked full of sound dollars to buy the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon , and also Jefferson fulfilled his tax-cutting pledge and the national debt was being retired ahead of schedule. Though Jefferson was a Physiocrat and disparaged cultivating American hard-industries, he did use some federal monies for 'internal improvements', one of the cornerstones of what was later to be dubbed the 'American System' of economics. Ellis wrote that Jefferson's 1st Administration "was perhaps the most successful one out of all American Presidencies" and this is probably not convincingly debatable.
However, Jefferson II was fraught with disappointments as all-too many 2nd term Presidents encounter: graft was discovered by Republican officials in the Administration(Jefferson only thought Federalists were corrupt); his obsession with nailing his former Vice-President Aaron Burr on treason charges totally backfired, and the 1807 Embargo Act destroyed the humming and vibrant economy of his 1st Administration. Jefferson's intentions were noble - get peace between England and France by denying them US ports, and barring American trade with Europe - but agrarian America had no industrial base to fall back on, and the embargo hardly touched Napoleon or Mighty Britannia regardless. Jefferson, usually the assiduous chief-executive, became an absentee President in his last year and had turned over much of Presidential duties to his de facto prime minister and heir, James Madison. Unlike John Adams, Jefferson had a stable personality, but one gets the gist that TJ had a bout of incapacitating clinical depression in his final year as President and he spent a great deal of time in his hermitage at Monticello away from the fray in the District of Columbia.
Jefferson was an aloof personality who loathed controversy and avoided it whenever possible, John Adams seemed to thrive on verbal fights, and Hamilton didn't know when to shut-up, either in print or orally(Hamilton developed a habit of even talking to himself in public). George Washington conducted Cabinet Meetings as if he were still the Revolutionary War General having councils of War under the tent; though Washington hated bickering and factionalism, he wanted the opinions of all his staff together before he decided on a plan of attack. Jefferson only called his Cabinet together rarely, and liked the individual approach mainly to avoid debate. Even at his dinner parties when he'd invite both Republican and Federalist officials and politicos - politics was the taboo subject to raise!
TJ had very broad interests and was a bibliophile beyond par, and amature inventor. But like many intellectuals, he seemed to think that he was brighter than he really was. TJ liked to tell tall tales about his political battles and his interests that always put himself in the most favorable light. John Quincy Adams, a genuine-article Big Brain and erudite scholar, picked up on this side of Jefferson quite early on and learned to take some of the Sage's stories with a pinch of salt. TJ had a staid persona and liked to speak on the primacy of 'Reason', but he, like anyone, could be quite vindictive and guided by personal hatreds; Francophile Jefferson thought that the Federalists were 'Anglomen' and hehated Britain more than an Irish Fenian could - yet he believed firmly in nativist Anglo-Saxon supremacy. A constitutionalist who didn't like a great deal of the US Constitution and tried to circumvent at times...a shy Sage who despised public political displays but would resort to behind the scenes skulduggery..... an aristocrat for the 'little guy', but he never would think of rubbing shoulders with them personally and always hung-out with his fellow Virginian planters. TJ was a person who had an instinctive distaste for slavery; before the 1790s Jefferson came very close to being an Abolitionist, but became hardened later on and grumbled in old age about Yankee abolitionists. Slaves paid his copious debts and gave him Monticello and he never thought twice about buying or selling slaves(though he did prevent families from being broke up and there is no evidence that TJ himself was ever cruel to his slaves or deprived them of basic necessities for their bondage existence.)
However, as elder statesman, TJ came to reject absolutely Free Trade and realized the necessity for protected industries, that scrapping the Navy was a terrible mistake. What he never could admit to anyone or himself, was that this 'purist Republican' and one time heavy flirter with Jacobinism had evolved into a Hamiltonian on many issues. Jefferson could never see the paradox of his worldviews; though he was a hypocrite, he was one who didn't realize that he was.