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From the Archives, Presidents' Day Edition: Joseph Ellis and the "Jefferson Surge."

Historian Joseph Ellis. He's written a new biography about Thomas Jefferson which aims to debunk many of the myths about the third president: "American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson" (Knopf). It won a National Book Award for nonfiction this November. Ellis has also contributed to filmmaker Ken Burns's documentary about Jefferson. Ellis is a professor of American History at Mount Holyoke College, and has written five other books including Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams. (REBROADCAST from 12/9/97)

26:26

Other segments from the episode on February 16, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 16, 1998: Interview with Garry Wills; Interview with Joseph Ellis.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: FEBRUARY 16, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 021601NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: American Sphinx
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We're going to catch up with the winner of this year's National Book Award for nonfiction. Joseph Ellis won the award in October for his character study of Thomas Jefferson, called "American Sphinx." There's so much contemporary interest in Jefferson that Ellis has named the phenomenon "the Jefferson surge."

Two examples are the PBS series on Jefferson last winter for which Ellis was a consultant; and the more recent programs on the Lewis and Clark Expedition which was launched by Jefferson.

Ellis' biography tries to define and understand the many contradictions embodied by the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, yet held slaves. Jefferson's ideas define the central themes in the story of the emerging American republic, says Ellis. And that's why he wanted to write this book.

JOSEPH ELLIS, NATIONAL BOOK AWARD WINNER, HISTORIAN, MT. HOLYOKE COLLEGE, AUTHOR, "AMERICAN SPHINX: THE CHARACTER OF THOMAS JEFFERSON," AND "PASSIONATE SAGE: THE CHARACTER AND LEGACY OF JOHN ADAMS": Well, he -- you know, he does -- his life has a natural span from 1743 to 1826, so he's a young man coming of age in the revolution, and then old enough to be a member of the first government of the United States -- Secretary of State, first Secretary of State, then president. Then lives on until 1826 and dies almost providentially on July 4, 1826 -- the 50th anniversary to the day of the publication of the Declaration.

So, his life straddles this crucial moment in American history.

But apart from sheer chronology and timing, I think that Jefferson is the most potent symbol of the central paradox of American history. He wrote what we might call the "magic words" of American history -- the ones that begin "We hold these truths to be self-evident" which are the core of the liberal tradition and the well-spring for most of the reform movements -- the end of slavery, civil rights movement, feminism.

And yet he simultaneously owned 200 slaves throughout his life -- or about 200 slaves at any one time. And he lived the contradiction that is, in some sense, the central contradiction, if not paradox, of American history.

GROSS: You mention, of course, the Declaration of Independence. The first draft of his words for that, or at least an earlier draft...

ELLIS: Hmm.

GROSS: ... shows, you say, that his vision was not just political. It was also spiritual. Can you recite that earlier draft?

ELLIS: It -- the key -- yes, I think I can. It's -- he says: "We hold these truths not to be self-evident" -- probably the term "self-evident" was added or changed by Benjamin Franklin. We're not certain about that. But the original Jefferson draft was: "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable" -- calling on God and calling on the spiritual forces above to bless this attempt at independence.

And it's an interesting choice of words 'cause Jefferson's not a deeply religious person himself, but he does make of the American commitment to independence in effect a religious act. And those magic words are the closest thing to an American creed that we have, and they really are the core catechism of American patriotism. And he did write them.

GROSS: But he, or at least somebody, took out the word "sacred" as in "we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable."

ELLIS: Hmm.

GROSS: Do you know why the word "sacred" was taken out?

ELLIS: I think that -- that Franklin, if it were Franklin that made the change, believed that "self-evident" is a more secular term and that this was a secular document. It was to be presented before a political body, the Continental Congress.

GROSS: And it's funny 'cause Jefferson is the person, isn't he, who puts the separation of church and state into, you know, America's creed.

ELLIS: He does. I mean, I think with a very heavy assist from James Madison, his loyal acolyte, if you will. But Jefferson is the person who really is instrumental for establishing in Virginia, first of all, not in the United States as a whole, the principle that there should be a complete and total separation -- what later on he will call a "wall" of separation between church and state.

And it's one Jeffersonian principle that translates pretty directly into contemporary late 20th century American life. I mean, I think that most everything else has changed so much that it's difficult to make any kind of judgments, but that's an absolute principle on Jefferson's side, and he came up with it in the late 1770s and 1780s.

GROSS: Now, you describe the Declaration of Independence as a "recipe for anarchy." In what sense?

ELLIS: Well, if you read the Declaration, and it's tough to read it now without being caught up in the melodic tones and it's like listening to an old record. It's almost you can't hear the words because you've heard them so many times before. But the Declaration is not a document that talks about the ways in which government can do anything positive and good. It is a discussion of all the ways in which government is oppressive and bad.

It is an attempt, it is a propagandistic attempt in some sense, to destroy any credibility for the English monarch and for Parliament, and therefore it is a total assault on political power. Unlike the Constitution, which is an attempt to structure the use of political power, the Declaration is all about rights, and not about any responsibilities.

GROSS: Now, you say that the genius of Jefferson's rhetoric was to articulate irreconcilable human urges at such an abstract level that it masked the mutual exclusiveness of some of these urges. Does that apply to the Declaration of Independence?

ELLIS: I think very much so. I mean, if you to a reading of the Declaration and -- or if you go to the Jefferson Memorial on the tidal basin, and you watch people read and sort of move their mouths as they read those magic words -- "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal" -- people with fundamentally different political convictions, representing very different ideological groups and constituencies, really believe these words to mean pretty much what they want.

So, pro-lifers and pro-choicers think that it speaks directly to them. People that are pro- and anti-gun control both think that they have Jefferson on their side. And it keeps going on. Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt both thought that Jefferson agreed with them on the question of the Great Depression. Ronald Reagan and William Jefferson Clinton both claim Jefferson as a heir to their political tradition.

So that part of Jefferson's genius, as I guess I've tried to suggest, is to create language that levitates above the debate. It's almost like one of those dirigibles at the Super Bowl that flashes inspirational messages to both sides. I mean, he is a genius. I mean, in some sense he's the rhetorician of American democracy.

GROSS: Do you think he was intentionally ambiguous to be more popular?

ELLIS: Not in the crassest sense of that term. Jefferson was no sort of self-conscious what we would call "spinner." He was naturally agile inside himself, and one of the reasons he only wrote one book that he published in his whole life -- that's a book called "Notes on Virginia" -- is he liked to tailor his messages to particular people or particular constituencies, and didn't like to have one statement out there available for all people to read at once.

So it's less an act of calculation and duplicity than it is an act of psychological agility that he believed in, too. He was -- he wasn't a liar. He was self-deceived on occasion, but he had, as I say someplace in the book, the kind of duplicity only possible in the pure of heart.

GROSS: When Jefferson says in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal, does he mean all white males?

ELLIS: In some sense yes; in some sense no. He means that all men are created equal in the sense that all human beings -- black or white, male or female -- as human beings possess some core of humanity -- you might call it a "soul;" you might call it a "moral sense" -- which makes them human and which cannot be violated. And in that sense the statement is a clear statement against the institution of slavery.

But Jefferson did not believe that blacks and whites were naturally equal or even biologically equal. Nor did he believe that women and men were equal in their accomp -- in their capacities. They were only equal in the fundamental sense of being human.

GROSS: In talking about Jefferson's contributions to the American Revolution, you say that one of the things he did was to basically write the narrative line; to come up with the story line that would stitch all the different points of view together and make one coherent narrative out of that. Would you explain what you mean?

ELLIS: Well, I think what you're referring to is the fact that Jefferson developed this notion that became the dominant interpretative paradigm, if you will, for American history: that the American Revolution was a fundamental break with the past; a fundamental break with Europe -- and certainly a break with England; a break with monarchy; and the establishment of a set of principles which he referred to as "the principles of '76."

And the principles of '76 represent a break with political authority. He then believed that in the 1780s and then most especially in the 1790s, under Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists, that spirit was suppressed and the real spirit of the American Revolution was captured by alien folk, whom he believed to be potentially monarchical or, in our language, totalitarian; that were repudiating the pure principles that he believed they had fought for and won in the American Revolution.

And then, his election as president in 1800 is then a kind of second American Revolution and a recovery, once again, of the pure spirit of the American Revolution which becomes later on, the democratic movement and then the Democratic Party, if you will.

So Jefferson saw history as an achievement in this particular moment in 1776. Then a loss of that in the late 18th century by -- when the Federalists took over and then he comes to the rescue to capture back what we were originally intending.

GROSS: My guest is Joseph Ellis, author of a character study of Thomas Jefferson called American Sphinx. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

If you're just joining us, my guest is Joseph Ellis, and he won the National Book Award this year for his book American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson was a contradictory figure, and you seem to be particularly interested in his contradictions. I guess one of the more obvious ones is that, you know, he writes in the Declaration that all men are created equal, yet he's a slaveholder.

ELLIS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: It -- tell me more about how you think his views on slavery were contradictory.

ELLIS: Well, they were certain contradictory in the sense that the Declaration of Independence and many other statements, of course, that Jefferson made, and the principles on which the revolution was based, were both logically and politically incompatible with the enslavement of other human beings.

Jefferson understood that. That was not a problem -- I mean, there's no mystery; there's no uncertainty about that. Jefferson recognized that the very principles he was declaring to be the principles of the new nation were not compatible -- morally, logically, or any other way -- with the continued existence of slavery.

Yet he was himself trapped in it, owning about 200 slaves. And the nation itself was trapped in it. And in his early years, as a young man and as a young revolutionary, and up through the early 1780s, I think Jefferson did as much as one could reasonably expect to try to put slavery on the road to extinction. He calls for the end of the slave trade; he calls, later on, for the -- a rule that prohibits the expansion of slavery into any of the new western territories.

So as a young man, I think his credentials as a progressive thinker on this are pretty impressive. But by the 1780s, he stops. And then by the 1790s and into his presidency, he's become a person who believes that we really can't do anything about it; a procrastinator; a person who argues we need to pass this along to the next generation.

And then at the end of his life, he actually advocates the spreading of slavery into the western territories -- a repudiation of his earlier view.

So that's -- the contradiction is that he continues to live with the ideal that he has propagated in 1776, while all around him are slaves. And he could walk down Mulberry Row at Monticello, where the group of slaves lived, sort of humming patriotic, liberal songs and not feel any real contradiction between the slaves around him and the ideals that he was referring to.

That's one of his great secrets. It's not necessarily an attractive secret, but there would seem to be different compartments inside Jefferson -- different persona -- that floated about and did not really speak to each other.

GROSS: Well, he relied on slave labor because he was so deep in debt.

ELLIS: Well, he relied on slavery in part because he was in debt, and there was the slave labor that in part made him more in debt. He certainly relied for slave labor for the construction of Monticello; for the working of his plantations in and around Monticello. He had another plantation -- a set of plantations down in Bedford, about 90 miles away.

His own lifestyle, if we can use that word, was dependent on a level of luxury that slave labor -- and slave labor made possible for him. The wine bill for his time as President of the United States, for example, was almost as large as his total salary as the president. So that he was accustomed to living at a pretty high level, and slavery was one of the things that made that possible.

The debt he inherited from his father-in-law when he married his wife Martha compounded -- and he then compounded it further by his own lifestyle. So that when he died in 1826, he was the rough modern equivalent of about $10 million in debt. And one of the reasons he couldn't free the vast bulk of his slaves, and didn't, is because they were part of his estate and in that sense, he really didn't own them anymore, and that he was prohibited from selling them or from freeing them.

GROSS: Yet didn't he -- you say that he believed that slavery was morally wrong. So, how does he hold slaves if he believes that slavery is morally wrong?

ELLIS: Boy, that's the great mystery of American history and of Thomas Jefferson. I think that the way he resolves that problem in his own mind is to say that eventually slavery is a doomed institution in America, and until the day comes when it officially ends, that his responsibility is to be a benevolent patriarch, a good master, and to take care of these slaves -- these African-American charges -- as if they were his children.

And that in Jefferson's mind, and this might be, you know, distasteful to a lot of people, he believed that his highest calling was to serve as a kind of white father figure for his black charges; and that his highest responsibility was to maintain his status as a plantation owner with slaves until the day arrived when emancipation was truly possible.

Of course, the day never arrived during his lifetime.

GROSS: He didn't live to see the end of slavery, but if he had, he probably still would not have supported equal rights for African-Americans and whites. You say that he believed in racial segregation.

ELLIS: He did. He really -- one of the reasons that he found it so difficult to come up with a workable plan to end slavery, apart from the fact that the planters would need to be compensated and that would be a huge amount of money and create a huge national debt, was that he did not believe that the slaves, once freed, could continue to live in the same place as the whites.

And he believed that all freed slaves would have to be returned either to Africa or to someplace in the Caribbean. Some suggested west of the Mississippi, but he said no -- that that wasn't really feasible. That was going to be reserved for the Native Americans.

But Jefferson did not believe in a bi-racial society. For that matter, not many other people did at that time either. He was not that unusual. He was unusual, for Jefferson, in articulating this as specifically and as clearly as he did.

GROSS: Have you found that most earlier interpretations of Jefferson either saw him as, you know, one of the great fathers of our country or someone who was so contradictory and negative as to be, you know, like appalling.

ELLIS: It's -- it -- the writing about Jefferson is like an electromagnetic field. It seems as if once you enter into that field, you have to go one way or the other. You have to either love him or have to hate him.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

ELLIS: He has to become the great hero or the great devil. I think that historians over the years -- in the last 25 years, the writing on Jefferson within the scholarly world has become much more critical, and his stock has gone down largely because of the race issue.

That is, we as a people became more and more committed to a bi-racial American society and civil rights and the importance of race in American history became the window through which we looked back at Jefferson. He's not going to look very good.

GROSS: One of the still-unsettled controversies surrounding Jefferson's life is whether he had an affair with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings -- an affair that produced was it one or several children?

ELLIS: Four alleged children that survived.

GROSS: Yeah, and do you think we'll ever really know for sure?

ELLIS: Well until fairly recently, I thought we would never know. And I think that the fair way to put it, as I understand the evidence at least, is the evidence here is evenly divided. Within scholarly conversations for a long time, people would argue the evidence is overwhelming that he was not the father of Sally Hemings' children and there was no sexual relation. And then, only a minority would argue the other way.

A book by a woman called Fawn Brodie in the 1970s began to break through that. I think that if you look at the evidence carefully, you'll see that there's evidence on both sides here. That if Jefferson were to sue in civil court, I don't think he could win, although I don't think the defenders of Sally Hemings, if that were the family suing, would win either. It's a really tough call. Anybody that claims to have a clear and unambiguous answer to the question of Jefferson and Sally Hemings is a fool or a liar.

That said, DNA testings are currently underway.

GROSS: Did they exhume his body?

ELLIS: No, and I had made suggestions to the folks at Monticello, others had as well, that we resolve this question once and for all. You know, they dug up Zachary Taylor and they dug up Jesse James. We can dig up Thomas Jefferson. But that was not going to happen. The trustees of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation were not going to let that happen. The family was not going to let that happen.

But it now turns out that the Y chromosome on the male side -- I believe I'm saying that correctly -- is passed intact over generations. So you don't have to get Jefferson's DNA. You can -- as long as you've got a legitimate male descendant, the Y chromosome -- and they have that now. And there's a team of pathologists currently working on this, doing the DNA -- recombinant DNA work in Oxford University, England.

And I don't know what the results are. I don't think they're final yet. But I think within the next two to three months, there's going to be an article published in a medical journal that is going to tell us whether or not there is a match.

GROSS: Joseph Ellis is the author of American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with Joseph Ellis, author of American Sphinx, a character study of Thomas Jefferson which won this year's National Book Award for nonfiction.

Jefferson has become a model for politicians today who want to have as little government as possible; you know, particularly the conservatives of today who have been arguing to restrict the role of government in every way. Jefferson wrote "the trouble with most Europeans was that they had been bred to prefer a government which can be felt; a government of energy. God send that our country may never have a government which it can feel."

So he -- he really longed for a world where government had virtually disappeared. What did he want from government? I mean, this is a President of the United States we're talking about. It's not like he just wanted to be left alone in the woods.

LAUGHTER

ELLIS: Well, in some ways, he really did want to be left alone. I mean, he himself did, but he also believed that the people ought to be left alone. He really didn't think that the arm of government ought to touch them on the shoulder. Usually when it did, it was out to get money, he felt.

I think that the right-wing Republicans of today, if we can use that term, like Newt Gingrich and the columnist Rush Limbaugh, have a legitimate claim on Jefferson's legacy because they don't -- they're not the only people that have a claim -- but it is a truth that Jefferson's fundamental political enemy was government, and especially the federal government.

When Jefferson saw government, he wanted to either eliminate it or to limit it; to abate its power. While most of the other members of the revolutionary generation were trying to figure out how to use political power; how to structure it; how to discipline it; how to check and balance it -- Jefferson was interested in finding a way to eliminate it.

And he is the first American president and certainly not the last to run for the presidency on the grounds that he opposed the federal government he was about to head. And we do that quite a bit these days in the 20th century.

So I think that the conservative Republicans have a legitimate claim, even though Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the liberal Democrats of the 20th century are the ones who most frequently claim Jefferson as the spiritual father of the Democratic Party. I think that Roosevelt's championing of and embrace of Jefferson, and it was Roosevelt who in 1943 dedicated the Jefferson Memorial, that that act was one of the most inspired acts of political thievery in all of American history, because there's nothing that Jefferson would have hated more than the New Deal.

GROSS: Now, the paradox here is that, you know, Jefferson is arguing for as minimal a government as is possible. But he never really knew a democracy when he started conceiving these anti-government ideas. To him, government was the king.

ELLIS: That's right, and I mean, I think that Jefferson -- by the way, you're right to say that Jefferson seldom used the word "democracy." He does towards the very end of his life, but when he uses it earlier and when other people in the late 18th century used the word "democracy," it's an epithet. It means no government. It means mob rule.

But I think that it's perhaps proper to see Jefferson as a late 18th century enlightenment figure who really believes that the Middle Ages and the so-called "dark ages" have bound the people up in this combination of oppression led by priests and kings. And Jefferson, like Voltaire, wanted to see the last king strangled with the entrails of the last priest.

And once you eliminate those oppressive institutions and figures -- once you get rid of an established church and a kind of monarchical government -- then you free up the energies of the people at large and they will govern and regulate themselves. He didn't really think about the ways in which this liberated humanity or people would then require disciplined government regulation after that.

In that sense, he's very much a liberationist -- a person who would also fit in, not only with right-wing Republican values today -- but also with sort of SDS, Port Huron Statement, '60s radicals who believe in a kind of participatory democracy without any coercive power.

GROSS: That's just so interesting that he should be someone who is related to the views of the left and the right.

ELLIS: That's what makes him so magical. I mean, I think that the groups that probably can't claim him with as much legitimacy are the people in the middle of the political spectrum. But people on the extremes, both left and right, I think have a lot of evidence to make a claim on him.

GROSS: I guess one of the views that really surprised me in your book was that Jefferson believed -- he described this as "the Earth belongs always to the living generations."

ELLIS: Mm-hmm. It's one of his most powerful ideas. In some sense, it's an idea that suggests that if he were here now, he would say we're wasting out time by talking about him, because the core Jefferson legacy is not to believe in legacies; that every generation should be sovereign.

And he writes this letter to Madison from France in 1789 making this case. The French Revolution is just being launched, and so it's a kind of extraordinarily magical moment, and he's inspired by this. Madison writes back and says this is a very interesting and potentially brilliant idea, except that it's all wrong. The generations don't exist as sovereign units. They don't come into the world as cohorts in some kind of coherent way. There's comings and goings all the time.

And if you really take Jefferson's position seriously, the whole idea of a Constitution that will hold true with law for the ages; have contracts that are binding over time -- all that would have to be dispensed with.

There is a bit -- I mean, I don't want to make any real comparisons between Jefferson and Mao -- but there is in the Cultural Revolution of Mao the same kind of Jeffersonian idea; that you -- that a people needs to reinvent itself every generation, every 20 to 25 years.

GROSS: Yeah, well within this idea that he had, I mean, if you really take it to the its limits, he'd be saying that, as you describe it, all personal and national debts, all laws, even all Constitutions should expire...

ELLIS: That's correct.

GROSS: ... every generation. So you know, every law and contract and precedent would lapse every 19 or 20 years.

ELLIS: Think about that. Right.

GROSS: What a mess.

ELLIS: There would be a -- it is a -- again, it's a measure of an idea that has an enormous appeal, but if you start to think about it and take it seriously, it is a recipe for anarchy.

GROSS: Yeah, it's kind of more of a poetic than a practical...

ELLIS: I think that's right. It also is very convenient for him, since if they do forgive debts after 20, 25 years, then he's not going to have quite the problem.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: My guest is Joseph Ellis, author of a character study of Thomas Jefferson called American Sphinx. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Joseph Ellis, author of American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson.

One of Jefferson's enduring legacies is the separation of church and state -- freedom of religion. What did that mean to him? You describe him as not being a very religious man.

ELLIS: He wasn't a very religious man, and I -- quick story. I was writing this book and a local repairman came to fix my furnace, saw that I was writing this book on Jefferson, and said: "come on down and let me tell you about Jefferson." Well, I fixed the furnace and he told me that Jefferson is a devout Christian and believed in the principles of Christianity and went on and on and on and on.

The truth is, Jefferson really wasn't a Christian in the normal sense of the word. He thought that Jesus was a very neat guy, but he was not the son of God. And it's probably the case that Jefferson didn't really believe in life after death. Jefferson was, at best, a deist -- what some people now would call a secular humanist.

But he wanted to be thought of as a Christian, and he wrote things suggesting that he was a Christian, because he realized that heroic stature in American culture was dependent on being a Christian and that at least in his own time -- especially in his own time -- if he were perceived as an agnostic or an atheist, that he would be beyond the pale.

But on the principle of separation of church and state, he really does believe that every person possesses inside him- or herself a kernel of spirituality that cannot be violated by any religious or political institution. And he most fears a combination of church and political state that will take those freedoms and those spiritual values away from the people at large.

GROSS: So what did you say to the furnace guy who was convincing you -- or trying to convince you that Jefferson was a devout Christian?

ELLIS: I listened for a long time and decided that I better not contradict him 'cause I didn't want to pay too high a bill for my furnace.

GROSS: That's, I guess, a practical way of looking at it.

Jefferson was not much of a public person, and even as a public speaker, he'd speak very quietly so only the people right near him could actually hear his speeches. But he did leave a lot of written records, and...

ELLIS: To be sure.

GROSS: ... and you say that we really know more about his decisionmaking process because of these written records than we do about any other president with the exception of the ones that recently left us a lot of tapes.

ELLIS: It's true. I mean, Jefferson only delivered two public speeches in his entire eight years as president: the first inaugural and the second inaugural. Other than that, as far as we know, he made no other public appearances other than his afternoon ride through Rock Creek Park.

People never saw Jefferson as president. I call him the "textual" president. He made policy by drafting memoranda, which then were passed around to the members of the cabinet and they edited it, or he re-edited it.

So the act of making policy was the act of editing prose, which of course, is Jefferson's great strength -- the written language was his great strength. He had a weak voice. There was no magnification of voice then. They didn't have microphones, obviously, and in fact one of the reasons he had originally been asked to write the Declaration was because he was so innocuous in the debates in the Continental Congress. He had never participated in any of the debates. John Adams claimed that he sat with him for two years in the Continental Congress and never heard him utter two sentences together.

So he was a man who achieved his successes and worked his will through the written word, rather than the conversational or the oratorical.

GROSS: What were his written records like? Both, you know, stylistically and in terms of the kind of things he reveals to you as a historian about his decisionmaking processes.

ELLIS: Well, I think that it's probably fair to say that no one in American history has written as much as Thomas Jefferson and revealed as little about himself.

GROSS: Hmm.

ELLIS: That's what's frustrating about him. I'm -- readers of the book, I hope, will be treated to an understanding of Jefferson's own intimate feelings and values that are at least my version of what his deepest convictions were. But if you take the Jefferson papers, put them on microfilm and stretch them out in a straight line, they go six miles. OK?

He starts keeping copies of all of his letters back in the late 1770s, and he has a huge correspondence. And in his retirement years, he counts the letters that he writes in one year, and it's one-thousand, I think, two-hundred-and-fifty-one. And that's just the letters he's writing as a retired person.

So it's a huge correspondence; a huge amount of material. But Jefferson had an elliptical style and he was elusive in his prose. I mean, again, when we talked earlier about the way in which he can cast these words up into the heavens and they can -- and different people can read them and hear them in different ways, the same skill is there in his letter-writing as well. He protects himself. He doesn't let you into a candid conversation in the same way that other figures of the time, especially people like Adams, in fact, do.

GROSS: You do describe Jefferson as one of the dead white males who still matter.

ELLIS: Right.

GROSS: Part of the evidence you gave is that everybody's still debating Jefferson's life and philosophy.

ELLIS: They are. I mean, like when a historian studies a dead white male in the past these days, it's, you know, like doing an autopsy. But with Jefferson, it's like the body sits up and starts talking to you. People care about him. People have invested in him. He seems to be central to our understanding of who we are as a people. And there are strong feelings here, and it's both something that is uplifting as a writer and makes you feel like you're doing something that's got energy all around it. On the other hand, it's daunting because, again, people seem to break down into these very strong pro- and anti-Jefferson -- and it's almost like a cartoon character.

GROSS: You've been teaching history at Mount Holyoke since 1972. Do you feel that the way you present history has changed in that years -- or the way it's received? Or the students' interest or grasp of history has changed in those 25 years?

ELLIS: Oh, sure. I mean, the trends within the historical profession are quite different now than they were then. Though I think that the notion that history involves understanding stories and being able to relate our own convictions in the present back in an honest way and a fair-minded way with people who are no longer with us -- that's a constant.

I think that one of the advantages of teaching at a liberal arts college that affects my own work as a writer of American history is that you're teaching in a situation where you're teaching students, and not just teaching history. There's constant feedback. You're not just lecturing above their heads. They're -- you're throwing out questions. They're asking you questions.

And that means that the language you use and the accessibility of the ideas you're offering is constantly thrown back at you and you get a sense of what's working, what isn't working, what translates, what doesn't translate. And it's affected my own thinking as a writer, and it affects my, I guess, obsession with writing a form of English prose that is -- that is clear -- I try to make it clear -- but also is accessible to an ordinary audience.

GROSS: Do you find that in the past 25 years that you've been teaching history that what students relate to about the revolutionary period has changed?

ELLIS: I think that the American Revolution is sufficiently far back in the past that for most of them, it continues to have a kind of sacred quality. And I think that in that sense, that remains a constant -- hasn't changed that much.

What I think's changed a bit is that whereas in the past, we would regard the American Revolution as a complete and total success, conversations about the American Revolution among contemporary students will tend to be more critical in the sense that having failed to end slavery, the achievement of the revolution and of the revolutionary generation is only partial and is somewhat tarnished.

And so they have a higher expectation that the American Revolution should have taken that important step to end slavery in a way that, in effect, it didn't.

GROSS: Do you ever get frustrated that so many of the depictions of the American Revolution are just really kitschy?

ELLIS: It is frustrating. It's an event that's sufficiently far back -- it's beyond any, you know, the clothing's different; even the accents in the language are different; the thought processes are sufficiently different -- that it's a foreign country.

I think in part it's because it's pre-photograph. The Civil War is the war we know pictures from -- those marvelous pictures that we have of the dead soldiers and of the fighting. Whereas the American Revolution is pre- any kind of realistic rendering, and it makes it almost inaccessible.

And one of the reasons why I don't think there have been very many, if any, major motion pictures that have brought that era to life, and efforts to do so have almost invariably not been commercial or artistic successes. There's a great film in this for somebody, but there are reasons why it's difficult to do.

GROSS: For somebody, but not for Al Pacino.

LAUGHTER

ELLIS: Al Pacino was in one that failed miserably, even though it wasn't that bad a movie.

GROSS: Well, he had a pretty thick Brooklyn accent in it.

ELLIS: Yeah, I don't think we would want Al Pacino playing Thomas Jefferson. If anyone were to play Thomas Jefferson, and I had a choice of any actor that I could pick living or dead, I would pick Gary Cooper.

GROSS: Why?

ELLIS: Tall, laconic -- his silences are his great eloquence.

GROSS: Interesting choice.

ELLIS: Hmm.

GROSS: Do you know what your next book is going to be?

ELLIS: I'm working on a book with a title, working title "Intimate Enemies: Collaborations and Encounters in the Early Republic." And it's about all of these now dead white males -- not all of them -- but the more prominent of them, to include Jefferson again, Adams, Madison, Washington, Hamilton -- and the way they fight with each other and cooperate with each other and create a kind of social and psychological version of checks and balances in the 1790s.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us about Jefferson, and congratulations on your National Book Award for the book.

ELLIS: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Joseph Ellis is the author of American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. It won this year's National Book Award for nonfiction.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Joseph Ellis
High: Historian Joseph Ellis. He's written a new biography about Thomas Jefferson which aims to debunk many of the myths about the third president: "American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson." It won a National Book Award for nonfiction this November. Ellis has also contributed to filmmaker Ken Burns documentary Jefferson which will air in February. Ellis is a professor of American History at Mount Holyoke College, and has written five other books including "Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams."
Spec: History; Race Relations; Slavery; Media; Books; Authors; American Sphinx: The Legacy of Thomas Jefferson
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: American Sphinx
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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