It’s become a tradition: whenever Trump is impeached, I don’t watch. This time, in honor of All Presidents But Him Day, I pulled out a book sitting on my shelf for more than twenty years, Joseph J. Ellis’s American Sphinx, and finally read it.

The sphinx in question is Thomas Jefferson. In Mediterranean myth, sphinxes were inscrutable. According to Ellis, Jefferson’s character was never sufficiently plumbed by prior biographers to convincingly explain its contradictions, the most flagrant of which was proclaiming that all men are created equal while owning two hundred slaves. American Sphinx is an astute, persuasive analysis of Jefferson’s writings that brings us as close as we’re likely to get to how he really thought. Ellis won the 1997 National Book Award for the effort.

Ellis paints Jefferson as a visionary, an idéologue decades before a French thinker invented the term. (Jefferson and John Adams bantered about the neologism in their twilight correspondence.) The root of Jeffersonianism was individual sovereignty:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

It’s already revolutionary to put commoners’ rights before the king’s. Jeffersonianism compounds the radicalism by making government subordinate to individual freedom.

According to Ellis, the idea flowed from Jefferson’s youthful reading about bygone realms where people prospered without government (or religious and financial institutions, for that matter) — texts nerdy 18th-century teens read because Lord of the Rings didn’t exist yet. Those “Whig” tales never ceased firing his imagination. Monarchy, aristocracy, churches, and banks destroyed personal freedom by putting themselves first, a reversal of the proper order. By quashing those corrupt institutions and unleashing long-suppressed individual energy, revolution would bring uncoerced peace, order, and benevolence (to white men, anyway).

Like most ideologies, Jefferson’s nostalgic anarchism was divorced from reality. Now and then Adams or James Madison would remind him that political power is an inescapable fact of life and the best way to deal with it is not to deny its existence but to diffuse it fairly. His stock answer usually went along the lines of a pouty I suppose. Fortunately for the nation, Jefferson was stuck in France when the other Founding Fathers set about designing a more muscular national framework than the failed Articles of Confederation. He mailed protests from his Paris apartment to his pragmatic protégé Madison, who dutifully read them, then cast the outdated missives aside to craft the Constitution.

In 1801 Jefferson became president, in charge of the federal government whose power he reviled. He slashed the budget, which required scrapping most of the navy, and paid down the national debt while reducing taxes. Acknowledging a role for the federal government in foreign affairs, he risked violating the Constitution by buying the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon, but steered clear of “entangling alliances.”

If you think that sounds similar to a modern conservative Republican agenda, I agree. Jefferson, despite distaste for its coarseness, would have seconded provocateur Grover Norquist’s quip that “I’m not in favor of abolishing the government. I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” That sentiment was never practical, even in Jefferson’s time — not long after he dismantled the navy, the country needed ships to fight those pirates on the shores of Tripoli. But it does make the conservative right, not the civil rights left that’s taken so much inspiration from the Declaration of Independence, the true heir to Jefferson’s legacy.

Jefferson was the first American president to ride to office on the theme of restoring past glory — in his case, the “Spirit of ‘76,” which he deemed corrupted by the Federalists. We’ve had more since [cough MAGA cough], and more still are coming. That’s regrettable, because the underlying premise, though seductively American as a Virginia plantation, is a fantasy.

Portrait of Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1800.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.