Ellis, Joseph J. 1943–
Ellis, Joseph J. 1943–
(Joseph John Ellis)
Born July 18, 1943, in Washington, DC; son of Joseph and Jeanette Ellis; married Antonia Woods (a teacher), June 27, 1970. Education: College of William and Mary, A.B., 1965; Yale University, M.A., 1967, Ph.D., 1969. Politics: "Skeptic." Religion: "Atheist."
Home—South Hadley, MA. Office—Department of History, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA 01075.
Writer, historian, and educator. U.S. Military Academy, West Point, NY, assistant professor of history, 1969-72; Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA, assistant professor of history, 1972-2001, suspended, 2001-02, returned to his position, 2002. Military service: U.S. Army Reserve, 1965-72; became captain.
American Historical Association, American Antiquarian Society, Institute of Early American History, Massachusetts Historical Society, Inter-Service Seminar, Phi Beta Kappa.
Woodrow Wilson fellowship, 1965-66; distinguished teacher award, U.S. Military Academy, 1972; National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship, 1974, senior research fellowship, 1975-76; Guggenheim fellowship, 1988-89; Daughters of the American Revolution Award and Pulitzer Prize nomination, Columbia University, 1993, for Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams; National Book Award for nonfiction, 1997, for American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson; College of William and Mary, Alumni Medallion Award, 1997, honorary Ph.D., Pulitzer Prize for history, 2001, for Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation.
After the Revolution: Profiles of Early American Culture, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 1979.
The Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 1993.
American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, Knopf (New York, NY), 1997.
(Editor and author of introduction) What Did the Declaration Declare?, Bedford (Boston, MA), 1999.
Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, Knopf (New York, NY), 2000.
(Editor) Thomas Jefferson: Genius of Liberty, Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 2000.
His Excellency George Washington, Knopf (New York, NY), 2004.
American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic, Knopf (New York, NY), 2007.
Joseph J. Ellis is a distinguished scholar in the field of early American history. The Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson won the National Book Award in 1997, and Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 2001. Ellis's books illustrate his ability to provide fresh insight into familiar subjects, such as the life of Thomas Jefferson and other leaders of the American Revolution.
The Passionate Sage explores the life and personality of the second president of the United States. Adams was a skeptical, outspoken, severe man who, despite his very real contributions to the foundation of the United States, was haunted for years by rumors that he had royalist tendencies. He quarreled fiercely with Thomas Jefferson and had a particular dislike of Alexander Hamilton. Ellis believes that Adams is greatly misunderstood and underappreciated; in his book, he seeks to paint a more accurate picture of Adams. Reviewing The Passionate Sage for Insight on the News, Woody West called it "graceful and stimulating."
American Sphinx focuses on some key events in Jefferson's much-chronicled life, including the writing of the Declaration of Independence, his sojourn in Paris, his presidency, and his retirement to Monticello. In considering Jefferson's character, Ellis struck a middle ground between hero worship and a modern trend of discrediting historical heroes. He finds much to admire in Jefferson but makes plain the gap that frequently stood between Jefferson's ideals and the realities of his world. In the words of New Leader contributor Henry F. Graff: "We are given a scintillating view of Jefferson's life appropriate for our time—thanks to the author's conviction that historical figures must be appraised by the standards of their own day too, not simply those of a later period and cultural outlook." Graff also noted in the same review: "Ellis treats his subject with respect, but also with a certain wariness that readers possessing a modern political sophistication will find refreshing." Writing in Booklist, Brad Hooper rated American Sphinx as a "serious, rigorous analysis" that "concludes with a particularly thoughtful essay on Jefferson's importance and meaning to contemporary society."
Founding Brothers, a Pulitzer Prize winner for history in 2001, takes a close look at eight leaders of the American Revolution: George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, James Madison, and John and Abigail Adams. Ellis shows how the strong characters and good minds of these people helped to shape U.S. history at a particularly chaotic time. He describes "how each weighed his or her own ego against duty to the new country," commented a Business Week contributor. While noting that the subject matter is "extremely well-trodden territory," the reviewer found that "Ellis has such command of the subject matter that it feels fresh, particularly as he segues from psychological to political, even to physical analysis. In the course of a few paragraphs, Ellis describes Jefferson's lingering migraine headaches, breaks down the national debt, and provides an analysis of Madison's political journey from supporter to detractor of Hamilton." A Publishers Weekly contributor also noted the author's fresh touch with his subject, commenting: "Ellis's grace with language redramatizes the early history we thought we knew."
Ellis's reputation as a historian seems to have been jarred in recent years by an event from his personal life. In 2001 he was suspended from his teaching position after it was learned that he had lied about serving in Vietnam and embellished other aspects of his life. Critics began to wonder if a man who had altered his own personal history could be trusted to relate other historical events with academic integrity, and consequently his interpretations of history came under a certain amount of scrutiny. Nevertheless, Ellis recovered from the scandal and has continued to teach and write about history. In His Excellency George Washington, Ellis suggests that Washington's perspective on the British Empire and America's place within it was forged during the French and Indian Wars, in which he fought and learned to lead. Ellis also suggests that Washington's service in that war under General Edward Braddock—defeated at Fort Duquesne—ignited a lifelong need to be in control—of his life, his property, his army, and eventually his country. This and other hypotheses were questioned by some of Ellis's critics, but even Hardy Green, who advised readers of Business Week that "some of [His Excellency George Washington] may be best taken with a grain of salt," also observed that the book "is at times insightful and even tasty." In History Today Susan-Mary Grant complimented Ellis's "achievement in distilling so much of the scholarship on Washington into one, eminently readable volume."
In American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic, Ellis examines the ideas that played a dominant role in the founding of the United States while providing an insightful look at the nation's founding fathers and iconic leaders. The author is greatly concerned with how the founding fathers' reputations have been handled negatively by academics over the later decades of the twentieth-century. Writing in the Boston Globe, H.W. Brands quoted the author from his book: "The currently hegemonic narrative within the groves of academe—race, class, and gender are the privileged categories of analysis—customarily labels (and libels) the founders as racists, classists, and sexists, a kind of rogues' gallery rather than a gallery of greats."
As the author proceeds to brighten the tarnish that the reputations of founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson and Samuel Adams have suffered at the hands of historians, he addresses a variety of issues, including the general public's acceptance of the idea of a federal government, the development of the two-party system in politics, and the founding fathers' views of slavery and Indian relations. According to BookPage Web site contributor Joseph Bishop, the book "focuses on six significant moments with several recurrent themes." Bishop notes that these important themes include John Adams's insistence that he and his fellow founders were first and foremost pragmatists, George Washington's idea of space being America's most important asset, and the founding fathers' general agreement that change with the political or social systems needed to be controlled, albeit in a democratic way. "Those looking for windows on life in the eighteenth century won't find one here, as Ellis is more interested in decisionmakers and their debates than those who were affected by them," noted Randy Dotinga in the Christian Science Monitor.
Despite bolstering the reputation of the George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and others, Ellis does not ignore what he deems to be their failings. For example, he points to their failure to abolish slavery and their approach to the issues surrounding Native Americans. Noting that Ellis "takes an admiring and grateful but unsentimental point of view toward the founding fathers," Washington Post Book World contributor Jonathan Yardley wrote that he "gives the founders their full due but insists that they made serious mistakes."
Several reviewers had high praise for American Creation. "Some people read books to help them fall asleep at night; the fluent, bracing historical arguments in American Creation will keep the reader very much awake," wrote Mackenzie Carpenter in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Brett F. Woods, writing in the California Literary Review, commented: "American Creation is a thoughtful, ambitiously argued text that students of the revolution, as well as professional historians, will find to be of considerable value," adding later in the review that "the book moves a significant step beyond what might be considered a ‘normal’ history of the times, and emerges as a reflective examination of the complexities inherent in the American progression from revolution to republic.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Ellis, Joseph J. American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic, Knopf (New York, NY), 2007.
American Heritage, February, 1980, Barbara Klaw, review of After the Revolution: Profiles of Early American Culture, p. 108.
American Historical Review, June, 1998, Joyce Appleby, review of American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, p. 964.
Biography, winter, 2008, "Founding Fathers: American Creation," p. 215.
Booklist, January 1, 1997, Brad Hooper, review of American Sphinx, p. 812; January 1, 1998, review of American Sphinx, p. 726; September 15, 2000, Gilbert Taylor, review of Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, p. 213; September 1, 2007, Gilbert Taylor, review of American Creation, p. 40.
Boston Globe, October 28, 2007, H.W. Brands, "Imperfect Union," review of American Creation.
Business Week, November 27, 2000, review of American Sphinx, p. 34; November 1, 2004, Hardy Green, review of His Excellency George Washington, p. 30.
Christian Science Monitor, November 13, 2007, Randy Dotinga, "The Founding Fathers: A Good Generation, although Perhaps not the Greatest," review of American Creation.
Economist, December 6, 1997, review of American Sphinx, p. 95.
Entertainment Weekly, November 2, 2007, Jennifer Reese, review of American Creation, p. 67.
Forbes, March 24, 1997, Steve Forbes, review of American Sphinx, p. 28.
History Today, June, 2005, Susan-Mary Grant, review of His Excellency George Washington, p. 56.
Insight on the News, July 12, 1993, Woody West, review of The Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams, p. 34.
Journal of American History, September, 1994, John Howe, review of The Passionate Sage, p. 659; December, 1997, Robert A. Rutland, American Sphinx, p. 1051.
Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 1993, review of The Passionate Sage; August 15, 2007, review of American Creation.
Kliatt, November, 1998, review of The Passionate Sage, p. 25.
London Review of Books, October 30, 1997, review of American Sphinx, p. 12.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 2, 1997, review of American Sphinx, p. 10.
Nation, May 26, 1997, Benjamin Schwarz, review of American Sphinx, p. 29.
New Hampshire Business Review, January 4, 2008, Cindy Kibbe, "Present at the Creation," review of American Creation, p. 37.
New Leader, December 16, 1996, Henry F. Graff, review of American Sphinx, p. 9.
New Republic, March 10, 1997, Stanley Kauffmann, "Thomas Jefferson," p. 32, Sean Wilentz, review of American Sphinx, p. 32.
New York Law Journal, February 15, 2008, Walter Barthold, review of American Creation.
New York Review of Books, April 24, 1997, Eric L. McKitrick, review of American Sphinx, p. 4.
New York Times, May 14, 1993, Michiko Kakutani, review of The Passionate Sage; February 11, 1997, review of American Sphinx; November 14, 2000, Michiko Kakutani, review of Founding Brothers, p. B7.
New York Times Book Review, March 23, 1997, Brent Staples, review of American Sphinx, p. 7; June 1, 1997, review of American Sphinx, p. 37; December 7, 1997, review of American Sphinx, p. 67; April 12, 1998, review of American Sphinx, p. 24; May 31, 1998, review of American Sphinx, p. 50; November 11, 2007, Jon Meacham, "Trust and Caution," review of American Creation, p. 53.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 9, 2007, Mackenzie Carpenter, "Statesmen or Improvisers? New View of Nation's Founders Says Luck Played a Role," review of American Creation.
Political Science Quarterly, fall, 1997, review of American Sphinx, p. 855.
Publishers Weekly, March 22, 1993, review of The Passionate Sage, p. 65; December 2, 1996, review of American Sphinx, p. 47; September 11, 2000, review of Founding Brothers, p. 80; June 4, 2007, review of American Creation, p. 37.
Reviews in American History, September, 1997, review of American Sphinx, p. 390.
Rocky Mountain News, November 16, 2007, Dan Danbom, "A Revolutionary Look at American History," review of American Creation.
School Library Journal, September, 1997, Rebecca L. Woodcock, review of American Sphinx, p. 240.
Sewanee Review, July, 1998, review of American Sphinx, p. 505.
Threepenny Review, spring, 1997, review of American Sphinx, p. 18.
Valdosta Daily Times (Valdosta, GA), December 21, 2007, Dean Poling, review of American Creation.
Voice of Youth Advocates, October, 1998, review of American Sphinx, p. 256.
Voice Quarterly Review, summer, 1997, review of American Sphinx, p. 541.
Wall Street Journal, July 21, 1993, Alan Pell Crawford, review of The Passionate Sage, p. A12; February 11, 1997, Charles R. Kesler, review of American Sphinx, p. A18; October 23, 2000, Jay Winik, review of Founding Brothers, p. A34.
Washington Post Book World, December 7, 1997, review of American Sphinx, p. 13; November 4, 2007, Jonathan Yardley, "At Last, Some Adult Conversation about the Country's Founders," review of American Creation, p. BW19.
Weekly Standard, March 31, 2008, Brendan McConville, "Founders Keepers; Joseph J. Ellis and His Bestselling Formula."
William and Mary Quarterly, July, 1998, review of American Sphinx, p. 435.
BookPage,http://www.bookpage.com/ (July 26, 2008), Roger Bishop, review of American Creation.
California Literary Review,http://calitreview.com/ (June 23, 2008), Brett F. Woods, review of American Creation.