Joseph Ellis in 2007
July 18, 1943 |
|Alma mater||College of William and Mary (BA)
Yale University (M.A.) (PhD)
|Subject||U.S., c. 1770 to 1828|
|Notable works||Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation|
Joseph John Ellis (born July 18, 1943) is an American historian and professor whose work focuses on the lives and times of the founders of the United States of America. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson won a National Book Award and Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation won a Pulitzer Prize. Both these books were bestsellers.
Background and teaching
He received his B.A. from the College of William and Mary, where he was initiated into Theta Delta Chi. He earned his M.A. and Ph.D. from Yale University in 1969. He taught at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Ellis later joined the faculty at Mount Holyoke College; in 1979 he was made full professor. He is also Ford Foundation Professor. His work has concentrated on the Founding Fathers of the United States, including biographies of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, the Revolution and the early Federalist years.
Ellis served as dean of faculty at Mount Holyoke (1980-1990); following that, he was named by the trustees to the endowed Ford Foundation Chair in history. For part of 1984, he also served as Acting President while President Elizabeth Topham Kennan was on leave. Ellis was suspended without pay (due to controversy over his alleged service in Vietnam) from his endowed chair in 2001; he was reappointed to the chair in 2005.
Ellis currently teaches at the Commonwealth Honors College at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts with his wife Ellen Wilkins Ellis, and is the father of three adult sons.
Together with histories of the founding of the republic, since 1993 Ellis has written biographies about individual early presidents and, in 2010, a joint biography of John and Abigail Adams. Interested in how men shaped and were shaped by their times, he writes with a novelist's emphasis on character. Ellis is notable as a respected scholar whose work has also gained popular success; his biography of Jefferson and work on the Founding Fathers have been bestsellers, attaining sales of hundreds of thousands of copies. In 2004, the critic Jonathan Yardley wrote of him: "Ellis doubtless is now the most widely read scholar of the Revolutionary period, and thus probably the most influential as well -- at least among the general public..."
As a result of his research, Ellis believed that Adams was under-appreciated as president; he worked to reveal the man's contributions and character. His book, Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams, led to a revival of interest in Adams and new appreciation for his achievements.
In his book American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (1996), Ellis explored the character and personality of Jefferson, and his many contradictions. He emphasized how important privacy was to him, and how the president and statesman preferred to work behind the scenes in politics, through letters, meetings and discussions over dinners. Ellis noted Jefferson's success in this style.
In relation to one of the major questions about his private life, whether Jefferson had a liaison with his slave Sally Hemings, Ellis suggested that evidence was "inconclusive." His deep analysis of Jefferson's character led him to conclude that the statesman did not have the liaison. Specifically, Ellis says in the appendix to American Sphinx:
Unless the trustees of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation decide to exhume the remains and do DNA testing on Jefferson as well as some of his alleged progeny, it leaves the matter a mystery about which advocates on either side can freely speculate... This means that for those who demand an answer the only recourse is plausible conjecture, prefaced as it must be with profuse statements about the flimsy and wholly circumstantial character of the evidence. In that spirit, which we might call the spirit of responsible speculation, after five years mulling over the huge cache of evidence that does exist on the thought and character of the historical Jefferson, I have concluded that the likelihood of a liaison with Sally Hemings is remote.
On November 5, 1998, Dr. Eugene Foster and his team published the results of Y-DNA analysis of Jefferson male-line descendants (he had no known male descendants but Y-DNA is passed on virtually unchanged through direct male-line descendants) and descendants of others reputed to be associated with him. Foster reported that DNA results showed a match between the Jefferson male line and the descendant of Eston Hemings. Given that and other historical evidence, they concluded that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Eston and probably of Sally Hemings' other children. The study showed no match between the Carr line, named by two of Jefferson's grandchildren as the father(s) of Hemings' children, and the Eston Hemings descendant, disproving the major alternative to Thomas Jefferson as father.
On November 2, 1998, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer featured this topic and the results of the DNA study. Ellis, who was interviewed during the broadcast, said that he had revised his opinion due to this new evidence:
It's not so much a change of heart, but this is really new evidence. And it—prior to this evidence, I think it was a very difficult case to know and circumstantial on both sides, and, in part, because I got it wrong, I think I want to step forward and say this new evidence constitutes, well, evidence beyond any reasonable doubt that Jefferson had a longstanding sexual relationship with Sally Hemings. Even though the match is only with one of the Hemings' descendants, Eston Hemings, it's inconceivable that Jefferson, who was 65 when Eston was born, would have made a one-night stand here. I think this is a longstanding relationship. When it began and what the character of the relationship is we probably can't know easily or at all. But it was, without question, an enduring one.
In His Excellency: George Washington (2004), Ellis sought to penetrate myth and examine Washington during three major periods of his life. Ellis described how Washington's experiences in earlier leadership contributed to his actions and development as president. Ellis wrote that "we do not need another epic [Washington biography], but rather a fresh portrait focused tightly on Washington's character", which the critic Jonathan Yardley said he had achieved.
False claims of combat service and anti-war leadership
In June 2001 the Boston Globe revealed that Ellis had lied to his students in lectures and to the media about his role in American culture and the Vietnam War years. He claimed to have been a combat platoon leader in Vietnam, to have been active in civil rights campaigns in the south, and to have been an anti-war leader at Yale. His actual military record consisted of obtaining a graduate student deferral of service until 1969 and then teaching history at West Point until 1972. Ellis issued a public apology in August 2001 after the truth was exposed. In the ensuing controversy, Mount Holyoke suspended him without pay for a year, indefinitely suspended his status as an endowed chair, and removed him from teaching during the 2001-2002 academic year. In May 2005, Mount Holyoke restored his chair.
- 1997 National Book Award for Nonfiction, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson
- 2001 Pulitzer Prize for History, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation 
- Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence, 2013.
- First Family: Abigail and John Adams, 2010.
- American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic, 2007.
- His Excellency: George Washington, 2004.
- After the Revolution: Profiles of Early American Culture, 2002.
- Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, 2000.
- What Did the Declaration Declare? (Historians at Work), editor and contributor, 1999.
- American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, 1996.
- Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams, 1993.
- School for Soldiers: West Point and the Profession of Arms, 1974.
- The New England Mind in Transition: Samuel Johnson of Connecticut, 1696–1772, 1973.
- "1776, the summer America was born", Salon.com, Jun 16, 2013
- "Madison’s Radical Agenda", American Heritage, Winter 2010
- "Inventing the Presidency", American Heritage, October 2004.
- "Intimate Enemies" (John Adams and Thomas Jefferson), American Heritage, September 2000.
- "Tea party wants to take America back -- to the 18th century," Los Angeles Times, Op-Ed, October 15, 2013.
- "A promise of unpredictability: Presidential candidates pledge a lot, but history says you can ignore most of it" - Los Angeles Times (Jan 2, 2008)
- "What Would George Do?: Okay, He Never Saw a Chopper, but He Can Still Teach Us a Thing or Two." - Washington Post (Dec 23, 2007)
- "Finding a Place for 9/11 in American History" - New York Times (Jan 28, 2006)
- "National Book Awards – 1997". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-24.
(With acceptance speech by Ellis.)
- "History". Past winners & finalists by category. The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved March 24, 2012.
- Wood, Gordon (December 16, 2004). "His Excellency (New Republic book review)". The New Republic (carried at powells.com). Retrieved August 4, 2006.
- "Trustees Name Four Faculty Members to Endowed Chairs". College Street Journal. Mount Holyoke College. May 20, 2005. Retrieved February 16, 2012.
- Yardley, Jonathan (October 28, 2004). "His Excellency, George Washington". Washington Post. Retrieved February 16, 2012.
- Interview with Ellis on Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams, Booknotes, September 5, 1993, accessed February 16, 2012
- "Joseph Ellis: Putting History in Perspective". mountholyoke.edu. 2000. Retrieved 2006-08-04.
- Ellis, Joseph (1996). ""Appendix:Note on the Sally Hemings Scandal" From "American Sphinx", pp.303-307". pbs.org. Retrieved 2006-08-04.
- "Frontline: Jefferson's Blood: The History of a Story". Retrieved 2006-08-04.
- "Online Newshour: Thomas Jefferson". PBS. November 2, 1998. Retrieved August 4, 2006.
- John, Marshall (2004-12-07). "Ellis doesn't want to revisit his own past". Seattle Post Intelligencer. Retrieved 2008-07-08.
- Ellis, Joseph (2001-08-17). "Further Statement of Joseph J. Ellis". mountholyoke.edu. Archived from the original on 2006-07-15. Retrieved 2006-08-04.
- Creighton, Joanne (2001-08-17). "A Letter to the Mount Holyoke Community". mountholyoke.edu. Retrieved 2006-08-04.[dead link][dead link]
- "Trustees Name Four Faculty Members to Endowed Chairs". Mount Holyoke College. 2005-05-20.
- "2001 Pulitzer Prize Winners". pulitzer.org. 2001. Retrieved 2006-08-04.
- "Joseph J. Ellis". Random House: Authors.
- Book summary
- Official website
- Biography from The Pulitzer Board
- Biography from Mount Holyoke
- Roberts, Russ (September 8, 2008). "Ellis on American Creation and the Founding". EconTalk. Library of Economics and Liberty.