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4.0 out of 5 stars Aesthetically pleasing but factually skimpy TV biography of Jefferson, August 14, 2005
This review is from: Thomas Jefferson: A Film by Ken Burns (DVD)
This was an extremely pleasant television biography of our most complex president, and it certainly had a number of good things going for it. For instance, there are many, many wonderful shots of Monticiello in all kinds of weather, and this seemed to bring the viewer closer to Jefferson than many such examinations of his life do. And as in most of Ken Burns's undertakings, a number of eloquent scholars contributed their perspectives to the show. But the fact is that the show ends up passing over too many facts and aspects of Jefferson's life. By any standard, Jefferson is the most complex prominent American in our history. More has been written about Lincoln, and while there are aspects of his personality that baffle us, compared to Jefferson he is a model of transparency. So, I do not fault the documentary for leaving Jefferson a bit of a mystery. As Joseph Ellis remarks in it (repeating the central image of his admirable biography), if Jefferson were a statue, he would be a sphinx. I've read several biographies of Jefferson as well as at least a dozen or so books in which he features prominently, and the more I read about him, the perplexing aspects of his life and personality become more and not less baffling.

The documentary does a decent job of hitting the high points of Jefferson's life, though there is a definite tendency to skip over some aspects, perhaps because of time limitations. For instance, Jefferson was an absolutely awful vice president under Adams, and actively conspired to undermine his presidency, but no mention of this is made whatsoever in the series. Brief mention is made of his struggles with John Marshall, but it isn't pointed out that the struggle was whether there was going to be an independent judiciary (Jefferson wanted to be able to replace justices--even supreme court justices--pretty much at will). The point of an independent judiciary was to maintain a brake to public sentiment, other wise transitory popular opinion could create vast public mischief (think of the interment of Japanese American citizens during WW II and multiply it several times).

Also, the historical complexity of Jefferson's thought isn't even hinted at. Many of the most prominent Americans feel that Jefferson would have adjusted his thought under different historical circumstances (though one can reply to them that Jefferson has a strong utopian trend in his thought that renders much of what he envisioned as the ideal as profoundly unrealistic). For instance, Lincoln considered himself a Jeffersonian while not acceding either to Jefferson's agrarian ideal or his belief in a small federal government. Lincoln was a strong advocate of industrial development (he was a key figure in the building of the canals that made Chicago the key city in America's industrial and economic development in the 19th century) and in the government playing a major role in economic expansion. But he fully embraced the ideal of equality as the core idea of the American project. As the documentary points out, Jefferson embraces both the concept of equality and the idea of liberty, and did not seem willing to acknowledge that the two could be in conflict, whereas Lincoln's conception seemed to be promoting as much liberty as was compatible with insuring equality (at least in his matured thought). Or take Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, both who whom espoused the kind of popular democracy that Jefferson promoted and yet who thought that this could only be done through a strong central government that limited the grasp of trusts, robber barons, industrialists, or corporations (the terminology depending on what decade we are talking about). Woodrow Wilson explicitly argued that Jefferson would have espoused a strong federal government if he had lived long enough to see full blown industrialization and the rise of the modern corporation. Many of the Progressives argued much the same way, and it isn't an accident that it was in the New Deal that Jefferson's Memorial was authorized.

Much of Jefferson's public life was dealt with in fairly hit or miss fashion. For instance, there is good discussion of the writing of the Declaration of Independence, but the lack of detail of his presidency was stunning. Much better was the discussion of his private life, including the Sally Hemming controversy. The more I've read about the issue, the less certain I've become. We live in a scandal-driven time, and we lend credence to low conduct too easily. My own reading makes me very, very slightly inclined to believe that Jefferson was not the father of Hemming's children (we have no evidence from either of them, though one of Hemming's children claims she said on her death bed that he was), and the DNA evidence is less decisive and a good deal fuzzier than many commonly assume. The fact is that you can compile a very long list of supporting arguments on both side of the issue. But I think John Hope Franklin put it best: in the end it doesn't matter, because the more crucial point is that she was his property, and that was the more reprehensible fact. John Adams also disbelieved the accusation, but he also pointed out that with such a dreadful institution, such evils--whether rumored or actual--are inevitably going to arise.

I would definitely encourage anyone to see this documentary. If one has read no biographies of Jefferson, I would caution one to take the overall portrait with caution; if one is a seasoned student of Jefferson, one will delight in the host of visual images of Jefferson's world. If one wanted to go on to read more about Jefferson, I would recommend as a very good one-volume biography that of Joseph Ellis, which does a marvelous job of explaining why we continue to find Jefferson so fascinating, with the added attraction that Ellis was one of the major contributors to the series. The more ambitious could go on to consider Dumas Malone's exhaustive six-volume biography (which is not merely a great biography of Jefferson, but a marvelous portrait of the age) as well as Jefferson's NOTES ON THE STATE OF VIRGINIA and the Jefferson-Adams correspondence. A significant portion of the documentary focuses on the latter, and I heartily agree that it is the finest correspondence between public figures in American history. But it is more than that: it is one of the great political classics in American history, belonging to such works as Paine's COMMON SENSE, THE FEDERALIST PAPERS, Tocqueville, and the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

In the end, the faults of the documentary are probably most likely the result of the limited time allotted to the subject. Jefferson is simply too vast a subject to be encapsulated in three hours. Nonetheless, while this will hardly do as a complete portrait, it remains either a pleasing introduction or an enjoyable supplement.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Feb 1, 2011 12:07:18 PM PST
Thank you, Mr. Moore, for this outstanding review. Your review is a model of informative, insightful reviews.

Posted on Jul 16, 2011 11:00:17 AM PDT
thoughtful review, Mr. Moore. One bone to pick with you though, regards your comment regarding Jefferson's antagonistic role as VP. This was understandable given that the Constitutional context of that office was different prior to the enactment of the 12th Amendment in 1804. Prior to that time, the person who came in second in the presidential race became VP. The problems Jefferson posed for Adams were repeated on a deeper level when Burr got in as Jefferson's VP as a result of this same process. The 12th Amendment cured that by requiring separate balloting for the VP by the Electors.
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Robert Moore
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