Monday, April 13, 2015

A review of Ken Burns’ “Thomas Jefferson” movie



PBS's biography of Thomas Jefferson was the first Ken Burns biography I saw. I had seen some of his non-biographical things (like "The Civil War"), but I had never yet seen one of his biographies. After having watched virtually all of Ken Burns' films (many are available on Netflix), I still think that this is his best biography; although I greatly admire his film about Mark Twain as well. I've seen a lot of other presidential biographies by other filmmakers, and I think this one is among the best I've seen.


Somewhat ironically, though, there isn't much focus on his presidency. That's not to say his presidency is ignored here, but most of the film is about other parts of his life. This may actually be appropriate, though, because the presidency is not really the most important part of Jefferson's life. For most presidents, their administration stands front and center in the discussion of their legacy; but for Thomas Jefferson, he didn't even put his administration among his three most important accomplishments, which were the ones he wanted listed on his gravestone. The first-listed was a piece of parchment he wrote in 1776 - a much-celebrated document that is none other than our Declaration of Independence. He was the chief author of this document, and I agree with him when he says that this, rather than his presidency, was his most important accomplishment.


John Trumbull's Declaration of Independence



And yet there is a great contradiction in the most famous paragraph of that document; a contradiction played up by liberal PBS to the maximum - and unfortunately, with some appropriateness. This is the fact that while he wrote that "all men are created equal," he owned some two hundred human beings during his lifetime, and never saw fit to free any but a handful of them. Ken Burns dedicates a reasonable amount of time to the Sally Hemings scandal - a scandal which was known in Jefferson's time, but which was not corroborated by scientific evidence (read: DNA) until well after his death. (For those who don't know, Thomas Jefferson fathered children with one of his slaves, a beautiful young woman named Sally Hemings; and gave her great privilege - including the freedom of her children - in exchange for her relationship with him.) I will not spend much time discussing it here, but suffice it to say that this is the greatest scandal attached to the name of Jefferson. It is not a comfortable thing for us to talk about, and the irony of these contradictions was not lost on Jefferson himself.


Thomas Jefferson in his presidential years

I imagine the race relations angle was a big part of the reason that Ken Burns wanted to tackle this subject; and in fairness to Thomas Jefferson, he was not the only signer of the Declaration of Independence to embody this contradiction - a significant portion of the document's signers were also slaveholders. I do not wish to defend this practice in any way; but in fairness to Jefferson and the other slaveholding Founders, they grew up in a society where this was considered normal. As this documentary itself points out, one of Thomas Jefferson's earliest memories was of being carried on the back of one of his father's slaves. One of the liberals interviewed here says that we should expect more of Thomas Jefferson than from others, owing to his greatness in other areas. There is truth in this, but their mentioning that George Washington freed his slaves - and setting him up as being morally superior for it - leaves out the critical detail that they were not freed until after his death. Even the greatest founder of them all, the one who most deserves the title of "Father of his Country," did not free his slaves during his lifetime - or at least, not many of them. Thomas Jefferson's guilt, to a large degree, is the country's guilt; and while I do not wish to defend his actions, I am reluctant to say that he's worse than anyone else of his time.


George Washington

The documentary gives an appropriate amount of coverage to his famous friendship with John Adams, which was to be an important part of his life. During the period of the Declaration of Independence, they were political allies and close friends; and John Adams famously gave some well-deserved praise to the eloquence of Jefferson's writing. It was John Adams who suggested that Jefferson write the Declaration to begin with, and the ringing beauty of its language well testifies to the propriety of this choice. They also maintained a correspondence during their years in Europe, as diplomats for the new American government. But later in their lifetimes, they were to be political enemies, and Thomas Jefferson left his post as Washington's Secretary of State to enter private life; after getting tired of being constantly outvoted in the Washington Cabinet. John Adams famously said that "Jefferson thinks he shall by this step get a reputation of a humble, modest, meek man, wholly without ambition or vanity. He may even have deceived himself into this belief. But if a prospect opens, the world will see ... that he is as ambitious as Oliver Cromwell."


John Adams

Their antagonistic political relationship really began after Washington left office, when John Adams and Thomas Jefferson ran against each other for the presidency. Even their close friendship of former years was not enough to stop the separation that became inevitable after this rivalry, and they became bitter political enemies. Adams won their first contest in 1796 and served one term in office, but Jefferson won their second contest in 1800, and served for two terms - twice the length Adams had served. Those who criticize political parties as contrary to the Founding Fathers' teachings would do well to look at this period - John Adams and Thomas Jefferson invented political parties in America, and the system we use today was begun during this time. Those who criticize personal attacks for the same reason would do well to examine the mudslinging in these contests, especially the election of 1800, where they attacked each other in the most personal of ways. Suffice it to say that they were not on speaking terms for years after.


Jefferson's home at Monticello

But these things become less important years after the fact, and the two of them later resumed correspondence with each other in their old age. They wrote each other as the best of friends, as some of the only people left who could remember the Declaration of Independence. For both of them, the Declaration of Independence was the formative period in their life, more important even than their presidencies. And regarding Jefferson's presidency, Jefferson once admitted in a letter to Adams that he had misread the French Revolution - possibly the greatest foreign policy issue of their time. He had seen it as morally equivalent to the American Revolution, where John Adams had seen an unthinking mob (the correct assessment). Jefferson admitted to Adams that it was Adams' predictions that had fared better - something not mentioned in this documentary, but an omission which can charitably be attributed to lack of time. This admission shows Jefferson's maturity in admitting his error, because it takes a great deal of maturity to admit one was wrong. His and Adams' letters are charming and witty, and among the great treasures of American literature.


Storming of the Bastille in 1789,
the event that began the French Revolution

As the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence approached, the two of them were both dying. Thomas Jefferson kept asking on his deathbed: "Is it the Fourth? Is it the Fourth?" - wanting to survive until that great Fourth of July. As it turned out, he did die on that fiftieth anniversary, to be followed hours later by John Adams ... on that same day. The last words of John Adams are also immortal: "Thomas Jefferson survives." In the words of one documentary, he was "wrong for the moment, but right for the ages." This remains one of the most astonishing coincidences in American history; strong enough to make you suspect divine design in the matter. In the words of another documentary, it was "more poetry than history," although it was certainly history as well.


Ken Burns is a master at moving scenes, and the story of Jefferson's life is among the more moving biographies I've seen. Like the other Founding Fathers, he was not a perfect man; having faults and weaknesses like everyone else. But like the other Founding Fathers, he was - quite simply - a great man; and if you want to learn more about his life, you'd be well-served by taking a look at this documentary. It's one of the better biographies I've seen, and who better than Ken Burns to tell the story right. Liberal bias aside, this is a wonderful documentary; and it's highly recommended to any curious about the life of Thomas Jefferson.

(Jefferson sent out the Lewis and Clark expedition while president, and Ken Burns made a documentary about this as well. More about that here.)

DVD at Amazon

If you liked this post, you might also like:

John Adams movies

Declaration of Independence

Jefferson's pupil James Madison



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