on January 3, 2003
Ken Burns's documentaries are always well put together and very interesting. This one on Jefferson is no exception. The pictures, personal accounts, and music are what make his films so great. In this documentary, Burns takes a look at the life of one of the founding fathers of our nation.
As I said, I really enjoyed the style of this documentary, but there are problems as well. Unlike his excellent film on the Civil War, Burns seems here to ignore some basic historical facts. It's almost as if he tries to set up Jefferson as THE founding father instead of A founding father. Credit to Jefferson for drafting the Declaration of Independence is well-deserved, but giving him full credit for the treaty in France (which Franklin, Adams, and Arthur Lee had much more to do with than he did) is stretching it a lot.
When speaking of Jefferson's years in France, the film is silent as to the great friendship between he and John Adams. Indeed, Adams is portrayed as the great antagonist, and Burns here calls him a friend and close ally of Alexander Hamilton (also not true). Later, when Adams and Jefferson begin their famous correspondence late in life, you can barely understand why the two men are writing to each other (since it makes only passing mention of their previous close friendship).
Ken Burns has given us another good documentary here, but it would have been better, in my opinion, to make this one a little longer to be able to provide a more accurate portrait of Jefferson's life. Instead, many basic historical facts have been ignored, and we are left with a picture of Jefferson that, despite making him seem a great hero of the revolution (which he was), is not accurate.
This 1996 two-part documentary by Ken Burns provides an introduction to the man who was the third President of the United States but did not feel the position was worth mentioning on his tombstone. When he was 33 years old Thomas Jefferson wrote one of the most famous and important lines in the history of the entire world in the Declaration of Independence and over the next half-century of his life accomplished enough to warrant being on the nickel, Mt. Rushmore, and, ironically given his ability to embrace contradictory positions in his life's work, the $2 bill.
Burns begins the documentary with an anecdote which is the 19th century equivalent of JFK's quip to a 1962 dinner for 49 Nobel laureates that it was "the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House-with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone." But the primary focus is on the inherent paradoxes of the man who could write the Declaration of Independence but own slaves, write about their unpleasant body odor, and avoided emancipating them. The charges continue in kind: Jefferson denounced the idea of political parties yet founded the first one, denounced the moral bankruptcy of Europe but enjoyed the gilded Paris salons, deplored a centralized government and then became the chief executive of the nation and doubled its size by buying the Louisiana Purchase.
The thesis of this documentary appears right before Jefferson's name appears at the end of the introduction: "He remained a puzzle, even to those who thought they knew him best, embodied contradictions common to the country whose independence it fell to him to proclaim in words whose precise meaning Americans have debated ever since." The key point here is not just that Jefferson is an enigmatic figure but that his paradoxes are those written in the soul of the nation. It was not until Abraham Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg in November of 1863 that America finally accepted the proposition that "all men are created equal," but it was Jefferson who wrote the proposition. The gap between his vision and his actual achievement as a human being is arguably a defining element of the American spirit.
Do I think that Jefferson fathered children by Sally Hemmings? Yes, I do; the fact that she turned out to be the half-sister of his late wife Martha, along with his promise to Martha on her deathbed that he would never remarry, seems a compelling rationale to explain his behavior, although I would never confuse seeking physical comfort with love. Why did Jefferson never free his slaves? That is the question that will never be known for sure (there is at least enough DNA evidence to show that the Hemmings children were fathered by a Jefferson, whether Thomas or one of his relatives, perhaps his brother Randolph). My best guess at this point would be that he was afraid of what would happen to his slaves if they were freed and sent off into the world out of the reach of his protection. That his economic problems were such that the slaves were sold off after his death is but another contradiction in the long line of those that defined his life.
By now we are as familiar with the method of a Ken Burns documentary the same way we know the conventions of a situation comedy, romance novel, or rock 'n' roll song. The camera studies historic engravings and paintings before shifting to contemporary film taken in all four seasons of Jefferson's Monticello home and other key places from his life. The documentary was written by Geoffrey C. Ward and Jefferson's words are spoken by actor Sam Waterston with Ossie Davis providing the narration. Blythe Danner does the voice of Martha Jefferson, whom she played in the film version of the musical "1776." Many of those who have followed Burns' work will no doubt find much of the music familiar and be reminded from time to time of "The Civil War" and "Baseball."
If there is a failing in this documentary it is that it has trouble doing full justice to Jefferson's words, which in the final analysis are his greatest legacy and testament. The problem is that Jefferson usually wrote on large pieces of paper and the camera cannot capture an entire line, forcing it to rely time and again on showing us a few choice words and phrases. Yet there is no denying the power of those words or of seeing them written in Jefferson's own hand.
on June 12, 2003
At thirty-three, he was Virginia's delegate to the Continental Congress and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, penning some of the most memorable words in the American experience, "We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal."
He was a tireless champion of representative government at a time when the rest of the world was ruled by monarchies. And even though he was shy, soft spoken, and totally lacking in oratorical ability, he would eventually become Governor of Virginia, Ambassador to France, and President of the United States.
No one embodied the optimism of the American spirit more; yet he was a slave holder all of his life (even while others in Virginia were setting their own slaves free); and in the only book he ever wrote, he espoused the inferiority of the Negro race, (as if to imply that freedom and equality should apply to everyone but them).
Much of the film deals with the political backroom maneuvering of the Electoral College which made him President; his lifelong feuding - and friendship with John Adams; his purchase of the Louisiana Territory; and his brief love affair with a married woman while he was Ambassador to France. During his time away from politics, the biography also highlights Jefferson the scientist, the architect, and the supposed father of numerous mulatto children by his Negro mistress, Sally Hemmings.
No one tells American history like Ken Burns. His biographies of Mark Twain and Frank Lloyd Wright, and his accounts of Lewis & Clark are inspirational and uplifting. His remembrances of Thomas Jefferson, however, fall short. Perhaps it's the subject. Mr. Jefferson's life isn't without controversy. Rather than coming across as almost superhuman in his accomplishments as we are hoping, this film makes him appear to be, at best, merely human. True history fans will find this work to be fascinating and thorough. Others will probably discover it to be extremely tiring - as did I.
on July 31, 2002
This Ken Burns film is a good introduction to Thomas Jefferson. It is a remarkable overview of one of the most controversial figures in American history, touching on most of the well known discussions about him, such as, what heretofore were thought to be Sphinx-like, enigmatic characteristics. As this was made several years ago, however, you need to be bring yourself up to date. For example, on the Sally Hemings issue, DNA first was pitched by some as evidence that Jefferson fathered Hemings' children, but currently, it has actually served as proof that he almost certainly did not father Hemings' children. And on Jefferson's enigmatic, Sphinx-like characteristics, a new work by a previously unknown author/researcher by the name of Norman Thomas Remick titled "West Point: Character Leadership Education, A Book Developed From The Readings And Writings Of Thomas Jefferson" is a completely unique approach to understanding Thomas Jefferson that dispels the prior alleged "enigma" and brings Thomas Jefferson into clear focus. It's a must read after watching Ken Burns' wonderful DVD for all who are interested in Jefferson and what it is to be an American.
on January 15, 2002
Ken Burns' has done it again with Thomas Jefferson. This movie is entertaining, historically accurate and extremely insightful, and beautifully shot.
The movie brings the person Thomas Jefferson alive through interviews with historians, footage of Monticello, historical documents and draft documents, Revolutionary War era paintings, quotations, etc... The movie is not just historically accurate, but extremely insightful. For example, in one section a historian is analyzing the words of the Declaration of Independance (written by Thomas Jefferson) and drawing the most compelling insights into the man himself...it was so insightful I was taken aback. The movie squarely addresses the contradictions in Jefferson including "...all men are created equal.." with the fact that Jefferson owned slaves. The filming is beautiful, and the music inspiring. I loved this movie. If you enjoy history, documentaries, or biographies you will enjoy this extremely well-done Ken Burns film.
on January 14, 2002
Six years ago this three hour biography of America's third president was telecasted for the first time on PBS. It should be retelecasted annually on July 4th as part of the annual celebration of the nation's independence.
Gore Vidal and George Will, at the opposite ends of the political spectrum, are among the historians and commentators that appear, reflect and illuminate on the life and ideas of the most contradictory of America's founders.
Like most, if not all, of Ken Burns' productions, "Thomas Jefferson," the program's script/narration is its most distinctive and memorable feature.
I only wish a text of program's script accompanied the DVD.
The appearance and commentary by Black historian John Hope Franklin provides appropriate balance to the program that tends to applaud Jefferson the man, his achievements and contributions.
The fact that Jefferson didn't free his slaves, and/or regularly had sexual intercourse with one of his slaves seem to me easily understood, considering his life and times. I'm not the least bit shocked, and my admiration of Jefferson is not diminished by these facts and/or speculations.
Every American should regularly be introduced to this giant of the American Experience.
"Thomas Jefferson: A Film By Ken Burns" should be every collection of quality DVD documentaries, and shown and studied in all American History classes.
I hope that PBS continues to release all of Ken Burns' productions on DVD.
on January 13, 2004
Given the amount of bashing Thomas Jefferson has taken it is hard to get people today to understand the extremely high regard in which he was held just a few decades ago. This very interesting program examines Jefferson in a way that clearly communicates his human limitations while still getting across what is so important and special about him. Of course, some of his detractors won't like the praise given here while some of those who revere Mr. Jefferson will find the criticisms at least irritating.
However, I believe these battling opinions have led to an even worse condition. Jefferson is too much ignored in our schools. I believe this series can help our children gain additional understanding and appreciation for this vital Founding Father without resorting to worship. It is worth viewing more than once.
on July 25, 2003
An excellent and informative overview of Jefferson's life, though occasionally dull and somewhat lacking the power and immediacy of 'The Civil War' and 'Baseball'. Footage is gorgeous, per the usual by the Burns team.
Reveals Jefferson as a very complex character who perhaps cannot be fully understood by history (let alone by his peers). Perhaps overly focused on the slavery issue in Jefferson's life, especially towards the end, but perhaps this is fair as the contradictory Jefferson displays both intellectual forwardness and the fixed attitudes of the plantation owner.
A small complaint, but Sam Waterston's voice as Jefferson bugs me since I believed he defined himself as Lincoln in 'The Civil War'. He does a solid job, however. Highly recommended documentary on American history.
The Declaration of Independence is without question the greatest single statement regarding the rights of humans. A combination of idealism and practical politics, it is very underappreciated in the extent it was revolutionary. At a time when the world was ruled by religion and aristocracy, it said that all men are endowed by nature with certain rights, including the right to choose their governors. Scoffed at by the ruling class of Europe, it still survives at a time when they have been reduced to the fodder of tabloid rags. Written almost exclusively by Jefferson, that alone would have made him immortal. And yet, he did so much more, rightfully still considered a legend for the caliber of his intellect.
In this film the historical context for this document and what it meant to the world is presented in a manner that brings lumps to your throat. The American break with England was an incredible revolution, and unlike those in Russia and France, was much less bloody and far more permanent. That aspect of the story is made very clear, something that not all historical accounts manage to do.
However, there was more to Jefferson than his role in the creation of the United States. He put forward a bill to abolish slavery, he helped found the first public University and drafted much of the reasoning that led to the separation of church and state. The driving force for so many different revolutionary changes, there is no question in my mind that he is in a close race with George Washington as the greatest American of all time.
Much is made in the film about the contradictions of his life. Although he opposed slavery, he was a lifelong slaveholder and did not press for abolition. To me, this point is vastly overstated in the film. No one else could have introduced a bill to abolish slavery and the critics seem to forget that it took nearly a century and a bloody war to finally eliminate it from the country. Nearly a century after that, people such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Earl Warren were being vilified for their support of equal rights for blacks. Jefferson understood the problems that slavery posed for the country, and he should be praised for his foresight. He understood that the issue had the power to split the nation, and since it was still so young, he chose to preserve the union rather than abolish slavery.
This is one of the best historical films ever made. Jefferson is still the greatest intellect that this country has ever had and any criticism of him is dwarfed by his achievements. No one should graduate high school without having watched it.
on September 4, 2000
This a decent introduction to Thomas Jefferson, but it has two weaknesses. Number one, it is pretty superficial. It is three hours long, which is not enough time to explore Jefferson's complexities. Number two, it is too worshipful. It does include dissenting opinions, but overall the theme is to focus on Jefferson's strengths and not his weaknesses. As a result the documentary does not succeed in portraying a flesh-and-blood human being.
George Wills argues in the documentary that Jefferson described the American creed in the Declaration, and that in one sentence he distilled the thinking of the Enlightenment. Wills ask, what is it to be an American? He says it is to subscribe to what Jefferson stated in the Declaration, that all men are created equal. We are Americans not because of physical location but because of adherence to an idea. American history, of course, is the playing out of that idea. Jefferson probably did not have a concrete idea of what he was writing in the Declaration, or certainly not the same idea we have today, and our history is the process of clarifying what it means in practice.
The documentary was done before DNA evidence about Sally Hemings was released. In the program, the white historians argue that Jefferson didn't have a relationship with Hemings. The historians claim that for Jefferson to have had such a relationship would have been inconsistent with everything we know about him. Obviously the evidence that Jefferson did have a relationship with Hemings raises the question of how well we know the man. We need a study that will look at Jefferson as a man, not an icon. Unfortunately, this documentary isn't it. Nevertheless, it provides an interesting overview of the man. It just doesn't go far enough.