TV Review: Thomas Jefferson: A Film By Ken Burns (Ken Burns Director) 1997

Posted: January 10, 2013 in Documentary
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jefferson ken burns

Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, served as Governor of Virginia, was Ambassador to France, and was the first Secretary of State.  That would have been a full career for most people, but Jefferson was just getting started.  He formed the Democratic Republican Party with political apprentice James Madison, as a response to Federalist abuses of power.  He ran against once close friend, and current political rival John Adams for President and lost.  He served under Adams as Vice President, and the rivalry deepened.  Jefferson railed against the Alien and Sedition Acts as an abuse of Federalist Power, but then doubled the size of the country with the acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase, and led an embargo in his second term that was disastrous for the country.  Jefferson suffered a lot of personal pain, including the loss of his father at age 14, the death of his wife, and 4 of his 6 kids, but his attempts to soothe that pain, with Maria Cosway in France, and underage slave Sally Hemmings were acts unbefitting a man of Jefferson’s stature.

OK, I’m obsessing about Jefferson, but I needed a bit of a different perspective from Jon Meacham’s book, and this documentary gave it to me.  Burns’ film hits all the highlights of Jefferson’s career, but at least two of the historians said things that struck me.  Historian Clay Jenkinson was apoplectic about Jefferson’s inability to do more about ending slavery, and Jefferson’s opinion that African Americans were intellectually inferior. The argument was that Jefferson was just reflecting the views of a Virginia planter, Jenkinson scoffed.  “We don’t build statues to ordinary Virginia planters.” The inference is that Jefferson knew better, and clearly he did, because in his early political career, he sponsored bills that opposed the expansion of slavery in new territories, but because he was not willing to lose political capital over slavery , he let the issue go.  Meacham saw the decision about slavery as a mere political calculation, and it was much more important than that.

African American historian John Hope Franklin took Jefferson to task about the Hemmings relationship, saying that Jefferson in essence controlled every movement of the young Hemmings, and he was right, he brought her to France, he took her back to Virginia, and she was powerless to stop it.  And that’s the point that Meacham didn’t make.  In fact, Meacham seems to imply that the teenaged Hemmings made Jefferson do what SHE wanted, that is ludicrous.  Plus the documentary had an interview with a descendant of Sally Hemmings, who was adamant about Jefferson fathering Hemmings’ children.  It’s interesting to note that this documentary was done the year before DNA tests that made most historians conclude that Jefferson did indeed father Hemmings children, and still it spent a lot of time exploring this issue.

The documentary also makes it clear that the embargo that Jefferson signed into law was an economic disaster, Meacham’s book seems to only concentrate on the embargo as Jefferson accruing power, and did not discuss the economic impact of the embargo, for whatever reason.

Ken Burns Jefferson documentary does have its shortcomings however.  With none of the usual stunning pictures that populate his other documentaries, Burns’ trademark filmmaking techniques are not really in evidence here.  Also, some of the experts, like George Will, are nothing more than cheerleaders for Jefferson, what is required in any historical endeavor is critical thinking.  And Gore Vidal is unexpectedly bland on Jefferson.

Despite this, Ken Burns’ Jefferson is an excellent film, packing boatloads of information in a slender 3 hour running time.  Watch the documentary before you read the Meacham book, you will enjoy both more if you do.

Burns take on Jefferson.

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