He’s been exalted as the demigod of liberty
and denounced as a racist reactionary.
Who was the real Thomas Jefferson?
A film by Ken Burns
On PBS stations, Tuesday and Wednesday
“American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson”
By Joseph J. Ellis
Knopf, 365 pages
He was the author of the canonical sentence in American history, the one that begins: “We hold these truths …” But there is nothing self-evident about Thomas Jefferson. Of the three great figures in our civic pantheon, he remains the most elusive.
Washington is the steadfast paterfamilias, the hero who selflessly guided the young nation through its birth. Lincoln is our Christ, the martyr who gave his life that the nation might live. But who is Jefferson? The prophet of democracy — or the aristocratic defender of states’ rights? The inspiring champion of the rights of man — or the unrepentant slave-owner? The purest intellectual ever to have held the presidency — or a temporizing hypocrite?
Scholars have been excavating, pondering and battling over Jefferson for years — just the bibliography of scholarly works on Jefferson runs to two volumes. But these questions are not merely academic: Our political parties, too, have grabbed for his legacy, each tearing off half of the name of Jefferson’s own party, the Democratic Republicans.
And in recent years, the controversies have moved into the larger culture. As the historian Joseph Ellis points out in his stimulating new study, “American Sphinx,” the Jeffersonian legacy has become bitterly contested ground in America’s ongoing history wars. Jefferson’s critics aren’t just questioning some of his views — they’re trying to sandblast his face right off Mount Rushmore.
In “The Next American Nation,” for example, Michael Lind denounces Jefferson as an anti-urban, racist, agrarian mystic, a representative of the most regressive aspects of American culture. Conor Cruise O’Brien’s recent “The Long Affair” is even more polemic, asserting that the master of Monticello was a bloody-minded ideologue, a latter-day Pol Pot who winked at the horrors of France’s Terror and, as a logical consequence of his exaltation of “liberty” above all else, might even have supported the Oklahoma City bombing.
(O’Brien makes much of the fact that when arrested, accused bomber Timothy McVeigh was wearing a T-shirt inscribed with Jefferson’s words: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”)
Such views and the long-standing charges, spearheaded recently by the historian Paul Finkelman, that Jefferson’s racist views and failure to free his slaves make him unfit to be the father of American freedom, are attempts to dismantle the hagiographic vision of earlier scholars, for whom Jefferson’s greatness was an article of faith.
For O’Brien, the fact that Jefferson has been seized upon as a hero by right-wing extremists, racists, libertarians and big-R Republicans is entirely logical. In the new, multicultural America, he asserts, there will be no place for St. Thomas — his statues will be shipped to the woollier reaches of Idaho, where they will provide inspiration for assorted bomb-makers and paranoid loons in fatigues.
It is, therefore, quite a historical minefield that Ken Burns enters here. Burns’ best-known previous documentaries, on the Civil War and baseball, were superb but completely safe: the elegiac, lyrical note he strikes so well was sufficient and appropriate for these national myths. With Jefferson, the waters are murkier and the controversies more charged. Which version of this American icon would he choose to place before the PBS-watching public?
Burns’ own peculiar status increases the cultural stakes. Almost by default, Burns has become a Voice of American Truth, a boyish Walter Cronkite narrating our history to us. What Burns says about Jefferson is likely to have far more influence on the popular mind than what scholars say.
No single vision of Jefferson emerges from Burns’ three-hour, two-part film, but by its end its complex multiplicity seems somehow right. Burns and writer Geoffrey Ward circle warily around their subject, letting a variety of spokesmen — they are mostly academic historians, but also include generalist Jeffersonians like journalist George Will, historian and Jefferson impersonator Clay Jenkinson and novelist Gore Vidal — build a multi-perspectival picture.
At times, this cautious approach gives a fragmented, contradictory impression of the man, one expert opposing the next and the narrative, in true Jeffersonian fashion, floating along at too high a level of abstraction to clarify the inconsistency. But most of the time, Burns and Ward get it right, allowing the different visions of Jefferson to correct each other and tying the whole together with an understated but eloquent narrative.
“Jefferson” never quite achieves an “aha!” moment, an epiphany in which we suddenly feel that we know who this elusive figure really was. But that apparent failure is in fact a success, a testament to historical integrity. As Ellis argues in “American Sphinx,” which takes a more critical look at Jefferson than does the film (in which Ellis also appears), Jefferson was a figure veiled even to himself, a profoundly cerebral man whose external, observable actions did not always, or even often, line up with his inner life. As Ellis puts it, he was “more a political visionary than a political thinker.”
The detached quality of Burns’ film, far from representing a failure of historical imagination, is a faithful reflection of its subject. As Gore Vidal, whose on-camera comments are singularly penetrating, says, “I don’t know if you can hold Jefferson very close to your heart, but you can hold him very close to your mind.” To which he adds, “And if there is such a thing as the American spirit, then he is it.”
Several Jefferson’s are constructed by these pointillist strokes. There is the Renaissance man, scientist, farmer, statesman, musician, archaeologist, architect, inventor, a polymath who, as George Will points out, encompassed all the learning of his day in a fashion that would be utterly impossible now. There is the noble stoic who endured the loss of almost everything he loved — his wife, his children, his best friend — and emerged, even at the end of his long life, a dauntless optimist. There is the hypersensitive intellectual whose head, in Vidal’s words, “absorbed his heart” after the last of too many tragedies fell upon him.
There is the slave-owner who wanted to abolish slavery but suspected that blacks were inferior to whites and, although he treated them well, never freed his own slaves. Above all, there is the idealistic revolutionary, whose unique genius, as Ellis and the literary critic James Cox point out, was his ability to dress up contradictory ideas (for example, “liberty” and “equality”) in such inspirational rhetoric that Americans, then and now, have instinctively rallied around them despite our nagging awareness of their inconsistencies.
The legendary founding figure of our history was, more than anything else, a writer. As historian Garry Wills puts it, what Jefferson teaches us is “the power of the word — that ideas matter, that words beautifully shaped reshape lives.”
“Jefferson’s” principle weakness — an understandable one, given its short length and the daunting complexity of its subject — is ideological: Although it does a good job of summing up matters like the battle between republicanism and federalism, it fails to dig very deeply into the political and philosophical implications of Jefferson’s ideas. As a consequence of this, it completely avoids the vexed question of his legacy: It never explores contradictory claims to his mantle by libertarians and socialist third-world movements, Democrats and Republicans alike. It must be said, however, that there are advantages to this: By keeping its focus on the past, “Jefferson” avoids the error of “presentism” — judging a historical figure out of his context — that plagues books like O’Brien’s.
“Jefferson” does devote considerable time to the explosive racial controversies swirling around Jefferson — whether Jefferson had an affair with his slave Sally Hemings, and whether his attitude toward slavery disqualifies him as a hero. On these subjects, Burns adopts an agnostic stance, one that allows him to preserve the heroic Jefferson while acknowledging his weaknesses.
Cynics might find this position all too predictable (would anyone expect the ever-reverential Burns to actually try to knock an icon off his perch? There goes his Hallmark-Card-history gig!), but in fact Burns’ position is in line with the scholarly thinking on the subject. He’s done his homework. On the question of Hemings, he responsibly brings forward Robert Cooley, a black descendant of Hemings who asserts that “thanks to 200 years of oral history” he knows that Hemings bore Jefferson children; counters that with the historian Natalie Bober, who says that the idea of the affair is “inconsistent with everything we know about the real Jefferson”; gives space to Ellis, who asserts that scholars now agree that the truth can never be known; and allots the last word to the black historian John Hope Franklin, who says “It doesn’t matter” but concludes by saying “I see no reason why Thomas Jefferson should be excused from” the possibility.
As for Jefferson’s failure to free his slaves and his troubling speculations about black inferiority, Burns doesn’t pull punches. Paul Finkelman, a leader of the movement to turn Jefferson from hero to villain, argues that Jefferson should be measured against the best men of his own time, like Washington and many others who did free their slaves. And Burns again gives the last word to the eloquent Franklin: “I’m a forgiving man, so I forgive him, but I remember that what he did was a transgression against mankind.”
Nothing can really be added to that, and Burns doesn’t try. Instead, in a pattern he repeats throughout the film, he cuts away to another subject — allowing the dark vision to stand, but softening it with a lyrical segue, as if to say “This, too, was just one strand in the tapestry.” It’s a sublimating technique that may enrage the more strident anti-Jeffersonians — who are probably still brooding over the selection of the black actor Ossie Davis to read the narration — but which captures the ambiguity of a life far better than their wrathful insistence on excommunication.
One of the most moving parts of the film is its presentation of Jefferson’s rapprochement, late in life, with his old revolutionary comrade John Adams. The two had fallen out over politics: Jefferson had come to regard his old friend, as he did Federalists in general, as a crypto-monarchist who had betrayed the “real spirit of ’76.” (Ellis’ book is especially good at explicating the sentimental, unworldly, black-and-white mind-set that led Jefferson into such harsh and at times crude judgments.)
Late in their lives, however, the two old lions began — at first tentatively, then with deepening friendship — to write to each other: Their correspondence has a pathos, a dignity and a grandeur that the film captures wonderfully. In one of the most amazing and haunting coincidences in American history, Jefferson and Adams both died on the same day — July 4, 1826, 50 years to the day after the Declaration of Independence. Adams’ final words were “Thomas Jefferson still survives.”
Visually, “Jefferson” makes the most of what is by necessity a severely limited repertoire of images, effectively mingling paintings, a few old photographs, newspaper cartoons, film of a silhouetted horseman and shots of Monticello with on-camera speakers. The most memorable images, however, are the shots of the manuscript copy of the Declaration of Independence, with its blottings and crossed-out words, the camera panning across those perfectly weighted phrases, then coming to rest on the tip of a goose-quill pen and a clean sheet of foolscap.
This lingering shot, which the film returns to at the end, is really its heart, the moment when it unabashedly revels in that old-time civic religion. And despite the sentimentality that threatens all such Grand Moments, the swelling chord the film strikes feels appropriate. For even though the metaphysical patina of rectitude that once surrounded a colonial revolt from the British has long worn off, the words Jefferson wrote in that little room 221 years ago have not lost their magic — not for us, and not for the oppressed people around the world they have inspired since they were written.
In the words of Gore Vidal, Jefferson took “two or three sentences and hurled them at the world, and it still goes round, it still inspires and it is still the essence of whatever spirit we still have and that we once had indeed.” Surely, the enigmatic, brilliant, dignified man who wrote those words, for all his weaknesses, deserves his honored place in national memory.
Feb. 17, 1997 Retrieved: June 2017 From Internet Archives (https://web.archive.org/web/20090508104733/http://www.salon.com:80/feb97/jefferson970217.html)