The mystique of Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s great liberals, continues in Ken Burns’ “elegant portrait” (in the publicists’ words) of the Virginia gentleman who at age 33 wrote the Declaration of Independence and later became U.S. president — twice. Geoffrey C. Ward’s lucid script, jammed into a total of three tight hours, stands as a worthy, step-by-step appreciation.
With no photos from that pre-photographic age and little word from intimates, the lovely appraisal relies for visuals on portraits, paintings of landscapes, contemporary shots of nostalgic places and items, silhouettes of a horseman or carriage passing against a crimson sky.
But at no time does the great man stroll down a Virginia lane, walk across a parquet Paris floor, or effectively rise to call out in his soft tones his wondrous words. Sam Waterston, voicing Jefferson’s graceful prose, does give history its proper pauses, but how the gentleman spoke at informal occasions and about what aren’t investigated.
Two-night docu, four years in production, plays out as facts swim by. Jefferson was born in Virginia on the land where his beloved home, Monticello, would one day stand. His father was not of the social standing of his mother — after all, she was a Randolph. But the elder Jefferson was a civil engineer, a justice of the peace, colonel of the county militia, a burgess, a Crown surveyor — and a frontier democrat.
The docu tracks Jefferson’s boyhood, his treks into the nearby Virginia forests, the early death of his father, his close friendship with Dabney Carr and that young man’s death. Jefferson was an ardent student, and at age 20 was familiar with Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Italian and Anglo-Saxon. And read Gaelic.
The youth studied law with influential George Wyeth — and left law practice because of his opinion of lawyers. He graduated from William & Mary College when he was 20. The program moves into history’s stream as Jefferson, ever working at designing and building Monticello, entered politics for the colonial cause as an agrarian politician.
In 1769, a member of the Virginia house of burgesses, the liberal Jefferson proposed gradual emancipation of slaves, but Virginia turned that down flat.
In 1772 he married young widow Martha (Patty) Skelton, of whom there are no portraits extant. The happy marriage, producing six children, lasted until her death in 1782. There’s not much in the docu about her relationship with her husband or of her acquaintances. But then there’s nothing about Jefferson’s widowed mother’s life and relationship with her son.
Jefferson, a slave owner, inherited 135 more slaves in 1773 when his father-in-law died. Among these are his in-law’s reputed mistress and her two children, James and Sally Hemings, with whom Jefferson was rumored to have fathered several unacknowledged children.
In 1774 Jefferson wrote the profound “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” with the kernel of the Declaration of Independence in it. Next year he was a delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, where in 1776 he presented the, literally, revolutionary Declaration.
Wisely, the program bypasses the revolutionary action itself, as Jefferson was in Virginia as a member of the house of delegates. Dead set against any American aristocracy, he backed overturning the law favoring eldest sons inheriting property. He also championed public schooling, insisted on separation of church and state, worked at streamlining the law.
In 1779 he again fought for slaves’ emancipation and lost. It was not his only attempt. As historian Clay Jenkinson notes, “None of those proposals was accepted. In fact, Jefferson was denounced for his emancipationist views.”
The Democratic Party —emphasizing personal liberty and a limited federal government — was founded around Jefferson in opposition to Alexander Hamilton’s conservative Federalist Party, which favored industry and a strong central government.
Jefferson’s personal relationships with others, particularly fellow Virginian Washington, Patrick Henry or Benjamin Franklin, aren’t explored much except for, of course, Federalist Hamilton, who had Washington’s ear and with whom Jefferson mostly disagreed. As seen here, his best friend remained that young Carr, who died of a bilious complaint back in ’73.
Burns’ expert report does a cunning job of boiling down early presidential politics. Federalist John Adams, whom Jefferson had met in 1775 and whom he liked, wound up president, with Jefferson his vice president. The docu neatly explains the intricate political processes. In 1801, Jefferson was elected president against Adams, who went home angry and bitter. Their friendship seemed over.
During his presidency, Jefferson doubled the size of the U.S. with the Louisiana Purchase. Re-elected in 1804, he launched the Lewis & Clark Expedition, and he retired to Monticello in 1809.
Docu’s camerawork and editing are superb, the imaginative use of Robert C. Lautman’s platinum-palladian still camerawork at Monticello creates an eerie sense of historical perspective, as though the great man himself might stride into view.
In the glowing account, facts of Jefferson’s life are ticked off fairly enough, but the human Jefferson remains elusive. It’s not that there are dark areas; it’s just that there are areas not explored. He never, as did many of his fellow patriots, set his slaves free. That remains a perplexing question to which there must be a reasonable answer from such a man.
Burns and co-producer Camilla Rockwell have explored the life of Jefferson in respectable, responsible fashion, and writer Ward has served up a slice of history valuable to schools and to anyone unfamiliar with the elusive, magnificent intellect who planned the republic.