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Movie Review – Thomas Jefferson – a PBS Documentary by Ken Burns

This three-hour documentary gives us insight into the life of Thomas Jefferson, one of our most revered Presidents of the United States. Several noted historians unraveled the stories of the enigmatic Jefferson as the background presented photographs, sketches, maps and documents that were being discussed. Among these historians who had a wealth of information at their fingertips were Joseph Ellis, George Will the Columnist, writer Gore Vidal, Clay Jenkinson, Natalie Bober, Paul Finkelman and several others. Ossie Davis was the chief narrator. We also heard the voices of Gwyneth Paltrow, her mother Blythe Danner, Sam Waterson and Julie Harris as they portrayed with their voices the main characters who were being discussed.

Thomas Jefferson was a man of many talents – a farmer, a violinist, a writer, a surveyor, a scientist, lover of fine wines, and an architect. Yet, he was a reluctant politician, a soft-voiced, shy man who never sought the limelight. Still, his colleagues, when he was a representative to the Continental Congress, recognized his brilliance, his hard work, and his ability to put on paper the profound words which his fellows could not articulate. Men like Benjamin Franklin and John Adams had come together in Philadelphia in 1775 to determine if they could govern themselves. They were incensed with the Stamp Act, a tax on all printed matter, that was imposed upon them and were opposed to a distant parliament that could demand money from them.

At age 33, Jefferson was the youngest member of the Continental Congress. Yet, they asked him to draft a Declaration of Independence of the 13 colonies from England. He agreed and went to work in a house on Market Street with only his servant Bob Hemings with him. It took only a few days but he found the language to express the greatest aspirations that the world has ever had. On July 4, 1776, 12 of the 13 states approved it. New York took a few more days to make up its mind.

Over his lifetime, Thomas Jefferson suffered losses that most men could not endure. His wife Martha, whom he called Patty, died after ten years of marriage, having borne six children, three of whom had died. Martha’s father had died, leaving Jefferson with debts and with 185 of his slaves, among whom were her father’s mistress Betty Hemings and two children, Sally and her brother. Jefferson suffered financially his entire life, but was able to hold onto his cherished home, Monticello, where he spent his happiest days. His comfortable life there depended on the labor of his slaves which historians find difficult to reconcile with his words in the Declaration of Independence – All men are created equal.

Thomas Jefferson was appointed by President George Washington as the first Ambassador to France. He went with his daughter Patsy, their slaves Sally and James Hemings, the children of Betty Hemings, while his only other living child Polly stayed in Virginia since she was too young for the trip. Jefferson loved France and brought back to his country not only new ideas but foods and equipment that had never been seen in the western hemisphere.

Moving ahead, Thomas Jefferson was elected the third president of the United States in 1801. During his administration, he fought against excessive government power in favor of states’ rights, he cut spending, shrank the navy and abolished jobs. His greatest accomplishment occurred in 1803 – the purchase of the Louisiana territory from France for $15 million, which doubled the size of the country and removed the possibility of other countries encroaching on our land.

Jefferson’s legacy is marred by the fact that Sally Hemings, one of his slaves, was allegedly the mother of several children fathered by Jefferson. This fact was kept under wraps and never discussed publicly although it was universally known. A book I read in the past year called The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed gives credence to this fact. However, new studies as recently as January 2011 deny that Jefferson fathered Sally’s children and state that his brother Randolph was actually the father. Click here to read about this opinion. So the debate goes on.

Thomas Jefferson has always been one of my favorite Presidents to research. This extraordinary documentary, though three hours long, held my interest throughout.


Thomas Jefferson – A PBS Documentary by Ken Burns