Saturday, July 18, 2009

"Thomas Jefferson: A Film by Ken Burns" (PBS, 1997)


Today, on a visit to Monticello in Charlottesville, VA, I helped out PBS by purchasing a DVD copy of PBS’s 1997 “Thomas Jefferson: A Film by Ken Burns”. It runs in two 85 minute parts.

When I put it in the iMac, the computer recognized it, and I see I rented it from Netflix about three years ago and wrote a brief review on doaskdotell. Well, now I take ownership of “an instance”.

Columnist George Will starts each segment, and he espouses Jefferson’s idea that every man should be free to choose his own goals, free from coercion from others, and also his idea that protect that right he had to hold himself to the highest standards of self-discipline. Jefferson realized that individualism creates a paradox: a society that does not value its less competitive citizens as people will become vulnerable to totalitarianism.

Yet, Jefferson owned slaves, and would even put out an “APB” when one went hooky. Jefferson wrote some rants on the differences between the races, saying that the “Negro” (my own history teacher used that word in 1960) was incapable of poetry or higher language arts, and had significant physical differences, like less body hair in men. That Jefferson paid attention to or "noticed" such things (especially about males) shocks many (also the 1950 World Book, in its article on “races of man” mentions the latter, using the adjectives “sparse” and “profuse” as the necessary antonyms.

Toward the end of the film the subject of the possibility of his having father children by a slave is discussed, by interviewing one of the descendants. The idea of “moral impossibility” is floated.

The second half of the film discusses Jefferson’s political career, and the paradox of his wanting to be a “humble man”. His opposition to the federalists is covered, as is his candidacy and inauguration in 1801, after spending the night in a boarding house and walking down the street like a common man.

Jefferson knew when to walk away from government and politics, and not do all he could do – George Will says that shows political genius. He loved science for its own sake (he invented the “polygraph” to copy letters mechanically as they were written, a kind of mechanical carbon paper) and treasured gardening, anticipating the green revolution of today.

Jefferson was tormented by his hypocrisy on slavery -- at the end, he chose to keep his life style and inquiry into science even as he descended into debt, and gave up his ideal of giving up on using slaves, not able to accept the final personal sacrifice. Even his public statements on the issue had contradictions.

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