A man of uncommon clay

February 17, 1997|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- ''Man,'' says Job, ''is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.'' ''Use every man after his desert,'' Hamlet warns, ''and who should 'scape whipping?''

Modern man likes such leveling, deflating maxims because, by stipulating a comforting equality of common sinfulness, they spare him the pain he likes least, the pain in the neck that comes from looking up at those who are rightly on pedestals.

One of those made of uncommon clay was, surely, Thomas Jefferson. It is, therefore, a measure of contemporary fevers and confusions that Jefferson's greatness is continually under assault.

This week, on public television tomorrow and Wednesday, Ken Burns, whose accomplishments include acclaimed series on the Civil War and baseball, presents a timely corrective, a visually sumptuous and intellectually judicious appraisal of Jefferson.

A sulfurous new biography of Jefferson asserts:

''It is difficult to resist the conclusion that the 20th-century statesman whom the Thomas Jefferson of January 1793 would have admired most is Pol Pot. . . . We cannot even say categorically that Jefferson would have condemned the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.''

The author, the eminent Irish scholar and statesman, Conor Cruise O'Brien, relies on a single private letter Jefferson wrote in TC 1793, concerning the French Revolution: ''Rather than that it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than it now is.''

It is meretricious to treat an epistolary extravagance as an index of implacable conviction, But, then, Mr. O'Brien, alighting upon the obvious -- Jefferson was simultaneously a slaveholder and a paladin of political freedom -- with a sense of original discovery, has perpetrated a biography of the sort that novelist Joyce Carol Oates calls ''pathography,'' a shrill reduction of a rounded life to a catalog of dysfunctions.

Mr. Burns, using various analysts (this columnist plays a small role), manages to be admiring without being enthralled. He recognizes that heroism is not saintliness, and proves that a cool appraising eye need not be a jaundiced one.

It is simple-minded elitism to say, as has been said, that a biographer should be his subject's ''conscientious enemy.'' But Mr. O'Brien is conscienceless. For example, he quotes Jefferson's early judgments of blacks' inferiority, but ignores Jefferson's conclusion, 20 years later, that blacks ''are on a par with ourselves. My doubts were the result of personal observation on the limited sphere of my own state, where the opportunities for the development of their genius were not favorable.'' Jefferson anticipated ''their re-establishment on a equal footing with the other colors of the human family.''

Retained his slaves

Mr. Burns examines, agnostically, the theory that Jefferson, who proclaimed equality when one-fifth of all Americans were owned by other Americans, had a long sexual relationship, and children, with a slave, Sally Hemings. The film unsparingly notes that Washington freed his slaves, as did Jefferson's cousin John Randolph and Jefferson's neighbor Edward Coles, but Jefferson never did, even as Virginia's population of free blacks was rising in a 30-year period from 2,000 to 30,000.

The film punctures Jefferson's pose of ambitionlessness. True, he canceled his newspaper subscriptions when he left Washington in 1793. But by 1801, as politically guileful as he was socially graceful, he was president. (''Ambitious as Oliver Cromwell'' and ''tough as a lignum nut'' said John Adams, who was scurrilously attacked by a drunken editor paid by Jefferson.)

Jefferson, symbol of American optimism, died nearly destitute, preceded in death by his wife, five of his six children and his best friend -- and, in a sense, by the constitutional, political, social order he cherished. But he produced what one of Mr. Burns' interlocutors calls the nation's ''making moment'' -- the Louisiana Purchase -- and provided an enduring model of how a free man with a fine mind and great soul lives amid the world's ethical tangles.

''None of us, no, not one,'' said Jefferson, ''is perfect; and were we to love none who had imperfections, this world would be a desert for our love.'' Many historians and others, in their intellectual crudity, immaturity and mean-mindedness, respond to complexity with contempt and to excellence with envy. They pander to the democratic spirit gone rancid in resentment of excellence, and they leave our national memory parched.

Ken Burns, an irrigator, causes our capacity for political admiration -- for love of greatness in public people -- to bloom anew.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 2/17/97

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