Thomas Jefferson, television star Documentary: Ken Burns examines the man he considers 'America's soul.'

February 18, 1997|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder who believed passionately in the equality of man. He pushed for a weak central government, yet without asking Congress or anyone else spent $15 million (more money than was in the U.S. Treasury) to double the size of the country. He campaigned hard to become '' president, yet once said the country needed a revolution every 20 years or so -- hardly the words of a national leader.

Some would label Jefferson an opportunist at best or a base hypocrite. Ken Burns calls him America's soul and, for the next two nights on PBS, does a pretty fair job of explaining why.

"Thomas Jefferson" follows much the same path Burns explored in his earlier films, most notably "Baseball" and "The Civil War," still the finest historical documentary of our time.

First, he lines up prominent historians and writers to serve as on-screen guides to talk about Jefferson and help put his life and times in perspective.

Jefferson was "the greatest enigma among major figures in American history," says historian Joseph Ellis. "If he were a monument, he would be the sphinx."

Clay Jenkinson, who has spent years portraying Jefferson before school and educational groups, speaks of the "imperishable language" written into the Declaration of Independence. Historian John Hope Franklin, who injects a welcome African-American viewpoint into the film, says Jefferson "unfortunately and tragically" does embody much of the thinking that went into the founding of America.

Burns also continues his use of title cards to break the narrative into bite-size chunks, each with an underlying theme. And he recruits big-name voices to read the words of Jefferson and his contemporaries.

Of course, delving back to the 18th century for your subject matter results in a few problems. For one, there were no cameras back then; no president before John Quincy Adams was ever photographed.

But Burns makes do by using paintings and some new footage (not re-enactments, but simply atmospheric shots, with an occasional shadowy figure wearing a three-corner hat in the background).

He also uses black-and-white photographs of Jefferson's Virginia home, Monticello, employing a photographic technique of the 1850s. The result looks old, although not exactly Colonial; still, it gets across the idea that we're peering into another era.

The result is a thoughtful, quiet, insightful documentary that presents the Virginia native's thinking as the framework without which this country could never have been founded. But it also suggests his actions set America on a course that would lead inevitably to the Civil War and much of the civil strife that afflicts us to this day.

Jefferson was one of the largest slaveholders in Virginia, and though he argued against the institution, he believed blacks were inherently inferior. He fought one of the dirtiest presidential campaigns in American history and made partisan politics a fact of American life -- against the wishes of men like George Washington, who despised the two-party system.

Even if he never intended "all men" to mean "all men," it does today -- at least in theory. He was also responsible for what historian Garry Wills calls "the most important thing about our government" -- the concept of the separation of church and state.

Jefferson first promulgated the idea by drafting a statute guaranteeing religious freedom and championing it in the Virginia legislature. He later expanded upon it by founding the University of Virginia and taking pains to ensure that it was not affiliated with any church.

Jefferson's life was far from a complete success -- his second presidential term was pretty much a disaster, thanks to an embargo on exported goods he stubbornly clung to -- and his legacy remains a tainted one. Still, he tried, and if his reach exceeded his grasp, history seems willing to forgive him for it.

Appropriately, for a documentary on a man who placed far more importance on the cerebral than the visceral, "Thomas Jefferson" doesn't have the built-in drama of Burns' earlier efforts; there's no Battle of Gettysburg to build up to, no Jackie Robinson with whom to become emotionally attached.

And the film sorely lacks a tour guide we can't wait to follow. There's no Shelby Foote, whose down-home Southern drawl and just-plain-folks approach to the telling of history made him the star of "The Civil War." There's no Buck Leonard, whose links to the game's past, not to mention his obvious enthusiasm, helped bring "Baseball" to life.

Still, "Thomas Jefferson" is yet another worthy plume in Burns' cap, helping flesh out a figure whose importance to our history can not be overstated. At the same time, it humanizes Jefferson, particularly as we watch him cope with the many personal tragedies he endured (including the early death of his wife and five of his six children).

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