The story of Thomas Jefferson’s life, his contributions to liberty, and his personal pursuits of happiness. Biographical. [Dir: Ken Burns/ 180 min/ Documentary-Educational, Biography/ American Revolution, Libertarian Heroes]
Jefferson was no doubt a multi-talented person. He was a farmer, violinist, scientist, surveyor, architect, writer, and politician. All this is covered here, in varying degrees. But of all his accomplishments, it is telling for which he wanted to be remembered: writing the Declaration of Independence, agitating for religious freedom in Virginia, and establishing the University of Virginia. Note what is not included in that list: his serving as president for two terms. No wonder he is such a hero extraordinaire to libertarians.
There is plenty in this generally favorable portrayal to confirm his suitability for hero-worship. However, this is as much a liberal as libertarian interpretation of Jefferson. There is some mention of his radical limited-government views but not so much as to make one realize that limited government was the instrument through which he hoped the world would become free. Nor amidst all this respect for Jefferson is there any mention of what he might have thought of today’s government.
On the other hand, reflecting today’s obsession with race relations, his ownership of slaves is dealt with extensively. It’s treated here as a mystery—how could he be both a champion of liberty and a slave-owner? To this reviewer it doesn’t seem all that mysterious. He was a spendthrift and a poor manager who had grown dependent on slaves. Freeing them would have been the right thing to do; but it would have meant certain destitution, a lifestyle that Jefferson of Monticello must have considered an impossible choice. It’s an irony that one of the greatest champions of freedom fell short of his own vision, yes, but not really a mystery.
The other disturbing liberal intrusion into this film is the point made subtly here and there that Jefferson’s ideals were and are unattainable and contradictory, that he represents today’s political hodgepodge because he advocated both liberty and equality. Sorry, but Jefferson’s idea of equality before the law had no conflict with liberty.
These qualifications aside, this is nonetheless a flattering portrait of Jefferson. It’s also intensely personal, probably even a little more so than the shy Jefferson would have wanted. If you want to learn something about the man who more eloquently than anyone declared not only American independence from Britain but in so doing the independence of mankind from oppressive government—this isn’t a bad place to start.