Tuesday, October 29, 2002

The two Thomas Jeffersons. Part one of Ken Burns's documentary on Thomas Jefferson aired last night on WGBH-TV (Channel 2), and it was a worthwhile 80 minutes. This is the first major Jefferson project to be put before the public since the revisionist view of him set in. These days, we are as likely to think of Jefferson's vanity and weakness (thanks to David McCullough's biography of John Adams), and of his probable dalliance with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, as we are of the towering visionary who wrote the Declaration of Independence. Burns deals with both Jeffersons, and asks a central question to which there is perhaps no good answer: can Jefferson's genius and some of his less-sterling personal attributes be reconciled, or was he a hopeless hypocrite?

On the PBS website, Burns asks the historian John Hope Franklin, an African-American, whether Jefferson's contradictions made him a "tragic figure." Franklin gives as good an answer as we're likely to get:

No, I don't see Jefferson as a tragic figure for these contradictions. For most men are -- and women are -- a bundle of contradictions. Despite the fact that we are endowed with reason, and despite the fact that we regard ourselves as rational beings, we at the same time have contradictions within our lives, within our beliefs, within our practices which, if we analyze it very closely, would perhaps be tragic inasmuch sense as Jefferson's contradictions were tragic. I think it's a part of the character of humankind to go off in different directions, to have different beliefs, some of which contradict each other, some of which complement each other. And when they contradict each other, it is not so much a tragedy as it is a human quality.

Jefferson was a great thinker and a great writer. He was hardly unusual in his failure to live up to his own ideals.

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