We just watched Ken Burns’ documentary on Thomas Jefferson which reminded me how amazing the history of the United States is and what the United States stands for. The most striking realization I had while watching it was how un-American people like George Bush and John Ashcroft are — they are the type of people Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, et al fought against and to prevent from ruling the US. What also struck me was how slow life was back then. It took Jefferson a week to travel from southern Virginia to Philadelphia. Today, that trip wouldn’t have been worth mentioning (about a 5-hour drive by car today). And when he travelled to France to advise the government on their issues he lived there for years because it takes weeks to sail across the Atlantic. Today, he would’ve been in Paris in time for dinner and would have made several trips back home (instead of write letters to his dying children), if he didn’t simply correspond with the French via email.
The rest if this may sound like a history lesson, but I just didn’t get the understanding of how important the founding fathers and Jefferson were in grade school. Maybe I was just too young, or the history books glossed over the details. Or perhaps they just sugar-coated it to make them into super-heroes to keep kids interested. Regardless, it’s interesting to me now that I’m older.
Thomas Jefferson was a visionary, especially on the theories of governments and organizations. At 33, the same age I am, he wrote the Declaration of Independence, the blueprint for the United States. He wrote it simply because he was a good writer and in just three days he expressed his vision for how people should be governed that became the model for personal freedom and democracy throughout the world. I wonder how the US would’ve turned out if John Adams, who refused the request, had written it instead. It’s amazing how written words can motivate people and create change in the world.
Although he was an avid politician, he was extremely frustrated by the bureaucracy and mud-slinging of politics and retreated several times to Monticello vowing never to return to politics. This was before he was elected the 3rd President (in “the dirtiest campaign in American history”) in an electoral process that would have made the 2000 election fiasco seem downright orderly. He called himself a “reluctant statesman”, but some historians argue that all politicians of the day felt they had to behave as if they didn’t want the job in order to get the job and that Jefferson was extremely ambitious politically.
His wife and four of his six children died, mostly when he was not at home with them. After his two-term Presidency, he went back to Monticello (his house that he never finished but designed, built, redesigned and rebuilt several times — it was his “architecture laboratory”) and never returned to Washington and died there 50 years to the day after July 4, 1776. Strangely enough, John Adams died the same day just hours after Jefferson and whose last words were “Thomas Jefferson still survives”.
Thomas Jefferson also fought to free the slaves, but faced so much resistance in politics, that he had to drop the fight for fear of being labeled an extremist. He didn’t even free his own slaves, however, so he was a bit of a hypocrite (given that he wrote “all men are endowed with certain inalienable rights” and that all men are entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”). He’s rumored to have had an affair with one of his slaves, Sally Heming, who was 28 years younger than him and fathered several children and he never denied it when publicly exposed for it in the press.
He was convinced that a free country could not survive without a revolution every 20 years or so. He supported the people’s rights to bear arms and revolt against the government often and stating that a few lives are unimportant to the greater good of a free country. He was pessimistic about the form of government that they created where the President is limited in his power and that the government, like all governments, would surely become corrupt and oppress the people. The US Government is kept in check relatively well, in my opinion, but I find it incredibly scary when I hear people today say that it’s “un-American to criticize the government”. John Adams, the 2nd President, actually passed a law making criticism of the government a crime and he jailed publishers who published newspapers criticizing the government (fortunately, Jefferson became the next President and freed all those people). It sounds a lot like what our current government would like to do and does do under the (perversely-named) Patriot Act.
It’s also surprising to me that one of the most important things that Jefferson and the founding fathers did was to separate church and state, yet today people act as if it’s, again, un-American to do so (like the backlash about removing “under God” from the pledge of allegiance)! They believed that if the government endorsed any religion then they are in effect abolishing other religions and would oppress people who followed other religions. Separation of church and state is meant to protect the people from government, yet Americans today seem to invite oppression. It’s un-American.
During his Presidency, Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase, against the wishes of Congress and the American people. The US paid France an incredible $15 million but in one moment, doubled the size of the US, removed France, Britain and Spain from the continent and bought probably the most valuable real estate in the world and set the US on a course to become a world financial power (one of the reasons the US is so powerful today is because of our agriculture). He then commissioned Lewis & Clark to explore the territory to find out what was there, learn about its history and to “see what the natives can teach us about human relationships”. Then the US went out and slaughtered all the natives. Jefferson believed it more important to have white people on the continent than the natives.
Jefferson’s final project was founding the University of Virginia. It was the first college in the US that was not affiliated with a church! He intended it to be a “academical village” where no grades or exams were given and students stayed until they “felt educated”.
The documentary isn’t Ken Burns’ best work, but it’s interesting and well-made as all his documentaries are. It has great pictures of Virginia and Monticello and interviews with some interesting historians, even George Will and Gore Vidal.