Review by Mark Wiechman
Narrator: Ted Marcoux
Director: Trey Nelson
Video: Color Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio: A&E Home Video
Length: 91 Minutes
Release Date: January 11, 2011
“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”
John F. Kennedy once told a group of Nobel Prize winners at the White House that this was the most intelligent and talented group of people who had ever dined there, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone. This is only a slight exaggeration. Architect, author, president, inventor, musician…Jefferson was not just a world leader and a renaissance man. Few men of any age have had a more far-reaching influence. He wrote the most famous testament to human freedom while finding the time to create a swivel stand holding four books with wire frames so he could read them all at once. He invented a machine that duplicated every letter he ever wrote. He even invented the swivel chair. Yet he died broke and his slaves were never freed.
The History Channel continues to produce fast-paced, concise specials that go into enormous detail but keep us on the edge of our seats with revelations and “a-ha!” moments that we either forgot or never learned from the dry textbooks of cold classrooms. I grew up in Northern Virginia, almost in the shadow of Monticello and Mount Vernon, surrounded by history. It is easy to idolize the man, and then it is just as easy to knock him down as all too human. Owning slaves and possibly fathering children by them, running away from Monticello when the British were on his doorstep, dying deep in debt despite his preaching against it, Jefferson failed to live up to his ideals. Bu then, don’t we all?
Jefferson actually condemned slavery in his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, while his own slave waited on him in Philadelphia as Jefferson wrote it. Then Jefferson had to endure committees poring over the document, making more than eighty small changes. Yet, even today, Jefferson seems to scream at us through the one paged document, the quiet, intellectual redheaded poet who help start the Revolution of all revolutions. Why do we as human beings assume that anyone follows their own rules and laws? Why do we assume that a genius and patriot like Jefferson would not compromise and change his mind frequently as all politicians do?
This special reveals many tidbits about his life that are usually glossed over in lesser programs. Amazingly, Jefferson the attorney defended African Americans on more than one occasion, for free, when they tried to circumvent Virginia laws regarding slavery and other types of involuntary servitude. In his courtroom arguments, he made statements regarding the rights of all mankind that would appear almost verbatim in the Declaration of Independence.
Jefferson evolved as a fine writer largely because he lacked the fiery speaking ability of Patrick Henry and many other leaders in Virginia. He possessed the vocabulary and intellect equal to any of them, and many leaders such as Ben Franklin and John Adams saw his audacity and unflinching courage in attacking the most powerful monarch of the day. In fact, the most radical document written an American at the time was Jefferson’s A Summary View of the Rights of British America. In this document, Jefferson challenged the King of England that the Virginia legislature must be equal to British Parliament or the monarch might suffer to be only a “blot on history.” Jefferson could have hung for this statement alone.
But in person, he was shy and uncomfortable socially, especially around women. He achieved marital bliss, but lost his wife and several children at young ages. Monticello, his ever-changing monument to the eternal laws of the material world, was never really finished. He claimed to have faith in “the people” even though he was aristocratic. He loved the cosmopolitan French despite his love for simple America, and grew tremendously from his experience there. A lover of the land, Paris broadened his horizons and he made huge purchases of wine and is generally given credit for French Fries coming to America.
Sally Hemmings was not only Jefferson’s likely mistress, but she was also Martha Jefferson’s half-sister. Most of Jefferson’s land and slaves were his through his marriage to Martha, and so were some of his debts. Toward the end of the special, the historians being interviewed find that he was no good with money and impractical in his aims. He had no close friend or advisor who could convince him to patent his inventions and make money if only to pay his own debts.
And yet, how can any of us repay our debt to Jefferson?
Crisp, clear color that transitions smoothly and briskly between interviews with historians, dramatic re-enactments, images from history, and CGI diagrams of Monticello. The re-enactments are believable without being over the top. My only complaint here is that everyone knows that Jefferson had red hair and the actor does not, but his cool detachment seems believable. No artifacts or problems.
Another excellent stereo mix as we have come to expect from A&E. The musical soundtrack is pleasant and easy to enjoy without ever drowning out the narrator or historians.
Features (zero stars)
The Sage of Monticello, the most impenetrable and misunderstood founding father, and author of our freedom, comes alive as though he were right here with us in this wonderful special. His life is an example of how much can be achieved through the pen rather than the sword and how we can rise above our own human frailties to reshape human destiny.