A biographical film about The United States' influential and profoundly enigmatic Founding Father.

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Series cast summary:
 Narrator (2 episodes, 1997)
Joseph Ellis ...
 Himself, historian (2 episodes, 1997)
 Jefferson's grandaughter (2 episodes, 1997)
 Isaac (2 episodes, 1997)
 Himself, writer (2 episodes, 1997)
 Thomas Jefferson (2 episodes, 1997)
 Himself,writer (2 episodes, 1997)
Garry Wills ...
 Himself, historian (2 episodes, 1997)


A biographical film about The United States' influential and profoundly enigmatic Founding Father.

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1997 (USA)  »

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Did You Know?


Blythe Danner also portrayed Martha Jefferson in 1776 (1972). See more »


In recounting the story of the 1800 presidential election, the narrator says "In early 1801, the Electoral College met in the new capital to pick the next president." The Electoral College does not meet in the capital. In accordance with the Constitution, in December 1800 (not early 1801) the electors from each state met in their respective states to cast their votes. What the program should have said was that in early 1801 Congress met in the new capital to count the votes of the Electoral College. See more »


Thomas Jefferson: "The life of a cabbage is paradise".
See more »

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User Reviews

A documentary that covers all the bases.
30 June 2003 | by (Topeka, KS) – See all my reviews

First, let me preface my review...

Thomas Jefferson was a man that I admired as a kid. When I was young, I read many of his biographies and loved all that he did, particularly the articulate ways the Renaissance Man expressed the nation's desire for freedom and equality. He was my favorite Founding Father. I still remember when I first learned that he owned hundreds slaves, in direct contradiction to his written words. It was shocking, as I discovered that one of my patriotic heroes had such a double standard in his life.

Having said all that, I hoped that this documentary would accomplish two things: Unearth the truth, and dive deeper into this intriguing man's life. Both goals were met.

Using narration and the perspective of multiple historians, the documentary covers virtually every significant aspect and passion of Jefferson's life, including both common knowledge stories and lesser known events. Among the more interesting lore are his early political years, the vastness of his knowledge, and his late-life correspondence with erstwhile rival John Adams. Controversial issues such as Jefferson's alleged affair and illegitimate children are addressed in a fair way. No definitive conclusion is stated, but all opinions are given, and those thoughts match up with the information I have found. The only thing lacking was a snapshot of Jefferson's religious beliefs. To my knowledge, he was a Deist rather than a true Christian. That point was alluded to, but never elaborated upon.

A theme of the documentary was the contradiction that seemed to run through Jefferson's life. The primary instance was his duplicity in being a champion for freedom and equality, yet simultaneously owning hundreds of slaves. To compound matters, Jefferson also harbored complex racist tendencies, although not in a malicious way. Given his time period, I don't know that these pitfalls taint his reputation, but they definitely tint it a darker hue.

I won't elaborate on all of the other stories told, but many were new and fascinating. History such as his battle to be elected president, and stories like the fact that his tombstone contains no mention of his presidency, or his financial troubles late in life. All of this information adds up to paint what appears to be an unbiased and accurate portrait of one of the country's great yet flawed men.

If you've seen any of Ken Burns's work (Baseball, The Civil War, etc.), then you are familiar with his trademark style of filmmaking that is present here. He once again utilizes the panning of still photographs and paintings, often accompanied by the appropriate sound effects. A slight twist is that Burns also uses many beautiful shots, both still and action, of modern-day Monticello and other places. This is a wise choice, as those pictures, which are recent but also period, add a vivacity to the film.

The music was also standard Ken Burns. He picked a handful of tunes, including hymns and patriotic songs, then had them played in a variety of ways to provide a suitable soundtrack. His choice of the hymn "Be Thou My Vision" as a primary theme did strike me as odd though, considering Jefferson's strong Deist beliefs that contradicted traditional Christianity.

Aside from the three-hour documentary, there are two short featurettes on the DVD. The first is an eight-minute glimpse inside Burns's filmmaking world. The second is a ten-minute conversation with Burns about his work. Both are definitely worth watching if you like any of his films, as they provide good insight into his processes. If anything, the two featurettes are too short, but worthwhile nonetheless.

The downside to this doc was that it didn't suck you in. It felt more like reading a good history textbook. Interesting stuff, but occasionally I zoned out. If you don't have an interest in Jefferson or early American history, then you will probably find the film dry and boring.

Even if you are a history buff, I don't know that you need to purchase this DVD. It's good stuff, but I don't feel it can be viewed multiple times. I borrowed it from the library, and that (or a rental) is my recommended route.

Bottom Line: This is for history buffs and for people interested in Thomas Jefferson. 8 of 10 from one who had that interest. Others will probably be bored.

9 of 9 people found this review helpful.  Was this review helpful to you?

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