Ken Burns is Wrong on Thomas Jefferson

21 10 2009

Documentarian Ken Burns has been all over the place, promoting his beautiful new documentary on America’s national parks, America’s Best Idea. Part of his regular schtick in promoting what looks like an amazing documentary series has been to mention that while the idea in the Declaration of Independence (“All men are created equal”) is a great idea, Jefferson actually meant (this is a direct quote) “All white men of property, free of debt.” The national parks, Burns goes on to say, are the distilled spirit of that ideal set in practice. Thus why the national parks are “America’s Best Idea.”

Historians have made various excuses for Jefferson’s owning of slaves, but none are wholly satisfying. That said, Burns’ characterization of Jefferson’s intentions is not fair or accurate. While Jefferson was definitely a hypocrite who couldn’t square his idealistic Enlightenment radicalism with his very human weaknesses, Burns shouldn’t irresponsibly put words in his mouth and motives in his heart.

The reason this quote stands out is because one of Thomas Jefferson’s animating life experiences was the fact that basically from the moment of his maturation to his death,he was drowning in debt. This was not something that slowly built on him. He was in debt essentially his whole life; in fact, among the excuses historians make for his failure to manumit (free) his slaves was that his enormous debts would have essentially meant handing his slaves over to his creditors, who he feared would treat them no better. (This would not have stopped him from any number of other remedies, of course).

In any case, could Jefferson, who never uttered this phrase Burns keeps repeating (“white men of property free of debt”) really have “meant” that the group of people created equal was a set that didn’t include himself?

Burns’ careless sloganeering on this point is indicative of an annoying modern political tendency to assume other people’s motives. How does Burns know that this is what Jefferson “meant”? Personally, I don’t think that’s at all what Jefferson “meant.” Not just “personally”; it is factually the case that this is not what Jefferson meant.

What Burns may intend by repeating this quote — or “quote” — is that this is what equality “came to mean” once the ideals of the Declaration (which originally included around condemnation of the slave trade, written by Jefferson) were brought down to Earth and hashed out into a practical Constitution. That would be accurate, but that is hardly Jefferson’s fault. Jefferson knew, and often expressed, that slavery was immoral and unjust. In his condemnation of slavery in the Declaration, he characterized the institution as “waging cruel war on nature itself.”

So he was a hypocrite — but Jefferson’s private and semi-public expressions of horror at the institution of slavery, along with his own enormous debts, directly contradicts Burns’ contention that Jefferson didn’t “mean” that “all men” were created equal, that he somehow only meant “white men of property free of debt,” a catchy phrase at risk of permanently attaching itself to the Jeffersonian legacy. As for the idea that “property” made one equal, there isn’t evidence of this, either.

Burns’ characterization of Jefferson is worrisome particularly because Burns is such a revered and respected documentarian. He has repeated this quote on the Colbert Report, NPR, on “progressive” radio, and in national newspapers. If Ken Burns says something about American history, most people who hear him will internalize it.

It’s also just lazy. Burns has been saying that we “know” what Jefferson meant, despite having no evidence, and it plays into the type of identity-based revisionism that tries to undermine Enlightenment universalism by, ironically, applying a modern standard of morality and tolerance to every age of history (particularly the Enlightenment).

There’s no doubt that Jefferson’s opinions on race would make him unpopular at cocktail parties today. Good thing for him he doesn’t live today. In all of human society in the 18th and early 19th Century, the people who would have had enlightened views of race or gender or sexual relations by today’s standards would be extremely few and far between. Looked at in that way — indexing Jefferson’s ideas of race to the general population at the end of the 18th and early 19th Centuries, he was actually extraordinarily enlightened. In fact, it was his vision, perhaps only partially understood by himself, that there was some ineffable “natural” quality to our rights that made the path to our current “enlightened” attitudes even possible.

Consider what Jefferson famously wrote to the Abbe Gregoire:

Be assured that no person living wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a complete refutation of the doubts I have myself entertained and expressed on the grade of understanding allotted to [Blacks] by nature, and to find that in this respect they are on a par with ourselves. My doubts were the result of personal observation on the limited sphere of my own State, where the opportunity for the development of their genius were not favorable and those of exercising it still less so. I expressed them therefore with great hesitation; but whatever be their degree of talent it is no measure of their rights.

We shouldn’t be shrugging off that remarkable willingness to revisit his own beliefs and credit new evidence. Jefferson was 66 when he wrote the above paragraph. How many 66-year-olds do you know who are this willing to revisit their opinions — particularly on race?

You can’t slander a dead man, I suppose, but Burns owes it to his own reputation and to the many who acknowledge him as a leading light in the on-going exploration of the American experience to retract his blasé assertion that Jefferson “meant” something he could not possibly have believed.