Thomas Jefferson: A View From The Mountain

"Movie Magazine International" Review

(Air Date: Week Of 3/13/96)

By Monica Sullivan

When President Kennedy honoured a group of Nobel Prize winners at a White House dinner, he quipped, "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House-with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone." Jefferson's memory has been burnished brightly into our national consciousness: any discussion of our greatest Presidents (Lincoln, Washington, FDR, Wilson) always embraces the Virginia-born genius who drafted the Declaration of Independence at age 33 and won the Presidency 25 years later.

But, according to THOMAS JEFFERSON" A VIEW FROM THE MOUNTAIN, a new MPI Home Video, both Jefferson's life and his philosophy reveal a long series of contradictions that historians have been arguing about for the last 170 years. Why, for example, if he believed that "all men are created equal", did he free only three of his own slaves during his lifetime? And why, for example, if he believed in an agrarian democracy, did he maintain the paternalistic view that slaves were better off under his care and protection than they would be if he paid them a living wage and then threw in the care and protection as a bonus? The huge plantations of the South would not have survived intact if all the slaves were paid a living wage and Jefferson and his fellow agrarian Democrats knew it.

The same man who fought successfully to abolish the paternalistic system of primogeniture that that still exists in Great Britain today, the same man who fought tirelessly for religious freedom, maintained the status-quo of the slave-run plantations systems during his own lifetime. There were deeply personal factors at work here, too, although genealogists are still wrangling about them as well. Did Jefferson father children by the mulatto daughter of his own father-in-law? Was Sally Hemings really his late wife's half-sister and was his fear of disclosing their true origins the reason why he was so reluctant to free his own children? Well-spoken historians of every persuasion thrash it out and the answers may continue to be elusive for many viewers.

The documentary is taped in many actual locations and a wide-ranging selection of primary source materials from the era is also shown. Tackling yet another president among his gallery of statesman is Edward Hermann as the voice of Jefferson, Sissy Spacek is daughter Martha and Danny Glover reads the words of Jefferson's slave, Isaac. THOMAS JEFFESON: A VIEW FROM THE MOUNTAIN, available this spring from MPI Home Video, is a thoughtful point of departure for further research and is well worth seeing for its rigorous questioning and fresh perspectives on the Jefferson legend.

Copyright 1996 Monica Sullivan

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