Ponders Ken Burns' critique of Jefferson
Updated 10:54 am, Thursday, June 27, 2013
To the Editor:
Ken Burns was an inspiring guest speaker for the New Milford Public Library at the New Milford High School on May 17 -- consummate film technician as humane storyteller, restoring many values to topics of American history.
One point of Mr. Burns' commentary needs review, stating, when Thomas Jefferson, in the "Declaration of Independence," wrote "That all men are created equal," he had in mind only whites, men and a propertied class, not blacks, nor other peoples.
Jefferson, under attack by biographers for hypocrisy and racism, was repeatedly and grossly inconsistent between his theories and actions -- such as between insistence on strict interpretation of the Constitution, then making the Louisiana Purchase.
But not morally narrow, as suggested by Mr. Burns.
Jefferson's once favorite author, Frances Hutcheson, by the 1750s posited all humans had a physical organ of moral sensibility.
Supported by a lifetime of promoting the theory of human rights, Jefferson believed literally that all humans, `men' in the usage ambiguous and able to encompass women, "were created equal" before the law.
As he reasoned, in his book "Notes on the State of Virginia," about 1780, though then mostly enslaved throughout the Americas, blacks, he argued, were, despite that biasing reality, equal beings -- a transcending moral viewpoint.
The collective American experience is in its primary dimensions of rationalism, liberty, and other aspects increasingly realized without recurring distortions such as racism, now broadly de-institutionalized and made anti-social.
It would be a shame if the overuse of the theme and word "racism" to the point of inaccuracy in the studies of America left Ken Burns and his admiring audience believing Jefferson did not believe in America's greatest -- Jeffersonian -- ideal he penned.