American Lives: Thomas Jefferson (1997) and the Television Biography as Popular History

  • Gary R. Edgerton


Professional historians have found themselves embroiled in a continuing debate over the current state and quality of historical instruction in the United States since the 1980s. The National Commission on Excellence in Education published a 1983 report entitled A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, which maintained that the majority of students at all grade levels are woefully deficient in even the most basic understanding of both American and world history.2 These findings were confirmed in a follow-up study conducted by the then chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Lynne V. Cheney, called American Memory: A Report on the Humanities in the Nation’s Public Schools, which similarly chronicled the diminished place of history in the country’s elementary, middle, and high school curricula and placed the responsibility with educators across the country for the “deterioration in the pedagogy by which [they] teach whatever history has managed to survive.”3


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  1. 2.
    National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1983).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Lynne V. Cheney, American Memory: A Report on the Humanities in the Nation’s Public Schools (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1987); Michael Frisch, “American History and the Structures of Collective Memory: A Modest Exercise in Empirical Iconography,” Journal of American History 75.4 (1989), 1131.Google Scholar
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    Jo Anna Baldwin Mallory, “Introduction,” in Tellingthe Story: The Media, the Public, and American History, ed. Sean Dolan (Boston: New England Foundation for the Humanities, 1994), vii, ix.Google Scholar
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    Gerald Herman, “Chemical and Electronic Media in the Public History Movement,” Public Historian: A Journal of Public History 21.3 (summer 1999), 113.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Joseph J. Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Knopf, 1997), 22.Google Scholar
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    Robert Sklar, “Historical Films: Scofflaws and the Historian-Cop,” Reviews in American History 25.3 (1997), 346–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 11.
    See Gary Edgerton, “Ken Burns’s Rebirth of a Nation: Television, Narrative, and Popular History,” Film & History 22.4 (1992), 118–33.Google Scholar
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    See Robert B. Toplin, ed., Ken Burns’s The Civil War: Historians Respond (New York: Oxford, 1996). The seven responses to the series actually cover a spectrum of opinion ranging from complimentary (i.e., C. Vann Woodward and Robert B. Toplin) to ambivalent (i.e., Gabor S. Boritt and Gary W. Gallagher) to condemning (i.e., Eric Foner and Leon F. Litwack) and even dismissive (i.e., Catherine Clinton). The collection ends with the series’ chief writer Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns offering their own sides of the story, as well as their impressions about the chasm that all too often exists between themselves, the general public, and professional historians.Google Scholar
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    James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom (New York: Oxford, 1988).Google Scholar
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    See Dumas Malone, Thomas Jefferson and His Times, 6 vols. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1948–1981); and Merrill D. Peterson, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (New York: Oxford, 1960).Google Scholar
  11. 32.
    B. Ruby Rich, “Documentarians: State of Documentary,” National Forum: The Phi Kappa Phi Journal 77.4 (fall 1997), 23. The producer-directors taking part in the discussion were St. Clair Bourne, Arthur Dong, Rob Epstein, Su Friedrich, Deborah Hoffmann, Steve James, Ross McElwee, Errol Morris, Michel Negroponte, Lourdes Portillo, Renee Tajima-Pena, Jessica Yu, and Terry Zwigoff.Google Scholar
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    Jack McLaughlin, Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder (New York: Henry Holt, 1988), 383.Google Scholar
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    Ken Burns, “A Forum with Ken Burns,” on the Lewis & Clark: Journey of the Corps of Discovery (1997) website at < and clark/forum/intro.html>. See also Dayton Duncan, Out West: American Journey Along the Lewis and Clark Trail (New York: Penguin, 1988).Google Scholar
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    Ken Burns as quoted in McGrill, “Ken Burns: Uncovering American History.” See Elisabeth Griffith, In Her Own Right: The Life of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (New York: Oxford, 1985).Google Scholar
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    See Geoffrey C. Ward, Before the Trumpet: Young Franklin Roosevelt, 1882–1905 (New York: Perennial,1986); and Geoffrey C. Ward, A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt (New York: Harper & Row, 1989).Google Scholar
  16. 73.
    Ken Burns speech, “Searching for Thomas Jefferson” see Robert Penn Warren, The Legacy of the Civil War, reprint edition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998).Google Scholar
  17. 75.
    See Meryle Secrest, Frank Lloyd Wright: A Biography, reprint edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).Google Scholar
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    Carolyn Anderson, “Biographical Film,” Handbook of American Film Genres, ed. Wes D. Gehring (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1988), 331.Google Scholar
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    Ken Burns, interview by David Thelen, “The Movie Maker as Historian: Conversations with Ken Burns,” Journal of American History 81.3 (1994), 1033.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. 86.
    B.J. Bullert, Public Television: Politics & the Battle over Documentary Film (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997), 180.Google Scholar

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© Gary. R. Edgerton 2001

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  • Gary R. Edgerton

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