Thomas Jefferson in the Movies

Happy birthday to our third President (1743-1826), principal author of the Declaration of Independence, and purchaser of Louisiana, among a thousand other accomplishments. Jefferson’s mother was a Randolph; he and I, and several other Founding Fathers and millions of others are descended from the immigrant  William Randolph (1651-1711), making us cousins at a distance I am too lazy to calculate. I thought it would be fun today to look at depictions of Jefferson in the movies. There are surprisingly few of them!

Alexander Hamilton (1931)

As you may know from the recent musical (if nowhere else), Jefferson was Alexander Hamilton’s principal political rival — Hamilton heading up the Federalist faction of Washington’s cabinet, Jefferson leading the Democratic-Republicans, sometimes called the Republicans, though confusingly, they were ancestors of the Democratic Party. Long before Lin-Manuel Miranda, George Arliss wrote and starred in his own Broadway show about Hamilton, and later made a film of it. Montagu Love played Jefferson.

The Howards of Virginia (1940)

This fact-based Colonial era soap opera concerns a son of Tidewater Virgians (Cary Grant) who moves with his wife to the then-frontier of Albemarle County in the Shenandoah Valley. Richard Carlson (Creature from the Black Lagoon) plays family friend Thomas Jefferson whom Howard supports in the events leading up to the Revolution. Classic comedy fans may know Carlson from The Ghost Breakers starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard, released the same year, though he has many more screen credits in addition to these.

Ben and Me (1953)

Hans Conried voiced the Founding Father in this animated Walt Disney film.

The Patriots (1963)

Charlton Heston played Jefferson in this Hallmark Hall of Fame made-for-TV movie, adapted from Sidney Kingsley’s play. Peggy Ann Garner, the girl from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, plays his daughter Patsy.

1776 (1972)

Ken Howard may be the definitive screen Jefferson for people of my generation. This adaptation of the hit Broadway musical was likely my first introduction to the star. Blythe Danner played Martha Jefferson, who does her patriotic duty by shtupping Jefferson, as I recall.

George Washington II: The Forging of a Nation (1986)

Barry Bostwick reprised his iconic title role from the 1984 TV movie George Washington. And I must say George Washington II has to be one of the funniest sequel titles I have ever heard.  Jeffrey Jones, fresh from Amadeus and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, plays Jefferson, stressing his aristocratic, foppish side.

Jefferson in Paris (1995)

Nick Nolte vies with Ken Howard as the screen’s most significant Jefferson, and makes an interesting contrast with Jeffery Jones. Nolte can’t help being gruff (more of an Adams trait than a Jeffersonian one) but it does remind us that Jefferson was technically a farmer, even if he was actually a wealthy planter…the bulk of whose work was performed by enslaved people. This Merchant-Ivory film made a mild splash at the time, dealing as it did with the long taboo topic of Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings (Thandle Newton). This was three years before their liaison was proven by DNA evidence, making it controversial at the time, though now it is settled history. Gwyneth Paltrow steps into her mom’s footsteps as a Jefferson woman, playing the role of Patsy.

John Adams (2008)

Stephen Dillane (Game of Thrones, Mary Shelley etc) plays Jefferson in the terrific HBO mini-series starring Paul Giamatti.

Hamilton (2021)

Daveed Diggs, who played Jefferson in the original 2015 Broadway production of Hamilton, will reprise his role in the film version, due out next year.