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Being Thomas Jefferson 'A Delightful Vocation' For High Plains Chautauqua Performer

Margot Chobanian
KUNC/The Colorado Sound
Erin O'Toole talks with historian and actor Bill Barker about his decades of bringing Jefferson to life

Thomas Jefferson was one of America's founders, and a vocal proponent of democracy and individual freedoms. He authored the Declaration of Independence. He was the country’s third president. He was also a complicated figure who owned slaves who worked on plantations; yet later, as a law practitioner, sometimes defended slaves seeking their freedom.  

It's that kind of complexity that makes Thomas Jefferson so fascinating for historian and performer Bill Barker. He’s been bringing Jefferson to life for 35 years.

"Jefferson is pretty extensive in all of his interests and achievements and his own personal history, relevant to our nation as well," Barker said. "It’s been a delightful vocation, and I can safely say after all of these years, I have never found Jefferson boring."

Barker will portray Jefferson at the main tent during High Plains Chautauqua on Thursday, Aug. 4. This year’s theme is "The Power of Inspiration," featuring visionary figures from western civilization, including Michelangelo, Catherine the Great, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Martin Luther King, Jr., Herman Melville and many others.

Find the complete2016 schedule of events here.

Credit courtesy of Bill Barker
Bill Barker as Thomas Jefferson, pictured here with Mark Schneider as Napoleon

Interview Highlights Chautauqua performer Bill Barker

On Jefferson’s Historical Legacy

(Speaking as Thomas Jefferson) "I cannot deny it is an honor to be considered one of the founders of our nation, but I emphasize 'one.' I am not solely responsible for the creation of these United States of America. No one would ever want to ignore His Excellency, Gen. George Washington, nor the other gentlemen that helped me collaborate in drafting our declaration – by that I mean Dr. Benjamin Franklin and Mr. John Adams. Where may I end? We continue with my nemesis, Gen. Alexander Hamilton, without whom – rest assured – our Constitution might not have been so productive in its very beginning; and with an opportunity to be corrected. There were so many of us that collaborated together – but realizing, as I wrote in my first inaugural address, 'As an American, a difference of opinion ought never be a difference of principle.'"

On Why Jefferson Was A Master Communicator

"In 1776, when he was drafting our Declaration of Independence, the purpose was not to introduce anything new or original, but rather to revisit the wisdom of the past. And because most people could not read and would not be familiar with the writings of Aristotle, Cicero, Algernon Sidney, John Locke – which he mentions are the foundation of our declaration of American independence – his challenge was to shed the lofty sophisms of these ancient authors, explain it in clear and simple terms so that everyone could comprehend it."

On handling Tough Questions About Jefferson’s Controversial Background

"[I handle it] by keeping the controversy going. It’s very Jeffersonian. He had a thin skin for politics, he truly did, but he was a master at politics. Early on, he came to realize it is the controversy that really provokes people, moves people to - first and foremost - voice their opinions, and then to take action."

As the host of KUNC’s new program and podcast In the NoCo, I work closely with our producers and reporters to bring context and diverse perspectives to the important issues of the day. Northern Colorado is such a diverse and growing region, brimming with history, culture, music, education, civic engagement, and amazing outdoor recreation. I love finding the stories and voices that reflect what makes NoCo such an extraordinary place to live.
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