Is there anything new to say about Thomas Jefferson and slavery? The answer is a resounding yes. "Master of the Mountain," Henry Wiencek's eloquent, persuasive book--based on new information coming from archaeological work at Monticello and on hitherto overlooked or disregarded evidence in Jefferson's papers--opens up a huge, poorly understood dimension of Jefferson's world.Read more...
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- Thomas Jefferson
Is there anything new to say about Thomas Jefferson and slavery? The answer is a resounding yes. "Master of the Mountain," Henry Wiencek's eloquent, persuasive book--based on new information coming from archaeological work at Monticello and on hitherto overlooked or disregarded evidence in Jefferson's papers--opens up a huge, poorly understood dimension of Jefferson's world. We must, Wiencek suggests, follow the money.
So far, historians have offered only easy irony or paradox to explain this extraordinary Founding Father who was an emancipationist in his youth and then recoiled from his own inspiring rhetoric and equivocated about slavery; who enjoyed his renown as a revolutionary leader yet kept some of his own children as slaves. But Wiencek's Jefferson is a man of business and public affairs who makes a success of his debt-ridden plantation thanks to what he calls the "silent profits" gained from his slaves--and thanks to a skewed moral universe that he and thousands of others readily inhabited. We see Jefferson taking out a slave-equity line of credit with a Dutch bank to finance the building of Monticello and deftly creating smoke screens when visitors are dismayed by his apparent endorsement of a system they thought he'd vowed to overturn. It is not a pretty story. Slave boys are whipped to make them work in the nail factory at Monticello that pays Jefferson's grocery bills. Parents are divided from children--in his ledgers they are recast as money--while he composes theories that obscure the dynamics of what some of his friends call "a vile commerce."
Many people of Jefferson's time saw a catastrophe coming and tried to stop it, but not Jefferson. The pursuit of happiness had been badly distorted, and an oligarchy was getting very rich. Is this the quintessential American story?
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2012-05-28
- Reviewer: Staff
That the author of the Declaration of Independence owned slaves, likely fathered several children with a slave, and used slaves as collateral to borrow funds to build Monticello is widely acknowledged. Historians often explain this paradox by claiming Jefferson was powerless to change the system, accusing those who now criticize Jefferson of “presentism.” Yet NBCC Award–winning historian Wiencek (The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White) reveals that many of Jefferson’s contemporaries, such as Quaker plantation owners in the 1770s and a prominent Virginian, Edward Coles, in 1819, freed their slaves. Coles begged Jefferson to lend his voice to the antislavery movement, as did fellow revolutionaries such as Lafayette and Thomas Paine. But, Wiencek says that the founder who referred to blacks as “degraded and different” with “no place in our country,” had a “fundamental belief in the righteousness of his power.” Jefferson, asserts Wiencek, began to prevaricate about slavery after computing “the silent profit” of 4% per year from the birth of slave children. This meticulous account indicts not only Jefferson but modern apologists who wish to retain him as a moral standard of liberty. Wiencek’s vivid, detailed history casts a new slant on a complex man. 8 pages b&w illus. Agent: Howard Morhaim, Howard Morhaim Literary Agency. (Oct.)
An imperfect Jefferson
It’s one of the great lingering conundrums of American history: How is it that the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence was a lifelong owner of slaves?
George Washington freed his slaves in his will, after his relatives talked him out of doing it during his lifetime. Not Thomas Jefferson, in life or death. Instead, he collateralized them to borrow the money to rebuild Monticello, and left writings that were all over the map: pro-emancipation, anti-emancipation and everything in between.
Before the civil rights movement, historians tended to ignore or cover up the reality of Jefferson’s slave ownership. More recent ones have wrestled with it. Author Henry Wiencek, who wrote about Washington’s decision in An Imperfect God, doesn’t think it’s that complicated. In his persuasive Master of the Mountain, he concludes that Jefferson realized quite quickly that slave ownership could be extremely profitable. He consciously chose money over morality and spent the rest of his life pretending otherwise to his liberal European friends. “Jefferson constantly moved the boundaries on his moral map to make the horrific tolerable to him,” Wiencek writes.
Many of Jefferson’s admirers will find this assessment hard to accept. But Wiencek makes a forceful case through a careful description of Jefferson’s records, letters and actions, as well as memoirs by his former slaves and archaeological findings at Monticello. Wiencek argues that Jefferson wasn’t even a particularly kindly master: He was decent enough—usually—to his house servants, but left his field workers to the mercies of overseers whom he himself acknowledged were thugs.
Wiencek is among those who believe Sally Hemings was Jefferson’s slave-mistress and the mother of several of his children, but he doesn’t buy the theory that their relationship was a heartwarming secret romance. Instead, Wiencek goes through the evidence to show that it was likely a more pragmatic bargain.
Master of the Mountain is a remarkable re-creation of Monticello’s economy and culture, and it’s not a positive one. Whether you agree or disagree with Wiencek’s provocative analysis, it’s a book worth taking seriously as we continue to struggle with slavery’s legacy.