The October edition of Smithsonian Magazine has an expansive essay based on chapters from Henry Wiencek’s Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves. Archaeologists at Monticello have been working for more than a decade to show that the topic of Jefferson and his relationship with the humans he enslaved is far from completely known, and the excerpt from the new book emphasizes the life of young boys who worked at the nailery, which was one of the many cottage industries Jefferson operated in an effort to turn a profit.
The paradox of slaveowning Jefferson the author of the Declaration of Independence is old ground covered by many historians. “One cannot question the genuineness of Jefferson’s liberal dreams,” writes historian David Brion Davis. “He was one of the first statesmen in any part of the world to advocate concrete measures for restricting and eradicating Negro slavery.” But in the 1790s, Davis continues, “the most remarkable thing about Jefferson’s stand on slavery is his immense silence.” Wiencek contends that from the 1790s onward Jefferson also openly embraced rough treatment of slaves in an effort to increase profits from his various enterprises like the nailery, rejected opportunities including a generous inheritance from an old Revolutionary War friend specifically bequeathed for the purpose of purchasing the freedom of his slaves and providing for their new lives, and ordered the whipping of children who failed in their tasks. It is not a flattering portrayal.
What is amazing in the essay is that the information is nothing new, just more clearly examined. Most of the documentary evidence cited has been known for half a century. But the reputation of Jefferson the Apostle of Liberty even led one historian to suppress letters he found that detailed Jefferson’s brutal treatment of young slaves in an effort to motivate production. George Washington is offered as a model of a privileged, slave-holding individual from the Founding Generation who eventually freed his slaves and believed that the United States could become a nation where the races lived side-by-side. He does what Jefferson would not do.
The Virginia abolitionist Moncure Conway once commented on Jefferson’s enduring reputation as a would-be emancipator by dryly noting, “Never did a man achieve more fame for what he did not do.” More than just sentimental respect for the myth of Thomas Jefferson motivates me to continue my admiration for what he created intellectually (the promises of the Declaration) and physically (the astoundingly beautiful spaces at Monticello and the University of Virginia). However, it appears Wiencek’s new book does offer us something new: A fresh chance to decide whether Jefferson is a paradox or a profiteer when it comes to his role in the perpetuation of chattel slavery in the South.