From the New York Times comes an interesting article on the firestorm of controversy ignited by Henry Wiencek’s Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves, which I examined in an earlier post. Apparently, there is something new to be said about this book as professional historians dog-pile on Wiencek, an independent scholar who has written other impressive books such as An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America. Frankly, the contretemps appears to me as another bout of professional jealously that rears its ugly head when a non-professional historian (i.e. someone outside the world of tenured professors in the academy) scores with readers who transform his or her book into a popular tome. Read Wiencek’s blog responses here. They are as enlightening as the article. Equally tantalizing are arguments that Wiencek’s dark view of Jefferson is an exaggeration. Are representatives of the neo-patriotic school of historiography alive and well in academe? The pendulum swings back when it comes to historical opinion and I wonder if a Jefferson renaissance is in the wings.
Tag Archives: Monticello
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.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture and The Thomas Jefferson Foundation have collaborated in presenting a Washington, D.C., exhibit examining the complex and often contradictory life of slaves at Jefferson’s home Monticello. “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty,” opened today in the NMAAHC Gallery at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History on the National Mall. It looks at not only the lives of slaves during Jefferson’s lifetime but also the successor generations who went on to become leading figures in politics and the civil rights movement.
The New York Times story about the display raises one of the more popular and controversial moral questions surrounding Jefferson and slavery: It’s easy to call the man who wrote “all men are created equal” a hypocrite, far more difficult to prove the accusation. “What does it mean that such a man not only held slaves but also devoted considerable attention to their status, their mode of life and, yes, their profitability? What was the connection between his ideals and the blunt reality?” the story asks. “These are not just biographical questions; they are national ones.”
I hope to see the display sometime this summer. It looks like one of the better museum-based efforts to examine Jefferson and the world of his slaves, the world of Monticello slaves and their problematic master who was also the American Pen of Liberty.