Is there anything new to say about Thomas Jefferson and slavery? The answer is a resounding yes. 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.
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?
©2012 Henry Wiencek. Recorded by arrangement with Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved. (P)2012 HighBridge Company
"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." (Publishers Weekly)
"Well-rendered yet deeply unsettling.... Wiencek scours the primary sources...for a thoughtful reexamination of what was really going on behind the harmonious facade of the great house on the mountain.... Beautifully constructed reflections and careful sifting of Jefferson's thoughts and deeds." (Kirkus Reviews)
Wiencek's take on Jefferson is factual, direct, and anchored in first hand accounts, including those from Jefferson's own Farm Book. But it is a damning account, and is intended to counteract our tradition of excusing Jefferson's slaveholding or overshadowing it with his Enlightenment ideals about Liberty. We like to tell ourselves that Jefferson was a reluctant slaveholder, who tried to make the most humanistic version of this inhuman practice, but Wiencek will not allow us the comfort of doing so. He makes his case for Jefferson the willing master, who continued to enforce the institution of slavery to the end of his life, and who refused to work directly for its abolition even when he could have and was asked to. Wiencek refuses to let a paragraph, even a sentence, go by in his book without reminding us of the stain that this casts on our image of Jefferson. In terms of style, this (over)emphasis is a bit tedious and difficult to slog through for the course of the book. But, someone has to do it, and I commend Wiencek for taking the unpopular position and for pricking our consciences when what we would like to do is glorify the legacy of a great thinker and leader. Not a fun book to read, not uplifting, but also not untrue, and not insignificant even for Jefferson lovers.
The Civil War by Shelby Foote
Master of the Mountain is more than a study of Jefferson and his treatment of his slaves. Jefferson defined the aspirations of liberty and human equality of the American revolution. But his ability to give expression to those worthy aspirations contrasted sharply with exploitative and oppressive practices that he quietly encouraged and in some ways made unavoidable by his reluctance to regard the enslaved as anything but property, (with few exceptions). Part of this story is the running, building up and financing of Monticello. Another part is his relationship with Sally Hemings. Still another part of this story, is how historians have colluded to burnish Jefferson's image, by sanitizing accounts of his relations to his slaves, and his policies. How the relationship between Hemings and Jefferson became practically irrefutable is explained (I was not previously aware of the controversy). The treatment of this relationship by biographers since Jefferson is related, but especially the story of the breakthrough in the 1990s, is told, and is fascinating in itself. The narration was excellent. I couldn't put it down.
The book is a paradox. It is a 11 hour filibuster on the Jefferson behind the mask.
Thomas Jefferson wanted to be remembered for what he believe not what he did. Jefferson was his own PR man ever conscious of his image.
On one hand he wanted the slaves freed. But the reality was he needed them...they were his bread and butter. His ideas about them mirrored the times. They were collateral for loans, workers and to satisfy his needs. He preached against intermingling but anyone visiting his plantation saw he didn't practice what he preached.
He paints himself in the image of the benevolent father figure. But if quotas were not met, he was not against the whip. The overseer did his dirty work.
The author waivers between calling him on his hypocritical ways and excusing his slavery.
In the middle of his summation, the author abruptly quits. I had to make sure I did miss anything. As quickly as he began he was done.
The only redeeming part of the book was learning of his analytical way he set about life. The mansion had some every innovative things for the time.
Jefferson was a hypocrite and any of his 600 slaves could testify to that if they were alive.
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