October 2012

An imperfect Jefferson

By Henry Wiencek
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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.

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