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?
About Henry Wiencek
Henry Wiencek, a nationally prominent historian and writer, is the author of several books, including The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1999, and An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (FSG, 2003). He lives with his wife and son in Charlottesville, Virginia.
That Jefferson was riven by contradictions as both a passionate advocate of liberty and a dedicated slave owner is not new to scholars and historians. Yet Wiencek (An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, 2003, etc.) scours the primary sources, such asThomas Jefferson’s Farm Book, for a thoughtful reexamination of what was really going on behind the harmonious facade of the great house on the mountain. So much about Monticello was artful, full of contrivances, contraptions, inventions and labyrinths. It was an innovative and eccentric place, tricking the eye and keeping the visitor somewhat off balance. Wiencek does note some of the times when the facade was broken: “In one instance, a gentleman dining with Mr. Jefferson, looked so startled as he raised his eyes from the latter to the servant behind him, that his discovery of the resemblance was perfectly obvious to all.” Indeed, all the slaves at Monticello were related to one another, descendants of matriarch “Betty” Hemings, who had been the concubine of Martha Jefferson’s father, rendering Betty’s many children by him, including Sally, her own half siblings. Rather reluctantly, Wiencek looks at the substance behind the scandal of Sally and Jefferson’s reputed liaison and admits solid evidence. The author thoroughly examines Jefferson’s writings, such as Notes on the State of Virginia, for his problematic theories on race, miscegenation and human bondage, and he marvels at the man’s ability to justify what he called an “execrable commerce.” Slave suicides, runaways, whippings by his overseers and his furtive freeing of Sally’s two oldest children—the secrets and evasions compounded one another. Yes, Jefferson inherited slavery, but he knew better. – Kirkus Reviews
“Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves” by Henry Wiencek
The Washington Post Book Review – October 13, 2012 (Excerpt)
“On the first day of April in 1819,” Henry Wiencek writes, “a group of seventeen slaves left a plantation in the mountains south of Charlottesville . . . bound for a distant destination.” Leading their way was a 32-year-old white man named Edward Coles, “a wealthy, politically prominent Virginian” who no longer could resist the call of conscience and was taking his slaves to freedom in Illinois, where he gave each head of family 160 acres of land and where he himself was to settle. One of his family’s friends was Thomas Jefferson, the former president and author of the Declaration of Independence, whom Coles had attempted to persuade to join this undertaking. He “did not ask Jefferson to free his [own] slaves immediately, but to formulate a general emancipation plan for Virginia and lay it before the public, backed by his immense prestige.” Coles approached Jefferson with deference, Wiencek writes:
“Referring to Jefferson as one of ‘the revered fathers of all our political and social blessings’ and extolling the ‘valor, wisdom and virtue [that] have done so much in ameliorating the condition of mankind,’ Coles then sharpened his pen and thrust it straight at the Founder: ‘it is a duty, as I conceive, that devolves particularly on you, to put into complete practice those hallowed principles contained in that renowned Declaration, of which you were the renowned author, and on which we founded our right to resist oppression and establish our freedom and independence.” [Read the full article...]
‘Master’ Jefferson: Defender Of Liberty, Then Slavery
NPR Book Review – October 18, 2012 (Excerpt)
His public words have inspired millions, but for scholars, his private words and deeds generate confusion, discomfort, apologetic excuses. When the young Thomas Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” there’s compelling evidence to indicate that he indeed meant all men, not just white guys.
But by the 1780s, Jefferson’s views on slavery in America had mysteriously shifted. He formulated racial theories asserting, for instance, that African women had mated with apes; Jefferson financed the construction of Monticello by using the slaves he owned — some 600 during his lifetime — as collateral for a loan he took out from a Dutch banking house; and when he engineered the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Jefferson pushed for slavery in that territory. By 1810, Jefferson had his eye fixed firmly on the bottom line, disparaging a relative’s plan to sell his slaves by saying, “It [would] never do to destroy the goose.” [Read the full article...]
Some Scholars Reject Dark Portrait of Jefferson
The New York Times Book Review – November 26, 2012 (Excerpt)
Henry Wiencek suspected he would be in for a rough ride when “Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves,” his scathing assessment of America’s third president, was published last month. But just how rough he may not have realized.
True, Mr. Wiencek, an independent scholar, has received the kind of attention most authors can only dream of: book excerpts on the covers of both Smithsonian and American History magazines, a C-Span interview at Monticello, almost universally glowing reviews from nonspecialists. (Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post called the book “brilliant,” while Laura Miller of Salon hailed it as one “every American should read.”)
But the Jefferson scholars who have weighed in have subjected “Master of the Mountain” (published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux) to a fierce barrage of criticism, blasting away at Mr. Wiencek’s evidence, interpretations and claims to originality. Reviewing the book in Slate, Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor of history and law at Harvard and the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning study “The Hemingses of Monticello,” declared that it “fails as a work of scholarship,” recklessly misreading documents and dismissing other scholars in pursuit of a “journalistic obsession with ‘the scoop.’ ” Jan Ellen Lewis, a historian at Rutgers University, writing in The Daily Beast, was even blunter, denouncing the book as a “train wreck,” written by a man “so blinded by his loathing of Thomas Jefferson that he can’t see” contrary evidence “right in front of his eyes.” [Read the full article...]
The Monster of Monticello
The New York Times Opinion Pages – November 30, 2012 (Excerpt)
HOMAS JEFFERSON is in the news again, nearly 200 years after his death — alongside a high-profile biography by the journalist Jon Meacham comes a damning portrait of the third president by the independent scholar Henry Wiencek.
We are endlessly fascinated with Jefferson, in part because we seem unable to reconcile the rhetoric of liberty in his writing with the reality of his slave owning and his lifetime support for slavery. Time and again, we play down the latter in favor of the former, or write off the paradox as somehow indicative of his complex depths.
Neither Mr. Meacham, who mostly ignores Jefferson’s slave ownership, nor Mr. Wiencek, who sees him as a sort of fallen angel who comes to slavery only after discovering how profitable it could be, seem willing to confront the ugly truth: the third president was a creepy, brutal hypocrite. [Read the full article...]
The Vertical Land – Book Two of the Richard Finch Series
A Gay Erotic Thriller by Max Markham
1982, London: James Graveney (now a Lieutenant-Colonel) and Richard Finch (now promoted to Captain), the heroes of Book One of the Richard Finch Series, The Indigo Bird, have both had a “good war” in the Falklands, serving respectively with the Fusiliers and the Special Air Service (SAS). So has James’s dynamic wife, Tori, a researcher, who was also caught up in the war. Now they all have to come back to earth with a bump. James is a Lieutenant-Colonel without a command; Richard’s attachment to the SAS has come to an end.
Fate comes to their rescue. James is unexpectedly posted to Nairobi as Military Attaché to the amiable British High Commissioner, Sir Tom Sheridan. A bloody coup in August 1982 ensures that no-one but Richard wants the job of James’s Assistant Military Attaché. James may be married and outwardly respectable; Richard may be professionally ambitious, but it is not long before the two friends are caught up in a series of adventures – amorous, erotic and positively dangerous – in Kenya and Sudan.
Once more Max Markham provides a rollercoaster of shocks and surprises against backdrops ranging from sophisticated London to raffish Nairobi, to mercilessly beautiful and dangerous remote, up-country Africa.
The Vertical Land is available at Amazon.Com incl. the US Kindle version, Amazon.co.uk incl. the UK Kindle version, Barnes & Noble, and any other good bookstore.