Saturday, November 3, 2012

Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves by Henry Wiencek

Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012) by award-winning historian Henry Wiencek is making a big splash. The publisher's description of the book follows.
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? 
Here are two endorsements of the book.

“[A] brilliant examination of the dark side of the man who gave the world the most ringing declarations about human liberty, yet in his own life repeatedly violated the principles they expressed . . . [Until now] the emphasis has focused narrowly on the Jefferson-Hemings ménage rather than on Jefferson as slaveowner. Now the record has been corrected, to devastating effect.” —Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post
“Master of the Mountain is bound to cause a firestorm. It completely upends our view of Jefferson and his attitudes on freedom, slavery, and wealth. It’s a tough-minded book by a master craftsman, completely convincing and a joy to read.” —Richard Ben Cramer, author of What It Takes: The Way to the White House

Wiencek's book has garnered both glowing reviews and harsh critiques. See, for instance, Fergus Bordewich's recent analysis in the Wall St. J. Book Rev. "Jefferson has generally gotten a pass even from liberals, who lionize him as the founder of the forerunner of the Democratic Party,"  Bordewich writes, "as well as from historians who have been all too eager to describe him as a generous, enlightened and reluctant master."  Wiencek's book, the reviewer asserts, is a game changer. "Henry Wiencek brings into focus a side of Jefferson that Americans have largely failed—or not cared—to see. This book will change forever the way that we think about the author of the Declaration of Independence," Bordwich asserts. Now consider this devastating critique of Wiencek's book by Jan Ellen Lewis, published in the Daily Beast Book Review. Lewis calls Master of the Mountain a "train wreck." "Far better books than this have already been written about slavery at Monticello," she writes, "ones that make you cry instead of guffaw." Blog readers can judge for yourselves which review is closer to the mark.

Wiencek's previous works include The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White (2000), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves and the Creation of America (2003).


Annette Gordon-Reed said...

Please consider my review:

And the public letter of Lucia (Cinder) Stanton, who knows more about Jefferson and slavery than anyone alive

Annette Gordon-Reed

Wiencek misled readers on Jefferson's record

By Letter Writer |
Published online 6:23pm Wednesday Oct 24th, 2012
and in print issue #1144 dated Thursday Nov 1st, 2012
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As the “recently retired” Monticello historian who had “no comment” in Lisa Provence’s cover story [October 18: “Mr. Jefferson’s greed"], I’m moved to speak.  I declined to comment because I had not yet read Henry Wiencek’s Master of the Mountain. I’ve now read excerpts in the October issue of Smithsonian magazine as well as related sections of the book.

As an admirer of Henry Wiencek’s previous work, I was shocked by what I saw: a breathtaking disrespect for the historical record and for the historians who preceded him. With the fervor of a prosecutor, he has played fast and loose with the historical evidence, using truncated quotations, twisting chronology, misinterpreting documents, and misrepresenting events.

In short, he has misled his readers. So much so that, to cite one example, some reviewers now believe that Jefferson “ordered” the whipping of ten-year-old slave boys in the Monticello nailmaking shop. Jefferson actually ordered the manager of the nailery to refrain from using the whip, except “in extremities.” And there were no ten-year-olds in the shop at the time; most were fifteen to eighteen, with two others about to be thirteen and fourteen.

Whipping boys of any age is terrible to contemplate, but we all know that the whip was the universal tool of slave discipline in Virginia. The more interesting point, which Wiencek does not explore, is that Jefferson was experimenting with methods of discipline that might help minimize use of the whip.

One would not know from Wiencek’s book, however, that historians, myself included, have examined slavery at Monticello and written of sales and whippings, not to mention young boys shut up in a hot smoky shop swinging their hammers 20,000 times a day. Yet Wiencek makes no mention of the work of Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Annette Gordon-Reed. And his treatment of the late Edwin M. Betts, editor of Jefferson’s Farm Book (1953), is unfair, to say the least.

He makes a great to-do about Betts’s omission of a sentence that revealed that the “small” nailers were whipped for truancy–- in Jefferson’s absence and without his knowledge. How can he know that Betts “deliberately” suppressed this sentence, in what was a compilation of excerpts, not full letters? Especially when it was Betts who first published the letters that describe troubling events in which Jefferson himself was involved: the flogging of James Hubbard, the selling south of Cary “in terrorem” to his fellow nailers, the addition to capital through slave childbirth. Wiencek fails to mention Betts’s pioneering editorial contributions.

I am angered by Wiencek’s distortion of history as well as disappointed that, with all his talents, he didn’t probe still-unexplored corners of the story of Jefferson and slavery. He has instead used a blunt instrument to reduce complex historical issues to unrecognizable simplicities.

Lucia (Cinder) Stanton 

HSWiencek said...

Allow me to post my response to Cinder Stanton's letter. Both appear in Charlottesville's weekly, The Hook, which ran a feature piece about "Master of the Mountain." I will be responding to Gordon-Reed's critique shortly.

To the Editor:
To back up her accusation that I have misled my readers, Cinder Stanton refers darkly, and very vaguely, to truncated quotations, twisted chronology, unnamed misinterpretations. What are they? I have not misled anyone; nor did I ever think of myself as a prosecutor. I have presented information taken directly from the documents and I stand by my interpretations. As one unsavory piece of information after another surfaced in the documents, I simply lost patience with Jefferson and all his apologists, who have spread a fog of denial over a repugnant system. Stanton and others cling to the fantasy that Jefferson devised a rational, humane, benevolent mode of slavery. Why then was one of his overseers called a "terror" by the other planters in Albemarle County? Why did Jefferson's own relative write, "I fear the poor Negroes fare hard?" Why did Thomas Mann Randolph denounce the plantation system as "a hideous monster"? Stanton knows that quote--she cited another part of Randolph's letter in her recent work but she chose not to mention Randolph's devastating indictment of the horrors he had seen.

It is astonishing that Stanton pounds me for being "unfair" to the late Edwin M. Betts, the editor of Jefferson’s Farm Book, and that she heaps praise on Betts, when it was Betts who misled her and scores of other historians by deliberately--yes, deliberately--deleting a line about "the small ones" being whipped at Jefferson's nail factory. Stanton never knew that Betts had cooked the books until I told her. She never looked at the full text, as I did. So she never knew that for years she had been basing her research on a sanitized document. Now that the full text is before the public, she is scrambling to minimize it because it shakes the foundation of her view of Jefferson. She says the youngest child who got whipped was not ten years old but twelve. Does that change anything? She omits to say that Thomas Mann Randolph, the eyewitness to the whippings, referred to the victims as "the small ones." Stanton says the whippings took place without Jefferson's knowledge; but Randolph told Jefferson about them and Jefferson did nothing to stop it. She also omits to mention that Jefferson specifically instructed the nailery's overseer to extract the maximum productivity from the children: "I hope Lilly keeps the small nailers engaged so as to supply our customers." No wonder Jefferson let the punishments continue.

I'm glad that Stanton brought up the story of James Hubbard, which is very revealing of the psychology of slavery at Monticello. She says, "The more interesting point, which Wiencek does not explore, is that Jefferson was experimenting with methods of discipline that might help minimize use of the whip." In fact I explore those experiments in depth and detail, partly through Hubbard's story. He was one of the "favored" slaves whom Jefferson tried to keep happy and productive by offering him privileges and the chance to earn cash. What did Hubbard do? He ran away. For him, Jefferson's experimental system of "rewards and incentives" was a fraud. He wanted freedom, not submission, not a slightly more comfortable life as a slave.

If "respect" for previous historians means "deference," Stanton is right -- I do not defer to other historians if I think they're wrong. I did not want my book to be an interminable "engagement with the historiography" but a fresh look at Jefferson as a slave master, with new information others have missed or ignored.

Henry Wiencek