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).