One of my cherished historical role models growing up in rural Virginia during the 1950s and 60s was the tall, red-haired intellectual and revolutionary, Thomas Jefferson. The vast majority of those I grew up with and went to school with were far from being intellectuals (who were commonly put down as “eggheads” or worse) and were not liberals, much less revolutionaries. Dr. King was widely reviled, and some were outright glad when that “nigger-lover” Kennedy was assassinated.
On school trips and with family, I made a number of pilgrimages to Jefferson’s famous home, Monticello, located on a small mountain overlooking Charlottesville. Like countless other visitors, I marveled at the beauty of the architecture and landscaped setting and was fascinated by the still-working labor-saving gadgetry invented by Jefferson. Jefferson’s rather simple, unadorned obelisk of a tomb also impressed me with its inscription listing what he considered his three most important lifetime achievements: authorship of the “Declaration of Independence” and the Virginia “Statute for Religious Freedom” and “father[ing]” of the University of Virginia. All intellectual achievements of the highest liberal order. No mention of his having held the highest political offices in the land.
As I recall from those days of my youth, the official tours of Monticello halted briefly at the outdoor kitchen where black cooks and their assistants slaved for many long hot hard hours producing the gourmet meals over which Jefferson presided that made Monticello famous far and wide for its southern hospitality. Something might have been said by the tour guide about a “faithful” house servant. Otherwise, scarce mention was made of the numerous enslaved Africans — the economic foundation upon whose unpaid labors this whole wonderful edifice was built and maintained and which enabled “Massa Tom” the free time to carry out his diverse intellectual and other activities.*
Henry Wiencek in his 2012 well-researched and highly readable book, Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves, tears this well-kept quasi-sacred image of Jefferson apart once and for all. It is a book on American history that, as one reviewer urged, every American should read.
Jefferson was no minor southern slave-owner. During his lifetime, he was the owner of over 600 human beings on his several tobacco and wheat-raising plantations, buying slaves as investments and selling them off when he needed liquidity. Jefferson kept his own hands clean of administering punishment to laggard or refractory slaves. In a show of gentlemanly paternalism, he might reward a few favored slaves with gratuities; he occasionally forgave some who ran away. Yet, he employed an overseer notorious in the neighborhood for his brutality, and this man of the Enlightenment was fine with having the sub-teen boys laboring in his Monticello nail manufactory whipped to keep production up and profits at the high level he thought reasonable to support his extravagant lifestyle.
Regardless of his accomplishments and his evident sympathies for the (white) yeoman farmers, Jefferson was a life-long ideological racist. He held strong views about the natural inferiority of humans with dark skin color at a time when fellow slave-owner George Washington and some other Founding Fathers north and south had concluded otherwise. Some whom Jefferson held in bondage were his own progeny. Widely rumored in his own lifetime, Jefferson had a slave concubine Sally Hemings, who, in the sick sexual environment of the slave South, was also the half-sister of his dead wife, Martha, whose father had kept a slave concubine on his own Virginia plantation. By Hemings, Jefferson had five or more children, one of whom visitors noted looked remarkably like himself.
Jefferson was adept at talking the talk about slavery being an unfortunate condition — although he generally meant “unfortunate” for the whites who owned them — but he never could walk the walk to do anything about it. While in France during the 1780s as the new nation’s first ambassador and attending soirees with admiring French philosophes who wanted to hear all about the new egalitarian republican society — and some of whom had formed a society for promoting abolition, Société des amis des Noirs — Jefferson dissembled. He maintained that emancipation of the slaves in Virginia was only a matter of time and suggested that he himself was one of its behind-the-scenes advocates.
Back home in the U.S., he made the same kind of encouraging responses to American anti-slavery advocates who wrote him appealing to his vanity as the author of the immortal phrases about all men being created equal and soliciting his support. As Wienick shows, at the very same time while he was issuing those disingenuous statements, he was calculating new ways to extract money from slave labor — which he took as indispensable to his own and his family’s present and future happiness.
Jefferson’s attitude towards blacks have often been defended as the flaws of a man of his times. Yet, some other Southern slave owners of the revolutionary generation, including George Washington, were troubled by the blatant contradiction with professed revolutionary values and emancipated all of their slaves. Jefferson freed only a handful. Never once did Jefferson in the powerful political offices he held at the state and national level seize an opportunity to slow down or bring an end to slavery. Indeed, with the presidential Louisiana Purchase of 1803, he opened a vast new territory to slavery’s expansion which put into motion the forces that would ultimately tear the nation apart.
Mostly, this is not new information in Wienick’s book. The cover was torn off Jefferson’s highly unequal sexual exploitation of Sally Hemings — implausibly turned by Hollywood into a love story — by historian Fawn M. Brodie‘s 1974 psychohistory, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History. Paul Finkelman has thoroughly exposed Jefferson’s rank hypocrisy and total do-nothingism on the slavery question in Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson. What Wiencek does in this new book is to pull the evidence all very neatly together. We will never see Jefferson the same again. Wienick has no patience for the contortions other historians have gone through with the Jefferson “paradox” — lover of liberty, holder of slaves. For him, Jefferson is simply “perverse.”
* In recent years, there have been some changes for the better, incorporating slavery into the official story at Monticello. The slave quarters have been excavated and put on the tour. There is no longer any denial of Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings or of the existence of their common descendants which has been confirmed by DNA evidence. Still, slavery is not the center of the story.
Jay Moore is a radical historian who lives and teaches (when he can find work) in rural Vermont.