Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves. By Henry Wiencek. FSG. 352 pages. $28.
What does it mean to be an American? At the conclusion of a highly contentious presidential election campaign, it is a question on the minds of those who now worry about the future of the United States as well as those who believe that we are on a path to further fulfilling our promise as a nation.
There is anxiety because Americans believe that being American is special. Indeed, the notion of American exceptionalism is founded on the image of Americans as clever, innovative, and compassionate defenders of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” at home and abroad. Given this moment of collective introspection about who we are as a people, it seems appropriate that the life and times of Thomas Jefferson again should figure in our national discourse.
Dubbed the “American Sphinx” by historian Joseph Ellis, long-simmering scholarly debates about Jefferson recently have spilled over into the editorial pages of The New York Times and other periodicals and websites. Henry Wiencek’s “Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves” and “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, by Jon Meacham” offer differing perspectives on the Founding Father.
While Meacham’s work has been described as a “folksy best-seller,” Wiencek’s less charitable account has prompted the most discussion. If titles are to be believed, much of the debate concerns whether or not Jefferson was a monster. In a New York Times op-ed entitled “The Monster of Monticello,” legal historian Paul Finkelman described Jefferson as a “creepy, brutal hypocrite.” Harvard historian Annette Gordon-Reed, whose work led to the revelation of stronger evidence of a relationship and offspring between Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings, penned an October article for Slate with the title, “Thomas Jefferson Was Not a Monster.”
Of the voices in the current debate, Gordon-Reed’s seems best informed and most at ease with the profound contradictions of the American Sphinx.
Much to Gordon-Reed’s dismay, Wiencek pounces upon Jefferson’s inconsistencies for dramatic effect. “Master of the Mountain” reads as something of a historical whodunit, even though the reader knows who is the perpetrator from the outset. It is no revelation that Jefferson owned slaves, that he likely fathered children by one of those slaves, and even that some of those slaves endured the harsh treatment — including the lash — that marked the peculiar institution.
What shocks Wiencek, and in turn what he wants to distress the reader, is that Jefferson was a rapacious and unrepentant participant in the abominable enterprise of chattel slavery. Wiencek’s Jefferson was unbothered by the business of trading humans, destroying families and breeding a new labor force for which he did not have to pay in order to keep him comfortably ensconced in his salon on the top of the hill.
Near the end of the book, Wiencek describes Jefferson’s relationship with his slaves as “perverse,” in the process explicitly rejecting more measured terms such as “complex” or “paradoxical.”
Though Wiencek cautions against “presentism” in judging Jefferson’s time and actions by modern standards, he nevertheless uses this historian’s hazard to promote an image of Jefferson that resonates with the modern reader. Jefferson appears as a proto-investment banker as he leverages his slaves to borrow money from an Amsterdam lender to fund renovations at Monticello.
On the question of slavery itself, he employs the politician’s skill of tailoring his message to his audience. Instead of a demi-god of independence, Jefferson comes across as just another political hack who always avoids the difficult choices.
In another passage in which Wiencek draws parallels with the present, we see an “Occupy Virginia” movement confront the established 1 percent represented by Jefferson. Wiencek tells the story of Edward Coles, an idealistic wealthy young Virginian who sought Jefferson’s counsel in seeking to hasten the emancipation of his states enslaved population.
Jefferson’s reply, cloaked in flattery and Christian piety, urged Coles to work “softly but steadily” but that the time had not yet come for emancipation. Equally important, Jefferson noted, slaves were “by their habits rendered as incapable as children of taking care of themselves.” Free blacks, he noted, were “pests in society by their idleness.” Coles ignores Jefferson’s advice to go slow and frees and resettles his own slaves on the western frontier.
To further sharpen Jefferson’s reluctance to fully embrace emancipation, Wiencek contrasts Jefferson with George Washington, who was the subject of one of his earlier works, “An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America.”
Though family opposition prevented him from freeing his slaves until after his death, Washington ultimately was on the right side of the slavery question, Wiencek implies. Jefferson, on the other hand, sought to game the system for as long as possible, even going so far as manumitting adults while retaining ownership of their more valuable children.
Through Wiencek’s account, a picture emerges during this holiday season of Jefferson as Scrooge, applying his ample intellect to micromanaging the production and reproduction of his human inventory.
As valuable as they were to Jefferson, his slaves inhabit only a half-space in the book. “Master of the Mountain” opens with the story of Peter Fossett, one of the articles of property on the books who was sold at Jefferson’s death. Wiencek’s accounts of Fossett, Madison Hemings, and even Sally Hemings fail to provide a weighty counterbalance to the book’s coverage of Jefferson. Despite Wiencek’s efforts to build slave stories into the narrative, they nevertheless appear underdeveloped in comparison to those of the Master.
To be charitable, this may be a function of the limited historical record, but the just-below-surface-level treatment of the lives of slaves and their progeny makes Wiencek’s story appear incomplete, as if we don’t fully know one of the main characters.
What is missing in “Master of the Mountain” is best summed up in an observation by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his book “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?”:
“Being a Negro in America means trying to smile when you want to cry. It means trying to hold on to physical life amid psychological death. It means the pain of watching you children grow up with clouds of inferiority in their mental skies. It means having your legs cut off, and then being condemned for being a cripple. It means seeing your mother and father spiritually murdered by the slings and arrows of daily exploitation, and then being hated for being an orphan.”
King not only captures the perspective of the vibrant parallel society that is missing in Wiencek, but he also supplies a critical, often missing, piece to answer the recurring question: What does it mean to be an American?
From his perch in Monticello, Jefferson is responsible for much of the pain described by King. Jefferson the slave breeder and destroyer of families was very real. But what are we to make of Jefferson the writer of the Declaration of Independence? Jefferson the author of the lost section of the Declaration denouncing the slave trade that was ordered removed by representatives from South Carolina and Georgia?
Annette Gordon-Reed is partially right in asserting that Jefferson was not a monster. He engaged in a monstrous trade, even when viewed through the eyes of his contemporaries, and all for his benefit and comfort.
Yet Jefferson also gave voice to a radical idea that, when put into practice, has improved lives around the world. This combination of perversion and promise, of barbarity amidst refinement, is perhaps what explains our continuing fascination with Thomas Jefferson.
More than any other Founding Father, he personifies what it means to be American. Jefferson may indeed be as evil as Wiencek makes him out to be, but he is also worthy of the adulation he has received. This comprehensive view of Jefferson may be unsatisfying in our Manichean age of absolutes, but if we are truly to understand what it means to be American, we must take Jefferson in full.
In his lifetime, we see the character of our country. We may not like all of it, but we would do well to understand it.
Reviewer John Simpkins is a Fellow in Comparative Constitutional Law at the Charleston School of Law.