Judging Mister J

Published:November 1, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

A few months back we noted the impending publication of Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves by Henry Wiencek: “We expect that Wiencek’s book will provide for lively discussion among Jefferson and slavery scholars.”

We were right, it turns out. Wiencek, an Encyclopedia Virginia contributor and friend of this blog, paints a particularly unforgiving portrait of Jefferson as a calculating businessman who profited off his slaves even while pretending to favor their emancipation. Wiencek also dismisses historians like Joseph J. Ellis who chalk up the hypocrisy of Jefferson to some kind of paradox. How could Jefferson simultaneously write the Declaration of Independence and own slaves?

Who knows? It’s a paradox!

Such thinking, Wiencek writes, “can offer a comforting state of moral suspended animation,” one that allows us to escape the awkwardness of moral judgment. But the alternative is not about, or only about, judging Jefferson, Wiencek suggests; it’s about judging ourselves as Americans—something we are notoriously reluctant to do. On the book’s final page he quotes the great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (who, as it happens, was the father of Wiencek’s editor): “we are (according to our traditional theory) the most innocent nation on earth,” Niebuhr wrote.

If Jefferson was not as innocent as we had thought, then none of us are. That, I think, is Wiencek’s thesis.

And it has provoked lively responses everywhere from the local press here in Charlottesville to the American ScholarPublisher’s WeeklySalon, the Washington Post, and the Daily Beast—and these reviews, written by scholars and non-scholars alike, have represented wildly divergent opinions.

Laura Miller, a first-rate literary critic for Salonadmits that “I rarely find myself recommending a book that has, at points, made me physically nauseated, but that’s how palpably Wiencek conveys the obscenity of slavery.” As such, she declares, “Every American should read it.” Miller approvingly notes the manner in which Wiencek presents the facts, “allowing the reader to form her own interpretation before he presents his.”

Annette Gordon-Reed apparently disagrees. The award-winning author of The Hemingses of Monticello (2009) writes in Slate that Wiencek’s book provides nothing new to the study of Jefferson and slavery, and faults his use of sources. While Wiencek states that Jefferson calculated a personal yearly gain of 4 percent on his slave investment—this came from women having babies, and according to Wiencek it provided a powerful motivation for Jefferson to maintain his investment—Gordon-Reed counters that Jefferson was making a back-of-the-envelope calculation while living far from home and away from his books. He later even distanced himself from that number.

The great thing about Wiencek’s book and Gordon-Reed’s review is that they point readers to particular primary sources. As readers, we can go find them ourselves and make our own judgments. This is not to say that the response to Master of the Mountain has been dispassionate. To the contrary! There’s nothing dispassionate about feeling “physically nauseated” and then announcing that every American should read the book. And there was nothing dispassionate about a review published in the Daily Beast by Jan Ellen Lewis, a history professor at Rutgers University. She calls Master of the Mountain a “train wreck of a book,” presenting as new what is actually old information. “Wiencek really seems to have trouble seeing what’s before his eyes,” Lewis writes, “even when it’s in black and white, and on a computer where you can adjust the font size.”

In an interview with the Hook, a weekly paper in Charlottesville, Wiencek suggests that his book’s detractors are threatened by unflattering portrayals of their hero. Lewis levels a similar criticism at Wiencek, wondering whether he “is so blinded by his loathing of Thomas Jefferson that he cannot see what is right in front of his eyes.” In the comments section of Lewis’s review, she and Wiencek continue to trade barbs, arguing over the “4 percent” question and even over whether Monticello was high enough up to be in the clouds (Wiencek says yes, Lewis says no).

In the meantime, Lucia C. Stanton, the retired chief historian at Monticello and author of “Those Who Labor for My Happiness”: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (2012), wrote a blistering letter to the Hook, charging that Wiencek “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.

In citing “some reviewers,” Stanton is likely referring to a piece published in the American Scholar by T. H. Breen, a history professor at Northwestern University. Although Wiencek’s book has it correct, Breen mistakenly has Jefferson ordering a whipping of the nailery boys. Breen’s review is positive, comparing Wiencek to a prosecutor, “hammering away at the evasions, rationalizations, and lies that have preserved Jefferson’s reputation as a profoundly decent man trapped by the conventions of his own times.” Stanton also compares Wiencek to a prosecutor, but one who is overcome by “fervor.”

In an equally blistering response to Stanton, Wiencek denies thinking of himself as a prosecutor. He then takes up this issue of the nailery:

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.

While keeping up with these back-and-forths, it can be easy to forget that something larger is at stake here—larger than winning the argument on what the primary resources say, larger even than Thomas Jefferson’s reputation. As Niebuhr understood, we’re arguing about ourselves, our own relationship to the past and to the crimes that we, the people, committed. Judging Jefferson’s relative guilt or innocence may be reductive, but it’s also crucial in understanding our peculiar relationship to both slavery and freedom.

IMAGES: A detail from the front cover of Master of the Mountain; portrait of Jefferson by Thaddeus Kosciuszko, ca. 1789–1799 (Library of Congress); Isaac (Granger) Jefferson (University of Virginia Library, Special Collections)