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

master of the mountain

I heard the end of Henry Wiencek’s appearance on Fresh Air (NPR) and, even though I generally am not intrigued by American history, he caught my attention.  A little over a year ago I read a book about slavery in the Caribbean (also something I had heard on Fresh Air), Sugar in the Blood, and the author argued that newcomers to the islands were first repelled by the face of slavery, but, over time, became inured to it and then became its proponents.  This is the phenomenon Wiencek describes for Jefferson.  His Jefferson starts off young and progressive, then slowly rationalizes the institution that supported his lifestyle and that of his children and grandchildren.  His story read like a novel and kept me fascinated through nearly every page.

Wiencek draws heavily on letters and holds them against Jefferson’s public statements and his economic records.  His Jefferson first believes that neither the slave owners nor the slaves are ready for freedom and comes to believe that his slaves owe him for the debts he and his family had incurred.   His Jefferson embraces “amelioration” through which he trained a corps of slaves in artisanal trades, granted greater levels of freedom to those slaves to whom he was related (the Hemings were his wife’s half-siblings), and kept those slaves who toiled in the fields at a safe distance.  Wiencek’s Jefferson cannot escape the 4% return that his slaves offered (and which he counseled his fellow plantation owners to cultivate).  His Jefferson rails against miscegenation while granting privileges to his wife’s half-siblings and fathering children with Sally Hemings.

“Jefferson appears out of focus because he was not static; we are seeing a process unfolding.  There was the young man, heir to the slave system, who planted a common cemetery for blacks and whites with a monument that condemned his own mastery.  There was the fiery revolutionary who denounced the “execrable commerce” of the slave trade, declared that Africans possessed natural rights, and then in 1785 sold thirty-one slaves to keep his creditors at bay.”  This is the crux of the first half of Master and the Mountain.

The second half of the work digs further into historiography.  How has Jefferson’s image been propagated and defended?  Wiencek takes a long look at the Sally Hemings incident (perhaps too long) and puts the major players on the field, but it’s in his conclusion that his focus on Sally becomes clear.  Why didn’t the Sally Hemings DNA revelation sink Jefferson, Wiencek asks and concludes that even today Sally Hemings is covering for Jefferson.  Jefferson the slave owner who wrote the most famous words of freedom became Jefferson the tortured romantic who suffered ill-fated love and was the victim of historical forces beyond his control. Wiencek notes the syntax of work on Jefferson–the soaring active verbs for his relationship to the Revolution and westward expansion and the passive verbs of his relationship to slavery and the politics around it.  Our desire to avoid reality drives our need to keep Jefferson pure.  “Jefferson’s unchangeable symbolic role,” he argues, “is to make slavery safe.”  And, by extension, to continue to make white America safe in its vision of itself.

Finished 3/2/15

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