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

Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire–Andrea Stuart

 sugar in the blood

I first heard of this book on public radio’s Fresh Air.  The idea of trying to trace the history of people who left no records intrigued me.  Women’s historians do this all the time, particularly for premodern women or non-elite women and I wondered how this would look when taken to the Caribbean and the world of the sugar plantation.

Andrea Stuart attempts to trace her family, but faces several handicaps.  Part of her maternal family came to Barbados from England.  That branch was not the most difficult, but offered several challenges.  Part of her maternal family came to Barbados enslaved from Africa and this offered much more difficulty, as I have heard from friends who have attempted smaller-scale family histories.  Her story becomes so engaging that it was only in the last chapters that I realized the book was about her maternal family and her paternal family only comes into play in the last pages and with little fanfare because so little is known and so much of the general slave narrative had been told.

When Stuart runs into gaps in the documentary record of her own family, she uses well-known accounts of others in similar or somewhat similar circumstances and times.  Sometimes she is pushed to use sources from later times and extrapolate backward.  Much of her story is contingent.  This may have been the way, this may have been the reason, the feeling, the result.  Welcome to the world of telling the story of the underrepresented, the faceless majority.  And this is just for her planter ancestors.

Her slave ancestors come into the picture when her planter ancestor chooses to become involved in a relationship with a slave women and elevate the resulting child (one of many illegitimate children he fathered with one of many slave women).  He enters the plantation’s records as property to be inventoried.  This record is harsher than the passenger list that records her English ancestor and starts the story, but tells us as little about his dreams and his judgments of what was going on around him.

Neither European nor African ancestors are completely free in this story–both differently circumscribed by the institution of slavery, but even earlier, pushed by economic and political circumstances beyond their control and trying to eek out a living in a harsh colonial environment.  

In the midst of her family’s story, Stuart mingles in the story of sugar, of slavery, of Haiti and Jamaica, of bits of the United States, and of England and France.  Once the narrative get underway somewhere in chapter two, the dance between these narratives is mostly logical and nearly seamless.  From these stories I learned many new connections of which I should have been aware, but was not.  Putting these complex connections in the context of the Ashby family story made heavy analysis fun and that is a good thing.

I do, however, have a few critiques.  At times, Stuart dives into side histories that are very interesting and in which she becomes very involved, but that threaten to overwhelm the family story that is part of her title.  The book contains some footnotes and a fairly lengthy bibliography, but Stuart’s inconsistent use of quotations is troubling to an academic and, I think, any reader.  In most chapters she gives the author’s last name and the quote, even if not footnoted, but in the first chapter and in a couple of later chapters, she says merely something like “according to a historian xxxx.”  I understand the impulse to avoid overwhelming the reader with a litany of names, but this is just bad practice.  If what the author said was important enough to quote, they are important enough to name.  This is respectful to the author whose words she is quoting as well as the reader, who may wish to follow up and read more from the quoted author.  My last critique is also in the first chapter and it was nearly enough to cause me to give up reading the book.  The first chapter of any work is crucial in terms of engaging the reader.  The reader has to be in the story enough to continue reading.  This book is trying to accomplish a lot, but the first chapter may not be the place to roll all of that out.  Introduce us to the family.  Set the stage for the opening scenes.  Tease us about where the plot is going.  Do no try to give us all of the historical background we will need to follow the story in the first chapter.  I love history.  This is not about history.  It is about too many narrative threads.  Unless one is Tolkien, keep the introduction what the name implies–an introduction.  

One last note is not to do with Stuart, but with my own field.  The back cover of the paperback quotes The Independent as saying this is a magisterial work of history.  Stuart has an English degree and has written a biography.  Historians are ceding their place to journalists and technical writers when it comes to popular history and this must stop.  Such authors are free to write history.  The more history in circulation, the better.  But professionally trained historians, who understand the importance of naming historians one is quoting, who use accepted historical methods, need to also speak to the masses about how we interpret history.  

Ultimately, I will pass this book along to several friends, but with the caveat to feel free to skim in the first chapter and catch up on the background information later once they have a good sense of where they are.  What comes later is worth the effort.

Finished 6/10/14