Is there anything new to say about Thomas Jefferson and slavery? The answer is a resounding yes. Henry Wiencek's eloquent, persuasive book - based on new information coming from archaeological work at Monticello and on hitherto overlooked or disregarded evidence in Jefferson's papers - opens up a huge, poorly understood dimension of Jefferson's world. We must, Wiencek suggests, follow the money.
So far historians have offered only easy irony or paradox to explain this extraordinary Founding Father who was an emancipationist in his youth and then recoiled from his own inspiring rhetoric and equivocated about slavery, who enjoyed his renown as a revolutionary leader yet kept some of his own children as slaves. But Wiencek's Jefferson is a man of business and public affairs who makes a success of his debt-ridden plantation thanks to what he calls the "silent profits" gained from his slaves - and thanks to a skewed moral universe that he and thousands of others readily inhabited.
Many people of Jefferson's time saw a catastrophe coming and tried to stop it, but not Jefferson. The pursuit of happiness had been badly distorted, and an oligarchy was getting very rich. Is this the quintessential American story?
"This meticulous account indicts not only Jefferson but modern apologists who wish to retain him as a moral standard of liberty. Wiencek's vivid, detailed history casts a new slant on a complex man." (Publishers Weekly)
"Well-rendered yet deeply unsettling.... Wiencek scours the primary sources...for a thoughtful reexamination of what was really going on behind the harmonious facade of the great house on the mountain.... Beautifully constructed reflections and careful sifting of Jefferson's thoughts and deeds." (Kirkus Reviews)
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Like taking Medicine: Not pleasant but important
Wiencek's take on Jefferson is factual, direct, and anchored in first hand accounts, including those from Jefferson's own Farm Book. But it is a damning account, and is intended to counteract our tradition of excusing Jefferson's slaveholding or overshadowing it with his Enlightenment ideals about Liberty. We like to tell ourselves that Jefferson was a reluctant slaveholder, who tried to make the most humanistic version of this inhuman practice, but Wiencek will not allow us the comfort of doing so. He makes his case for Jefferson the willing master, who continued to enforce the institution of slavery to the end of his life, and who refused to work directly for its abolition even when he could have and was asked to. Wiencek refuses to let a paragraph, even a sentence, go by in his book without reminding us of the stain that this casts on our image of Jefferson. In terms of style, this (over)emphasis is a bit tedious and difficult to slog through for the course of the book. But, someone has to do it, and I commend Wiencek for taking the unpopular position and for pricking our consciences when what we would like to do is glorify the legacy of a great thinker and leader. Not a fun book to read, not uplifting, but also not untrue, and not insignificant even for Jefferson lovers.
The Civil War by Shelby Foote
- Martha A. Murray