Taskmaster of the Mountain: Michael Coulter on Henry Wiencek's Master of the Mountain

Michael Coulter is co-author with me of Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President, and professor of political science and humanities at Grove City College. He recently penned this review of Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves by Henry Wiencek (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012) for a campus publication and gave me permission to reproduce it here.
It is almost a cliché to say that Thomas Jefferson’s life – both his words and his deeds – is notoriously difficult to comprehend as a coherent whole. This is particularly the case with respect to slavery.  One can easily find passages in his writings that condemn slavery and the slave trade, yet he owned nearly 600 slaves during his lifetime, many of which he bought and sold.  In his only book, Notes on the State of Virginia, he makes outrageous claims about the limited intellect, sexual appetites and practices, and character of slaves, yet in some letters he praises some blacks and his slaves carried on essential and somewhat complicated commercial tasks on his estate.  He criticized the mixing of races as being an “abomination,” but he lived in close proximity with many who were mixed race; even more problematic, some evidence suggests an intimate relationship with his slave Sally Hemings.  It is this complexity and contradictory character that led historian Joseph Ellis to call his biography of Jefferson: American Sphinx (Vantage, 1998).
In his book, Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves, Henry Wiencek seeks to both complement and correct some of the previous biographies in this work.  Wiencek is an accomplished author and his work places him somewhere between an historian and a journalist, although he seems closer to the latter because of some limited use of notes and his description of his ‘detective work’ to obtain evidence for this book.  In the 1990s he wrote about social life in American history, such works on homes and plantations in the American south.  More recently, he has turned to the intersection of race, politics and culture, and both historians and public intellectuals praised his An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003).
Wiencek takes on another founder in Master of the Mountain, but this work has had a more mixed reception with some critics offering fulsome praise and others troubled by both the prosecutorial tone and the tendentious use of some evidence.   The work itself is, more or less, a narrative account of the relationship that Jefferson had with his slaves as well as what he wrote about slaves and how he treated slavery as policy issue during his time of prominence in Virginia politics.
Wiencek briefly recounts Jefferson as a young man marrying Martha Wayles and beginning life at Monticello in 1772.  Slaves are intertwined in both of their lives as Jefferson had inherited slaves and Martha had six half-siblings who were slaves who were born during her teen years and early 20s.  Slaves were present at Monticello to assist with managing the household and to assist with raising children as Martha was often in poor health.
Wiencek then turns to the text which every writer on Jefferson must examine: Notes on the State of Virginia.  Jefferson wrote this particular text in the 1780s as a response to some questions addressed to Jefferson by a French diplomat.  Wiencek rather strikingly calls the text a “Dismal Swamp,” because it contains some rather embarrassing statements, and not just by today’s standards.  In Notes, Jefferson ruminates on the intellectual inferiority of blacks and even suggests that black women had sexual relations with apes.  There’s nothing particularly new in Wiencek’s account of the Notes, and there may be nothing new to be said about this strange work.  Nevertheless, a work about the Jefferson and slavery should not be written without some discussion of Notes.
The core of the Wiencek’s work and his central argument is an attempt to explain how Jefferson went from being an eloquent critic of slavery – such as his proclamation of natural rights in the Declaration of Independence or his support for the banning of the importation of slaves in the late 18th century – to being an active user and seller of slaves. Wiencek characterizes Jefferson’s antislavery rhetoric as the product of the revolutionary fervor of the 1770s and early 1780s.  Wiencek then argues that Jefferson was moved by financial reasons to support slavery.  Jefferson both inherited debt as well as slaves from his father-in-law and his own efforts at commercial success were limited.  Jefferson, as Wiencek shows through analysis of Jefferson’s Farm Book, was also a spendthrift.  Wiencek sas that “his laborers became harnessed to a virtuous undertaking; they would save him; and their obligation for his debts quieted his moral conflicts.” (p. 71)
As evidence for this hypothesis, Wiencek discusses Jefferson’s selling of around 160 slaves between 1784 and 1794.  It is certainly hard to reconcile someone both denouncing slaves and also selling them.  But even though Jefferson sold slaves, that did not diminish his total number as Jefferson carefully recorded the children his slaves bore.  Wiencek cites a 1792 letter from Jefferson where Jefferson cites the financial gain that can come from slaves bearing children.  Wiencek interprets this letter as a statement about Jefferson’s personal financial interests, but the letter in context seems to be about the general gain from slaves in Virginia having children.  Also offered as support for his financial explanation of Jefferson’s slaveholding is the will of Thaddeus Kosciuszko, a Polish supporter of the American revolution and friend of Jefferson.  Wiencek several times cites Kosciuszko’s will, which made Jefferson the executor and, in at least one of its versions, would have provided money to Jefferson so that he could free his slaves.  Jefferson is presented by Wiencek as simply neglecting these funds so that he could keep his slaves as a means of making money; however, Wiencek does not fully explain the legal issues related to executing this will.  Even if the money were truly available, the legal difficulties with the Kosciuszko’s will could have prevented him from freeing his slaves through this benefaction.
Many of the other works on Jefferson and slavery consider his statements and his political actions, but Wiencek’s contribution to the Jefferson literature is to assemble the evidence about the lives of slaves at Monticello.  Some of this evidence is from contemporaneous materials or later recollections by family members or employees at Monticello.  From these recollections we learn about commercial activities at Monticello in agricultural, blacksmithing, and even nail making.  The workers were not always compliant, which leads Wiencek to characterize the “Monticello machine [as] operat[ing] on carefully calibrated violence.” (p. 113)
Additional evidence for Wiencek is obtained from archaeologists excavating the Monticello grounds. Wiencek says that “Monticello Mountain itself is one huge document” and it is “an earthen text bearing traces of uncountable stories and a past that stubbornly reasserts its mysteries.” (p. 134) Much of this evidence has only been recently available, and, while Wiencek did not dig up the telling artifacts, he certainly assembles the information in a compelling manner.  Herein one learns about the daily lives of the slaves at Monticello and its generally harsh environment, although Wiencek acknowledges that some of Jefferson’s slaves lived as family units, which was not the practice in most of Virginia.
There is much ground covered in the work, but it seems an omission that more attention is not given to the legal environment of slavery in Virginia.  Wiencek cites the 1782 law which permitted manumission of slaves, and there is a brief account of the two slaves Jefferson freed in the 1790s.  Few details are given about the law or its origin and no details are given about the changes to the law governing manumission made in 1806 and then in 1816. Philip Schwarz’s Slave Laws in Virginia (University of Georgia Press, 2010) offers an incredibly detailed account these laws and the response to the legal changes and this work is not even cited by Wiencek.
Despite some shortcomings, Master of the Mountain is still a significant work insofar as it provides much detail about how Jefferson’s slaves lived as well as Jefferson’s relationships with those slaves.  Moving rhetoric about rights and equality are far from enough.  Commitments to moral and philosophical principles may – and often will – require a sacrifice of what is in our self-interest.  Jefferson was not merely stuck with slaves; he made choices to engage in the buying and selling of human beings and to treat harshly those under his care, and for those choices he should be accountable.