Thomas Jefferson is not the “frustrated emancipator,” the reluctant slaver, or any of that other softening-of-his-image histrionics his scholars and apologists have applied to him to maintain his unblemished stature as a Founding Father. To even suggest he’s “flawed” is to sort of undersell the point, which is that Jefferson was an active, unrepentant, and linguistically virulent racist who owned and sold human beings, and allowed those human beings to be torn from their families, held in bondage down through his familial generations, and to be beaten by overseers; all when he, perhaps more than any other human being at the time, could have led the charge to put a stop to slavery, but he actively resisted efforts to do so.
The latter is perhaps the most revelatory part about Jefferson, a man who surely has had millions of words devoted to him, and lavished upon him, in Henry Wiencek’s 2012 reappraisal, Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves. Or an alternative headline could be, Where Presentism Goes To Die on the Mountain. (And thank goodness for that. I can’t abide by the silliness of presentism.)
If Thomas Jefferson, a man of his esteem and legacy, at any point after writing the Declaration of Independence, put his full force and efforts into ending slavery, I have no doubt in mind that slavery would have ended. That’s the takeaway I have after listening to Wiencek’s book, as read by Brian Holsopple. And the reason why presentism died on Jefferson’s Monticello mountain.
Folks who like to suggest that we can’t judge Jefferson by our morals or standards of today are making a grave mistake because the people of Jefferson’s time were judging him! They were pushing him, constantly, on the issue of slavery. Not just random people, either, but the likes of Thomas Paine and Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, one of the heroes of the American Revolutionary War. One of my new favorite historical figures I learned about in this book was Edward Coles, another man who tried to convince Jefferson to help end slavery. En route to Illinois, where he later became governor of the state, Coles freed his slaves, and basically spent much of his life needling Jefferson, Madison, and others about the cause of emancipation. To no avail, of course.
And Jefferson gave them the runaround every single time. “We will end it soon.” Because he didn’t want to give up the appearance as a revolutionary, as a man of liberty. That’s another startling indictment of Jefferson birthed from this book: He often cared more about the “appearance” of American hypocrisy in engaging in slavery, say when someone like Lafayette visited, or some other foreign dignitary, than just ending the actual practice of slavery.
Jefferson failed, and worse yet, not because he tried and failed, but because he never did. He failed to live up to his own words and principles. That’s the plain truth of the matter. The fact that historians, as Wiencek points out a slew of them from the early 20th century through to the late 1990s and early 2000s, tried to defend Jefferson on this matter just can’t do so. Jefferson could have done more in deed rather than mere word to end slavery. He did not. Even on a personal level, he could have given up his slaves, as George Washington, another Founding Father, eventually did. Yet, he did not.
There were 600 some slaves at any given time working under Jefferson in every field of labor and skill and trade you can imagine. Men. Women. Children. Some families separated across multiple “masters.” Children younger than five-years-old expected to work. Jefferson thought of the slaves as “infants,” which is why he could not emancipate them, he rationalized, and yet, he also recognized that black people were extraordinarily skilled in the myriad trades he was forcing them to work (but he was getting them for free, so again, why release them?!).
If you search for coherence in the rationalization for maintaining, and fortifying slavery (because Jefferson didn’t merely maintain the practice, his lack of action to end it, and his direct action in things like the Louisiana Purchase, helped to ensure slavery’s stranglehold on the country), you will never find it, least of all among Jefferson’s many writings and actions, or lack thereof, throughout his long life.
You own humans. They do the labor for you. And yet, Jefferson toward the end of his life was still in debt! That demonstrates perhaps better than anything how delusional Jefferson was about the practice and his own way of life (he blamed the slaves for his debt, for one). Because it was his own ostentatious spending, like on Monticello, that was the issue and cause of his debts.
As mentioned, for much of American history, even within living memory, historians and media at large have whitewashed not only Jefferson’s history, but the institution of slavery itself. Wiencek points to the 1941 children’s biography of Jefferson (for ages 12 to 16), The Way of An Eagle: An intimate biography of Thomas Jefferson and his fight for democracy as an example of the absurdity. TIME magazine called it one of the “notable books” of the year. The absurdity is something like this passage, which shaped minds about the “hardships” of slaves, “In this beehive of industry no discord or revilings found entrance: there were no signs of discontent on the black shining faces as they worked under the direction of their master….The women sang at their tasks and the children old enough to work made nails leisurely, not too overworked for a prank now and then.” By 1961, it was still a popular book in American libraries.
What Jefferson had the effect of doing was to make, as Wiencek argues, slavery “safe” for generations of Americans then, thereafter, and even now. To make it almost a passive thing rather than something people were actively participating in, maintaining, and propagating. And if they did so, like Jefferson, they were “reluctant” and just waiting for the public to be accepting of emancipation. Bollocks. Jefferson, as high-minded as he thought he was, was not accepting of emancipation.
Wiencek leans on a lot of Jefferson’s own words to ensnare him in his racism rather him being some passive racist, or reluctant slaver. For example, a French intellectual, said Americans had “small organs of generations.” In other words, Americans like Jefferson, were insecure about what the rest of the world thought about Americans and the young country they inhabited (whether there were artists, intellectuals, and so on). To defend American honor, ostensibly, Jefferson penned some undeniably racist letters. For example, he said skin color matters because human beauty is highly important, or he perpetuated the “black men just want sex with white women” stereotype. That seems like pure projection of Virginian slaveowners, including himself, given Sally Hemings.
Which Wiencek does spend considerable time on Hemings, and it is interesting. The DNA testing on whether Jefferson fathered some of her children came at the same time as the Clinton scandal was breaking in the late 1990s, and so the “impropriety” of one president got wrangled into the “impropriety” of another. Hemings was viewed as a threat to Jefferson’s image (it always goes back to image) as a revolutionary and as a reluctant slaveowner. In fact, astoundingly, one University of Virginia scholar connected the Hemings revelations to 9/11. Yes. He said something about how Jefferson was the antithesis of bin Laden’s bigotry, and we must preserve the liberty bequeathed to us by Jefferson.
I find it weird how scholars, or apologists for Jefferson, worried so much about the Hemings revelation. Yes, raping (that’s what it was) a slave, impregnating her, and then enslaving some of your own children, is atrocious and abhorrent, but if you took that away, Jefferson still wouldn’t be “saved” from his direct implication to the institution of slavery! It’s just another dark peg toward his dishonor, but of course, the scholars already tried to wave away that, too. Believe it or not, Jefferson was able to “rebound” from the Hemings issue as well, because Wiencek notes, it contributed to the image of Jefferson as a loving (and reluctant) slaveowner.
Much different than loving, Wiencek has a word for what Jefferson was doing, whether it was convincing the French he would end slavery to gain their crucial support during the American Revolutionary War, or stringing along the Paines and Coles’ of the world: perverse.
Perverse because one of the most startling things about the book is seeing just how bureaucratic, and machine-like Jefferson turned the institution of slavery. Wiencek spends considerable time in the book detailing just how much Jefferson micromanaged every piece of the machinery of slavery to ensure he would get the most efficiency out of his slaves. When you see his intimacy to slavery, and the profit-making of it, there is no way to disentangle, neatly, Jefferson from slavery. And the psychological warfare! To scare the slaves, or cajole them, into thinking slavery was their proper station in life. To gaslight them, as we might say today. The way Jefferson complains about how slaves are a burden upon him! Or how he was publicly against miscegenation, but okay with it privately, if he was paid (or you know, personally doing it himself).
Indeed, Jefferson was perverse. We must, as Wiencek’s book implores us, reckon with that fact. Not sit in the comfortable neutrality afforded by “Jefferson was a paradox” or some other such conjuring that aligns with our longest American delusion (America, ever the innocent country).
Just because Jefferson did not live up to his ideals placed down in the Declaration of Independence, or fought for in the American Revolution, does not mean those ideals aren’t worthwhile. If anything, it just adds to my usual line of thinking: Loyalty to ideals, not people. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself comparing Jefferson DNA results to 9/11.