In fact, Monticello had a blacksmith shop that supplied the surrounding community with iron works. Why, then, would Lewis have to buy iron slave-collars from an outside source? And Christa Dierksheide, a researcher at Monticello, says that the man from whom Lewis bought the collars was not a blacksmith. He was a local tenant farmer, and would have used collars for cattle and horses on his farm. Wiencek should have considered this.
Wiencek also excoriates Jefferson for his handling of Tadeusz Kosciusko’s will. Kosciusko, the Polish patriot and supporter of the American Revolution, drafted a will in 1798 that included a bequest of funds to purchase and emancipate slaves, naming Jefferson as executor. According to Wiencek, the matter was crystal clear, as it must be if he wants to present yet another example of Jefferson's implacable evil: “Kosciusko had made him the executor of the will, so Jefferson had a legal duty, as well as a personal obligation to his deceased friend, to carry out the terms of the document.” Jefferson “refused” to act.
Jefferson’s legal duties, however, were inextricably paired with potential liabilities of which Wiencek seems wholly unaware. Long story short: Kosciusko screwed up. After the 1798 will, Kosciusko wrote three more wills, the last one in 1817, the year he died. In the one written in 1816, he explicitly revoked all his previous wills and made bequests to other people in Europe. He made no mention of excepting the American will from this revocation, though a reference he made in a letter to Jefferson in 1817 indicates he thought his 1798 bequest still valid. Jefferson may have believed that too. But he also knew that whether Kosciusko’s statement revived the bequest was a legal question that would have to be answered in court—a high court, no doubt, given the large sums of money involved. Upon learning what Kosciusko had done, and that there were competing wills, Jefferson, in his mid-70s, transferred his duties (and, this is important, his potential financial exposure) to a court that then appointed an administrator.
As Jefferson knew, this was a litigation disaster waiting to happen. Indeed, the case became an American version of Bleak House’s Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, dragging on from the 1820s to final resolution before the Supreme Court in 1852, which declared that the 1816 will had, in fact, revoked the 1798 bequest. Using money from the bequest to free slaves when others had potentially valid claims on the estate would have been extremely risky. If Jefferson had done that and it was later determined that the claimants had a right to the funds, he could be liable for repayment. Once he gave his powers over to the court, Jefferson’s responsibilities—and the threat of financial entanglement to his already precarious financial position—were over.
Wiencek, apparently not attuned to the workings of law and the tendencies of many lawyers toward paranoia and risk aversion, simply will not consider the notion that Jefferson could have had other good reasons for resigning as executor. Wiencek recounts some of these details, but analyzes them all from the perspective of the powers Jefferson had, without considering the corresponding vulnerabilities inherent to the position of executor or administrator of a will. That is because Wiencek’s all-powerful “bad Jefferson” can never be vulnerable or apprehensive. Everything he does is in service of getting his 4 percent every year, which Wiencek does not even demonstrate he ever got.
I could go on. Suffice it to say that the problems with Master of the Mountain are too numerous to allow it to be taken seriously as a book that tells us anything new about Thomas Jefferson and slavery, and what it does say is too often wrong. It is, instead, a book about Henry Wiencek—with Jefferson, enslaved people, and the mountain thrown in for scenery. As he seeks to destroy Jefferson, Wiencek seeks to put himself in the place of the “Master of the Mountain” and become the true protector of the enslaved people of Monticello. He injects himself into the narrative, touring Monticello, walking the grounds that Jefferson walked, cataloging the injustices to the enslaved people as if they had finally, after all these years, found a champion.
But as they so often do in life, a stray comment betrays true feelings. Wiencek tells the story of Peter Fossett, a member of the favored Hemings family, who spoke with fondness of the blue suit and watch that his father and free grandmother, Mary Hemings, gave to him. “That Peter could hold on to those precious items,” Wiencek writes, “without having them stolen and himself beaten by the slave boys or local whites reveals the power of the invisible zone of protection that enfolded him.” What must Wiencek really think of those enslaved at Monticello? In his view, the only thing stopping enslaved people from beating one another up and stealing from one another was the protection provided by a white man who fashioned himself as a benevolent patriarch. It seems the enslaved people of Monticello, in death as in life, can’t catch a break.