Thomas Jefferson Was Not a Monster
Debunking a major new biography of our third president.
Painting by Rembrandt Peale/New York Historical Society/Wikimedia Commons.
Almost 20 years have passed since the publication of Jeffersonian Legacies, a collection of essays published on the occasion of the Founding Father’s 250th birthday that ushered in a new era of Jefferson scholarship. What were modern Americans to make, the book asked, of the 18th-century slaveholding patriarch who could not envision a multiracial America but who nonetheless authored America's creed—a vision that has inspired people the world over? At the very least, one had to be, the book suggested, conflicted about the man.
Henry Wiencek is not at all conflicted. He loathes Thomas Jefferson. In Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves, his attempted takedown of the man, the third president appears as a demonic figure warped one summer day by a sudden discovery that being a slaveholder could pay. I’ll detail how Wiencek arrives at his bizarre proof of a Jefferson who suddenly becomes Simon Legree, but I should say up front that this book fails as a work of scholarship. This is surprising. I favorably reviewed Wiencek's book about George Washington, Imperfect God, and I admire The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White. What happened with Master of the Mountain?
The book's tone and presentation betray a journalistic obsession with “the scoop.” Getting the scoop can be the life’s blood of journalism. It does not work so well for writing history, which is not always (or almost ever, really) about discovering things previously unknown. This sensibility leads Weincek astray in a number of ways. To begin with, it compels him to write as if he had discovered, and was writing about, things that had not been discovered and written about before. In truth, all of the important stories in this book have been told by others.
There is nothing inherently wrong with recycling stories. All historians do, and that is to be expected. But Wiencek rarely adds insights to these recycled stories, and when he offers interpretations, they are usually wrong-headed. It often seems that he is ignoring all the things that have been written about Jefferson and slavery over the past 30 years, consigning it to a claim that “scholarly consensus” is that “Jefferson managed his plantations with a lenient hand.”. In fact, scholars have known, and written, for years about whipping at Monticello.
Wiencek’s primary scoop—upon which his thesis depends and his publisher is marketing this new history—is that he has discovered why Jefferson went from opposing slavery to enthusiastically supporting the institution. It happened, Wiencek says, in the summer of 1792:
As Jefferson was counting up the agricultural profits and losses of his plantation in a letter to President Washington in 1792, it occurred to him that there was a phenomenon he had perceived at Monticello but never actually measured. He proceeded to calculate it in a barely legible, scribbled note in the middle of a page, enclosed in brackets. What Jefferson set out clearly for the first time was that he was making a 4 percent profit every year on the birth of black children.
Of course, Weincek could not possibly know what “occurred to” Jefferson as he did his calculations. And note the reference to the “barely legible, scribbled note,” as if he had ferreted out a detail that only the most diligent of researchers would have found. He then quotes Jefferson: “I allow nothing for losses by death, but, on the contrary, shall presently take credit four per cent. per annum, for their increase over and above keeping up their own numbers.”
The problem with what Wiencek calls the “4 percent theorem” or “formula” is that Jefferson was not speaking about his slaves at Monticello—he was speaking about farms in Virginia generally. The quoted “four per cent” line is from his “Notes on Arthur Young’s Letter to George Washington,” written, while Jefferson was serving in Washington’s Cabinet, in response to a request for a comparison of free labor to enslaved labor. Jefferson, who could never resist an opportunity to count and compute, joined in to “calculate, in the Virginia way, the employment” of slave labor. When he speaks of allowing “nothing for losses by death,” he is explaining what variables are going into his calculations about how to determine the value of enslaved labor—not opining on any policy he had at Monticello. In a later letter to Washington, Jefferson noted that “being at such a distance from the country of which I wrote,” he utilized his own time-weakened memories of life in Virginia. “I therefore hazarded the calculation rather as an essay of the mode of calculating the profits of a Virginia estate, than as an operation which was to be ultimately relied on.”
Jefferson had no “4 percent theorem” or “formula.” This lawyer and lifelong slaveholder had no epiphany in 1792, approaching age 50, that the babies of enslaved women increased his capital. Jefferson’s thoughts about slavery cannot be treated in such a reductive manner.
We can come down from Wiencek’s version of high theory to see in another context how he reasons and solves problems. He suggests that Jefferson purchased collars—iron spiked vises—for slaves. Follow Wiencek’s logic and note the incredible inferential leaps required to link these disparate occurrences into a chain: Jefferson’s father, Peter, advertised for a runaway slave (in 1751) who was wearing an iron collar; Jefferson must have seen enslaved people being collared when he was growing up; while in France in the 1780s, Jefferson wrote to Nicholas Lewis, the manager of his farms, telling him to use “extraordinary exertions”; and then—“the manager’s expense accounts in 1791 include a line item for the purchase of ‘collars.’” Wiencek’s endnote explains that he had “at first” thought the reference was to “horse collars.” That view changed after Wiencek noticed that Jefferson wrote “leather collars” or “horse collars” and “Lewis would have been similarly specific.” Therefore, enslaved people at Monticello must have been put in iron collars.
Annette Gordon-Reed is the author of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy and The Hemingses Of Monticello: An American Family, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. She is the Charles Warren professor of American legal history at Harvard Law School, professor of history in the faculty of arts and sciences, and the Carol K. Pforzheimer professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.