The Debate Over Thomas Jefferson’s Slaves Rages On

Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 21 2012 10:59 AM

The Debate Over Thomas Jefferson’s Slaves Rages On

Master of the Mountain
The cover of Henry Wiencek's controversial new book Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves

In a critique published last month in Slate, Thomas Jefferson biographer Annette Gordon-Reed attacked Henry Wiencek’s new book Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves for “recycling stories” and providing misleading information to satisfy “a journalistic obsession with ‘the scoop.’

Gordon-Reed particularly took exception with the biography’s assertion that Jefferson discovered that the birth of black children at his estate furnished him with a 4 percent profit, and the idea that this realization prompted him to switch positions on slavery. Gordon-Reed wrote, “The third president appears as a demonic figure warped one summer day by a sudden discovery that being a slaveholder could pay.” The four-percent refers to Virginia farms as a whole, Gordon-Reed argued, and was not a personal epiphany that altered Jefferson’s entire outlook on slavery.


Now, in a response to Gordon-Reed’s piece and other criticism of his book from the Daily Beast, Henry Wiencek has taken to the Smithsonian’s website to defend his “four-percent theorem,” arguing that there’s further evidence that Gordon-Reed did not acknowledge and respond to. Wiencek also stands by his conviction that Jefferson failed to honor Thaddeus Kosciuszko’s 1798 will requesting that Jefferson free his slaves—a document Gordon-Reed called one draft of many, whose execution would have provoked “a litigation disaster”—which failure he says reveals Jefferson’s anti-liberation sentiment.

Wiencek further writes that Gordon-Reed’s opposition may result from his challenge to her book The Hemingses of Monticello, which won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, since his book “systematically demolishes her portrayal of Jefferson as a kindly master of black slaves.” When contacted by Slate, Gordon-Reed declined to make a further reply. However, the Smithsonian article did run with another critique of Wiencek’s account, from Lucia Cinder Stanton, author of Those Who Labor for My Happiness: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello.

To read Wiencek’s defense and Stanton’s critique, head over to the Smithsonian website.



Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS

But the next president might. 

IOS 8 Comes Out Today. Do Not Put It on Your iPhone 4S.

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows


The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.


More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

The Ungodly Horror of Having a Bug Crawl Into Your Ear and Scratch Away at Your Eardrum

We Could Fix Climate Change for Free. Now There’s Just One Thing Holding Us Back.

  News & Politics
Sept. 17 2014 7:03 PM Once Again, a Climate Policy Hearing Descends Into Absurdity
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
Sept. 17 2014 6:53 PM LGBTQ Luminaries Honored With MacArthur “Genius” Fellowships
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 6:14 PM Today in Gender Gaps: Biking
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 5:56 PM Watch Louis C.K., Dave Chappelle, Bill Hicks, Mitch Hedberg, and More on New YouTube Channel
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 7:23 PM MIT Researchers Are Using Smartphones to Interact With Other Screens
  Health & Science
Sept. 17 2014 4:49 PM Schooling the Supreme Court on Rap Music Is it art or a true threat of violence?
Sports Nut
Sept. 17 2014 3:51 PM NFL Jerk Watch: Roger Goodell How much should you loathe the pro football commissioner?