Henry Wiencek responds to Annette Gordon-Reed’s Slate review of Master of the Mountain: The debate over Thomas Jefferson’s slaves rages on.

The Debate Over Thomas Jefferson’s Slaves Rages On

The Debate Over Thomas Jefferson’s Slaves Rages On

Brow Beat
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.