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.


The World

The Budget Disaster that Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

Are the Attacks in Canada a Sign of ISIS on the Rise in the West?

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

Is It Offensive When Kids Use Bad Words for Good Causes?

Fascinating Maps Based on Reddit, Craigslist, and OkCupid Data


The Real Secret of Serial

What reporter Sarah Koenig actually believes.


The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

In Praise of 13th Grade: Why a Fifth Year of High School Is a Great Idea

Can Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu Pull Off One More Louisiana Miracle?

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 23 2014 1:51 PM Is This the ISIS Backlash We've Been Waiting For?
Business Insider
Oct. 23 2014 2:36 PM Take a Rare Peek Inside the Massive Data Centers That Power Google
Atlas Obscura
Oct. 23 2014 1:34 PM Leave Me Be Beneath a Tree: Trunyan Cemetery in Bali
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 11:33 AM Watch Little Princesses Curse for the Feminist Cause
  Slate Plus
Oct. 23 2014 11:28 AM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 2 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked Dr. Meri Kolbrener about her workday.
Brow Beat
Oct. 23 2014 3:23 PM This Is What Bette Midler Covering TLC’s “Waterfalls” Sounds Like
Oct. 23 2014 11:45 AM The United States of Reddit  How social media is redrawing our borders. 
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 23 2014 7:30 AM Our Solar System and Galaxy … Seen by an Astronaut
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.