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Thomas Jefferson: slaveholder vs. patriot

  • Article by: JENNIFER SCHUESSLER
  • New York Times
  • November 28, 2012 - 2:42 PM

Henry Wiencek suspected he would be in for a rough ride when "Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves," his scathing assessment of the nation's third president, was published last month. But just how rough he may not have realized.

True, Wiencek, an independent scholar, has received the kind of attention most authors can only dream of: excerpts on the covers of Smithsonian and American History magazines, a C-Span interview at Monticello, almost universally glowing reviews from nonspecialists. (The Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley called the book "brilliant," while Laura Miller of Salon hailed it as one "every American should read.")

But the Jefferson scholars who have weighed in have subjected "Master of the Mountain" (published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux) to a fierce barrage of criticism, blasting away at Wiencek's evidence, interpretations and claims to originality. Reviewing the book in Slate, Annette Gordon-Reed, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning study "The Hemingses of Monticello," declared that it "fails as a work of scholarship," recklessly misreading documents and dismissing other scholars in pursuit of a "journalistic obsession with 'the scoop.'" Jan Ellen Lewis, a historian at Rutgers University, writing in the Daily Beast, was even blunter, denouncing the book as a "train wreck," written by a man "so blinded by his loathing of Thomas Jefferson that he can't see" contrary evidence "right in front of his eyes."

Different approaches

The divergence of response would seem to highlight the difference between the ways professionals and lay readers approach history, not to mention the sometimes tense relations between academic historians and independent scholars working the same beat, especially one as charged and contentious as the relationship between the founding fathers and slavery.

Wiencek, who wrote a well-regarded earlier book about George Washington and slavery, certainly sees it that way.

"Inside the Jefferson bubble, they are trying to discredit this," he said recently by phone from his home in Charlottesville, Va., a few miles from Monticello. "It presents an image they don't like."

Wiencek's main contention is that sometime in the 1790s, Jefferson became so convinced of the economic value of slavery that he abandoned his youthful anti-slavery sentiments.

Wiencek is also direct about his critics: "They have turned what could have been a reasoned debate into a mudslinging fest."

Sensationalistic

But even some who are sympathetic to Wiencek's dark view of Jefferson say that if there is mud flying, Wiencek set it off by writing a sensationalistic book that repackages the work of scholars who have spent decades fighting for a full acknowledgment of Jefferson's entanglement with slavery, only to be painted now as apologists for the man.

"I think Thomas Jefferson is one of the most deeply creepy people in American history," said Paul Finkelman, a professor at Albany Law School and the author of "Slavery and the Founders," which outlines the evasions of earlier generations of Jefferson scholars. "But for Henry to come along and say, 'I am the first one to discover this'? Come on."

Wiencek acknowledges some truth in the charge that he is repackaging the work of others, but defends his book as a real contribution.

"Yes, I'm repeating some of the information that others have brought out," he said. "But others brought it out and buried it in footnotes. I brought it all together. I connected the dots."

Since his book was published, Wiencek has been more direct in his claims, asserting that his work "systematically demolishes" Gordon-Reed's portrayal of Jefferson as "a kindly master to black slaves."

But Gordon-Reed, for her part, scoffs at the idea, noting that her books discuss many of the same instances of cruelty at Monticello that Wiencek cites. "That was Jefferson's image of himself, as a benevolent slaveholder," she said. "My work shows that's impossible."

Even some of the scholars who helped Wiencek have turned against him. In his acknowledgments, Wiencek, who received a research fellowship from the International Center for Jefferson Studies, thanks Lucia Stanton, the recently retired chief historian at Monticello, whose decades of research on slavery at the plantation he credits with breaking "the seals on many hidden histories."

But in a letter last month to the Hook, a Charlottesville newspaper that ran an article about "Master of the Mountain," Stanton blasted him for a "breathtaking disrespect for the historical record and for the historians who preceded him," including Edwin M. Betts, whose 1953 edition of Jefferson's plantation records Wiencek claims deliberately left out a passage indicating that Jefferson knew that very young enslaved boys in the Monticello nail factory were being whipped.

"How can he know that Betts 'deliberately' suppressed this sentence, in what was a compilation of excerpts, not full letters?" she asked, noting that Betts' edition contains many far worse details about Jefferson's treatment of slaves.

David Waldstreicher, a historian at Temple University and author of several books about slavery and the country's founders, said Wiencek had raised legitimate questions about the editing of Jefferson's farm records that scholars would need to untangle. But for the moment, Wiencek is not going to get the public forum with Gordon-Reed he says he is eager for. The museum at Poplar Forest, Jefferson's other plantation, in Lynchburg, Va., has invited both of them to appear on a panel. Gordon-Reed, however, has declined.

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