Jeffersongate: The Case of Henry Wiencek

On October 16, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published Henry Wiencek’s third book, Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves. His previous works both dealt with slavery, most notably his well-received An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America. By contrast, his latest work has come under fire from leading Jefferson scholars around the country. Within days of the book’s release, highly critical reviews by academics appeared in online magazines. These reviews started online exchanges that have played out over the last two months and continue to do so.

Historians much more up to the task than myself—including Annette Gordon-Reed, Jan Lewis, and Lucia (Cinder) Stanton—have called into question Wiencek’s use of sources (both primary and secondary), his overall interpretation, and his motives. Therefore, I will not recapitulate all of them here. I have included a chronology with links to all the relevant articles below, with J.L. Bell’s posts at Boston 1775 providing excellent summaries of the most contentious points. Instead, I want to touch on two things: the main part of Wiencek’s argument and how it reflects his broader approach to history and the effects of Wiencek’s treatment of the historiography, both having to do with the larger relationship between popular and academic history.

In Master of the Mountain, Wiencek argues that in the early 1790s Jefferson changed his earlier anti-slavery views and became an avid supporter of the institution, particularly after realizing how profitable slavery was. He also stresses that Jefferson authorized the use of violence at Monticello in an effort to reap the greatest profit possible from his slaves, an aspect of Jefferson that he argues historians have suppressed. Hence, Wiencek argues that Jefferson’s “views and practices on slavery evolved not in moral terms but in commercial ones.” Finally, he adds that Jefferson began to “see slave labor as the most powerful and most convenient engine of the American enterprise” and subsequently “formulated a grand synthesis by which slavery became integral to the empire of liberty.”

Like many others, I had read and appreciated Wiencek’s An Imperfect God. After reading Master of the Mountain, however, I now better recognize Wiencek’s “eureka” approach to history. In An Imperfect God, Washington has a dream of his impending death and begins to draw up a will in which he decides to free his slaves upon that occasion. Similarly, in Master of the Mountain, Jefferson in 1792 calculated that slave births resulted in a four-percent rate of return and this calculation convinced Jefferson to commit himself to becoming the most profitable slaveowner he could be, dropping any previous notions that he might have had of moving against (or even morally opposing) the institution. Wiencek calls this his “four-percent theorem.” But the author’s characterization of this note as Jefferson trying to figure out how much he was making when his slaves procreated is factually incorrect, as others have pointed out. According to Lucia (Cinder) Stanton, Jefferson performed this calculation, which referred to a hypothetical “typical” Virginia plantation, in response to a general query from a British agricultural writer about the value of both free and enslaved labor.

Henry Wiencek

As in his Washington book, Wiencek’s modus operandi is to find a single event that he can claim as his subject’s “eureka” moment. But are we really to believe that Jefferson, the product of a slave society and a slaveholder himself for nearly three decades, only realized that slavery was profitable in 1792? Wiencek is assuming that, because Jefferson had never before written the words in his admittedly voluminous correspondence, he never before thought or realized it. However, there is a serious danger—even with as prolific a writer as Jefferson—in taking someone’s writings as revealing the totality of their thought.

Regardless of all that, 4% just does not seem all that great a rate of return. As a friend pointed out to me (with tongue-in-cheek), Jefferson could have sold all his slaves and lent out the proceeds at 6%, thereby generating a 50% greater return. Yet Wiencek sees this 4% as “a bonanza, a perpetual human dividend at compound interest” and “the engine not only of Monticello but of the entire slaveholding South.”

Indeed, Wiencek appears to blame Jefferson personally for “perpetuating slavery” itself, as if he alone provided the means—in the form of the “four-percent theorem”—for the continuation of slavery into the nineteenth century. By extension, Wiencek’s argument essentially lays the blame for the Civil War at the doors of Monticello. He is arguing that Jefferson, as an individual, had it within his power to avert both the subsequent development of slavery and, hence, the Civil War. The sheer reductionism of the argument is astounding. In the end, the problem with this “eureka” version of history is that it is too simplistic and reductionist to capture the complexity of the past, especially regarding things as complex as Jefferson’s relationship with slavery and the subsequent development of slavery in the first half of the nineteenth-century.

This reductionism becomes less surprising, however, when we realize that the author has intensely negative personal feelings about his subject. In an interview, Wiencek describes how he came to think of Jefferson after coming across the calculation by saying, “This S.O.B. is utterly cold. That changed my whole perspective.” I imagine many other historians will bristle, as I did, at this blunt rejection of even the veneer of objectivity. This kind of prosecutorial stance and moralistic tone severely undermines one’s scholarly credibility (but not one’s book sales). Wiencek, however, is certainly not alone in this. Indeed the two most recent popular works on Jefferson—Wiencek and Jon Meacham’s The Art of Power—together perfectly illustrate the unfortunate yet fundamental flaw of much of the popular history on Jefferson, i.e., a seemingly irresistible urge to go “all in.” Jefferson must be praised or damned; he is either all good or all bad; democrat or demagogue.

Just as significant a problem is Wiencek’s mistreatment of the historiography, particularly in a work aimed at the general reader. As academics, we are trained to read, discern, interpret, represent, and respond to historiography as rigorously and accurately as possible. There are consequences for academics who would deliberately misrepresent the historiography relevant to their topic. The book’s central claim is that it reveals a side of Jefferson we never knew, something that previous historians have either missed or hidden from view. Wiencek claims that the recent scholarship characterizes Jefferson as a “benevolent slaveholder.” But, as anyone familiar with Jefferson studies over the last two decades can tell you, that characterization is all but a total reversal of the current state of scholarship.

Annette Gordon-Reed

Wiencek has misrepresented the work of a number of highly respected scholars, particularly Annette Gordon-Reed of Harvard University, Jan Ellen Lewis of Rutgers-Newark, and Lucia (Cinder) Stanton, who recently retired from Monticello. Indeed, he has bragged that Master of the Mountain “systematically demolishes [Gordon-Reed's] portrayal of Jefferson as a kindly master of black slaves.” This quoted claim has left many readers of Gordon-Reed’s work scratching their heads. Wiencek seems unable to distinguish between when Gordon-Reed is making her own argument and when she is describing how Jefferson saw himself. Another source for his characterization of the scholarly consensus? A children’s biography of Jefferson from 1941. Seriously. For her part, Stanton has accurately described Wiencek as having “a breathtaking disrespect for the historical record and for the historians who preceded him.”

Many historians, at least in their introductions, tend to generalize the historiographical consensus against which they are arguing. This, however, is not generalization, it is misrepresentation. Wiencek’s omissions and distortions appear to constitute a calculated and deliberate effort to misrepresent the work of historians—turning them into his own personal straw men—to an audience unacquainted with their work.

And it is especially problematic because the book was published by a trade press and aimed at a general audience—that is, the kind of audience who would not have enough familiarity with either the latest developments in Jefferson studies or the primary sources to detect such historical and historiographical inconsistencies. This raises all kinds of issues about the differences between popular and academic history and, especially, the responsibility of those who write the former. Can there be a more grievous sin for an historian than to take advantage of their readership’s unfamiliarity of the subject to make their own book seem more important and original than it really is?

In the exchanges that have followed, Wiencek has played the role of the outsider being attacked by the masters of the guild. This is unfortunate as it only furthers the divide between academic and popular history in the public’s mind. Hence, to a general reader, this whole affair can easily (though wrongly) look as though academics or, more specifically, the Charlottesville Jefferson cognoscenti are closing ranks, seeking to punish Wiencek for attacking their “meal ticket.” This has the effect of undermining, in the minds of his readers, the credibility of the historians and institutions—such as Gordon-Reed, Lewis, Stanton, and the ICJS, among others—who have done the most to improve our understanding of Jefferson and slavery.

Nevertheless, Master of the Mountain is the #3 bestselling book on the revolutionary period on Amazon and is receiving glowing reviews from non-academic websites and publications including The Washington Post and Slate, with the latter concluding, “Every American should read it.” Stanton, in her reply to a favorable review by T. H. Breen in The American Scholar, asked: “What is one to do about influential books that so willfully distort reality?” I would also ask: what are historians to do about popular books that distort their work and the work of other historians?

I have no personal or professional investment in defending Thomas Jefferson, but, as a junior scholar, I do have an investment in defending the standards that ensure the integrity of both the practice and profession of history, both popular and academic.

Michael D. Hattem is a PhD student at Yale University.

_______________

This is a chronological list of the various articles and reviews that constitute the debate.

July 6: Henry Wiencek, “Jefferson’s Tainted Profits: PW Talks with Henry Wiencek,” Publisher’s Weekly

October ?: Wiencek, “The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson,” Smithsonian Magazine

October 8: J.L. Bell, “New Light on Childhood at Monticello,” Boston 1775

October 13: Jonathan Yardley, Review, The Washington Post

October 14: Laura Miller, “The Real Truth about Thomas Jefferson,” Salon

October 16: Wiencek, Book Launch, C-SPAN

October 17: Jan Lewis, “What Did Thomas Jefferson Really Think about Slavery?” The Daily Beast

October 17: Lisa Provence, “Wiencek Challenges Image of Reluctant Slaveholder,” The Hook

October 18: Review, NPR

October 19: Annette Gordon-Reed, “Thomas Jefferson was not a Monster,” Slate

October 22: J.L. Bell, “Reviews of Master of the Mountain,” Boston 1775

October 22: Robert W. Butler, “Historian Henry Wiencek Talks About Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves,” kclibrary.org

October 24: Lucia (Cinder) Stanton, “Wiencek misled readers on Jefferson’s record,” The Hook

October 26: Wiencek, Talk at University of Texas, Not Even Past (audio)

November 18: Wiencek, “Responds to His Critics,” Smithsonian Magazine

November 21: Wiencek, “Response to Annette Gordon-Reed,” Slate

November 26: Jennifer Scheussler, “Henry Wiencek’s Master of the Mountain Irks Historians,” New York Times

November 28: Bell, “Debate over Master of the Mountain,” Boston 1775

November 29: Bell, “Academic History, Popular History, and Jefferson’s Slaveholding,” Boston 1775

December 1: Corey Robin, “Thomas Jefferson: American Fascist,” CoreyRobin.com

December 2: Wiencek, MSNBC Interview, The Cycle

December 4: Wiencek, “The Storyteller—Thomas Jefferson’s Political Calculations,” review of Meacham, The New Republic

December 8: T.H. Breen, “Confounding Father,” The American Scholar

December 10: “Jefferson and His Slaves,” HuffPost Live webcast with Jan Lewis, Paul Finkelman, and Shannon Lanier

32 comments on “Jeffersongate: The Case of Henry Wiencek

  1. Brian A. Graham says:

    I enjoyed this reflection on the historical method. A nice post to break in the new blog.

    Paul Finkelman weighed in with an op-ed in the NY Times. You can read it at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/01/opinion/the-real-thomas-jefferson.html

    Mr. Wiencek has now entered into the ranks of Jefferson heretics such as Leonard Levy, William Cohen, Fawn Brodie, and Conor Cruise O’Brien who have dared to examine Jefferson and his relationship to the American civil religion. The same arguments against Wiencek’s work were used against those authors.

    I was an undergraduate student of Robert McColley at the University of Illinois, the author of Slavery and Jeffersonian Virginia, and I did my graduate work back in the 80s at UVA, where students both grads and undergrads interested in learning about Sally Hemings were steered toward Virginius Dabney’s The Jefferson Scandals: A Rebuttal. I also have fond memories of the various tour guides at Monticello stating that Jefferson was fervently antislavery and a humane slaveholder. The myth of the humane slaveholder dies hard, almost as hard as the myth of the objective historian.

    I have not yet read the Wiencek book so I cannot comment on either of the two main points of your essay. I shall not read the Meacham book, but in an interview Mr. Meacham was extolling Jefferson’s bipartisanship which is also a willful distortion of reality which will be amplified once Mr. Meacham gives his obligatory appearance on The Daily Show.

  2. R. B. Bernstein says:

    Thanks to Michael Hattem for a thought-provoking essay.

    Responding to Brian A. Graham:

    To be candid, there is a difference between Conor Cruise O’Brien, on the one hand, and Leonard W. Levy, Fawn Brodie, and William Cohen, on the other hand. Not only was Conor Cruise O’Brien not an American historian, but his use of sources was tendentious, prosecutorial, and devoid of any understanding of historical context with regard to Jefferson, or indeed America. By contrast, Leonard W. Levy was a first-rate scholar whose JEFFERSON AND CIVIL LIBERTIES: THE DARKER SIDE was the first major reconsideration of Jefferson, launching a fourth, more troubled period in the posthumous history of Jefferson’s reputation. Fawn Brodie’s challenging book, long trashed by Jefferson scholars, was redeemed in great measure by the important and illuminating work of Annette Gordon-Reed, both on Jefferson and on the field of Jefferson scholarship. And William Cohen’s work on Thomas Jefferson and the problem of slavery, again, is exacting historical scholarship sensitive to historical context and grounded in a thorough knowledge of the period.

    There is no question that the history of “what history has made of Thomas Jefferson” (to borrow a phrase from Merrill Peterson) has entered a fourth stage, as I wrote in my 2003 biography of Jefferson. The question is whether it is to be a mere prosecutorial extravaganza or a careful, thoughtful re-examination of Jefferson and his time with close and patient attention to historical context.

    — R. B. Bernstein, City College of New York and New York Law School, and author of THOMAS JEFFERSON (Oxford, 2003), and THE FOUNDING FATHERS RECONSIDERED (Oxford, 2009).

  3. vanbraman says:

    A great start to a new blog. I will definitely be looking forward to future posts.

  4. Dan Allosso says:

    Congrats on the new blog! I haven’t read Master of the Mountain yet, but I’m reading The Art of Power and I’m interested in what you begin to say here about the relationship between academic and popular writing. I hope you’ll return to this theme frequently

    I think it’s fair to argue there may be a separate “popular historiography” of Jefferson that may not keep up with the academic one, but I’m not claiming Wiencek has engaged this appropriately. I’m not quite halfway through Meacham’s book, and it sometimes strikes me as sensationalism without consequence. Meacham brings up a lot of colorful, negative stuff, but then passes it by without really altering his view of his subject.

    Along the way, however, he brings some facts to the public they may not have known. For example, the popular response to Sally Hemings seems to concentrate on the facts she was a slave and a half-sister of Jefferson’s wife “Patty.” I haven’t seen anything in the public discussion about the (to my mind much creepier) fact that she was younger than Jefferson’s first daughter, Patsy, and was probably conceived during Patty’s pregnancy. While I’m not saying Sally was Jefferson’s daughter, product of “other means of extinguishing their fire,” (although that would be an incredible idea for a novel), I think it’s important to a popular understanding of both Jefferson and his times that she could have been. More: http://www.danallosso.com/history/reading.html

    • Dan, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I think there is indeed a separation between the historiography (or “scholarly consensus”) and, if not necessarily a “popular historiography,” just a broader public perception, as J.L. Bell mentioned in one of his posts. I find it hard to speak to the latter since I have no idea how most non-academics view Jefferson. Bell, however, said that there has always been this separation and it hadn’t really bothered academics before and so there must be something else going on here. That was somewhat of a starting point for me in thinking about my piece.

      Hence, I asked myself what it was about Wiencek’s book (and behavior) that bothered me, as a junior scholar, the most, which was his misrepresenting the work of other historians and that he was doing this to a reading public that was not familiar enough with the literature to know what he was doing. I came to the conclusion that it was this dishonesty about the historians’ work and the deception of the readers of popular history that bothered me the most. And I tend to think that it was the former that elicited such harsh (yet, to my mind, fair) reviews from Gordon-Reed, Lewis, and Stanton.

    • R. B. Bernstein says:

      There’s no evidence that Sally Hemings was Jefferson’s daughter. The evidence strongly suggests that Jefferson and his wife Martha were ardently in love and that Jefferson’s sexual activities with other women either predated his meeting Martha or followed her death. There is strong evidence that Sally was Martha’s half-sister, because John Wayles fathered Martha and Sally.

      As for the age difference, that is unsettling to us, but was not so unsettling in the late eighteenth century. In many cases, age differences of 15 or even 20 years separated husbands and wives — often in the case of later marriages by widowers. Some of those age gaps may well creep us out, but they were far more common than we might believe.

  5. Thank you for your succinct summary of this controversy.

    As you put it so well, to “take advantage of the… readership’s unfamiliarity of the subject… to make [the author's] own book seem more important and original than it really is” is a perpetual problem in the history book world. Publishers no longer (if they ever did) have the resources or the incentive to call out their writers on such claims.

    I’ll be very curious to hear what the blog’s authors and others think of the other work you referenced (Meacham). I was able to review an ARC on Amazon, and at least Meacham acknowledged Jefferson’s failings when it came to slavery.

    • Thank you for the kind words. Unfortunately, I have not yet had the chance to go through Meacham as I did with Wiencek, but I will over the next few weeks.

      In Wiencek’s review of Meacham’s book (link at the bottom of the post), he accuses Meacham of giving Jefferson “a pass for lying” even though in the next sentence he quotes Meacham as saying, “Jefferson had been dishonest….” It is as if unless someone vehemently attacks Jefferson, they are giving him “a pass” or have “fallen under his spell.”

      It’s this inclination toward extremes in popular history on Jefferson (both in praise and contempt) that makes it harder for the public to actually better understand Jefferson as the flawed individual he was. Thanks for reading!

  6. Benjamin Park says:

    Fantastic post, Michael. After all the dust settles, I think this whole debate will be helpful to use in the classroom, too, for various purposes.

    • I think if you’re teaching a course on founders historiography or whatnot, considering Wiencek’s glowing book on Washington and this book on Jefferson, you could include him, for teaching purposes, in the sort of neo-federalist founders chic group of biographies. I don’t think that by content it’s a perfect fit but you certainly could do it simply in terms of organizing a course or lecture.

  7. An eloquent summary indeed! I’m glad to see the blog up and running. Huzzah!

  8. Maurizio Valsania says:

    Many thanks to Michael Hattem for a spot-on essay (definitely more than just a post).

    Readers, I’m afraid, will always be enticed by books–actually, well-crafted products–promising to make secret formulas easily available. No bureaucracy. These books are successful PRECISELY BECAUSE they blame professional historians on not being willing to “tell the truth” and “let us know.” It’s reassuring being told that history is not a series of processes often allowing more than one interpretation and always calling for the intervention of professional historians. Readers will always prefer to depict history as something they can immediately behold, just like when we enter the show and enjoy a parade of good and evil figures.

    It’s not that Master of the Mountain “happens” to overlook its sources. Wiencek’s book is a big hit because it does away with historians, the new Mandarins.

    Maurizio Valsania, University of Torino — and author of Limits of Optimism (Virginia 2011) and Nature’s Man (Virginia 2013).

    • Thank you Maurizio! I am afraid you are right that Wiencek’s work is the symptom of a larger problem of the public’s desire for simple, defined, and static history. Unfortunately, this begins during our primary education years here in the United States. We also see it particularly in the use of eighteenth-century history by the Tea Party (on which I have a post coming later this month). It’s why so many Americans use the term “revisionist history,” i.e., anything that contradicts the grade-school ultra-nationalist narrative, as an epithet. The question is: What, if anything, can academic historians do to chip away at this sort of thinking?

  9. Congratulations on the new blog! Something like this is much needed.

    Two things– First, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy and The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family are far from obscure texts. Because of their subject matters, they had great crossover appeal and were both bestsellers that received an enormous amount of critical attention. THOM was an answer (question?) on Jeopardy, which impressed members of my family almost as much as any of the many wonderful things that have happened to me and my work over the years. I have been lucky that both books have been popular with the public and well-received by my fellow academics.

    Second @ Mr. Allosso, I have criss-crossed the country since 1997, engaging in discussions with ordinary people who are interested in the topic of Jefferson and Hemings, and it is known that SH was slightly younger than Patsy Jefferson. SH was born in 1773– we don’t know what month. Patsy Jefferson was born in Sept. 1772, nine months after her parents married. This is in my work and the works of others. The portrayals of the two young women in film and on television clearly establish that they were around the same age. Okay, no one saw Jefferson in Paris. But millions watched the CBS mini-series on TJ and SH, and saw that they were in the same age cohort. Thomas and Martha Jefferson lived at Monticello. Elizabeth Hemings, SH”s mother, lived at The Forest with John Wayles, SH’s father. Anything is possible. It is possible that John Wayles was the father of Patsy Jefferson. Absent any reason to think that, why would we consider it?

    As for “creepiness” — lots of creepy things happened in the 18th century. As I point out in THOM, Jefferson’s cousin and in-law (Patsy’s father-in-law) at age 50 married a 17 years old who was younger than Patsy and her husband and several of his siblings. James Madison at 33 courted and proposed to a 15 year old. John Marshall, age 27, courted his wife Polly Ambler when she was 14. The reference to “extinguishing…fire” came when TJ, 21 at the time, was rejected by Rebecca Burwell. This was long before he courted and married Martha Wayles.

    • Annette, thank you for reading and taking the time to respond. Your first point is well taken. There are moments when both the academic and popular historiography converge, with your two books being good examples of that. But, sadly, those kinds of moments are relatively infrequent, leaving us a public that thinks of Bill O’Reilly as an historian.

      Unfortunately, the structure of graduate education and history as an academic profession does not particularly reward (or even value) writing books that address topics of broad public interest and writing them well. As historians, it is easy to go on and on about the quality of history that is on offer to the general reading public, but can we complain when others fill a gap that we have left? Until the character of graduate education and the profession itself is reformed in some ways, academic historians will likely continue to remain outsiders to the general reading public.

      • It is interesting to think of how this could be done. With a few exceptions, “the general reading public” is enamored of biographies– not a genre that academic historians care for very much.

        • Alec Rogers says:

          That probably explains why the general reading public isn’t better educated about its past. The ability to interpret academic history for the reading public is a highly specialized skill.

  10. Brian Connolly says:

    It seems particularly interesting the way in which, from both sides, this is told in terms of a morality tale and/or authenticity. Simply from the titles listed above we get “Tainted Profits,” “Dark Side,” “not a Monster,” “American Fascist,” “Real Truth,” “Really Think.”

    When we think of these issues not simply in terms of Jefferson’s biography, but in the imbricated histories of slavery and capitalism, it seems that the morality tale forecloses, to some degree, the structural position of slavery in capitalism and capitalism in slavery.

    And while there is much great work on slavery and violence (Nell Painter and Saidiya Hartman come to mind), the emphasis on the whipping of enslaved children seems fetishistic. As Freud notes of the fetish, it simultaneously avows and disavows. For Wiencek it avows the hyperviolence of slavery while implicitly disavowing other kinds of more quotidian violences.

    • Excellent point, Brian. The focus on children and violence does indeed seem fetishistic in Wiencek’s case. These are stories that needed to be told, but they have been told before. I think “fetishistic” is an interesting term. Methodologically speaking, Wiencek seems to fetishize historical moments. As historians, one of our primary tasks is to identify and to posit explanations for change occurring over time. In Wiencek’s “eureka history,” that change occurs at a specific moment usually with a single event as the catalyst, and everything appears as if black and white. If you think about your own life, how many sweeping changes have you made in your thinking about fundamental topics in a single moment? History and people simply don’t work like that and, therefore, it’s just not a very satisfying historical methodology.

      For example, I just today saw an interview with Wiencek on MSNBC from last week where he was asked by the host how it was that Jefferson didn’t realize that slave procreation was profitable. I made a similar point in my post. Wiencek responded by saying that before 1792 Jefferson only thought of the profits of slavery as arising from labor. How he can know what Jefferson thought, I have no idea. But to make his argument more believable, he would need to prove that Jefferson saw slavery in that way. Instead, he has a shift occur in which Jefferson’s thoughts on slavery go from being based on morality to being based on economy. Off-hand, I can’t imagine how he would go about proving convincingly that Jefferson initially thought that way.

      I am not averse to someone arguing that there was this shift in Jefferson’s thinking on slavery at some point in his life, but not in this manner. For one thing, Jefferson was not an impulsive thinker. He saw himself as an enlightened rationalist and did not think through topics, even those much less important than slavery, in a cursory manner. If one wants to make this argument, it would take more than a scrap of paper and some tales of violence at Monticello to do it convincingly. In order to make this argument, Wiencek has to not take seriously a lot of things Jefferson wrote about slavery later in his life. Indeed, his conception of motivation as being economically-based self-interest and his treatment of those later writings as mere rhetoric is quite reminiscent of Charles Beard and the progressive school of a century ago.

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!

    • R. B. Bernstein says:

      Brian is absolutely right about the rhetoric of these controversies. I noticed long ago when Annette Gordon-Reed published THOMAS JEFFERSON AND SALLY HEMINGS that the polemics aimed at her always used “indictment,” “charges,” “attacks,” to describe her work and “defense,” “acquittal,” “innocent/innocence” to describe their responses and goals.

      Indeed, when my Jefferson biography came out, people (regular, general readers) would say to me, “You spent five years writing this book? You must LOVE Jefferson. I LOVE Jefferson.” When I would answer, “I don’t love him,” they would say, in varying tones of voice, “Then you must HATE Jefferson.” No, folks, I don’t love or hate him. I’m fascinated and puzzled by him and I am also (to quote the revered Peter Onuf) “deeply conflicted” about him.

      This black/white, either/or, attack/defense, innocent/guilty, love/hate dichotomy may be characteristic of history aimed at a general audience — though I write both for my colleagues and for a general readership and I try to avoid that kind of polarized either/or approach to the subject.

      • Alec Rogers says:

        Exactly right – this is the language of the courtroom where, in Anglo-Saxon nations at least, we try to get at the truth through the adversarial method. In academia, such “defenses, charges, indictments, acquittals” should have no place. From what I’ve read of one book that purports to rebut the possibility that Jefferson sired children with one of his slaves, all that mentality leads to is selective use of evidecence at best and distortions of it at worse.

  11. whyland99 says:

    Please read the book IN DEFENSE OF THOMAS JEFFERSON, for a different perspective on the Hemings-Jeffrson-Slavery debate, and the politicization of Jefferson and his legacy. The allegation that Thomas Jefferson had an affair with his slave, Sally Hemings,and was “brutal” to his slaves is pure fiction, possibly politics, but certainly not historical fact or science. The lurid myths reflect a recycled inaccuracy that has metastasized from book to book, over two hundred years. A chorus of revisionist, slave historians have misread language and invoked chic psychological explanations to misinterpret Jefferson’s actions. If truth conforms to facts, the Sally “story” reflects one of the most striking derelictions of scholarly integrity in American history

    • Brian Connolly says:

      I would say that your “argument” here is a dereliction of “scholarly integrity.” Had Jefferson, as you assert, not had a sexual relationship with Sally Hemmings, would his slaveholding have been honorable and virtuous? Moreover, is it interracial sex itself that you find so distasteful? We have been dealing with 200 years of the foreclosure of interracial sex in American history. Slavery is brutal, the commodification of humans into chattel property is brutal. Or do you have an argument for its virtues? And please, don’t respond with the tired “he was a man of his times” rejoinder.

    • R. B. Bernstein says:

      I have read the book, and it is more an ad hominem attack on such scholars as Peter Onuf and Annette Gordon-Reed than a serious analysis of the controversy.

  12. Dave Mazella says:

    Thanks for this post, and this wonderful new blog. I think that the problem might be as much the chosen historiographic approach of Wiencek as the moral difficulties of the topic. One of the reasons why I liked Annette Gordon-Reed’s approach so much was that it brought the social and legal histories into view while describing the history of the Hemingses. Wiencek’s approach, from what I can gather, is to make Jefferson culpable for events that lay outside his control or knowledge. This is simply an inversion of monumentalizing, “Great Man”-style historiography and its characteristic flaws.

    Frankly, I thought the portrait of TJ in AGR’s work was plenty creepy, and unsettling, but in ways that seemed utterly plausible, in ways that the depiction in Wiencek’s is not. The enslavement of human beings in the 18c was an institution that was managed by many, many people, some quite distinguished and intelligent like Jefferson, and others quite frightening. There is a difference between those whose violence and coercive power is implicit and those who express it outright. What I think AGR was most effective in depicting was the necessary segmentation and compartmentalization that such an institution demanded for someone in Jefferson’s position. In some contexts, Jefferson was forced to acknowledge the humanity of those enslaved people he kept close to him, and in others he was not. This is the kind of contextual information that AGR stresses and Wiencek seems uninterested in. Or am I wrong about this?

    • R. B. Bernstein says:

      I, for one, think that Dave Mazella has it absolutely right.

    • “Wiencek’s approach, from what I can gather, is to make Jefferson culpable for events that lay outside his control or knowledge. This is simply an inversion of monumentalizing, “Great Man”-style historiography and its characteristic flaws.”

      Spot on, Dave.

  13. [...] Hattem of the new early Americanist blog The Junto has posted an interesting meta-essay about the controversy surrounding Henry Wiencek’s treatment of Thomas Jefferson in Master of [...]

  14. Mr. Wiencek’s 4% is a sad return for a sad state of affairs. This is so because in 1792 cost-price inflation was at 5% (Leuthold Group LLC, leuthold group.com) and rising rapidly as doubts grew about the new Bank of the United States’ ability to control a price inflation that had destroyed the Continental Dollar and the fortunes of many in the prior decade. Inflation was to move to 30% in 1793.

    A cold appraisal of slaves as a capital asset, as despicable as it might seem or be, would show that the value they represented varied widely over time – being affected especially by such events as epidemics, wars, and the volume of slaves being brought into the country at any time.

    In face of the above, a calculated 4% return is hardly anything to brag about or to hypothecate into profitable business venture.

  15. […] Blog on Early American History A recently launched early American history group blog, including a post on heated historiographical debate over Thomas Jefferson’s […]

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