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.
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.
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.
October 13: Jonathan Yardley, Review, The Washington Post
October 16: Wiencek, Book Launch, C-SPAN
October 18: Review, NPR
November 21: Wiencek, “Response to Annette Gordon-Reed,” Slate
December 2: Wiencek, MSNBC Interview, The Cycle