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. Continue reading