Wiencek has made the cover of two national magazines in the days leading up to publication.
Not all the slaves were happy with their lot at Monticello.
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Publishers Weekly calls it the number one history title of the fall and one of the best of all genres. Both Smithsonian and American History magazines have made it a recent cover story.
However, thus far here in Thomas Jefferson's hometown, the reception to Henry Wiencek's new book, Master of the Mountain: Jefferson and His Slaves– which builds a portrait of the author of the Declaration of Independence as cold, greedy, and a lying racist– has been less effusive. Far less effusive.
No gush from the director of Monticello. No comment from Monticello's recently retired research historian. Nothing new here, says a UVA Jefferson expert. And in the world of historians, silence doesn't signal approval.
"Everybody outside of Jefferson country loves it," says Wiencek, interviewed shortly before the book's October 16 publication by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.
Sitting in his Charlottesville home, Wiencek marvels at the buzz his book has been getting nationally and the cold shoulder he's been getting locally.
Already acclaimed for two prior histories, The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award, and An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, Wiencek says he didn't start out to debunk the popular perception of Jefferson as a benevolent slaveholder. Well aware of the conventional explanation that the so-called Sage of Monticello was trapped by his time and his debt in a system he believed should be dismantled, Wiencek says recent research opened his eyes.
"There was an explosion of knowledge about the slaves at Monticello in the 1990s and 2000s," says Wiencek, crediting Monticello's historians and archeologists.
He says there wasn't just one thing that caused him to reconsider the vision of Jefferson as a rational, humane manager of slavery at Monticello.
"One thing was not enough to dispel that," says Wiencek. "Two things were not enough."
It turns out there were lots of things to make Jefferson idolizers wince. He put kids to work. He let the plantation's bosses whip his slaves. And, in an era when several prominent contemporary slaveholders set slaves free during their lifetimes, Jefferson– like some 19th-century horse-breeder– seemed to relish the idea that he could accumulate more slaves as families grew.
Wiencek "reviews Jefferson's record like a prosecutor," says the American Scholar review of Master of the Mountain, "hammering away at the evasions, rationalizations, and lies that have preserved Jefferson's reputation as a profoundly decent man trapped by the conventions of his own time."
"The information I found overturns the notion of Jefferson as a rational and humane slave owner who had a little trouble with overseers," explains Wiencek. "He had one brutal overseer after another. No one ever got fired."
According to Wiencek, one of Jefferson's slave overseers, William Page, was so cruel that when Page went to work for another planter, no one would hire slaves out to work under him.
"What struck me was the number of Albemarle planters whose reaction to William Page was as a 'terror,'" say Wiencek. "Planters were hard core, accustomed to a certain amount of violence, and they thought this guy was way over the line."
Wiencek made another discovery that radically changed his perception of how Jefferson's slaves were treated– a letter written by Elizabeth Trist, a neighbor to Jefferson's Lynchburg area getaway, who wrote to her grandson about the slaves there at Poplar Forest: "I fear the poor Negroes fare hard." She compared the estate to a notoriously brutal Louisiana plantation and said she wished the Poplar Forest slaves were treated even that well.
When he began to connect the dots, Wiencek says he realized what a "brutal" place Jefferson ran, one in which the Founding Father ordered that the "vigour of discipline" must be maintained.
What changed the author of "all men are created equal," who as a young man, aghast at "this execrable commerce" advocated for the abolition of slavery into a man who in the 1790s advised a cash-strapped acquaintance that "every farthing" should be invested in "land and negroes, which besides a present support bring a silent profit of from 5. to 10. percent in this country by the increase in their value"?
In 1792, Jefferson calculated that the birth of black children brought a four percent annual profit, a formula he shared with George Washington, who freed his own slaves after his death.
"That was icy cold," declares Wiencek. "The man is counting up babies and writing to a lender that's why slavery is profitable. This S.O.B. is utterly cold. That changed my whole perspective."
Then there was the nail factory, where Jefferson, according to his Farm Book, sent slave boys aged 10 to 16 to pound out nails every day. Jefferson enthused that just two months of that enterprise provided him enough cash to pay Monticello's voluminous food bill for a year.
Adding to Wiencek's dismay was that some historians have attempted to scrub the ugliness away. For instance, in 1953, Edwin Betts was editing a report from Colonel Thomas Randolph, Jefferson's son-in-law, that the nailery was running well because "the small ones" were being whipped. Deciding that the image of beaten children did not fit the persona of a lenient slave owner, Betts withheld that note to Jefferson from his book, according to Wiencek, who found the original letter in Massachusetts.
Some Jefferson scholars, like Annette Gordon-Reed, dispute that 10-year-olds were whipped, positing that the youngest victims were more likely 12 years old.
"In any case, no one should have been beaten," Gordon-Reed writes in an email. "No kids should have been enslaved and working in the factory, period, as I indicate when talking about this in The Hemingses of Monticello, as does [Monticello historian] Cinder Stanton in her extensive writings on the nail factory."
Like UVA's top Jefferson expert Peter Onuf, the Pulitzer Prize-winner Gordon-Reed sees nothing new in Master of the Mountain.
"Practically every instance discussed has been written about and talked about before," says Gordon-Reed. "If not the specific event, other incidents of the same nature. It's a difference in tone– different packaging– more than anything really new."
University of Texas history prof Jacqueline Jones, however, says Wiencek's book makes significant advances on two major fronts.
"First, he has gone back to original sources and located material that was omitted in published versions prepared by editors who wanted to burnish Jefferson’s reputation as a benevolent slaveholder," Jones says in an email. "The passage detailing the whipping of the nailery boys is a case in point.
"Second, I think that all of his evidence taken together constitutes a much-needed corrective to some of the more recent scholarship on Jefferson, and to the popular perception of the 'Sage,'" says the Austin-based Jones. "In Master of the Mountain, Jefferson emerges as not some tortured soul, wrestling with the inhumanity of slavery while holding slaves himself, but as a thoroughly savvy businessman, calculating the future earnings of children and the future return on women of child-bearing age, and reckoning how much his enslaved workers can produce and how much those products are worth on the market."
Despite all the national buzz, Monticello, which is hosting Master of the Mountain's launch October 18, seems noncommittal when asked for a reaction.
“In the past five years there have been more than 409 Jefferson titles in print," says Monticello leader Leslie Greene Bowman in a prepared statement. "Monticello prides itself on the free exchange of ideas. We encourage in-depth research and scholarship on a wide variety of topics related to Thomas Jefferson, including slavery. Henry Wiencek completed a portion of his research at Monticello’s International Center for Jefferson Studies. The International Center for Jefferson Studies does not necessarily endorse the conclusions or ideas of its fellows.”
Not quite the ringing endorsement.
A typical criticism of those condemning Jefferson's slave ownership today is "presentism"– judging the past through the lens of the present.
Richard Dixon, president of the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, a group that doubts the now-mainstream historical view that Jefferson fathered children with his enslaved house servant Sally Hemings, says he hasn't read Master of the Mountain, but did read the Smithsonian article.
"There is a significant issue of presentism in Henry's conclusions on Jefferson's moral bearings, but I wish to read the book," he says, "before I react."
Wiencek could see the presentism charge coming, and he notes that plenty of Jefferson's peers, including the Marquis de Lafayette, Thomas Paine, and Edward Coles (the latter of whom freed 17 of his own slaves), beseeched Jefferson to free his slaves and were perplexed at his evasions of the ideal of universal human rights.
UVA law professor Robert Turner, who was in a Heritage Society-commissioned group of scholars that disputes the view that Jefferson fathered Sallly Hemings' children, also read Wiencek's Smithsonian article.
"I'm troubled by it," says Turner. "There seems to be a movement almost to tear down Thomas Jefferson. We saw it with Sally Hemings and with slavery. Jefferson was a complex man, and most of the things he did are explainable."
Turner concedes that Jefferson was a racist. "Of course he was. Almost everyone was at that time. Jefferson was a reluctant racist."
What set Jefferson apart from his peers, says Turner, was his lifelong opposition to slavery. He didn't push for emancipation because it could have endangered the fragile new country. "He had to wait for an opportune moment," says Turner.
And of course there was his debt– $106,000– at the time of his death, and if he'd freed his human property, they could have been reenslaved, adds Turner.
Wiencek recounts another damning tale, in which a friend from the Revolutionary War, Thaddeus Kosciuszko, made Jefferson the executor of his estate and specifically bequeathed Jefferson money to free his slaves and to provide them land and farm equipment. Jefferson declined the money.
"I've lived in Charlottesville and been to Monticello," says Wiencek. "I'd never heard that."
When the University of Virginia Library recently put Kosciuszko's handwritten will on display, the exhibit claimed the will was merely "suggesting" that Jefferson use the money to liberate his slaves.
"This story is really soft-pedaled," says Wiencek. "The will didn't 'suggest' Jefferson free his slaves– it required it. This is how things like that can be spun."
Another irony Wiencek documents is how the more talented Monticello's slaves became– and they were highly skilled coopers, blacksmiths, carpenters, French-style cooks, and artisans– the more the master would describe them as "stupid" and "incompetent," unable to care for themselves if they were set free.
"He was just lying," exclaims Wiencek. "He couldn't say, 'I can't free them because they're too valuable.' It was beyond hypocrisy."
Once his perspective on Jefferson began to change, Wiencek began to see incidents in a different light. He cites the example of Mary Hemings, Sally's half sister.
While Jefferson was in France, a white merchant, Colonel Thomas Bell, fell in love with Mary Hemings, and she lived with him in Charlottesville and had two children with him. When Jefferson returned, Bell wanted to buy Mary and her children into freedom, including two from another relationship. Mary approached Jefferson, who said she could have just the two youngest children.
In one light, says Wiencek, "Mary has the gumption to negotiate, and [Bell] is allowed to buy two children." The other light is that Jefferson made a man pay for his own two children and kept four of Mary Hemings' six kids. (On top of that, Jefferson charged rent for the time Mary had been with Bell during the early years of their marriage.)
"After a while, I just lost patience," says Wiencek, "not just with Jefferson, but with the apologists who spin all this to put Jefferson in a positive light."
Whether Master of the Mountain will change the general perception of Jefferson from "flawed" and "contradictory" to "greedy" and "racist" remains to be seen, especially in the Jefferson-dependent town of Charlottesville.
But elsewhere, with a major publisher's push, Wiencek's book is stirring a lot of reaction. "Every American should read it," says Salon.
Blogger Lindsay Bayerstein calls Wiencek's Smithsonian essay "a wakeup call, not just for its revelations about Thomas Jefferson, but for what it said about my own willingness to assume the best about a historical figure I admired."
The University of Texas' Jones still lauds Jefferson's "stirring words of equality" for inspiring countless struggles for human rights, but she too tempers her enthusiasm.
"His words," she says, "ultimately ring hollow as an expression of his own convictions– because we must conclude that he did not himself believe them."
Correction 10/18/12: Jacqueline Jones holds two chairs at the University of Texas but is not the chair of the history department.