Wiencek misled readers on Jefferson's record
As the “recently retired” Monticello historian who had “no comment” in Lisa Provence’s cover story [October 18: “Mr. Jefferson’s greed"], I’m moved to speak. I declined to comment because I had not yet read Henry Wiencek’s Master of the Mountain. I’ve now read excerpts in the October issue of Smithsonian magazine as well as related sections of the book.
As an admirer of Henry Wiencek’s previous work, I was shocked by what I saw: a breathtaking disrespect for the historical record and for the historians who preceded him. With the fervor of a prosecutor, he has played fast and loose with the historical evidence, using truncated quotations, twisting chronology, misinterpreting documents, and misrepresenting events.
In short, he has misled his readers. So much so that, to cite one example, some reviewers now believe that Jefferson “ordered” the whipping of ten-year-old slave boys in the Monticello nailmaking shop. Jefferson actually ordered the manager of the nailery to refrain from using the whip, except “in extremities.” And there were no ten-year-olds in the shop at the time; most were fifteen to eighteen, with two others about to be thirteen and fourteen.
Whipping boys of any age is terrible to contemplate, but we all know that the whip was the universal tool of slave discipline in Virginia. The more interesting point, which Wiencek does not explore, is that Jefferson was experimenting with methods of discipline that might help minimize use of the whip.
One would not know from Wiencek’s book, however, that historians, myself included, have examined slavery at Monticello and written of sales and whippings, not to mention young boys shut up in a hot smoky shop swinging their hammers 20,000 times a day. Yet Wiencek makes no mention of the work of Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Annette Gordon-Reed. And his treatment of the late Edwin M. Betts, editor of Jefferson’s Farm Book (1953), is unfair, to say the least.
He makes a great to-do about Betts’s omission of a sentence that revealed that the “small” nailers were whipped for truancy–- in Jefferson’s absence and without his knowledge. How can he know that Betts “deliberately” suppressed this sentence, in what was a compilation of excerpts, not full letters? Especially when it was Betts who first published the letters that describe troubling events in which Jefferson himself was involved: the flogging of James Hubbard, the selling south of Cary “in terrorem” to his fellow nailers, the addition to capital through slave childbirth. Wiencek fails to mention Betts’s pioneering editorial contributions.
I am angered by Wiencek’s distortion of history as well as disappointed that, with all his talents, he didn’t probe still-unexplored corners of the story of Jefferson and slavery. He has instead used a blunt instrument to reduce complex historical issues to unrecognizable simplicities.
Lucia (Cinder) Stanton