Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves
Henry Wiencek's eloquent, persuasive Master of the Mountain―based on new information coming from archival research, archaeological work at Monticello, and hitherto overlooked or disregarded evidence in Thomas Jefferson's own papers―opens up a huge, poorly understood dimension of Jefferson's faraway world. We must, Wiencek suggests, follow the money.
Wiencek's Jefferson is a man of business and public affairs who makes a success of his debt-ridden plantation thanks to what he calls the "silent profit" gained from his slaves―and thanks to the skewed morals of the political and social world that he and thousands of others readily inhabited. It is not a pretty story. Slave boys are whipped to make them work in the nail factory at Monticello that pays Jefferson's grocery bills. Slaves are bought, sold, given as gifts, and used as collateral for the loan that pays for Monticello's construction―while Jefferson composes theories that obscure the dynamics of what he himself called "the execrable commerce." Many people saw a catastrophe coming and tried to stop it, but not Jefferson. The pursuit of happiness had become deeply corrupted, and an oligarchy was getting very rich. Is this the quintessential American story?
spectacle of the equality that reigns in the United States and which assures its peace and prosperity can be useful in Europe…. What had been for [European liberals] only words and paper had, in America, become flesh and blood.”3 What Americans had accomplished made European hopes soar: “everything tells us that we are bordering the period of one of the greatest revolutions of the human race.” 4 The equality was not universal. When the fighting subsided during the Revolutionary War after the
spouse; he mourned the death of his own wife, and he also witnessed firsthand the hardship and strain that resulted from forced separations. Of the quarrels that nearly broke up the marriage of his Irish servants Joseph and Mary Dougherty he wrote: “The differings between man & wife, however they may affect their tranquility, can never produce such sufferings as are consequent on their separation.”22 But his concern for marital discord did not extend to his slaves. The enforced separation of
beautiful, ethereal, with that majestic dome gleaming in the sun. Down below is the workaday architecture of the kitchen wing—drab in comparison, extremely plain. There is hardly any distance between these two realms. Even today one can feel the psychological state this architecture induces when seen from below—a sense of the tantalizing proximity of untouchable beauty. That railing is the emblem of an odd borderland: down here stood people who were related by blood to those up there, yet they
of Jefferson, claiming that “not a spot [has] tarnished his widowed character”10 and asserting that any number of white men could have fathered the Hemings children: “In gentlemen’s houses everywhere, we know that the virtue of unfortunate slaves is assailed with impunity…. Is it strange, therefore, that a servant of Mr. Jefferson’s, at a home where so many strangers resort…should have a mulatto child? Certainly not.”11 In American Sphinx (1996), Joseph Ellis characterized the widowed Jefferson
Years later he would call this his guiding maxim. Violent contradictions roil the pages—a turmoil of doubts, loathings, self-recrimination, all vying with the imperative to create a productive plantation and the imperative to have peace and justice on the mountain. Jefferson had lately read a savage indictment of slavery by the English poet William Shenstone, a subversive, damning attack by a troublesome foreign intellectual, an attack on the American system that Jefferson did not ignore or