Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves by Henry Wiencek

Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves by Henry WiencekMaster of the Mountain by Henry Wiencek
Published by Macmillan on 10/16/2012
Source: Purchased
Pages: 352
Buy from IndieBound


With the eloquent words of his Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson solidified himself as a man who firmly believed in the equality and freedom of all people, though his history as a slave owner has been well documented. In his book Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves, Henry Wiencek explores the change in Jefferson’s opinions on slavery —from an early champion of emancipation to wealthy plantation owner—and suggests that American history has allowed Jefferson’s famous words to outshine his more grievous actions.

The same Thomas Jefferson who attacked the institution of slavery in a deleted portion of the Declaration of Independence had become much more silent on the issue by the 1780’s, leaving many to question the drastic shift. Monticello, Jefferson’s architectural gem, was built both by and around slave labor, including a highly advanced hidden kitchen built below the main house. Wiencek digs deep into the roots of the slave families of Monticello —their roles, treatment and family connections—to get a full picture of life on the Charlottesville, Virginia mountain. 

“The syntax that biographers and historians use when they write about Jefferson is revealing. In books, articles, blogs, and websites, he strides across the American stage as a potent, overpowering actor: he built Monticello, he wrote the Declaration of Independence, he engineered the Louisiana Purchase. But when it comes to slavery, suddenly Jefferson is not an active force but the pawn of historical forces beyond his control; he becomes a victim. Verbs go from the active to the passive voice; he is trapped by convention, by society, by laws, by his family, by debt.”

Despite moments of tenderness and concern, much of Jefferson’s private correspondence discusses slavery as a profitable business rather than an abomination. In letters to George Washington and his neighbors, Jefferson mentions the money he is earning solely on the birth of slaves and suggests investing in them for their “silent profit”. 

Reading Master of the Mountain sent me into some of the same darkness I felt after finishing Lies My Teacher Told Me. How is it I had wandered all over the Monticello grounds several times, including Mulberry Row, and then stood in awe of Thomas Jefferson’s achievements in the same day? How does history keep tricking us into believing this man is something he wasn’t? 

Apparently Jefferson scholars felt heated over this book, too, but they went for blood. The New York Times wrote a pretty interesting article outlining the debate between those claiming Jefferson really was “trapped” and the views of Wiencek, which continues to be fairly heated even a year later. While I’m still peeking through the book’s footnotes, I think it’s important to look at our history with a critical eye, and Master of the Mountain does so in an endlessly fascinating way.


  • Jennine G.

    This interests me. My mom and I often have discussions on the founding fathers because she is of the opinion that they were solid men of God who founded our country on faith. While I know this is true to some extent, there are many littler known facts that affect this view, but she denies or doesn’t realize them – yet thinks I should not let change my view. I simply don’t think we should overly idolize a group of men who were simply men. This book sounds like a perfect example. (My opinions here, no one be offended, please!)

    • Jennine G.

      Another little known fact is that Abraham Lincoln said if keeping slavery would have united the country, he wouldn’t have fought to free the slaves. So, yes I can still admire all he went through, including being assassinated, to do what he did, but the altruism that is preached in text books sits wrong with me knowing this.

      • “I simply don’t think we should overly idolize a group of men who were simply men.”
        This exactly. While there’s no doubt they did some amazing things, it doesn’t mean we can make excuses for everything negative they did.

  • This does sound very interesting. I think history often glazes over the bad behavior of our leaders or at least the common cultural assumptions of any given time period. Blarg.

    • We definitely seem willing to give them a free pass for issues that were more culturally accepted at the time, which can be frustrating.

      • Kim Ukura

        I think it’s also that there’s a weird reluctance to accept that people who made such amazing things happen for our country could have also made major mistakes. It’s hard, I think, to reconcile those things, so often we just choose to only focus on the good and the expense of the mistakes.

        • Exactly. I think this is the place some of the Jefferson scholars criticizing Wiencek are coming from. They’ve spent so much time researching and dedicating their lives to this man, that it becomes nearly impossible to see him (or even read his documents) from any other light.

  • I was fascinated with Thomas Jefferson as a kid after a vacation to the East Coast and a visit to Monticello. I think I’ll have to seek this one out! Thanks for the recommendation :)

    • I live about an hour from Monticello, so I’ve been several times and kind of fell in love with it (though, I’m more of a Madison girl, myself)…you’ll LOVE how much detail this gives about the plantation and families, it’s wonderful.

  • I can’t even tell you how much I love reading your insights into history books. Fantastic review.

    • Aw, thank you. I wish I had more time to really dig into the research and really see where I fall on everything, but…:)

  • I think Wiencek is the first one who really brought the whole nail factory business to the attention of a wide audience, which in my opinion was a great service. Because people seem willing to overlook all of the negatives except when it comes to behavior toward slaves!

    • That was definitely the first I had heard of the nail factory, it was one of the most surprising moments of the book.

  • My husband was much disillusioned about Jefferson reading a more conventional biography — he’s going to love this one. My book club read and liked The Hemmingses of Monticello. That would be an excellent companion to this.

  • Looking at history critically is important. Just because someone is important in government, or life, doesn’t mean they are necessarily someone amazing. I think that sometimes these tough topics, like slavery, might be glazed over in other texts, but it’s important to be open, and even critical, of the way things are written in regards to that, like in that text you quoted above. It’s really interesting.

  • Interesting! Although I know very little of the history behind Thomas Jefferson, you wrote your review on this book very eloquently. I can see this is your passion, because it affirms the “history by teacher” on your profile. I had a “aha” moment :)

    • Yes, I agree, a great word to use for your review – eloquent – it was indeed very eloquently written.

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