Published by Macmillan on 10/16/2012
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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.