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Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves [Kindle Edition]

Henry Wiencek
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (43 customer reviews)

Kindle Price: $8.89
Sold by: Macmillan

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Book Description

Is there anything new to say about Thomas Jefferson and slavery? The answer is a resounding yes. Master of the Mountain, Henry Wiencek’s eloquent, persuasive book—based on new information coming from archaeological work at Monticello and on hitherto overlooked or disregarded evidence in Jefferson’s papers—opens up a huge, poorly understood dimension of Jefferson’s world. We must, Wiencek suggests, follow the money.

So far, historians have offered only easy irony or paradox to explain this extraordinary Founding Father who was an emancipationist in his youth and then recoiled from his own inspiring rhetoric and equivocated about slavery; who enjoyed his renown as a revolutionary leader yet kept some of his own children as slaves. But 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 profits” gained from his slaves—and thanks to a skewed moral universe that he and thousands of others readily inhabited. We see Jefferson taking out a slave-equity line of credit with a Dutch bank to finance the building of Monticello and deftly creating smoke screens when visitors are dismayed by his apparent endorsement of a system they thought he’d vowed to overturn. 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. Parents are divided from children—in his ledgers they are recast as money—while he composes theories that obscure the dynamics of what some of his friends call “a vile commerce.”

Many people of Jefferson’s time saw a catastrophe coming and tried to stop it, but not Jefferson. The pursuit of happiness had been badly distorted, and an oligarchy was getting very rich. Is this the quintessential American story?

Editorial Reviews


“This meticulous account indicts not only Jefferson but modern apologists who wish to retain him as a moral standard of liberty. Wiencek’s vivid, detailed history casts a new slant on a complex man.”
       —Publishers Weekly [HC starred review]
(Express Milwaukee)

“Well-rendered yet deeply unsettling. . . . Wiencek scours the primary sources . . . for a thoughtful reexamination of what was really going on behind the harmonious façade of the great house on the mountain. . . . Beautifully constructed reflections and careful sifting of Jefferson’s thoughts and deeds.”
       —Kirkus Reviews [HC starred review]

“Wiencek brilliantly and comprehensively re-evaluates the revolutionary-turned-slave-owner’s reputation, questioning why America holds Jefferson as a pillar in its moral composition. Jefferson did not heed the requests of his peers to free his slaves, and, now—two centuries later—he is exposed as a beneficiary of America’s selective historical memory. ”
      —Milwaukee Express


“Wiencek’s method—to present the facts . . . allowing the reader to form her own interpretation before he presents his—makes for a far more persuasive and devastating indictment. Every American should read it.”


“Remarkable re-creation of Monticello’s economy and culture. . . . Whether you agree or disagree with Wiencek’s provocative analysis, it’s a book worth taking seriously as we continue to stuggle with slavery’s legacy.”

(DWD's Reviews)

“Narrator Brian Holsopple has a deep, distinctive voice that captures our attention and is easy to listen to. He has terrific diction and paces the story well, enabling us to follow the account while allowing us time to analyze what we’ve heard.”

(Library Journal)

“Clearly delivered and [Holsopple’s] reading of the text was free of insinuation, even when Jefferson’s hypocrisy was at its most obvious. [Holsopple] played it straight and let the text speak for itself, which should be the goal of every reader of histories. . . . I highly recommend it.”
      —DWD’s Reviews

“Narrator Brian Holsopple does an excellent job. This audiobook provides a troubling aspect of a complex man and the skewed moral universe in which he lived; recommended to all listeners.”
      —Library Journal

About the Author

After working in the radio/production field for fifteen years, BRIAN HOLSOPPLE has been a full-time voiceover artist for well over a decade. In addition to audiobooks, he has done work for The Discovery Channel, the FBI, the US Army, and others. He is the voice of Thomas Jefferson in the official Park Service program at the Mount Rushmore National Monument.

HENRY WIENCEK, a nationally prominent historian and writer, is the author of several books, including The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and An Imperfect God. He lives with his wife in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Product Details

  • File Size: 704 KB
  • Print Length: 354 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0374299560
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (October 16, 2012)
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B008MWL8ZE
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #319,764 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
75 of 85 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Sick Institution November 11, 2012
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Before reading Master of the Mountain I had viewed slavery and the role of Jefferson in bits and pieces. The details of his relationship with Sally Hemings, the treatment of his slaves on the mountain, the contradictions of his early and late attitudes on the institution, etc. It turns out that the details are the least important part of the picture. This book opened my eyes to the utter depravity of the institution. Master and slave were equally debased. Mulberry Row, the slave quarter, was the equivalent of a neighborhood bordello for the Jefferson family and for those residing nearby. Slaveholders, including Jefferson, became indolent, utterly dependent on the institution and indifferent to the human cost of enslavement.

Jefferson was a master wordsmith. In his writings, early and late, he dances expertly around the issues of slavery, leaving his reputation for enlightened thinking intact for history (until now). The fact is that Jefferson saw his slaves as assets which produced more profit from activities in the breeding shed than in the fields. He sold slaves away, broke up families and viewed his slaves as lazy wards who owed him a return on investment. The chilling aspect of this book, which is beautifully written and structured, is that conditions on the mountain, while simply appalling, were probably much better than conditions on other plantations, especially in the Deep South. Healthy young men who were sold south had a life expectancy of 18 months on the rice plantations. Slaves were cheap so they worked them to death and then bought more.

I was struck by Jefferson's skill at self justification. If it worked for him, he was able to conjure noble purposes for his actions, no matter how depraved.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format:Audio CD
In 2003, historian Henry Wiencek tackled the difficult subject of America's Founding Fathers and slavery with his excellent and penetrating An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America. In 2012, he revisited the topic to take on a Founder who comes out much worse for the contest in Thomas Jefferson in Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves. Wiencek delivers another fascinating look at a troubling part of the American past in examining how the author of the Declaration of Independence justified owning slaves.

While George Washington went from typical Virginia planter to commanding African-American soldiers in the Revolution and freeing his slaves in his will after many attempts to do so in his lifetime, Thomas Jefferson, unfortunately, takes the opposite arc. Wiencek describes how Jefferson changed from a young idealist who had included emancipatory language in the original drafts of the Declaration of Independence to a man who wrote how glowingly about how profitable holding slaves was, deflected any suggestion he push for emancipation in Virginia or emancipate his own slaves, and probably had a relationship with a woman he owned.

Wiencek very carefully follows Jefferson's documented views on slavery over his life, untangled the most obfuscating of Jefferson doublespeak with penetrating analysis and a reliance on the facts. For every Jefferson letter where he speaks about slavery being an unprofitable and heavy burden, he finds an entry in Jefferson's business papers showing how profitable the slaves were in fact.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Jefferson's Image Altered by In-Depth Research February 9, 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
The author has delved widely and deeply into Jefferson's correspondence and meticulous farm records to paint a disturbing view of a slave owner who saw his slaves as capital investments that appreciated in value by 4 percent a year. He did not free his slaves because he could not afford to. His offspring slaves by Sally Hemmings were given advantageous positions in the big house, where at least one son startled visitors because he looked so much like his father. The fact that Jefferson's call for the abolishment of slavery in the Declaration of Independence was deleted by other slaveholders does not alter the fact that this man was disturbingly two-sided when it came to the "peculiar institution." Kudos to Wiencek for his careful research and conclusions.
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21 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Masterful look behind the curtain October 31, 2012
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Just finished this very thoughtful book. From start to finish it was hard to put down. Slavery is complex and this book looks into the darkest corner of its soul. Thomas Jefferson was a man of times in the clearest sense. He gave lip service to emancipation and stands in stark contrast to those who acted.
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Talk About "Telling it Like it Is" November 20, 2012
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I learned so much new information from this book. Mr. Wiencek does an excellent job of depicting the "say one thing but do another" personality of Thomas Jefferson. I am not one to worship people and Mr. Jefferson's character provides an excellent illustration why that is not a wise thing to do. Founding Father or not his hypocrisy makes him seem like a most dishonorable person. This book illustrates the important principle of looking beyond what a person says to what he does. Mr. Wiencek did an excellent job of documenting his position.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars the book confirmed my suspicion that Jefferson was not only brilliant...
The author gives a detailed analysis of the relationship of Jefferson with his slaves. Based on many quotations from Jefferson relating to this matter, the book confirmed my... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Walter
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Published 4 months ago by DIGGIT
2.0 out of 5 stars Jefferson: The Good and Bad
I'm not a Jefferson scholar by any means, and while I do appreciate the volume of research work Wiencek has clearly done here, I struggled to get through this non-linear... Read more
Published 4 months ago by Emi Bevacqua
5.0 out of 5 stars A good read
As a Virginian, Jefferson had always been (and will be) on a pedestal for me. This book, however, reveals what I think was his tragic flaw. Read more
Published 10 months ago by southern lady
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Facts - But
I found the book to be well written and full of facts. However I also found it very repetitious. To the point of boredom. Read more
Published 10 months ago by Julia Johnston
5.0 out of 5 stars An interesting study
I think maybe I heard about this book in a discussion on the radio. I found this book very interesting, and enjoyed not only the insights into Thomas Jefferson's life and the... Read more
Published 12 months ago by K. RAMSTAD
5.0 out of 5 stars The Sad Reality of Thomas Jefferson
Americans must come to grips with the true evils of slavery and reevaluate the Founders accordingly. Read more
Published 12 months ago by Robert Parry
1.0 out of 5 stars I hated this book and would have given it no stars
I thought the writing was poor, the book was redundant, and the whole thing read like a university thesis. i did not enjoy reading the book. Read more
Published 13 months ago by Poppi Judy
4.0 out of 5 stars Brings a new view of the Slave Community at Monticello to the reader
The author utilized many of the well established source materials supplemented by more resent research to create this well written account of Jefferson's view of slavery and the... Read more
Published 13 months ago by Blue Sky
5.0 out of 5 stars The Inhuman Hypocrosy of A President
The book portrays the actions and hypocrisies of a president at its worst or perhaps at its best. I liked that the book included factual information and less conjecture or bias. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Tayoka
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