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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 (40 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


“[A] brilliant examination of the dark side of the man who gave the world the most ringing declarations about human liberty, yet in his own life repeatedly violated the principles they expressed . . . [Until now] the emphasis has focused narrowly on the Jefferson-Hemings ménage rather than on Jefferson as slaveowner. Now the record has been corrected, to devastating effect.” —Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

“I rarely find myself recommending a book that has, at points, made me physically nauseated, but that’s how palpably Wiencek conveys the obscenity of slavery. His account of Jefferson’s evolving and convoluted position on the subject is all the more damning for his restraint . . . Every American should read it. As depicted by Wiencek, the older Jefferson resembles a modern-day 1-percenter . . . We try to persuade ourselves that the author of some of our most inspiring political works was not a self-serving hypocrite. But given the bountiful evidence offered in Master of the Mountain, it’s now impossible to see him any other way.” —Laura Miller, Salon

Master of the Mountain is bound to cause a firestorm. It completely upends our view of Jefferson and his attitudes on freedom, slavery, and wealth. It’s a tough-minded book by a master craftsman, completely convincing and a joy to read.” —Richard Ben Cramer, author of What It Takes: The Way to the White House

Master of the Mountain is wonderful! Eloquent and carefully researched, this invaluable book takes us behind the curtain of Jefferson’s familiar public words and shows us Jefferson the Virginia planter, committed to slavery because he was utterly dependent on it for all his wealth, status, and power. Henry Wiencek’s insights help to debunk the whole myth of the ‘humane masters.’” —Bruce Levine, author of The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution

About the Author

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 a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1999, and An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (FSG, 2003). He lives with his wife and son 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:
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #234,819 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
74 of 84 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
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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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Review of the Audiobook January 20, 2013
Format:Audible Audio Edition
Published by HighBridge Company in 2012
Read by Brian Holsopple
Duration: 11 hours, 5 minutes.

I am a history teacher. My favorite area of study is the American Civil War but the American Revolution comes in at a close second. I cannot even count the number of books that I have read about the Revolutionary Era and I thought that I had a pretty solid handle on Jefferson - until I read this book.

I had always pictured Jefferson as a Unitarian (who was willing to go "more" religious for political reasons) who wrote eloquently about freedom and tyranny but somehow compartmentalized this in his own life when it came to slavery. Or, was unable to free his slaves due to crushing debts incurred because he was a philosopher and not a businessman.

The debts are always mentioned, usually in conjunction with the renovations to Monticello, reinforcing the impression that the philosopher was happily spending his way to oblivion for the sake of beauty and architecture, thus adding an air of tragedy to Jefferson. Poor Mr. Jefferson, he wanted to free his slaves but his profligate spending on esoterics caused him to have to compromise his ideals and keep his slaves. Poor Jefferson, he always wanted to free his slaves, but he could never get the law changed to make him do it. Poor Jefferson, circumstances made him look like a hypocrite.

Poor Jefferson, indeed.

Weincek looks at Jefferson's plantation records, the archaeological record, Jefferson's own writings and what other slave-owning planters did to fight slavery or make it more humane. The picture of Jefferson the slave-owner has forever been changed in my mind thanks to this book.
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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 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 1 month ago by Becky
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 2 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 3 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 4 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 4 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 5 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 6 months ago by Tayoka
5.0 out of 5 stars Jefferson- definitely a dual personality- in the end just another...
A lot of new detail about how and what work was done at Monticello....I have also read Wiencek other slavery related book on President Washington....I recommend both to all!!!!
Published 8 months ago by Jerry
5.0 out of 5 stars A clear-eyed view of Jefferson
A well written narrative that looks at Jefferson's relationship to his slaves. This book reviews all the current evidence and sources and takes a realistic and well-supported view... Read more
Published 9 months ago by Henry S. Lovejoy
5.0 out of 5 stars Great read!
This book provided insight about Jefferson previously unknown to me especially his position on slavery. Read more
Published 10 months ago by Amazon Customer
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