on October 31, 2012
This is a remarkable book on Thomas Jefferson--it has already kicked up a great deal of controversy and no doubt will kick up more. And that's a good thing--we can't brood and argue enough about the nature of Jefferson. But what the controversies may obscure is what a thoughtful, detailed, intelligent and above all engrossing book this is. The author has spent many years studying Jefferson and his times and he has fully metabolized his subject, so that the portrait of the Founder that emerges is subtle,very serious and quite fresh. Is this a darker, more self-interested Jefferson than the one we have gotten to know? Yes, it is. But the portrait is patient and qualified and the overall sense of the man and his age that emerges is remarkable. By the time you're through, you know a lot more about Jefferson, about the 18th and early 19th century in America and (maybe above all) about American slavery than you did before. I've read quite a few books about Jefferson over the years (I'm a Virginian-it's almost mandatory), but I've never learned so much from a Jefferson book as I have from this one. Nor have I ever been so impressed by a Jefferson author's serious devotion to his subject. It's a wonderful book.
on November 11, 2012
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. Jefferson's daughter, Martha and grandson, Jeff Randolph, repeatedly tried to nudge the old man in a liberal direction to no avail. Thaddeus Kosciuszko, the Polish hero of the American Revolution gave Jefferson $20,000 in his will and encouraged him to use the money to free his slaves . . . Jefferson did nothing.
Our family moved from New York to Virginia in 1956 when I was 10. This was during Jim Crow, and I heard over and over from respectable people, the 200 year old echoes of Jefferson's refrain, "the time is not right . . . be patient". Jefferson's reputation as an enlightened thinker is a sham. George Washington freed his slaves in his will (1799) and other prominent Virginians did the same . . . Jefferson talked and wrote a good game all his life but he didn't back it up.
on November 25, 2012
As a Charlottesville, VA native and descendant of Jefferson's slaves, the book impacted me on many levels. Understanding (at the risk of sounding Marxist) that the American Revolution was more about economics than freedom, so many beliefs I have had about America were affirmed by this book. There are many but here are a few: 1) the inferior treatment of women by men; 2) the belief that the white race was superior to all groups of color; 3)the schizophrenic mentality Blacks have to this day regarding issues ranging from hair texture to skin complexion. Of course, all these issues resonate more loudly when it involves your family. I am fortunate as a black man to know my roots to the West African Fulani people that is my link to Africa on my father's side. I know this because of research of the Monticello Foundation's research that is the foundation of Mr. Wiencek's book. The fact that the journey involves Monticello is noteworthy for me because it is the Hughes family slave connection. The historical significance of the slave owner is noteworthy to the extent it highlights the hypocrisy of America and its peculiar institution.
When an otherwise historical account involves your biological family the emotions are bittersweet with pride in the fortitude of the people despite the toils they endured. Their experiences leave scars on me to this day.
on March 9, 2013
It's a hard thing to read a review of a book like this. Detractors and admirers alike all seem to have some sort of axe to grid, especially when the subject is someone as controversial as Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson apologists might keep denying the lineage of the descendants of Sally Hemmings and hold it against the author. Detractors might latch on to the final conclusion, finding all-too-easy answers in the author's condemnation of Jefferson as well.
But I'm not doing that. I'm writing a negative review because I think this book was poorly written. The author repeatedly and freely gives way to weaving fantasies, stitching together scenes from his mind out of whole cloth. At one point, he imagines for us what he'd think would be a good scene from a movie about the topic. At one point, he brings up Ann Coulter and then, of course (?) Ayn Rand. Why are these people in a history book about Thomas Jefferson again? He fails to let us in on the complications of Thaddeus Kościuszko's will. This isn't just an omission -- it's blatantly misleading. He spends an enormous amount of time and effort "getting into the minds" of the figures in the book based on the smallest amount of evidence. He seems to be able to read Jefferson's mind by scanning the ledger of his Farm Book, and then proceeds to read Sally Hemmings' mind by jumping to a conclusion about a piece of trash in her garbage pit. His quotes from Jefferson are highly, shall we say, selective. Instead of printing the context of Jefferson's comments, giving us paragraphs of his letters as block quotes, the author cuts out the context all too often. Does this often change the meaning of what Jefferson is trying to say? The answer is that I don't know -- I'm no Jefferson scholar. And that, ultimately, is why this book is so frustrating. As a reader, I lose trust in the author so quickly that I'm not able to simply trust that he has not modified the meaning of his quotes. It makes me long for a better treatment of the subject by someone who will simply let me see the context, facts, and evidence, and trusts me, the reader, to judge for myself what I think of Thomas Jefferson.
It's too bad. "An Imperfect God", by the same author, was so good.
Do yourself a favor. Please do your homework online before purchasing this book and taking it in without a grain of salt.
I just read Annette Gordon-Reeds fairly severe criticism of this book in 'Slate' magazine. G-R primarily criticizes Wiencek's claim that Jefferson's 4% profit estimate on raising slaves noted in the 1790s was taken out of context and not applicable to his own slaves and she also notes that Jefferson could not take advantage of his friend Kosciuszko's will to free his slaves since there were multiple wills and other legal complications. However, in spite of the controversy recently generated, I admired this book for the author's description of what it was like to be a slave at Monticello, primarily those thst were artisans, skilled craftsman, cooks, servants and the children that ran the nail factory. Less is described of the field slaves who were more distant from Monticello and from Jefferson and apparently in a much more harsher environment. The descriptions of the slaves and particularly the Hemmings family is well described. Of course the main context on Jefferson is the conflict between Jefferson's early desire for emancipation in contrast to his actions not to pursue emancipation in his later years other than Sally Hemmings offsprings at age 21 and a few long term servants. The author also addresses Jefferson's relationship with Sally that may never be confirmed but it appears most likely that Jefferson was the father of Sally's children. Wiencek is not the first to observe that Dumas Malone, who denies the relationship, established in his great work where Jefferon was at any point in time invariably establishes that Jefferson was around Sally at each time she would have conceived. Sally was Martha's half sister, a product of Jefferson's father-in-law's relationship with her mother. Hence, a number of complex relationships past and present existed during Jefferon's time. Weincek also tracks the where abouts and activities of virtually all of Sally's children on and off (freed) the plantation. After reading this book, I want to walk around the site of Mulberry Row where
slaves lived near the main house, Monticello, walk where the nail factory was and see where Sally
mother lived. Jefferson is not described as a monster in Weincek's book as G-R suggests and I don't believe he denigrates slaves
as suggested (just notes thst some slaves were treated better than others, had more tha others, house versus fields). Jefferson
was a complex man, a product of his time, he did not believe African Americans were equal to whites in capabilities in spite of evidence that they were, particular those that were talented artisans at Monticello (Clay Jenkinson acknowledges as well on the 'Thomas Jefferson Hour'); he wrote the declaration of independence but it was Washington who freed his slaves at the time of his
on November 23, 2012
Reintroduce yourself to Thomas Jefferson -- a man who used human sentiment as a tool to eviscerate any meaningful use of the word morality and who crafted a false narration of his life that biographer after biographer was more than willing to retell. They say history is difficult to write too soon after the events being described. Perhaps it is still yet too soon to digest such a retrospection of one of America's greats. I found it a fascinating study into the pathology of power: how did one so obviously aware of enlightened thought as Jefferson so thoroughly bury these ideals using debased rationalizations? Read this book and you can't help but wonder what kind of reality you would create if offered as much earthly power.
on January 14, 2013
I heartily recommend this book for any interested in Jefferson and the subject of slavery. I just finished and am sorry I have!
First of all, for those of you who haven't read the book and have just read Annette Gordon Reed's Slate piece or the New York Times story on the controversy over this book, it is important to note that this Wiencek offers multiple facts, stories to back his point of view and the critics seem only able to refute one or two (and their refutations seem fairly weak anyway). The point is the book overwhelmingly makes the case that Jefferson was - when you look at his actions and not his words -- a promoter of slave power and not people power. It is not a close call. Jefferson was a southern plantation owner who relied on his slaves for his business and personal needs and, despite many chances, did nothing to free his slaves or ultimately to end slavery in our country. And, in fact, by pushing to allow slavery in the Louisiana Territory did much to expand the reach of slavery in our country. The historical record is, unfortunately, clear.
The book is quite a good read. It is tough going in the first part part (just like in Wiencek's Washington book) but then becomes a real page turner. He offers some really incredible anecdotes (my favorite - Jefferson speeding down his mountain roundabouts and relying on a trailing slave to right his reckless driving and his carriage). Just like Wiencek's anecdote about Washington's dentures (made from slave's teeth not wood as many of us were taught).
Wiencek is not kind to the Jeffersonian history industry. I can see why many of them got pretty mad (he is rough on them). But, I am appalled that Gordon Reed and the others attacked this important book when they purport to care about bringing a fuller story to life about Jefferson and the history of slavery in this country. It is a shame that the Jon Meacham Jefferson hagiography is everywhere and this book is - despite some good press -- not that well known. I suspect, just as with Wiencek's earlier Washington book (which is fantastic) that this book is going to, ultimately, have a big impact.
The Smithsonian has a large excerpt of the book online, if you want a sample.
on January 7, 2013
Sure opened my eyes to one of our most famous & revered Founding Father's.
So much rested on his "Regal" monarchy, rather than the true nature of Freedom & Independence, what he espoused upon.
He s/have lived in England w/the landed royals, & the serfs.
Why isn't the truth taught in the American schools?
on February 9, 2013
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.
on January 8, 2013
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. For every claim slaves were unable to take care of themselves or learn complex tasks, Wiencek finds examples of distinguished slave artisans at Monticello and the success of slaves who had run away from Monticello or been freed by other nearby slaveholders. Jefferson had no problems living in one world and pretending it was another, and Wiencek thoroughly tears down the facade.
In addition to a large focus on documentary evidence on Jefferson's views and how he ran Monticello, Wiencek also looks at the archaeological evidence of how Jefferson's plantation worked. He includes descriptions of what he learned from the scholars working on the mountain, and it provides an interesting perspective that adds to the written trail.
No discussion of Jefferson and slavery would be complete without addressing Sally Hemings, of course. Wiencek addresses this major issue evenhandedly and with looking at all available scientific and documentary evidence and concludes that Thomas Jefferson probably was the father of Hemings' children. Wiencek also uses the examples of the Hemings family to explore Jefferson's relationship to his slaves that weren't of this favored family.
I listened to HighBridge Audio's 2012 production of the book, narrated by Brian Holsopple. The production was very well done, with Holsopple providing a neutral, almost conversational voice to Wiencek's words. Holsopple also made it very clear when he was quoting a historical document or person through his vocal framing, which I've found can be a problem with some other non-fiction narrators. The unabridged production runs approximately 11 hours.
I highly recommend Wiencek's Master of the Mountain to anyone interested in Jefferson, slavery, or early American history. It doesn't have the same positive arc that Washington's story does, but that's Jefferson's fault, not Wiencek's, and since there were many more plantation owners like Jefferson than Washington, it's all the more relevant.
Note: I received a complimentary review copy of this audiobook from the publisher.