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Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves Hardcover – October 16, 2012

4.3 out of 5 stars 121 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“[A] brilliant examination of the dark side of the man who gave the world the most ringing declarations about human liberty.” ―Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

“In this deeply provocative and crisply written journey into the dark heart of slavery at Monticello, Henry Wiencek brings into focus a side of Jefferson that Americans have largely failed―or not cared―to see. This book will change forever the way that we think about the author of the Declaration of Independence.” ―Fergus M. Bordewich, The Wall Street Journal

“As an engrossing investigation into Jefferson’s change of heart and mind, Master of the Mountain is narrative history wrapped around an incendiary device: surely, political pundits and Jeffersonians will be wrestling over Wiencek’s explosive interpretations of the historical evidence―some of it newly discovered―for years to come . . . One of the incontestable strengths of Wiencek’s book is the way it transports readers deep into the hierarchical world of Jefferson’s Monticello.” ―Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air

“[Wiencek's] 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.” ―T. H. Breen, The American Scholar

“Compelling and utterly damning.” ―Tina Jordan, Entertainment Weekly

“Wiencek carefully probes the historical record, parsing the enormous body of Jefferson literature. His work is a thoughtful and well-documented contribution, offering a powerful reassessment of our third president.” ―Kevin J. Hamilton, The Seattle Times

“[Wiencek] reviews Jefferson's record like a prosecutor, hammering away at the evasions, rationalizations, and lies that have preserved Jefferson's reputation as a profoundly decent man trapped by the conventions of his own times. In Master of the Mountain, Wiencek does not reargue the tawdry details of the Sally Hemings affair. Rather, he invites readers to reflect seriously on one famous man's stunning refusal to provide moral leadership for a nation that desperately needed it.” ―T. H. Breen, The American Scholar

“[A] meticulous account . . . Wiencek's vivid, detailed history casts a new slant on a complex man.” ―Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“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 (starred review)

“Esteemed historian and author Henry Wiencek . . . creates a detailed, poignant analysis from Jefferson's younger years as an emancipationist through his later years as a slave-trade profiteer . . . Master of the Mountain is a well-written, intelligently constructed account that captures years of controversy and debate surrounding one of the most revered founding fathers. Wiencek brilliantly and comprehensively reevaluates the revolutionary-turned-slave-owner's reputation, questioning why America holds Jefferson as a pillar in its moral composition . . . [Jefferson] is exposed as a beneficiary of America's selective historical memory.” ―Anthony Steven Lubetski, Shepherd Express

Master of the Mountain is a remarkable re-creation of Monticello's economy and culture . . . Whether you agree or not with Wiencek's provocative analysis, it's a book worth taking seriously as we continue to struggle with slavery's legacy” ―Anne Bartlett, BookPage

“Henry Wiencek's Master of the Mountain is the most important challenge to Jefferson on slavery since DNA suggested a link between him and Sally Hemings. Arguably it is even more significant, because it uncovers wider secrets about Monticello than a possible sexual liaison. Not everyone will accept all of Wiencek's arguments, but no one who would understand our history can ignore this pathbreaking exploration of our foundations.” ―William W. Freehling, author of The Road to Disunion and The Founding Fathers and Slavery

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 That Transformed the South

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.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1St Edition edition (October 16, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374299560
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374299569
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.2 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (121 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #791,180 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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.
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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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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.
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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.

John Hughes
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