Ongoing controversies in the present require that we critically interrogate the past.
Now, in his new book, historian Henry Wiencek challenges the long-held perception of Thomas Jefferson as a benevolent slaveholder.
The very existence of slavery in the era of the American Revolution presents a paradox, and we have largely been content to leave it at that, since a paradox can offer a comforting state of moral suspended animation. Jefferson animates the paradox. And by looking closely at Monticello, we can see the process by which he rationalized an abomination to the point where an absolute moral reversal was reached and he made slavery fit into America’s national enterprise.
We can be forgiven if we interrogate Jefferson posthumously about slavery. It is not judging him by today’s standards to do so. Many people of his own time, taking Jefferson at his word and seeing him as the embodiment of the country’s highest ideals, appealed to him. When he evaded and rationalized, his admirers were frustrated and mystified; it felt like praying to a stone. The Virginia abolitionist Moncure Conway, noting Jefferson’s enduring reputation as a would-be emancipator, remarked scornfully, “Never did a man achieve more fame for what he did not do.”
Historian Jacqueline Jones says Wiencek’s book makes significant advances on two major fronts:
“First, he has gone back to original sources and located material that was omitted in published versions prepared by editors who wanted to burnish Jefferson’s reputation as a benevolent slaveholder,” Jones says in an email. “The passage detailing the whipping of the nailery boys is a case in point.
“Second, I think that all of his evidence taken together constitutes a much-needed corrective to some of the more recent scholarship on Jefferson, and to the popular perception of the ‘Sage,’” says the Austin-based Jones. “In Master of the Mountain, Jefferson emerges as not some tortured soul, wrestling with the inhumanity of slavery while holding slaves himself, but as a thoroughly savvy businessman, calculating the future earnings of children and the future return on women of child-bearing age, and reckoning how much his enslaved workers can produce and how much those products are worth on the market.”
As for the escaped slaved named Sandy, after Jefferson got him back,
he sold him to Col. Charles Lewis for 100 pounds on January 29, 1773. While it is not clear how long Sandy remained “free,” we can only hope he raised holy hell every moment he managed to be his own man.