The unraveling of the enigma named Thomas Jefferson continues unabated into the 21st century.
Historians have been scrapping over the intentions and sincerity of our nation’s third president for 200 years. Early 19th century writers labeled Jefferson either a monument to the rights of man or an unabashed hypocrite. As his stock in human character has swung erratically over the years, the heated argument has only heightened in academic circles.
More recent findings, like the DNA linking of some Jefferson male – if not definitively the old master himself – to the progeny of slaves has added accelerant to the flame.
But through it all, regardless of which side of the debate one takes, one question remains: How could an internationally recognized and widely respected thinker like Jefferson write so eloquently about the natural rights of man and the horrors of enslaving man’s mind or body, and at the same time act as he did as master of Monticello Mountain?
How could a man proclaim with such eloquence that “under the laws of nature, all men are born free,” and later, sell off one of his slave’s children, and give other children of slaves away as valuable gifts?
OK. Before we launch into a laundry list of supposed offenses committed by one of our founding fathers in some long-gone age, let’s be historically fair.
Generations of schoolchildren learned that Jefferson owned slaves, just as four of our first five presidents (all four from Virginia) owned slaves. That was the norm of the day, wasn’t it? Why Jefferson even sold his White House butler to his successor, James Madison for $231. Nobody made a fuss.
Most don’t know that Jefferson’s daughter Martha was not the first baby born in the White House. The first baby was one of the six brand new slaves Jefferson took ownership of following their births to White House staff.
Those same schoolchildren were taught that Jefferson, like most of our founding fathers, meant “free white men” when they agreed to the then-outlandish assertion that “all men are created equal.”
Besides, we were told, Jefferson sorely wanted to free his slaves. He said so many times. And he was a model slaveholder, kind, considerate and caring. He was a victim of his time. His slaves were his scourge.
Nonsense! Balderdash! Worthless drivel! And many more expressive characterizations not allowed in a family newspaper.
That’s the judgment of journalist and noted independent historian Henry Wiencek in his latest book. Wiencek has taken a lot of heat from some on the academic historian side of the aisle for what they call his sensationalism. But to this reader, Wiencek never screams. He just piles on fact after fact, argument upon argument, until he makes his case.
And through it all, Wiencek keeps his focus. He is not as much judging Jefferson’s words and actions as he is attempting to answer the question: Why?
Wiencek’s answer: Jefferson acted contrary to his written and spoken words for money, and for the power of domination.
First, let’s look at his age. In the 1770s and 1780s, when Jefferson was extolling the rights of all men, he was paraphrasing the father of the Enlightenment, John Locke. A reading of Locke shows no ambiguity about what he meant by “all men.”
By the time of the Declaration of Independence, English courts already had ruled a slave free the moment he set foot on the soil of England. The French First Republic would ban slavery before Jefferson’s first term, only to reinstate it for a time while Jefferson was president. Jefferson found a need to rationalize American slavery to his peers in France and proclaim that his own slaves would soon be freed.
Jefferson’s letters show he told Gen. Lafayette, among others, that he would free his slaves and work for the eradication of slavery in America as soon as it was practical.
Yet, when Jefferson needed money to rebuild Monticello, to return the plantation to profitability after the decline of tobacco in Virginia, he turned to Dutch bankers and used his slaves – not his land – as collateral for his loans. He could hardly free them now.
Just how humane was Jefferson to his slaves? It is true that some of the 600 slaves he owned in his lifetime were assigned to the comfortable main house, played with his daughter, and were taught to read. It is not as well-known that many of those privileged slaves were light-skinned siblings and half-cousins of his wife Martha. So he owned some of his wife’s blood relatives.
Jefferson was a prodigious record-keeper. His own records show he sold husbands or wives away from their families, gave away and sold children, and hired out slave crews to slave-owners not known for their gentleness.
He employed overseers to discipline his field slaves, and his records show at least one reference to an overseer lashing children for being late for work at the nailery. A contemporary praises Jefferson because “only on rare occasions [did he] order overseers to use to lash.”
It is nearly impossible to assemble a clear montage of Jefferson’s racial theories from his writings, our author claims, because they are a “rolling paradox of contradictions.”
In France he spoke of emancipation, but back home he argued that freeing the slaves was impractical because people of color were inherently inferior. Their cognitive processes never surpassed that of children.
He wrote of his extreme aversion to “miscegenation” – a polite word for the mixing of the races – describing it as socially harmful, criminal and unnatural. Yet there were numerous mixed-race children on the mountain.
Sally Hemings, the granddaughter of a British naval captain and a slave, was almost certainly Jefferson’s concubine. She was second-generation American born, his daughter’s age, his wife’s half-sister and the mother of several Jefferson children. Yet, Jefferson never freed her. He did free two of her adult children, and another two were freed in his will.
It is noteworthy that upon his death, most of Jefferson’s slaves – about 150 – were auctioned off. George Washington had freed his slaves upon his death. Virginia Quakers had freed most of their slaves, as had many Methodists and Baptists. Slavery already had been outlawed by several state legislatures.
According to a Jefferson letter late in life, he considered his slaves capital. He monetized them, used them as collateral. Some historians have pooh-poohed this assertion. But Jefferson wrote a friend: “I consider a woman [slave] who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man of the farm. What she produces is an addition to the capital.”
And he estimated for his son-in-law that if women slaves were treated properly, a man’s slaveholdings would appreciate by 4 percent a year, due to births.
Wiencek’s evidence just keeps on building. Much of it comes from thousands of letters in the archives of the College of William & Mary and other depositories throughout Virginia.
Jefferson’s stock in human character has been plummeting for the past 50 years, especially following the 1996 DNA data which showed Jefferson almost certainly fathered at least one Hemings child.
But the Hemings affair might be excused as human frailty. Some of the latest discoveries are much more damning.
The treating of human beings, second and third-generation American born human beings of dark skin, as a stock portfolio or as an asset to be gifted, while rationalizing the actions of yourself and your neighbors to an admiring world, transcends human frailty.
Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves
By Henry Wiencek
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
336 pages, $28
Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.