Master of the Mountain

Feb 17, 2014

It’s been over a year since the publication of a new book about Thomas Jefferson and his slaves.  It won rave reviews from many parts of the country, but in Charlottesville the author is still attacked in certain circles. 

If you’ve been to Monticello, you know the story.  Thomas Jefferson was a brilliant man and a benevolent master who knew slavery was wrong but was trapped by an economic system that made freeing his slaves impossible.   After six years of research, author Henry Wiencek came to another conclusion.  Monticello’s genteel veneer masked an inhumane system in which slaves could be sold at will.

“The sale of slaves was a very ugly fact of life at Monticello and elsewhere, and when Jefferson’s slaves were auctioned off, there was one family that went to I think seven or eight different buyers.  It was routine.  You could have your daughter, or your wife or hour husband or your brother suddenly sold off with no warning.

Physical violence was also a fact of life, although Jefferson kept his distance.

"He surrounded himself with enslaved people who were his relatives – namely the Hemings family, and for them life on the mountain was better than it was for other slaves.  They had better work, they were better fed, better clothed, better housed, but things were very different down the mountain and at outlying farms such as Poplar Forest.  Jefferson insulated himself not only through the Hemings family but also through layers of overseers and managers who did the dirty work, so he didn’t have to see the day to day brutalities that went on on the plantation.”

And while Sally Hemings is now viewed by some as the apple of Jefferson’s eye – an attractive slave woman who gladly shared his bed – not everyone saw it that way.

“Madison Hemings, Jefferson’s son with Sally, was really quite forthright  saying that Jefferson regarded his mother as a concubine, that his mother had more or less been compelled to make a deal to get good treatment for herself and freedom for her children.  He did not paint a happy picture of life at the mountaintop.”

Wiencek found documents suggesting Jefferson saw slavery as a profitable enterprise, with babies constantly being born into bondage.  He even got a slave equity loan from a bank to build a new and improved Monticello.  He realized that slaves could be taught valuable skills, saving him money.  In the kitchen, for example,   

“Jefferson had two women as cooks, Fannie Hern and Edith Fossett, who had been trained at the White House as teenaged girls by French professionals.  They worked very closely with his head gardener Wormley Hughes  and his butler every day to manage basically what was a five star luxury resort.  They fed anywhere from 15-30 people three meals a day, every day, and they did an extraordinary job of it.”

Meanwhile, the author found, other slaves had to grow their own food to supplement meager rations from the master.

Henry Wiencek
Credit Tom Cogill/ Farrar, Strauss & Giroux

Some historians suggest that Jefferson was not a great businessman, so he really couldn’t free his slaves.  Not so says Henry Wiencek.

“He was very good at refinancing his loans.  He was always finding new sources of credit, and even when the economy was doing badly, he was able to keep going.  The problem was not that his plantation was unprofitable.  It’s that he spent like a pharaoh.  There was no way that any agricultural operation could keep up with his mode of living.”

Others argue that in Jefferson’s time, freeing slaves was just not practical.  

“Certainly George Washington did it.  Jefferson’s own relative Richard Randolph did it.  A number of Quakers were doing it.  His friend Edward Coles did it.  He took a group of slaves to Illinois and set them free and gave them land.  He begged Jefferson to do likewise, and Jefferson refused.”

So how did historians at Monticello react when Wiencek spoke there, sharing the product of his research.

“The reaction at Monticello was harsh -- one might even say venomous.  I think they were startled by some of the material that I turned up.  They hadn’t seen some of it before.  There was a letter written in the early 1800’s that says that the children were being whipped at Monticello to get them to work in Jefferson’s nail factory.  That line about the whipping had been deliberately expunged in the published version in the early 1950’s, so the historians at Monticello had been working from a sanitized document.  They were startled.   They didn’t know that the information was there. They didn’t know that the children were being whipped to get them to work.”

And the response in Jefferson country was very personal.

“ I know that I have lost a lot of friends around Charlottesville, but I’ve made some new friends, and I’ve gotten a surprising amount of comment from people who’ve said, ‘We’re often thought the picture you’re presenting was the accurate one, and that the image that we’ve been getting in books and films and on our tours is not entirely accurate.”

Wiencek says he wouldn’t take anything back.  In fact, if he had the book to write over again, he would not be so gentle with fellow historians – people he did not challenge by name.

“I tried not to make it into an argument between myself and the other Jeffersonian scholars, and now that many of them have come after me with torches and pitchforks, I wish that I had more forthrightly engaged them by name, word for word, in the book.”

And he hopes his findings will promote further healing in a nation still trying to make sense of the fact that the author of our declaration of independence bought and sold other human beings.

“Slavery remains a very toxic subject in American history.  I don’t think that we have fully come to terms with it, and strange to say there is a movement led, in fact, by the Tea Party to prevent any negative comment of any kind about any of the founding fathers.  They don’t want to have slavery even discussed.”

Henry Wiencek, author of Master of the Mountain, Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves, is now at work on a new book which won’t be quite so controversial – the story of Stanford White, a flamboyant American architect who designed several buildings at the University of Virginia and rebuilt Jefferson’s Rotunda in 1898.