Thomas Jefferson: "Flawed Giant" or Hardcore Defender of Slavery?

Revised and updated December 16, 2012 | Revolution Newspaper |


Publication of the book Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves, by Henry Wiencek, has sparked a heated controversy among scholars, journalists, and others. Wiencek’s book is an account of Jefferson’s lifelong defense and promotion of slavery, and his deep personal involvement in enslaving people of African descent. Wiencek shatters the myth that Jefferson was a reluctant slave owner who abhorred the institution and never abandoned the anti-slavery ideas he had supposedly held in his youth. In a December 1 New York Times article, Paul Finkelman, a professor of history at Duke University, wrote that, for the 50 years of his life after he wrote the U.S. Declaration of Independence, Jefferson “remained ... a buyer and seller of human beings.”

Almost immediately upon publication of this book, harsh criticism was leveled at Wiencek, his methods, and his book. Annette Gordon-Reed, herself a prominent historian of Jefferson, wrote for Slate, “suffice it to say that the problems with Master of the Mountain are too numerous to allow it to be taken seriously as a book that tells us anything new about Thomas Jefferson and slavery, and what it does say is too often wrong.”

Lucia Stanton, the recently retired official historian of Monticello, Jefferson’s former slave plantation, wrote that after reading Wiencek’s book she was “shocked by what I saw: a breathtaking disrespect for the historical record and for the historians who preceded him. With the fervor of a prosecutor, he has played fast and loose with the historical evidence, using truncated quotations, twisting chronology, misinterpreting documents, and misrepresenting events.”

“Flawed Giant” or Vicious Slave Owner?

Over the past several decades, histories of the early U.S. and biographies of Jefferson have focused more on the lives and conditions of slaves, women, and Native Americans, and have chipped away at the iconic, mythic figure of Jefferson, author of the U.S.’s Declaration of Independence, advocate of religious freedom, and champion of self-sufficient independence. But, Jefferson’s defenders argue, he and other slave owners and Indian killers from the U.S.’s early years remain, as Jill Abramson of the New York Times put it, “flawed giants.”

Yes, they say, Jefferson was shown to have owned over 600 human beings as slaves in the course of his lifetime. Yes, he protected the institution of slavery and worked to expand the territory open to slavery. Despite all that, Jefferson remains, in Abramson’s words, the man who “defined the fundamental liberties that are at the heart of democracy.”

This controversy and debate over Wiencek’s book has importance that extends far beyond the historians and authors involved. Far from being an insignificant dispute among a handful of scholars over details of history, the furor over this book opens up some important questions about what the history of this country actually is, about the legacy of the country’s “founders,” and about how that history and legacy are taught and understood.

A Brutal, Calculating Slave Master

What’s so controversial about Wiencek’s book? An article he wrote prior to publication of the book gives some indication. Wiencek wrote about the tension between a war fought under the banner of “all men are created equal” (words written by Jefferson) and the fact that when the former English colonies began their war of independence, about one-fifth of their population was of African descent, the vast majority of them slaves. “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.”

Thomas Jefferson is promoted as the man who defined the fundamental liberties that are at the heart of U.S. democracy. Along with genocide and the theft of land of the Native Americans, one of those "fundamental liberties" was the right to enslave people. Jefferson personally profited greatly from the labor of his slaves, who were whipped when they didn't work hard enough, and hunted down like animals when they escaped. And Jefferson fought to enshrine slavery in the U.S. Constitution. These are not the acts or life of a "flawed giant." These are the acts of a man who embodied the savage essence of slavery in the United States, and who remained its champion until his dying day. Above: escaped slaves.
Photo: Library of Congress

Wiencek shatters the image of Jefferson as an aloof and “benevolent” slave master, more interested in his garden and his star gazing than in overseeing his slave plantation enterprise. In fact, he was a calculating, brutal owner of human beings who drove them relentlessly for his own profit, punished them without mercy, and saw the forced labor of black people as the surest path to his own enrichment.

Wiencek wrote in the Smithsonian that a “turning point” in Jefferson’s understanding of the profitability of slavery was expressed in a letter he wrote to George Washington. Wiencek wrote that in his letter “Jefferson set out clearly for the first time ... that he was making a 4 percent profit every year on the birth of black children. The enslaved were yielding him a bonanza, a perpetual human dividend at compound interest.”

In another letter written around the same time, Jefferson told a friend who was losing his fortune that if his family had any left, “every farthing of it [should be] laid out in land and negroes, which besides a present support bring a silent profit of from 5 to 10 per cent in this country by the increase in their value.”

Jefferson placed particular emphasis on the importance of women “breeding” future slaves. He wrote, “A child raised every 2 years is of more profit then the crop of the best laboring man. In this, as in all other cases, providence has made our duties and our interests coincide perfectly.... [W]ith respect therefore to our women & their children I must pray you to inculcate upon the overseers that it is not their labor, but their increase which is the first consideration with us.”

Wiencek wrote that these and other calculations of Jefferson threaten “the comforting notion that he had no real awareness of what he was doing, that he was ‘stuck’ with or ’trapped’ in slavery, an obsolete, unprofitable, burdensome legacy.” Instead, he understood it to be the surest way to wealth and power.

Thomas Jefferson, mythologized as the great champion of individual rights and small property owners, began every day at his plantation by walking around his property looking out at “an industrious, well-organized enterprise of black coopers, smiths, nailmakers, a brewer, cooks professionally trained in French cuisine, a glazier, painters, millers and weavers. Black managers, slaves themselves, oversaw other slaves. A team of highly skilled artisans constructed Jefferson’s coach. The household staff ran what was essentially a midsize hotel, where some 16 slaves waited upon the needs of a daily horde of guests.”

The exploitation was endless, and it began shortly after birth of black babies. As Jefferson wrote in his “Farm Book,” an organizational plan for the plantation, “children till 10 years old to serve as nurses from 10 to 16 the boys make nails, the girls spin at 16 go into the ground or learn trades.”

And he was relentless in seeing that vicious punishment was meted out to any slaves deemed to be rebellious. Wiencek wrote in the Smithsonian that Jefferson’s plantation ran “on carefully calibrated brutality.” One example involves the young boys in Jefferson’s nailery. Wiencek tells of a friend of Jefferson who reported that the “enterprise ran well because ‘the small ones’ were being whipped. The youngsters did not take willingly to being forced to show up in the icy midwinter hour before dawn at the master’s nail forge. And so the overseer, Gabriel Lilly, was whipping them ‘for truancy.’”

Thomas Jefferson oversaw the "Louisiana Purchase" which opened vast areas of the South for the westward expansion of slavery. Slaves sold "down the river" from plantations like Jefferson's in Virginia to the Deep South suffered brutality, disease, and misery. It is argued that Jefferson had to preserve and expand slavery in order to maintain the coherence and unity of the emerging United States. That argument is based on a damning premise: If maintaining and expanding slavery was essential to the formation of the United States, what does that say about the essence of what this country was founded on?
Above: slaves in Washington, D.C., 1850

When one “nail boy” infuriated Jefferson, he ordered that he be made an example of to terrorize the others. Jefferson wrote, “There are generally negro purchasers from Georgia passing about the state,” and ordered the youth to be sold “so distant as never more to be heard of among us.” After Lilly whipped a youth to the point where he was “really not able to raise his hand to his head,” a letter from Jefferson said Lilly “is as good a one [overseer] as can be.” In another letter the same year, Jefferson wrote, “certainly I can never get a man who fulfills my purposes better than he [Lilly] does.”

Defending and Expanding Slavery

Jefferson is widely portrayed as hoping slavery would die out gradually. But, as historian David Brion Davis points out, at every key point in his political life, “when the chips were down ... he threw his weight behind slavery’s expansion.” One of his most important acts as president of the U.S. was the Louisiana Purchase, which opened up huge sections of what would become the American South to slavery’s westward expansion.

The vast expansion of slavery that accelerated during Jefferson’s presidency intensified the brutality and misery inflicted upon the human property of the slave owners. Much of the land that had been worked by slaves in eastern states like Virginia, where Jefferson lived, was rapidly wearing out for agriculture that could bring profits to the slave owners. Jefferson coldly calculated the profits that could be gained by urging his fellow slave owners to have enslaved black women breed slaves—young black children—for sale. He did this at a time when a huge internal slave market was developing within the U.S. The threat of being “sold down the river,” and sent to far away plantations, away from loved ones and everything people knew, was constant.

As Frederick Douglass, a former slave who became one of the foremost fighters in the struggle to end slavery wrote in his book Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, if a slave was considered rebellious, or a possible “runaway,” or just stubborn in resisting the orders of unending backbreaking work,the poor man was then informed by his overseer that, for having found fault with his master, he was now to be sold to a Georgia trader. He was immediately chained and handcuffed; and thus, without a moment’s warning, he was snatched away, and forever sundered, from his family and friends, by a hand more unrelenting than death.”

Hundreds of thousands of people suffered this fate. In each decade from 1810, shortly after Jefferson orchestrated the Louisiana Purchase, to 1860, just before the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War, at least 100,000 people—enslaved black people—were taken from their place of origin and forced to move into the new slave territories.

The cotton, rice, and sugar plantations in the territory newly opening up to the U.S. for slavery’s expansion were notorious for their brutality, disease, and misery. They were also far from the “free” (non-slave) states and territories of the U.S., which made it much more difficult for people to escape.

David Brion Davis points out how successful were Jefferson’s and others’ efforts to expand slavery. By the eve of the outbreak of the Civil War, Davis writes, “American slaves represented more capital than any other asset in the nation, with the exception of land. In 1860 the value of Southern slaves was about three times the amount invested in manufacturing and railroads nationwide.”

A telling example of Jefferson’s lifelong commitment to slavery came after the death of his old companion Tadeusz Kościuszko. Kościuszko was a Polish nobleman who had fought on the U.S. side in its war of independence, and later returned to Europe. In his will, he left his fortune to Jefferson, with the stipulation that Jefferson use it to free and educate his slaves on the Monticello plantation.

But Jefferson, at this point nearing the end of his life and facing financial difficulties, refused to carry out Kościuszko’s will. He dreaded the reaction of his fellow slave owners, and the implications that setting his own slaves free would have on the institution of slavery.

These are not the acts or life of a “flawed giant.” These are the acts of a man who embodied the savage essence of slavery in the United States, and who remained its champion until his dying day.

What’s the Problem?

Another main criticism of Wiencek’s book is that he didn’t do original research. Lucia Stanton wrote that she is “angered by Wiencek’s distortion of history as well as disappointed that, with all his talents, he didn’t probe still-unexplored corners of the story of Jefferson and slavery. He has instead used a blunt instrument to reduce complex historical issues to unrecognizable simplicities.”

Wiencek agrees that much of his research was not original—but that isn’t the point at all. He told the New York Times, “Yes, I’m repeating some of the information that others have brought out. But others brought it out and buried it in footnotes. I brought it all together. I connected the dots.”

So what’s the problem here? Is the problem that a respected historian and author has pieced together the evidence that demonstrates how one of the most revered figures in U.S. history was a calculating, callous, and brutally vicious slave owner, not the man of dispassionate wisdom and reason, the philosopher of liberty and freedom and the rights of the individual he is always portrayed to be? Or is the problem that for 200 years this truth has been covered up, glossed over, footnoted, excused, and justified? Is the problem that generations of schoolchildren have been taught of the “greatness” of Jefferson and his fellow “founders,” but nothing of the bloody reality of the oppression and enslavement they feasted upon?

A common argument in Jefferson’s defense is that he had no real choices. He was trapped in a situation out of his control. In fact, Jefferson had choices, and he had people challenge his views. As Bob Avakian pointed out in a recent talk, “There were many people who knew better—not the least of which were the slaves themselves! [applause] And here’s a fact—I referred to Adam Goodheart who unfortunately just put this in a footnote in this book 1861, but he did have it in there. He recounts that this man named Edward Coles, who for a time was private secretary to James Madison and later became the governor of Illinois, freed his own slaves and then tried to convince Madison and Jefferson to do the same. But they refused.”

And what about the argument that Jefferson had to preserve and expand slavery in order to maintain the coherence and unity of the emerging United States? That argument is based on a  damning premise: If maintaining and expanding slavery was essential to the formation of the United States, what does that say about the essence of what this country was founded on? Indeed, Jefferson not only continued to work his own slave property without mercy for his own profit and enrichment, he maneuvered and fought in the political arena to ensure the growth of slavery. As Wiencek points out, along with the great cruelty he was personally responsible for, Jefferson’s focus and contribution to the development of the United States was to ensure that “slavery fit into America’s national enterprise.”

A Welcome Debate

The auction block. The whip and the chain. The packs of bloodhounds. The trip across the ocean that killed millions. The rape. Being “sold down the river.” Working from sunup to sundown. Endless misery, degradation, and brutality. Having “no rights that a white man is bound to recognize.” All this and more formed the foundation for Thomas Jefferson’s life of contemplation and his philosophy of “individual rights.” With Master of the Mountain and his Smithsonian article, Henry Wiencek has clearly struck a deep nerve in this system. These works have brought out some important truths about what has shaped this country from its origins down to today. And that is a very positive development.


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