Thomas Jefferson, Monticello, Slavery, Race
Henry Wiencek, the author of An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (New York, 2003), here takes on the far more daunting task of investigating Thomas Jefferson's lifelong entanglement with race and unfree labor. Compared to the uncomplicated, straightforward soldier whose military service and subsequent political career revealed a slow but steady retreat from slavery, the enigmatic master of Monticello makes for a far more elusive subject. As journalist Jon Meacham's recent biography, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (New York, 2012), suggests, Jefferson's views on race and his refusal to divest himself of a practice he consistently denounced are nearly impossible stories to untangle. Meacham's unfortunate solution is to say almost nothing about slavery over the course of 500 pages. Wiencek bravely wades into this thicket; but in the end, Jefferson all but defeats him as well.
Master of the Mountain exhibits all of the virtues and vices of popular scholarship. Wiencek writes exceedingly well, and he has a sure eye for irony, a gift clearly required by the topic at hand. Lay readers and undergraduate students will enjoy the lively prose, and at 275 pages of text, this volume is considerably shorter than Wiencek's previous study. But most readers of this journal will find little new here, and specialists in early national slavery may regard Wiencek's effort as simplistic, lacking in nuance, and oddly deficient in both primary and secondary sources.
Most historians who have examined Jefferson's interconnected public and private policies on slavery have depicted his life as a depressing [End Page 557] retreat from a brief, early antislavery stance. Shortly after election to the House of Burgesses in 1769, he drafted a bill overturning the 1723 ban on private manumissions. In Wiencek's retelling of this famous episode, the public condemnation of the senior colleague who introduced the bill on Jefferson's behalf warned him of the dangers of getting too far out in front of popular sentiment. Jefferson then inherited his father-in-law's debts, co-signed a bankrupt's note, and, doubting he could ever achieve solvency with free wage labor, spent the rest of his long life refusing to live within his means while rationalizing his ownership of black Americans.
To that familiar saga, Wiencek adds what he believes to be an overlooked but key 1792 epiphany, in which Jefferson calculated a small profit each year on the birth of black children. Wiencek dubs this "Jefferson's 4 percent theorem" and suggests that the figure was based on "a phenomenon he had perceived at Monticello but never actually measured" (8-9). Although Wiencek never mentions this fact, the sum remained unmeasured as Jefferson was then in Philadelphia, far from his account books, and his rough notation—which mostly pertains to comparative costs of English and American labor, wheat prices, and the cost of mutton relative to beef—was done at Washington's request in response to one of the president's correspondents. Since Wiencek is generally unable to factor this scribble into Jefferson's overall plantation management or public policies, any discussion of it vanishes for most of the book, reappearing only near the end (246).
Jefferson's ill-fated ruminations on skin complexion and biology in his Notes on the State of Virginia are hardly underanalyzed, and numerous historians have previously chronicled those white and black Virginians who were far more progressive when it came to race relations. Wiencek goes further, however, by suggesting that Jefferson penned his Notes just as his state "came close to outlawing the continuation of slavery" (48). Sadly, it did not. The fact that many planters, including Washington, took advantage of the 1782 law that allowed for individual manumission hardly indicates that the legislature came anywhere near to passing an act for gradual emancipation. Wiencek admits as much eighteen pages later, when he observes that historian Robert McColley long ago "debunked" the myth that slavery was a dying...