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Founding father had human frailties

A look at the darker side of Jefferson

By Drew Gallagher

For The Free Lance–Star

ANY  STUDY of Thomas Jefferson is inevitably going  to grind into the foundational disconnect of the fact that the author of the Declaration of Independence was a slave owner.   And based upon Henry Wiencek’s “Master of the Mountain,” he was not the innocent victim of an entrenched system of human bondage that he railed against constantly, as his apologists and many historians would like for posterity to believe.

According to Wiencek, Jefferson kept more slaves than necessary to support his lifestyle at Monticello because he had calculated that the reproduction of slaves was financially more lucrative than the harvesting of crops.  Jefferson was also not the benevolent and beloved master of Monticello as often portrayed, but rather an owner concerned only with his bottom line who authorized the use of violence to increase output.  Jefferson was also one of the first slave owners to “monetize” slaves and bartered and mortgaged slaves as though they were a form of currency without concern for the rending and breaking of families.  And even when he was implored by some of the great minds of his generation to spearhead the emancipation movement, he trotted out the biological notion that the black man was intellectually inferior and incapable of living on his own, though he saw abundant evidence to the contrary in the day-to-day life at Monticello.

If “Master of the Mountain” does not create a firestorm of protest from the Jefferson vanguard, I will be stunned.  But no matter the extent of this book’s lasting importance (and I believe it to be great), it is unlikely to diminish Jefferson’s image as philosopher and paragon of independence because the defense of all things Jefferson is a national pastime and the reflection upon his legacy is often cast in rose-colored hues.  But Wiencek puts forth some damning evidence that should at least give the Jeffersonians a moment’s pause.

There were high-profile instances in Jefferson’s lifetime  of men emancipating their own slaves (George Washington, for one) and even the last will and testament from a friend of Jefferson’s whose dying wish gave him $10,000 to free those slaves of his that he could with that princely sum.  Yet Jefferson resisted all such entreaties despite the idealistic rhetoric of his youth.

“Master of the Mountain” is  a fascinating work of scholarship that cites letters and statistics that have often been overlooked or ignored by other Jefferson scholars;  perhaps there are valid reasons for their omissions from the Jefferson canon.   If nothing else, this book requires answers to troubling questions about one of the most revered men in the history of the world.

Drew Gallagher  is a freelance reviewer.


By Henry Wiencek

(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28, 352 pp.)


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