SocraticGadfly: Thomas Jefferson, racist hypocrite

March 09, 2013

Thomas Jefferson, racist hypocrite

Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His SlavesMaster of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves by Henry Wiencek

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is at times a great book, and throughout, it's a thought-provoking and challenging book.

I couldn't quite rate it five stars, though, for a couple of reasons.

One is that he does appear to have committed intellectual plagiarism in not better referencing Annette Gordon-Reed's research on Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings.

Second is that, per some criticism, he appears to have vastly oversimplified the issue of Kosciuszko's will. On the other hand, Gordon-Reed has led the charge against Wiencek (more below), and he notes Jefferson's own son apparently was not unduly worried about Kosciuszko having multiple wills.

Third, per critique by Paul Finkelman, Wiencek may have been too kind to the younger Jefferson. Yes, he excoriated the slave trade at the time of the Declaration of Independence; yes, he pushed for a slave-free "Old Northwest." but, that was about it. Finkelman notes he was a "racist" and a "creep." While Wiencek looks "bluntly" at Jefferson's record, for some reason, he never uses the word "racist" in the book himself.

Fourth, he may, or may not, have oversimplified other things. Did Edwin Betts deliberately, or accidentally, omit things like whippings of small boys at Monticello's nail-making shop?

Overall, this book is at the edge of four stars, maybe 3.75, with allowances for everything above. And, not all the criticisms of Wiencek are right.

Take, for example, the "4 percent profit" statement. Wiencek shows it was more than a back-of-the-envelope calculation. That's based on things like Jefferson using slaves as collateral for loans from Dutch merchants, precision in to whom he rented out his slaves, the diversifying of economic activity at Monticello and more. That includes issues of Jefferson's instruction on how much and how severely to use the whip and more.

And, once he gets to the late 1780s and beyond, Wiencek does pick up to some degree on Finkelman's point of view.

Now, on to illegitimate complaints, in my opinion.

Complaints about him distorting the historical record at Monticello? I think James van Loewen, if he writes another "Lies ... " book about American history, would probably, and probably rightly, blast Lucia Stanton out of the water. Methinks she has a fair degree of Jeffersonian detachment, and doth protest too much.

Gordon-Reed? Other than the intellectual plagiarism, or whatever one should call it, I think she's full of hot air. She didn't romanticize the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings relationship as much as Fawn Brodie did, but she romanticized it more than enough. Without using Finkelman's word "creep," Wiencek portrays him as being at least near that in his later relations to his own kids.

Ta-Nehisi Coates at Atlantic Monthly also says she's been way to charitable to Jefferson.

Per Coates, and myself, I reject Gordon-Reed's "presentism" claims. With George Washington, Edward Coles, the French Revolution (until Napoleon) and more, we have many, many white Americas and Europeans (don't forget the 1772 Somerset ruling in Great Britain essentially abolishing slavery in the Isles themselves) who knew slavery was wrong back then.

This all said, I'd like to see Finkelman write a book specifically about Jefferson himself.

As for the rest of this?

I'm suspecting antipathy from the "academy" toward a non-academic historian, just like Jared Diamond's new book has gotten from cultural anthropologists.

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