Historians expect deference on TJ's cruelty

To back up her accusation that I have misled my readers, Cinder Stanton refers darkly, and very vaguely, to truncated quotations, twisted chronology, unnamed misinterpretations. What are they? I have not misled anyone; nor did I ever think of myself as a prosecutor. [November 1 letter: "Wiencek misled readers on Jefferson's record"] I have presented information taken directly from the documents, and I stand by my interpretations.

As one unsavory piece of information after another surfaced in the documents, I simply lost patience with Jefferson and all his apologists, who have spread a fog of denial over a repugnant system. Stanton and others cling to the fantasy that Jefferson devised a rational, humane, benevolent mode of slavery. Why then was one of his overseers called a "terror" by the other planters in Albemarle County? Why did Jefferson's own relative write, "I fear the poor Negroes fare hard?" Why did Thomas Mann Randolph denounce the plantation system as "a hideous monster"? Stanton knows that quote–she cited another part of Randolph's letter in her recent work, but she chose not to mention Randolph's devastating indictment of the horrors he had seen.

It is astonishing that Stanton pounds me for being "unfair" to the late Edwin M. Betts, the editor of Jefferson’s Farm Book, and that she heaps praise on Betts, when it was Betts who misled her and scores of other historians by deliberately– yes, deliberately– deleting a line about "the small ones" being whipped at Jefferson's nail factory. Stanton never knew that Betts had cooked the books until I told her. She never looked at the full text, as I did. So she never knew that for years she had been basing her research on a sanitized document. Now that the full text is before the public, she is scrambling to minimize it because it shakes the foundation of her view of Jefferson.

She says the youngest child who got whipped was not ten years old but twelve. Does that change anything? She omits to say that Thomas Mann Randolph, the eyewitness to the whippings, referred to the victims as "the small ones." Stanton says the whippings took place without Jefferson's knowledge; but Randolph told Jefferson about them and Jefferson did nothing to stop it. She also omits to mention that Jefferson specifically instructed the nailery's overseer to extract the maximum productivity from the children: "I hope Lilly keeps the small nailers engaged so as to supply our customers." No wonder Jefferson let the punishments continue.

I'm glad that Stanton brought up the story of James Hubbard, which is very revealing of the psychology of slavery at Monticello. She says, "The more interesting point, which Wiencek does not explore, is that Jefferson was experimenting with methods of discipline that might help minimize use of the whip." In fact, I explore those experiments in depth and detail, partly through Hubbard's story. He was one of the "favored" slaves whom Jefferson tried to keep happy and productive by offering him privileges and the chance to earn cash. What did Hubbard do? He ran away. For him, Jefferson's experimental system of "rewards and incentives" was a fraud. He wanted freedom, not submission, not a slightly more comfortable life as a slave.

If "respect" for previous historians means "deference," Stanton is right – I do not defer to other historians if I think they're wrong. I did not want my book to be an interminable "engagement with the historiography" but a fresh look at Jefferson as a slave master, with new information others have missed or ignored.

Henry Wiencek


As those of us who've even casually studied Jefferson over the years know, he lived a long time, held contradictory views at different times in his life, and said contradictory things. For Mr. Wiencek to cherry pick the negative pieces of his life and give us Jefferson as a wholly greedy, evil monster is simply ridiculous. The same could be done to most historical figures. It's fine to give us our founders "warts and all", but to focus on the warts to the exclusion of all else is the work of a person with an agenda, not that of an historian.

Mr. Wiencek, all I personally need to know about your credibility was encapsulated in your query - before even greeting anyone at the book launch held at the Jefferson Library - as to whether C-SPAN was there yet. I hope you're enjoying your 15 minutes of fame.

Jefferson proposed that women who commited sodomy should have their noses cut open.

Skeptic, you are partly right. As soon as I arrived I greeted the host, then I asked her if the CSpan people were there -- I wanted to find out if they needed to pin a mike on my jacket and check the sound, and the host sent me to meet the technician. This is standard procedure for any talk that will be recorded or broadcast. Turned out they were just using the podium mike and didn't need to wire me up. I wanted to get that out of the way so I could go off to a quiet room and review my notes, and I didn't want the crew to have to go looking for me. Over the years I've done this many times--60 Minutes II, the old Charles Kuralt Sunday morning show on CBS, &c, &c. I just did it again the other day in Kansas City. I can tell you, it's not fun to sit in front of a television camera. But that's the price of fame. By the way, the Jefferson Library talk will be on BookTV this Sunday at 7:45 PM. Tune in and see how you look.

Wiencek should be offered an endowed chair in history at UVA and then he should be given a Jefferson Medal for his contribution to the University of Virginia and our nation's understanding of US history. The time has come for U.Va., the Charlottesville-Albemarle communities, and our nation, to confront the unfortunate intellectual and moral legacy of UVA's founder. Justice is demanded for the generations of victims that suffered from Jefferson's artful hypocrisy. Human rights apply to all of humanity, if this is truly our belief then we have to admit once and for all that Jefferson's actions and doublespeak condemned many millions of our fellow human beings to live and die never able to enjoy their God-given rights.

@Carrboro, Historians have written many books on select aspects of Jefferson's life - Jefferson the gardener, president, statesman, and Jefferson and Sally Hemings . This is normal given the long life and legacy of this man of many accomplishments.

Mr. Wiencek has written a book about Jefferson and his slaves. I have read it and hope before judging it others will as well. It is very well written and documented. It is important that this new information be brought to light and added to the other parts of Jefferson's legacy.

To hide from this information or suppress it does not help any of us understand our own history.

I applaud Mr. Wiencek for his scholarship and honesty in giving us the true story of this part of Jefferson's life and hope he will be given credit for his contribution.

I remember when Annette Gordon-Reed's book about Sally Hemings was published, she received the same criticism for tarnishing Jefferson's image. She received the Pulitzer Prize for her work with this citation:

"For a distinguished and appropriately documented book on the history of the United States, Ten thousand dollars ($10,000).

Awarded to “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family,” by Annette Gordon-Reed (W.W. Norton & Company), a painstaking exploration of a sprawling multi-generation slave family that casts provocative new light on the relationship between Sally Hemings and her master, Thomas Jefferson."

I believe "Master of the Mountain" by Henry Wiencek deserves the same honor.

Mr. Wiencek will be speaking today at New Dominion Book Shop, 5:30 on Charlottesville's Downtown Mall. I look forward to hearing him speak, and to the lively question and answer period that I'm sure will follow.

Mr. Wiencek has won the praise of many highly acclaimed reviewers and here is just the latest :

Monticello's Slave-Driver

Whatever moral ambivalence Jefferson may have felt toward slavery he overcame when he sat down to do the numbers for his estate.


Jefferson, along with other "Funding Fathers" has enjoyed an apotheosis at the hands of historians for too long and the efforts of people like Henry Wiencek to arrive at a balanced and truthful picture are appreciated by this writer and many others....
The form of ancestor worship accorded the likes of Jefferson is certainly not unique to America. Our putative next president's religion pursues a particularly cloying form of this towards its "Founding Fathers" who, far from being saints, were conniving and self agrandizing men. In the end, Jefferson loved the comforts of being a country squire that could only be had in his times by exploiting a huge number of slaves, and that love of his comforts trumped any abstract beliefs he may have held regarding principles of universal human dignity. It was what men of his time did of course and we do have to understand behavior in historic figures according to what was considered normal in the times and not by the standards of today which had no bearing on the mores that influenced the development of people in the 18th. century. Still, a truthful accounting of Jefferson's life as a man as opposed to a god, is more valuable.