Confounding father: Thomas Jefferson and the economics of slavery.

Author:Breen, T.H.
Position:Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves - Book review


Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves

By Henry Wiencek

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 416 pp., $30

How, historians have long asked, could Thomas Jefferson, who boldly proclaimed equality and liberty for the Revolutionary generation, also own a large number of slaves? More than a decade ago, Jefferson's failure to resolve this tension became national news, when researchers used DNA evidence to prove that he had fathered children with Sally Hemings, his slave mistress at Monticello. Although skeptics continue to dispute the evidence, conditions at the plantation certainly permitted white men, including Jefferson, to exploit vulnerable black women. Whatever Jefferson's relationship was with Hemings, the relationships between the races at Monticello raise disturbing questions about his character.

Jefferson scholars have rallied to his defense, acknowledging that he owned slaves but arguing that he was a product of a different culture. Behavior that we would now condemn was an accepted part of Virginia's plantation economy. Gordon S. Wood, a distinguished historian of the American Revolution, insists that it makes no sense for modern critics to condemn figures like Jefferson for failing to free his slaves. "Such anachronistic statements," Wood writes in The American Revolution (2002), "suggest a threshold of success that no eighteenth-century revolution could possibly have attained, and perhaps tell us more about the political attitudes of the historians who make such statements than they do about the American Revolution." Others admit that Jefferson's moral equivocation deserves analysis, but they soften the exercise by describing the man as flawed, contradictory, or paradoxical, all the while preserving what historian Alan Taylor calls Jefferson's "fundamental core of naive innocence."


Henry Wiencek will have none of it. Author of An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves and the Creation of America (2003), he reviews Jefferson's record like a prosecutor, hammering away at the evasions, rationalizations, and lies that have preserved Jefferson's reputation as a profoundly decent man trapped by the conventions of his own times. In Master of the Mountain, Wiencek does not reargue the tawdry details of the Sally Hemings affair. Rather, he invites readers to reflect seriously on one famous man's stunning refusal to provide moral leadership for a nation that desperately needed it.

Wiencek writes that...

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