Discovering the Dark Side of Jefferson

Hopefully by now, many of you have read this excerpt from Henry Wiencek from his upcoming book, Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves.  If you haven’t, you need to read it and let all of that goodness sink in. Basically, Mr. Wiencek has discovered that along the way, historians, most notably those responsible for the 1953 edition of Jefferson’s Farm book, left out a passage that talks about brutal treatment to some of the enslaved boys who worked in the Nail Factory, to get them to be better workers. The only reason I can think of why a passage like that would be deleted is so we can continue in the fantasy and hero worship that we as Americans have developed for our founding fathers, without guilt or shame. But here is where I applaud Mr. Weincek. There’s always been something a little “off” about Jefferson to me, and I don’t discredit the amazing work he did for our country or the prolific writer that he was. But it just struck me as odd that he always seemed to have a severe internal struggle with freedom and owning slaves. And for the first time, I think due to what I am sure is going to be a controversial book, I think that feeling of, “ehhhh” might actually change to “ahhh…makes sense now”.

When most people think of Jefferson, they think of the man who wrote this beautiful Declaration of Independence. Some have images of a benevolent slave owner who treated his slaves like family, but when it comes to talking about slaves being like family…and then crossing over into slaves being IN the family, it seems that there is a disconnect as if this could never be. And that’s what I think I like most about Jefferson. His life should have been to many an awkward and complex situation where you knew something wasn’t right but you couldn’t put your finger on it. He ws a man who wrote all men, ALL MEN, were created equal, except for the men, women, and children who he owned.  Here’s the thing folks, to me, there’s no such thing as a good slave owner. Owning another person for your personal profit and gain is inherently wrong. As  a scholar, I have come to understand and long accept that slavery is what it is, and without it, this country probably wouldn’t be the hot mess of a powerhouse that it is right now. Do I believe that there were some slave owners who were better than others? Clearly, but that doesn’t change the fact that what they were doing was wrong. Somewhere in Jefferson’s mind, he KNEW what he was doing was wrong, but then greed took over and well…would you rather be broke and moral or wealthy and live with the guilt? I know that there are faithful lovers of Jefferson that will basically say all of this is complete rubbish but that’s your opinion and this is mine. What I think we fail to do is really examine who these men were and how they became who they were. Never forget the little people…or in this case, never forget the labor that helped him create this massive (and gorgeous) house on a hill. Never forget Martha’s half-sister whom Jefferson likely had children with. Never forget that for all men being created equal, even the slaves on Jefferson’s plantations weren’t treated equal. Please, PLEASE never forget that it is OKAY to be critical of a public figure that for so long people have held so dear. History isn’t supposed to make you feel good all the time. It should make you think long and hard about what happened in the past in order to get us to the present..good, bad and disgusting. When you lose sight of that and only go for the feel good portions, it’s harder to take in the information that pretty much gut punches you and leaves you breathless.

After reading the excerpt, I emailed Henry Wiencek to tell him how much I enjoyed the snippet and how I was looking forward to reading the whole book. I was surprised to get a response but more surprised at the tone. He seemed very grateful and relieved that someone was digging his work. I know a few people that loved the article but then I started looking at some of the flack he was getting and I understood. It’s hard to dash the hopes and dreams of so many and let them know their demigod was human and had faults. What I hope is that we start taking more critical views of our historic figures and drop the rose colored lenses. Everything has context and leaders involved in slavery have theirs. Perhaps this will lead the way for others to start putting their icons in a more realistic place.

Things in the article to look at: How Jefferson discovered how natural increase could naturally increase his pockets, the conditions in the nailery and the overseers he had.


Thomas Jefferson Illustration

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1 Response

  1. You raise some interesting points in your post. However, one concept which I have long struggled with is the idea that individuals in the past should have recognized that owning other human beings was inherently wrong. Today, it’s a no-brainer, but in Jefferson’s time it was not. Slavery, sadly, had been an institution for thousands of years. I do think it is important to identify and recognize the role slaves played in Colonial and Antebellum America, but I also think that if someone such as Jefferson, who was certainly among the best-educated individuals of the late 18th and early 19th century, struggled with slavery than we shouldn’t be surprised that less-gifted thinkers gave it much less consideration.

    This is not meant in any way to prop up the cult of Jefferson (or anyone else, for that matter) but to point out that he was a man of his time and to expect him to be able to conform to a radically different social mindset than nearly all those around him is unrealistic. It’s only my opinion, but I believe that we should neither ignore the fact that Jefferson was a slaveowner, nor make it the main focus of a study of his life.

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