J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, November 30, 2012

“Instead, he cites Annette Gordon-Reed?”

Until I read this week’s New York Times article on Henry Wiencek’s Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves, I didn’t realize how that book treats the work of Annette Gordon-Reed.

As I wrote yesterday, Gordon-Reed’s Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy sparked the recent boom in books about the third President’s conflicted attitudes toward slavery. Her The Hemingses of Monticello, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009, is a major study of American slavery, not just slavery at Monticello.

So how does Wiencek discuss Gordon-Reed’s work? Master of the Mountain mentions her books only three times. Two endnotes mention (but don’t quote) transcription errors in the first edition of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. Those are undoubtedly sensitive spots for Gordon-Reed since a Jefferson descendant who disliked that book tried to use those errors to have her fired from New York University in July 2001. The Times reports:
David Waldstreicher, a historian at Temple University and the author of several books about slavery and the founders, called those footnotes (which do not identify the errors or acknowledge that Ms. Gordon-Reed corrected one of the transcriptions a decade ago in a reissue of her 1997 book) “fighting words” and “about as nasty as it gets.” A professional historian, he continued, “would publish this in a scholarly journal and make it very clear how it makes a difference, instead of using it to say, ‘I am the last word.’”
Wiencek told the newspaper “that the transcription errors were minor,” but his endnotes don’t leave that impression.

The third reference to Gordon-Reed’s work is this passage:
Many writers on slavery today have emphasized the “agency” of the enslaved people, insisting that we pay heed to the efforts of the slaves to resist their condition and assert their humanity under a dehumanizing system. But as slaves gain “agency” in historical analyses, the masters seem to lose it. As the slaves become heroic figures, triumphing over their condition, slave owners recede as historical actors and are replaced by a faceless system of “context” and “forces.” So we end up with slavery somehow afloat in a world in which nobody is responsible.

One historian writes about Monticello’s slaves as if they had no master: “There is every indication that they grasped the baleful situation they had been born into, and knew that forces were actively working to keep them down.”
And there’s an endnote pointing to page 405 of Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello. That sentence comes from a paragraph about how Sally Hemings’s son Madison learned to read. The same paragraph refers to Jefferson by name and calls his grandchildren Madison’s “white nieces and nephews, who were his age and going to a school that he knew he could never attend, but wanted to.” That’s not a picture of a “faceless system”—it puts specific faces on the system and tells us exactly who was “responsible” for Madison Hemings’s oppression and who benefited from it.

That’s why Prof. Jan Lewis of Rutgers told the Times, “There are historians who in their eagerness to discover the slave perspective have averted our attention from the ways in which slavery really was a horrible, unjust institution, but he doesn’t cite them. Instead, he cites Annette Gordon-Reed? You’ve got to be kidding me.”

I suspect that treatment was a big reason why Gordon-Reed and Lewis published their critical assessments of Master of the Mountain so quickly after its publication, and in online venues (Slate and The Daily Beast) where those reviews could run immediately. Ordinarily the wheels of scholarship grind slow. But this was personal.*

Reading Wiencek’s response to those critical reviews on the Smithsonian website, I think he further mischaracterized Gordon-Reed’s work:
I am not surprised that Gordon-Reed disliked my book so much, given that it systematically demolishes her portrayal of Jefferson as a kindly master of black slaves. In The Hemingses of Monticello, she described with approval Jefferson’s “plans for his version of a kinder, gentler slavery at Monticello with his experiments with the nail factory.”
If Master of the Mountain had “systematically” addressed Gordon-Reed’s portrayal of Jefferson, it really should have cited her work more than three times. And this is the actual passage from The Hemingses of Monticello that Wiencek partially quoted in his riposte:
Building the nation was Jefferson’s true obsession [as President], not the end of slavery and definitely not the racial question.

As he retreated from the antislavery rhetoric of his youth, and grew comfortable in his role as the champion of the common man (the common white man), Jefferson, like others of his type, began to accommodate himself to the institution of slavery. As was discussed earlier, Lucia Stanton has detailed his plans for his version of a kinder, gentler slavery at Monticello with his experiments with the nail factory. He also brought in overseers who eschewed violence in favor of incentives as a way of motivating enslaved worked; for unexplained reasons, however, the men did not remain in his service. Jefferson was again, in all of this, ahead of his time—on the leading edge of adopting the sort of paternalism that would in the coming decades turn his white grandchildren’s generation into full-throated apologists for the peculiar institution.
Gordon-Reed published that book in 2008, during the sunset of George W. Bush’s Presidency. How can anyone think that she used the phrase “kinder, gentler” without irony? Wiencek appears to have missed not only that sentence’s tone but also how it expresses Jefferson’s perception, not Gordon-Reed’s: “his plans for his version…”

Where is the “approval” that Wiencek perceives from Gordon-Reed? Where is her portrayal of Jefferson as a “kindly master”? The only time The Hemingses of Monticello uses the word “kindly” for Jefferson is in describing how his acknowledged grandchildren perceived him. And that paragraph ends, “Kindly, doting grandfathers can be sexual beings, too…” Gordon-Reed assesses the master of Monticello like this:
It may be difficult from our vantage point to believe that Jefferson had an internal sense of justice and fairness, depending as he did on a labor system that was constitutively unjust and unfair. By holding upward of two hundred “souls,” as he called them, in bondage, he worked injustice and unfairness in their lives every single day. . . . But Jefferson did have his own sense of fairness within the confines of his inhumane way of life…
It appears that Wiencek perceives any attempt to understand Jefferson’s thinking instead of simply calling him monstrous as “approval.” For fifteen years Gordon-Reed has been attacked by reactionary critics who felt she was out to denigrate Jefferson when she studied his contradictions. Now Wiencek brands that same work as the most prominent attempt to gloss over Jefferson’s racism.

* Speaking of personal, I should say that I’ve chatted with Gordon-Reed after a couple of her talks over the past decade and exchanged a few emails with Wiencek years back, but I’m not a friend or colleague of either.


Jessica Richard said...

I just discovered your blog and I have to immediately chime in to say I agree entirely with your assessment. Weincek's response at the Smithsonian website was almost worse than his original treatment of the scholarship. I wrote about reading the excerpt in Smithsonian with my 8-yr-old son here: http://fannyharvilleunschool.blogspot.com/2012/10/thomas-jefferson-and-challenges-of.html

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks very much for that link. The paradoxes of Jefferson's life are indeed troubling, especially for young folk at a stage of more strictly defined moral development. Very interesting to read about that perspective.

G. Lovely said...

Albany Law School Professor Paul Finkelman has a piece in today's New York Times that makes no apologies for Mr. Jefferson: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/01/opinion/the-real-thomas-jefferson.html?hp&_r=0

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for that link. I saw it online last night and was struck by the irony of a scholar dismissing Wiencek as too mild on Jefferson.

Finkelman is best known for his analysis of the U.S. Constitution as written to preserve slavery and the power of slaveholders. He's a "no quarter" type of guy.

HSWiencek said...

A quick response. 1) I didn't tell Schuessler that the AGR errors were "minor." Quite the opposite. 2) I don't hear any irony at all in "kinder, gentler slavery." 3) I have fully rebutted all the points raised by AGR and Lewis and Stanton. 4) Please read my book for the full story. Henry Wiencek

Marilyn Richardson said...

And you see no way in which such entrenched resistance to, and dismissal of, black agency could be said to echo through a recent Park Service kerfuffle?

History continues to rhyme. As informed and astute as you are, I do wonder what you choose to ignore, and for what motives. Expediency can be brutal.

HSWiencek said...

Marilyn - What Park Service issue are you referring to?

J. L. Bell said...

I think Marilyn Richardson's comment was a response to my posting, not the preceding comment.

J. L. Bell said...

Salon has published an excellent historiographical discussion of the current debate over Jefferson as a slaveholder.

HSWiencek said...

I disagree that it's "excellent." Their basic complaint is here: “'Master of the Mountain' rashly removes the conversation from the long-active scholarly community." They are upset that unsettling documents are put before the public without prior filtering through the TJ establishment. Burstein and Isenberg sense they are losing control of the narrative. The response from average readers has been: We were never told these things before.

HSWiencek said...

Take a look at the comments on my "response to critics" on the Smithsonian Magazine website:


J. L. Bell said...

Again, context is important. In their Salon essay on the historiographical debate, Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg write: “But in its design to shock, ‘Master of the Mountain’ rashly removes the conversation from the long-active scholarly community, by self-consciously claiming that Wiencek, as historical detective, has smoked out a criminal.”

It appears self-important to suggest that a “TJ establishment” is opposed to presenting “unsettling documents” and facts before the reading public when that group consists of people who have written books about Thomas Jefferson’s slaveholding.

If “average readers” are stating that they’ve never read about how Jefferson treated his enslaved workers or denigrated African-Americans, that means they haven’t read the books on those topics by Annette Gordon-Reed, Jan E. Lewis, Lucia Stanton, Gary Nash and Graham Russell Hodges, Andrew Burstein, David Waldstreicher, and others. It’s not because those authors have ever tried to keep that history from public view and consideration. They’ve done quite the opposite.

Master of the Mountain presents a new theory of when Jefferson turned against slavery and why. It should be possible to present that theory without writing off more than a decade of previous scholarship and to defend it without claiming that the authors of those books portrayed “Jefferson as a kindly master of black slaves.” That may work with readers who haven’t read those books, but it doesn’t work with anyone who has.

HSWiencek said...

I couldn't agree more that context is important. So far this discussion has been based on snippets people have presented online--it's important to read "Master of the Mountain" to get the full context of the debate.

J. L. Bell said...

John Fea alerted me to another forum where this debate is playing out. The American Scholar has published T. H. Breen’s favorable review of Master of the Mountain and Lucia Stanton’s forceful response.