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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Monday, October 22, 2012

Reviews of Master of the Mountain

In 1997 Annette Gordon-Reed’s Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy persuasively argued that most previous discussions of the evidence about the relationship between the third President and his enslaved housekeeper were inaccurate and one-sided.

The following year, Nature published D.N.A. tests on surviving patrilineal descendants of Jefferson, Hemings, and others that ruled out the stories the President’s legal descendants had put forward and proved consistent with the long-dismissed recollections of Sally Hemings’s son Madison.

That revelation prompted widespread reassessment of Jefferson’s private life and conflicted writing about slavery. Among the first titles in that wave was the 1999 essay collection Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic Culture, edited by Jan Lewis and Peter Onuf. Like Gordon-Reed’s book, it was published by the press of the Virginia university that Jefferson himself had founded.

Many more books have followed, including some by authors who had previously dismissed the evidence of a sexual relationship between Hemings and Jefferson. The reassessment extended well beyond that topic, and it’s now common among both scholars and the public to recognize the contradictions in Jefferson’s words and behavior about slavery.

The latest study of that subject is Henry Wiencek’s Master of the Mountain, which I mentioned back here. It appears to be among the most negative assessments of Jefferson and his “modern apologists,” in Publishers Weekly’s terms. Reviews by non-historians in the Washington Post, Salon, and other venues have praised Wiencek for debunking Jefferson’s image.

But Gordon-Reed and Lewis, Jefferson scholars but certainly not apologists, disagree. This month both published detailed reviews of the book, criticizing it for being too harsh about the planter’s behavior and for misrepresenting evidence to make its case.

For example, Gordon-Reed wrote in Slate:
He suggests that Jefferson purchased collars—iron spiked vises—for slaves. Follow Wiencek’s logic and note the incredible inferential leaps required to link these disparate occurrences into a chain: Jefferson’s father, Peter, advertised for a runaway slave (in 1751) who was wearing an iron collar; Jefferson must have seen enslaved people being collared when he was growing up; while in France in the 1780s, Jefferson wrote to Nicholas Lewis, the manager of his farms, telling him to use “extraordinary exertions”; and then—“the manager’s expense accounts in 1791 include a line item for the purchase of ‘collars.’”

Wiencek’s endnote explains that he had “at first” thought the reference was to “horse collars.” That view changed after Wiencek noticed that Jefferson wrote “leather collars” or “horse collars” and “Lewis would have been similarly specific.” Therefore, enslaved people at Monticello must have been put in iron collars.

In fact, Monticello had a blacksmith shop that supplied the surrounding community with iron works. Why, then, would Lewis have to buy iron slave-collars from an outside source? And Christa Dierksheide, a researcher at Monticello, says that the man from whom Lewis bought the collars was not a blacksmith. He was a local tenant farmer, and would have used collars for cattle and horses on his farm. Wiencek should have considered this.
Lewis wrote in The Daily Beast/Newsweek:
Sometimes he cites a source and sometimes he does not, but it really doesn’t make much difference because when you go back to the original, too often it doesn’t say what he claims it does. He says, for example—and this is a statement that will astonish historians—that just after the American Revolution “Virginia came close to outlawing the continuation of slavery.” He cites some pages in a recent book that say nothing of the sort. . . .

Wiencek’s key piece of evidence is a letter in which Jefferson “mocked abolitionists for ‘wasting Jeremiads on the miseries of slavery.’” Except that he was talking about the Federalists—the letter is about the Missouri crisis—and the next words in the sentence, which Wiencek doesn’t quote, are: “as if we were advocates for it. Sincerity in their declamations should direct their efforts to the true point of difficulty, and unite their counsels with ours in devising some reasonable and practicable plan of getting rid of it.” . . . The examples of mangled evidence could be multiplied, believe me.
Both Gordon-Reed and Lewis praise Wiencek’s earlier book about George Washington and slavery, An Imperfect God. But they think his new book lacks critical balance and necessary accuracy.

As Jurretta Heckscher noted on Twitter, another significant aspect of these two reviews is that they appeared in online magazines, not in print (at least not at first). There will undoubtedly be more reviews in newspapers and magazines, both popular and academic. Given the reviewers’ expertise and detail, these may set the scholarly consensus.

(Hat tip to John Fea for spotlighting both these reviews.)


J. L. Bell said...

John Fea quotes Henry Wiencek’s response to Jan Lewis’s review here.

One of the little pleasures of this public discussion is watching people assume that Lewis wishes to defend Jefferson against any criticism about his actions and words on slavery. Those people have presumably not read her work on the topic.

Wiencek's comments, in turn, quote the President's grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph as a reliable source on this topic. I think that's a mistake. T. J. Randolph's reported statements don't add up, and he had a lot to hide, including his own affairs with enslaved women at Monticello.

J. L. Bell said...

Here is coverage of Master of the Mountain from The Hook, Charlottesville’s weekly magazine, and a critical response to the book from Lucia “Cinder” Stanton, recently retired historian from Monticello.

Stanton worked alongside Gordon-Reed, Lewis, and other historians in recent years to shine new light on how Jefferson treated his slaves and particularly Sally Hemings and her family.