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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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Debate over Master of the Mountain

The debate over Henry Wiencek’s Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves merited a long article in the New York Times yesterday. To review, this book is a highly critical look at Jefferson’s slaveholding that prompted:
Wiencek responded to the critical reviews through the Smithsonian site, and another historian from the same circle answered with a letter she had sent to a Virginia magazine.

On the surface this conflict is about different views of the importance of a few documents. For example, Wiencek feels that Jefferson’s 1793 letter to George Washington about the growth of slaves’ economic value reflected and influenced his personal thinking, turning him decisively against the idea of ending slavery for rest of his life. The other authors agree that Jefferson never stopped exploiting and depending on other people’s forced labor, but also feel that he continued to wrestle with the conflict between that lifestyle and his stated ideals.

Another issue involves this letter to Jefferson about the harsh treatment of enslaved boys working at his nail-making forge. Edwin M. Betts didn’t quote that letter in Jefferson’s Farm Book (1953). Wiencek’s Smithsonian article states that Betts “decided that the image of children being beaten at Monticello had to be suppressed.” Certainly evidence of forced child labor conflicted with Betts’s picture of Monticello as an “ideal rural community.”

But, Wiencek’s critics point out, Betts didn’t present his book as a complete set of documents about Monticello. He published plenty of details about the hard work at the nailery. And anyone who’s read about either slavery or childhood in eighteenth-century America already knows that beatings were common and accepted. (They were also more accepted in 1953 than now.) If Betts had highlighted that letter about beating young boys, it indeed would have undercut his image of Monticello. But is that enough evidence to warrant writing Betts “decided that…had to be suppressed”?

To some extent, these are philosophical questions. Wiencek expresses a rather Manichean view, seeing Jefferson decisively choosing the evil of slavery and Betts as deliberately deceiving his readers. Wiencek’s critics see more room for conflicted minds and well-intentioned folly. I think there’s value in having both interpretations to consider.

But that’s not enough to explain the fervor of this debate. Historians disagree about the importance of documents and how to interpret them all the time. There are a couple of other conflicts going on here.

TOMORROW: Academic historians and “popular” historians.

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