Henry Wiencek has written several books about race in America, most recently a study of George Washington’s relationship with slavery. Wiencek now turns his intense — some would say almost incendiary — attention to another founding father, Thomas Jefferson.
Wiencek’s Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves goes well beyond the usual tropes about our third president — that he was a reluctant slaveowner, that his intimate relationship with his enslaved mistress Sally Heming proves his essential humanity, etc. — to show a plantation owner with a calculating, almost cold attitude toward exploiting the numerous slaves at Monticello, his estate in Charlottesville, Virginia.
As a longtime Charlottesville resident, Wiencek has a unique view into the workings at Monticello today, and his book benefits from extensive and unprecedented onsite research. He speaks at a Georgia Historical Society event this Thursday night. We spoke to him last week.
How did you get so much access at Monticello, and how do they feel about you now that they’ve seen the book?
Henry Wiencek: (laughs) I’ve lived in Charlottesville since 1992, and I’ve visited Monticello many, many times. It’s a fascinating place. Over the years I got to know the historians and archaeologists very well. When I began work on the book I went over the mountain several times with the archaeologists and I describe one of those journeys in the book. I also spent a lot of time digging through the plantation papers, trying to get a sense of how things worked on a day–to–day basis.
You don’t shy away from a certain amount of opinion. It seems like you really don’t like Thomas Jefferson at all. Is that an unfair characterization?
Henry Wiencek: Yes. I wouldn’t call it opinion, I’d call it interpretation. I’ve been accused of loathing Jefferson. That was never the case and still isn’t. I started out believing all I had learned from the people at Monticello that Jefferson was a conflicted slaveowner who tried to run a benevolent system on a rational humane basis.
Then what I found in the records was like getting one hammer blow after another. The children whipped at his nail factory to get them to work. He was literally counting the babies and figured out that if he got a four percent increase every year in the birth rate that was part of his profit. When he advised neighbors to “invest in Negroes.” Those things had not gotten into print!
It completely shattered my view of what was going on. I never did form a loathing for him, but at one point when I came across the four percent formula, I remember thinking of him, “The SOB is counting the babies.”
This sort of study is going on about slavery broadly. It has never really reached Jefferson until my book. That really makes them uncomfortable at Monticello. The Jeffersonians around here don’t like what I’m doing at all. They want that four percent formula to disappear.
People say, well, Jefferson was just a man of his times. You bet he was!
So what do we do with this knowledge? Jefferson was a founding father who wrote the nation’s archetypical document, one which two centuries later paved the way for a black president.
Henry Wiencek: Something Jefferson in his lifetime would never have wanted to see! He wanted to deport all the black people. He was creating propaganda for years, while at the same time he was doing everything he could to modernize slavery and bring it into the country as a respectable institution because it was so immensely profitable.
Again, what should our response be?
Henry Wiencek: That’s a judgment the reader has to make. A number of people have said, well should we knock him down from Mount Rushmore? I say no, he’s part of our history, we have to deal with it. I don’t make any conclusions about that in the book. I don’t say we have to knock him off his pedestal or tear up the two dollar bill. Readers have to make their own choices. My focus was on what he did. I just lay it all out and the reader can decide.
I’m certainly not comparing capitalism to slavery, but isn’t it true that this kind of calculating exploitation of human labor is part of the capitalist system whether or not there’s slavery involved? I’m thinking of the Victorian era and the industrial revolution, for example.
Henry Wiencek: That argument fails on one point: we fought a revolution to recognize universal human rights. And I do believe in the notion of American exceptionalism. After the war a lot of our foreign allies, especially the French, were saying “why did we fight a war for you guys if you still have slavery?” Jefferson himself said the Revolution was a turning point, a new order of the ages. All of that slowly burned out as men such as Jefferson decided that hey, this is really profitable and we’re going to hang on to it despite all our ideals. But we’ll still speak publicly that we’re an idealistic nation that believes in universal human rights.
Is this part of America’s constant evolution to live up to our own rhetoric?
Henry Wiencek: Again, that’s a question for the reader. I try to keep the focus on that era. Once you begin making analogies to later eras and different countries, everything falls into confusion. We have to view Jefferson as a man of his time and place. He would be appalled to wake up and find Barack Obama in the White House.
GHS presents Henry Wiencek
When: 6 p.m. Thu. Nov. 15
Where: Congregation Mickve Israel, Monterey Square
Cost: Free & open to public