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Master of the mountain : Thomas Jefferson and his slaves

1st ed.
Publication Information:
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.
Physical Description:
336 pages : illustrations, maps, genealogical tables ; 24 cm
"This steep, savage hill" -- "Let there be justice" -- Pursued by the black horse -- "We lived under a hidden law" -- "The hammer or the anvil" -- The Bancroft paradox -- "To have good and human heart" -- What the blacksmith saw -- What the colonel saw -- A mother's prayers -- "I will answer for your safety ... banish all fear" -- "To serve you faithful" -- The double aspect -- America's Cassandra -- The man in the iron mask -- "I only am escaped alone to tell thee" -- "The effect on them was electrical" -- "Utopia in full reality" -- Jefferson anew.
"Master of the Mountain," Henry Wiencek's eloquent, persuasive book--based on new information coming from archaeological work at Monticello and on hitherto overlooked or disregarded evidence in Jefferson's papers--opens up a huge, poorly understood dimension of Jefferson's world."-- Publisher's description.


Call Number
973.46 Wiencek
973.46 Wiencek 2012

On Order



Is there anything new to say about Thomas Jefferson and slavery? The answer is a resounding yes. Master of the Mountain , Henry Wiencek's eloquent, persuasive book--based on new information coming from archaeological work at Monticello and on hitherto overlooked or disregarded evidence in Jefferson's papers--opens up a huge, poorly understood dimension of Jefferson's world. We must, Wiencek suggests, follow the money.

So far, historians have offered only easy irony or paradox to explain this extraordinary Founding Father who was an emancipationist in his youth and then recoiled from his own inspiring rhetoric and equivocated about slavery; who enjoyed his renown as a revolutionary leader yet kept some of his own children as slaves. But Wiencek's Jefferson is a man of business and public affairs who makes a success of his debt-ridden plantation thanks to what he calls the "silent profits" gained from his slaves--and thanks to a skewed moral universe that he and thousands of others readily inhabited. We see Jefferson taking out a slave-equity line of credit with a Dutch bank to finance the building of Monticello and deftly creating smoke screens when visitors are dismayed by his apparent endorsement of a system they thought he'd vowed to overturn. It is not a pretty story. Slave boys are whipped to make them work in the nail factory at Monticello that pays Jefferson's grocery bills. Parents are divided from children--in his ledgers they are recast as money--while he composes theories that obscure the dynamics of what some of his friends call "a vile commerce."

Many people of Jefferson's time saw a catastrophe coming and tried to stop it, but not Jefferson. The pursuit of happiness had been badly distorted, and an oligarchy was getting very rich. Is this the quintessential American story?

Author Notes

Henry Wiencek , a nationally prominent historian and writer, is the author of several books, including The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White , which won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1999, and An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (FSG, 2003). He lives with his wife and son in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

That the author of the Declaration of Independence owned slaves, likely fathered several children with a slave, and used slaves as collateral to borrow funds to build Monticello is widely acknowledged. Historians often explain this paradox by claiming Jefferson was powerless to change the system, accusing those who now criticize Jefferson of "presentism." Yet NBCC Award-winning historian Wiencek (The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White) reveals that many of Jefferson's contemporaries, such as Quaker plantation owners in the 1770s and a prominent Virginian, Edward Coles, in 1819, freed their slaves. Coles begged Jefferson to lend his voice to the antislavery movement, as did fellow revolutionaries such as Lafayette and Thomas Paine. But, Wiencek says that the founder who referred to blacks as "degraded and different" with "no place in our country," had a "fundamental belief in the righteousness of his power." Jefferson, asserts Wiencek, began to prevaricate about slavery after computing "the silent profit" of 4% per year from the birth of slave children. This meticulous account indicts not only Jefferson but modern apologists who wish to retain him as a moral standard of liberty. Wiencek's vivid, detailed history casts a new slant on a complex man. 8 pages b&w illus. Agent: Howard Morhaim, Howard Morhaim Literary Agency. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Kirkus Review

A well-rendered yet deeply unsettling look behind the illusion of the happy slaves of Monticello. That Jefferson was riven by contradictions as both a passionate advocate of liberty and a dedicated slave owner is not new to scholars and historians. Yet Wiencek (An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, 2003, etc.) scours the primary sources, such as Thomas Jefferson's Farm Book, for a thoughtful reexamination of what was really going on behind the harmonious facade of the great house on the mountain. So much about Monticello was artful, full of contrivances, contraptions, inventions and labyrinths. It was an innovative and eccentric place, tricking the eye and keeping the visitor somewhat off balance. Wiencek does note some of the times when the facade was broken: "In one instance, a gentleman dining with Mr. Jefferson, looked so startled as he raised his eyes from the latter to the servant behind him, that his discovery of the resemblance was perfectly obvious to all." Indeed, all the slaves at Monticello were related to one another, descendants of matriarch "Betty" Hemings, who had been the concubine of Martha Jefferson's father, rendering Betty's many children by him, including Sally, her own half siblings. Rather reluctantly, Wiencek looks at the substance behind the scandal of Sally and Jefferson's reputed liaison and admits solid evidence. The author thoroughly examines Jefferson's writings, such as Notes on the State of Virginia, for his problematic theories on race, miscegenation and human bondage, and he marvels at the man's ability to justify what he called an "execrable commerce." Slave suicides, runaways, whippings by his overseers and his furtive freeing of Sally's two oldest children--the secrets and evasions compounded one another. Yes, Jefferson inherited slavery, but he knew better. Beautifully constructed reflections and careful sifting of Jefferson's thoughts and deeds.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Library Journal Review

Historian Wiencek (An Imperfect God) pre-sents a revisionist study of Jefferson and his oversight of Monticello and other plantations, overturning the picture of the revolutionary as a reluctant slaveholder. Estate records and Jefferson's writings document his change of opinion on slavery, away from the emancipationist leanings of his youth, brought on by personal economic considerations. Heavily in debt at the end of the Revolutionary War, Jefferson made sweeping changes in the operation of his plantation to increase profitability. Not only did the slaves provide field labor, they engaged in nail making, tinsmithing, and other trades. They also served as collateral for loans Jefferson needed to expand the plantation. Furthermore, his estate bred slaves for the internal American slave market. Jefferson also distanced himself from abolitionists and adopted racist rhetoric to justify his actions. VERDICT Narrator Brian Holsopple does an excellent job. This audiobook provides a troubling aspect of a complex man and the skewed moral universe in which he lived; recommended to all listeners.--Stephen L. Hupp, West Virginia Univ. Parkersburg Lib. (c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Mapp. viii-ix
Family Treesp. x-xiii
Introduction: "This Steep, Savage Hill"p. 3
1 "Let There Be Justice"p. 13
2 Pursued by the Black Horsep. 31
3 "We Lived Under a Hidden Law"p. 43
4 "The Hammer or the Anvil"p. 63
5 The Bancroft Paradoxp. 73
6 "To Have Good and Human Heart"p. 85
7 What the Blacksmith Sawp. 101
8 What the Colonel Sawp. 113
9 A Mother's Prayersp. 127
10 "I Will Answer for Your Safety ... Banish All Fear"p. 133
11 "To Serve You Faithful"p. 159
12 The Double Aspectp. 173
13 America's Cassandrap. 189
14 The Man in the Iron Maskp. 209
15 "I Only Am Escaped Alone to Tell Thee"p. 219
16 "The Effect on Them Was Electrical"p. 233
17 "Utopia in Full Reality"p. 253
18 Jefferson Anewp. 267
Notesp. 277
Bibliographyp. 305
Acknowledgmentsp. 317
Indexp. 321