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The Revolutionary Refused the Torch

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Posted on Oct 17, 2012

By Jonathan Yardley

“Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves”
A book by Henry Wiencek

“On the first day of April in 1819,” Henry Wiencek writes, “a group of seventeen slaves left a plantation in the mountains south of Charlottesville ... bound for a distant destination.” Leading their way was a 32-year-old white man named Edward Coles, “a wealthy, politically prominent Virginian” who no longer could resist the call of conscience and was taking his slaves to freedom in Illinois, where he gave each head of family 160 acres of land and where he himself was to settle. One of his family’s friends was Thomas Jefferson, the former president and author of the Declaration of Independence, whom Coles had attempted to persuade to join this undertaking. He “did not ask Jefferson to free his (own) slaves immediately, but to formulate a general emancipation plan for Virginia and lay it before the public, backed by his immense prestige.” Coles approached Jefferson with deference, Wiencek writes:

“Referring to Jefferson as one of ‘the revered fathers of all our political and social ‘blessings’ and extolling the ‘valor, wisdom and virtue (that) have done so much in ameliorating the condition of mankind,’’ Coles then sharpened his pen and thrust it straight at the Founder: ‘it is a duty, as I conceive, that devolves particularly on you, to put into complete practice those hallowed principles contained in that renowned Declaration, of which you were the renowned author, and on which we founded our right to resist oppression and establish our freedom and independence.”

The Sage of Monticello—the man who had electrified the world with the bold assertion that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”—was having none of that. As a young man Jefferson had called slavery “this execrable commerce,” a “cruel war against human nature itself,” but now, as a prosperous farmer and businessman, he retreated into equivocation (emancipation must be “gradual”) and insult: “Brought from their infancy without necessity for thought or forecast, (black people) are by their habits rendered as incapable as children of taking care of themselves, and are extinguished promptly wherever industry is necessary for raising young. In the mean time they are pests in society by their idleness, and the depredations to which this leads them.” That was that: “The revolutionary refused to take up the torch, and Coles turned his thoughts to Illinois.”

This exchange between the idealistic and determined Coles and the cynical, self-interested Jefferson is at the very heart of Wiencek’s brilliant examination of the dark side of the man who gave the world the most ringing declarations about human liberty, yet in his own life repeatedly violated the principles they expressed. This was rumored during Jefferson’s lifetime, as gossip about his relationship with his slave Sally Hemings circulated widely, and in recent years DNA testing has proved that her children were fathered by a member of the Jefferson family—virtually all the circumstantial evidence points to Thomas himself—but the emphasis has focused narrowly on the Jefferson-Hemings menage rather than on Jefferson as slaveowner. Now the record has been corrected, to devastating effect.

Wiencek has entered this territory before, first in “The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White” (1999), then in “An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America” (2003), both of them important books about the tangled history of race in America. Nothing could be much more tangled than the personal history of Thomas Jefferson, who beyond dispute was brilliant, eloquent, passionate about the new nation he played so central a role in founding, yet who over the course of his long life “owned more than 600 slaves” and on the whole treated them not much better than did any other Virginian plutocrat to whom they were not human beings but capital, pure and simple. “I consider a woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man of the farm,” Jefferson told his son-in-law. “What she produces is an addition to the capital.” Wiencek writes:

book cover


Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves

By Henry Wiencek


Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 352 pages


Buy the book

“Few biographical tasks are more frustrating than trying to assemble a montage of quotations from Jefferson’s written work that make sense of his stance on slavery. Among the completely contradictory points he advances about slaves and slavery we have: the institution was evil; blacks had natural rights, and slavery abrogated those rights; emancipation was desirable; emancipation was imminent; emancipation was impossible until a way could be found to exile the freed slaves; emancipation was impossible because slaves were incompetent; emancipation was just over the horizon but could not take place until the minds of white people were ‘ripened’ for it.”

As Wiencek says, “Laid end to end, his utterances present a rolling paradox of contradictions that inspire his detractors to call him a hypocrite, his defenders to call him compartmentalized, and baffled onlookers to call him ‘human.’ ” In truth he was all that and more, because his views and practices on slavery evolved not in moral terms but in commercial ones. As his plans for Monticello ballooned into a splendid monument to himself, he became a businessman whose “elaborate program ... would make an excellent case study in business schools today.” Jefferson “the philosopher has been endlessly parsed, but Jefferson the on-the-ground manager is most revealing, carrying us closer to the truth of slavery than anything he wrote.” Wiencek adds:

“Again and again the sale, the hiring, or the mortgaging of black souls rescued the Jeffersons from a bad harvest, bought time from the debt collectors, and kept the family afloat while a new and grander version of Monticello took shape. ... The slaves formed Jefferson’s bulwark against catastrophe. ... In 1792 he calculated that the births of slave children produced capital at the rate of 4 percent per year: ‘I allow nothing for losses by death, but, on the contrary, shall presently take credit four percent, per annum, for their increase over and above keeping up their own numbers.’ In the 1780s and 1790s the astounding total of 143 children were born into Jefferson’s possession.”

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