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The Revolutionary Refused the Torch

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Posted on Oct 17, 2012

By Jonathan Yardley

(Page 2)

That chilling phrase, “I allow nothing for losses by death,” perfectly expresses Jefferson’s view of the human chattel in his possession. To be sure there were exceptions. Betty Hemings had been the mistress of the father of Jefferson’s wife. The children she bore by him and their children were bound to the Jeffersons by kinship. They remained slaves, but comparatively privileged ones who “lived and worked on the summit and in the house itself.” They “occupied a hazy no-man’s-land that (Jefferson’s) grandson, Jeff Randolph, struggled to describe: ‘Having the double aspect of persons and property the feelings for the person was always impairing its value as property.’ ” Indeed.

Leaving aside the unresolved (and probably unresolvable) question of whether Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings’s children, “The status of the Hemingses obviously raises doubts about Jefferson’s oft-stated opposition to the mixing of the races. If miscegenation disgusted him, why did he staff his household with his mixed-race relatives? Surrounding himself with these enslaved relatives—well dressed, well fed, highly trained—Jefferson created a buffer between himself and the harsher reality of Monticello’s slavery farther down the mountain.” That it was harsh is beyond question. Jefferson’s many apologists have long contended that he was a kind master, but “the Monticello machine operated on carefully calculated violence.” Jefferson fastidiously kept his own hands clean, but he said that some people “require a vigour of discipline to make them do reasonable work,” and he hired overseers, “hardhanded men who got things done and had no misgivings,” to carry out that discipline. In the 1950s the editor of a published edition of Jefferson’s “Farm Book” suppressed evidence that some children on the place, “the small ones,” were being whipped to keep them at their tasks, an “omission (that) was important in shaping the scholarly consensus that Jefferson managed his plantations with a lenient hand.”

book cover


Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves

By Henry Wiencek


Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 352 pages


Buy the book

Jefferson whined constantly about “the kind of labor we have” on his holdings, but “we simply cannot believe Jefferson’s complaints about his slaves, which fit into his pattern of shifting blame to others for his own mistakes.” Among the most important of these were the debts he constantly ran up in order to satisfy his extravagant tastes: for fine French wine, a grand carriage with strutting horses, and of course Monticello itself, a hole down which an endless supply of money, much of it borrowed, was poured. “The consensus must be turned around,” Wiencek writes: “with Jefferson miring himself in debt, his slaves kept him afloat.”

No doubt the argument will be made that everyone did it, that it is “presentism”—judging yesterday by the standards of today—to single out Jefferson’s treatment of his slaves. That is not the case. Everyone wasn’t doing it. There were voices for emancipation in Virginia, and there were people who freed their slaves: “The long list of people who begged Jefferson to do something about slavery includes resounding names—Lafayette, Kosciuszko, Thomas Paine—along with the less-known Edward Coles, William Short, and the Colored Battalion of New Orleans. They all came to Jefferson speaking the Revolution’s language of universal human rights, believing that the ideals of the Revolution actually meant something.” Jefferson, who wrote much of that language, wasn’t listening.

Jonathan Yardley is the book critic at The Washington Post. He can be reached at

©2012, Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group

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