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Sunday, January 20, 2013

Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves (audiobook) by Henry Wiencek

Published by HighBridge Company in 2012
Read by Brian Holsopple
Duration: 11 hours, 5 minutes.

I am a history teacher. My favorite area of study is the American Civil War but the American Revolution comes in at a close second. I cannot even count the number of books that I have read about the Revolutionary Era and I thought that I had a pretty solid handle on Jefferson - until I read this book.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)
I had always pictured Jefferson as a Unitarian (who was willing to go "more" religious for political reasons) who wrote eloquently about freedom and tyranny but somehow compartmentalized this in his own life when it came to slavery. Or, was unable to free his slaves due to crushing debts incurred because he was a philosopher and not a businessman.

The debts are always mentioned, usually in conjunction with the renovations to Monticello, reinforcing the impression that the philosopher was happily spending his way to oblivion for the sake of beauty and architecture, thus adding an air of tragedy to Jefferson. Poor Mr. Jefferson, he wanted to free his slaves but his profligate spending on esoterics caused him to have to compromise his ideals and keep his slaves. Poor Jefferson, he always wanted to free his slaves, but he could never get the law changed to make him do it. Poor Jefferson, circumstances made him look like a hypocrite.

Poor Mr. Jefferson, indeed.

Weincek looks at Jefferson's plantation records, the archaeological record, Jefferson's own writings and what other slave-owning planters did to fight slavery or make it more humane. The picture of Jefferson the slave-owner has forever been changed in my mind thanks to this book.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) giving his "I Have a
Dream" Speech in 1963.
Note: I will always revere Jefferson for his ability to point the way, even if he had no intent of going that way, especially in his older years. After all, Jefferson's soaring prose in the Declaration of Independence is America's mission statement and was the catalyst of so much good work. For example, take this line from MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech:

In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." 

Clearly, Jefferson inspired this and so much more.

But, back to this book. Wiencek goes into sometimes laborious detail into what Jefferson was up to at Monticello. He looks into his plans to grow his plantation into much more than a glorified farm. Instead, it was becoming a self-sufficient economic unit that actually created and sold manufactured goods to the outside world. My impression was that Jefferson moved from being an idealistic anti-slavery agitator to a feudal lord who outright owned his slaves rather than having to depend on serfs.

Jefferson encouraged his slaves to breed (their population grew at 4% per year, meaning their numbers would double every 18 years). The slaves were worth more than gold - after all, gold does not reproduce itself and does not literally work for you. Slaves would make more slaves, work for you and serve as collateral so that he could borrow money to expand his operations.

The last third of the book or so is devoted to the Sally Hemings controversy. Did Thomas Jefferson have children with her or not? Wiencek thoroughly covers this topic, but I think he oversteps what can be completely known by declaring Jefferson the father of Sally Hemings' children. The DNA evidence shows that a Jefferson did it and Wiencek eliminates the alibis that would exonerate Jefferson. But, I think that the best assertion that can be made is that Thomas Jefferson probably is the father of her children. However, the topic has to be included in the book because it is about Jefferson and his slaves and the Hemings children were clearly treated differently than the other slaves.

I was particularly interested in learning about Edward Coles and how he freed his slaves. His correspondence with Jefferson is illuminating and is a study in Jefferson's ability to be publicly  for something (ending slavery) but doing nothing to achieve it and even working actively against it.

Brian Holsopple's narration was very good in that I really did not notice it - it was clearly delivered and his reading of the text was free of insinuation, even when Jefferson's hypocrisy was at its most obvious. He played it straight and let the text speak for itself, which should be the goal of every reader of histories.

I rate this book 4 out of 5 stars. I thought hard about this and I just cannot sanction the outright naming of Jefferson as the father of the Hemings children. This is a tremendous book in all other aspects, though and I highly recommend it.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Master of the Mountain.

Reviewed on January 20, 2012.

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