Still wrestling with Jefferson

Tuesday January 29, 2013

Forget the down-to-the-wire fight over the Fiscal Cliff and the looming recycled brawl over the nation's debt ceiling. There's been another contest brewing this past year that's erupted into a raging stew of distrust, rancor and derision. In the midst of the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, a new book on Thomas Jefferson by Henry Wiencek -- "Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves" -- presents a wholly unsavory profile of our venerated and complicated 3rd President. The mudslinging over Wiencek's book indicates that we still don't know how to handle Thomas Jefferson.

Wiencek, an independent scholar whose previous work includes a highly respected book on George Washington and slavery, received remarkable attention for his new Jefferson book. He was everywhere this past year discussing his controversial hypothesis: Historians have given Jefferson a pass for too long; he may have been an Enlightenment thinker but he was also a cruel master. The general public loved the book, and it was widely praised by reviewers. The literati of historical research were not nearly so kind. Rutgers University historian Jan Ellen Lewis called it a "train wreck" that ignores contrary evidence, and senior historian at Monticello, Lucia Stanton, accused Wiencek of using "a blunt instrument to reduce complex historical issues to unrecognizable simplicities."

Entertaining as these fiery accusations are, the most intriguing critique came from Pulitzer Prize winning Annette Gordon-Reed, a law and history professor and author of "The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family." Gordon-Reed blasts the book in an article on entitled, "Thomas Jefferson Was Not a Monster,"asserting that Wiencek's research "fails as a work of scholarship" and that his conclusions are based on "bizarre proof." Gordon-Reed calls Wiencek's work "an attempted takedown" in which "the third president appears as a demonic figure warped one summer day by a sudden discovery that being a slaveholder could pay." You might think Gordon-Reed is an insular and stodgy academic who feels compelled to defend Jefferson's honor. Not so.

I first read Gordon-Reed's work while earning my MA in history over a decade ago. Her provocative 1997 book on Jefferson -- "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy" -- unabashedly took on Jefferson acolytes who refused to believe that Jefferson could have fathered children with one of his slaves. Gordon-Reed -- displeased with the previous methodology employed to research Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings--set out to objectively examine the evidence as a lawyer. What she discovered was that the bulk of the evidence absolutely supported the position that Jefferson and Sally Hemings were sexually involved, but historians for hundreds of years had unequivocally dismissed the possibility.

Now some of those same historians -- who bore her withering criticism of their myopia concerning Jefferson's moral shortcomings -- write blurbs on her book covers. Her exhaustively researched 2008 book on the Hemings family and their complex relationship with Jefferson won the National Book Award for nonfiction. And The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which runs Monticello, concluded from its own internal research that Jefferson was almost certainly the father of Sally Hemings' children. The exhibits at Jefferson's historic home have been changed to reflect this acknowledgment.

Although Gordon-Reed excoriates Jefferson for his bigotry and gross paternalism evidenced in enduring primary documents such the Farm Book, she questions Wiencek's scholarship and criticizes him for neglecting to credit previous historians in his work. Although it's hard for lay readers to understand, historians are passionate about footnotes and citations; we get all goose-bumpy about what's buried in the footnotes. That information is just as important as the story being constructed on the page.

Wiencek's argument that Jefferson was a brutal master rests on scant evidence, but there is significant proof that Jefferson was a colossal contradiction. Here's what we do know: Jefferson almost certainly had a long-term relationship with an enslaved woman at Monticello, Sally Hemings, and fathered her children. Their relationship was well-known at the time in political circles and at his homestead. We know that he benefited from slavery in a variety of ways; indeed, gorgeous Monticello could not have been constructed or maintained without the labor of enslaved men and women. Many children were put to work in Monticello's nail factory, and some may have been beaten by overseers that Jefferson employed. But despite this wealth, his profligate spending kept him financially insecure. And despite his articulation of nation-begetting ideals about the universal equality of men, he did nothing to end slavery and never freed his own slaves. It is uncomfortable, to say the least, that he is one of our most admired Founders.

At times it feels as if it would be a relief to stick Jefferson in the nation's attic -- a sort of Presidential version of the mad woman hidden upstairs in Charlotte Brontë's "Jane Eyre." His hypocrisy and moral shortcomings, although not unique, are exceedingly troublesome for history teachers and students.

Students (both middle schoolers and college undergrads) have told me they felt cheated and duped upon finally learning the truth about his complicated and contradictory life. It is difficult to convey to an 8th grader that Jefferson's Enlightenment ideals transcend the man, and it's understandable that students are dubious when we brush past the more troubling aspects of his character and focus on his nobler ideals. Like Jefferson's historians who poke around in footnotes and comb through primary sources, we must become more comfortable with the disconcerting particulars -- all those details that reveal both the great paradox and the prodigious genius.

I too am still wrestling with Jefferson.

Rebecca Balint writes about history, education and culture. She welcomes your comments at Read her blog at


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