Henry Wiencek Responds to His Critics

The author of a new book about Thomas Jefferson makes his case and defends his scholarship

Henry Wiencek's book "Master of the Mountain" has caused much debate amongst Jefferson scholars this month. (Tom Cogill)

The cover story of Smithsonian’s October 2012 issue, “Master of Monticello” by Henry Wiencek, presented a new and controversial portrait of Thomas Jefferson. Wiencek writes that the founding father was far from a reticent slaveholder but instead was heavily involved and invested in maximizing profits at his slave-dependent estate. Since the release of Wiencek’s book of the same name (and which provided the excerpt for the magazine), a new controversy has arisen, this time about the accuracy and diligence of Wiencek’s scholarship.

Writing for Slate, Jefferson historian Annette Gordon-Reed writes, “Suffice it to say that the problems with Master of the Mountain are too numerous to allow it to be taken seriously as a book that tells us anything new about Thomas Jefferson and slavery, and what it does say is too often wrong.” Gordon-Reed assails Wiencek’s analysis of the“4 percent theorem,” Jefferson’s calculation that he was earning a 4 percent profit every year on the birth of black children, arguing that no such theorem ever existed. “Jefferson’s thoughts about slavery cannot be treated in such a reductive manner,” writes Gordon-Reed.

In the Daily Beast, author and history professor Jan Ellen Lewis shows similar objections. “Much of what Wiencek presents as “new information” has already been published in the groundbreaking work of Annette Gordon-Reed, Lucia Stanton, and others, while the most headline-grabbing charges crumble under close scrutiny,” writes Lewis.

We also received responses via mail from two other esteemed Jefferson scholars. Lucia Stanton, Monticello’s Shanon Senior Historian and author of Those Who Labor for My Happiness: Slavery at Monticello, and White McKenzie Wallenborn, another Monticello historian. Both objected to Wiencek’s dismissive take on the scholarship of professor Edwin Betts, calling it “unfair” and “malicious.” “Wiencek has used a blunt instrument to reduce complex historical issues to unrecognizable simplicities,” writes Stanton in a letter submitted to The Hook newspaper.

We asked Wiencek to respond to his detractors here and hope that it will continue the dialogue about Jefferson and his contradictory record as a slaveholder and as the author of the phrase “all men are created equal.”

From Henry Wiencek:

Two Jefferson scholars posted critiques of my Smithsonian magazine excerpt and my book, Master of the Mountain. Writing in The Daily Beast, Prof Jan Ellen Lewis expressed disbelief at my statement, "In ways that no one completely understands, Monticello became populated by a number of mixed-race people who looked astonishingly like Thomas Jefferson." Lewis misunderstood my point.  I was referring to the statement by Jefferson's grandson that not just

Sally Hemings but another Hemings woman also had children who clearly resembled Jefferson. Scholars have not been able to identify that other woman, her children, or the father. I've never seen an explanation.

Lewis sharply questioned my statement that just after the American Revolution "Virginia came close to outlawing the continuation of slavery." I based that statement on solid sources. I quoted from George Mason's draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights: "all men are equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights, of which they can not by any Compact, deprive or divest their Posterity."  

I also cited the distinguished scholar Eva Sheppard Wolf: "Several Revolutionary-era Virginia laws seemed to signal a shift toward anti-slavery policies that could have led to universal emancipation." Wolf also writes that some historians "see several indications that it was possible to end American slavery in the late eighteenth century.") This surge of liberal sentiment was short-lived--but it should be noted that Virginia passed a very liberal manumission law in 1782, by which Jefferson could have freed slaves.


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