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)

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It has taken me a while to respond to Prof. Annette Gordon-Reed's comments in Slate because she raised a question that led me to take a fresh look at one of my interpretations.

Her most important point concerns what I call in my book Jefferson's "4 percent theorem" or "formula," calculating the yearly increase in the plantation's black population and counting it as part of its profits. She said it doesn't exist: "Jefferson had no '4 percent theorem' or 'formula.'" But here is the sentence that Jefferson wrote in the middle of a profit-and-loss memo: "I allow nothing for losses by death, but, on the contrary, shall presently take credit four per cent. per annum, for their increase over and above keeping up their own numbers." His meaning is perfectly plain.

Elsewhere Gordon-Reed admitted that the formula did exist, but argued that it didn't mean what I thought it did: "The problem with what Wiencek calls the '4 percent theorem' or 'formula' is that Jefferson was not speaking about his slaves at Monticello—he was speaking about farms in Virginia generally." That observation gave me pause. If Gordon-Reed is correct, then as early as 1792 Jefferson saw that all or most Virginia slaveholders were already participating in the "branch of profit" that his grandson Jeff Randolph was to denounce 40 years later: "It is a practice, and an increasing practice, in parts of Virginia, to rear slaves for market." Virginia, Randolph said, "had been converted into one grand menagerie." But I don't believe Jefferson had that in mind, and I still think that he was referring only to the birth rate, and concomitant profit, at Monticello: "I could only, for facts, recur to my own recollections," he wrote later when he explained his calculations.

Here is another statement by Jefferson (not mentioned by Gordon-Reed): He wrote in 1794 that an acquaintance who had suffered financial reverses "should have been invested in negroes," and if that friend's family had any cash left, "every farthing of it [should be] laid out in land and negroes, which besides a present support bring a silent profit of from 5. to 10. per cent in this country by the increase in their value." Given these remarks, it is hard to know why Gordon-Reed has insisted that Jefferson "had no epiphany . . . that the babies of enslaved women increased his capital."

I should mention that neither the 4 percent formula nor Jefferson's callous advice to invest in Negroes has been mentioned by any other writer on Jefferson, and not by Gordon-Reed, though in her review she asserted that "all of the important stories in this book have been told by others."

Gordon-Reed the law professor had some fun with the tragic fate of Kosciuszko's will, and may have befuddled the jury with irrelevancies. Long story short: In his will Thaddeus Kosciuszko left Jefferson a very large sum of money to free his slaves ("I beg Mr. Jefferson," he wrote, to free his slaves and give them land); Jefferson declined to carry out the will. Gordon-Reed's position is that this was a non-issue because the will was fatally defective. But Jefferson's grandson didn't think so: Just months after Thomas Jefferson died in 1826, Jeff Randolph tried to revive the Kosciuszko bequest, "to save some of the Slaves left by Mr Jefferson, from a Sale by his creditors." Jeff Randolph was not deterred by any potential financial risks such as Gordon-Reed darkly evoked.

Furthermore, Thomas Jefferson himself thought the will would stand. When Jeff Randolph made his enquiry about saving slaves in 1826, the will's administrator, Benjamin L. Lear, replied that "I had a conversation with Mr Jefferson on the subject at Monticello about three years ago, in wh: he approved very heartily the plan I then proposed to adopt"-- a plan to free slaves from elsewhere, not Monticello. Jefferson had no interest in releasing his extremely valuable slaves, but he believed the bequest was perfectly valid.

Gordon-Reed reasonably questioned my reading of a Monticello expense ledger that to my mind recorded the purchase of neck shackles for slaves. I explain my interpretation in my book and stand by it.

I am not surprised that Gordon-Reed disliked my book so much, given that it systematically demolishes her portrayal of Jefferson as a kindly master of black slaves. In The Hemingses of Monticello, she described with approval Jefferson's "plans for his version of a kinder, gentler slavery at Monticello with his experiments with the nail factory." Gordon-Reed cannot like the now established truth that

the locus of Jefferson's "kinder, gentler slavery" was the very place where children were beaten to get them to work. At first I assumed that she simply did not know about the beatings, but when I double-checked her book's references to the nailery I discovered that she must have known: A few hundred pages away from her paean to the nail factory, she cited the very letter in which "the small ones" are described as being lashed there.


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