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.

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.

In her review, Gordon-Reed mocked me for "cataloging the injustices to the enslaved people as if they had finally, after all these years, found a champion." I have never had the arrogance to regard myself as a champion of the enslaved people; but if an esteemed historian goes around talking about "kinder, gentler slavery," they surely need one.

From Lucia “Cinder” Stanton Monticello’s Shannon Senior Historian and author of Those Who Labor for My Happiness: Slavery at Monticello

As the “recently retired” Monticello historian who had “no comment” in Lisa Provence’s cover story [The Hook, October 18: “Mr. Jefferson’s greed"], I’m moved to speak.  I declined to comment because I had not yet read Henry Wiencek’s Master of the Mountain. I’ve now read excerpts in the October issue of Smithsonian magazine as well as related sections of the book.

As an admirer of Henry Wiencek’s previous work, I was shocked by what I saw: a breathtaking disrespect for the historical record and for the historians who preceded him. With the fervor of a prosecutor, he has played fast and loose with the historical evidence, using truncated quotations, twisting chronology, misinterpreting documents, and misrepresenting events.

In short, he has misled his readers. So much so that, to cite one example, some reviewers now believe that Jefferson “ordered” the whipping of ten-year-old slave boys in the Monticello nailmaking shop. Jefferson actually ordered the manager of the nailery to refrain from using the whip, except “in extremities.” And there were no ten-year-olds in the shop at the time; most were fifteen to eighteen, with two others about to be thirteen and fourteen.

Whipping boys of any age is terrible to contemplate, but we all know that the whip was the universal tool of slave discipline in Virginia. The more interesting point, which Wiencek does not explore, is that Jefferson was experimenting with methods of discipline that might help minimize use of the whip.

One would not know from Wiencek’s book, however, that historians, myself included, have examined slavery at Monticello and written of sales and whippings, not to mention young boys shut up in a hot smoky shop swinging their hammers 20,000 times a day. Yet Wiencek makes no mention of the work of Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Annette Gordon-Reed. And his treatment of the late Edwin M. Betts, editor of Jefferson’s Farm Book (1953), is unfair, to say the least.

He makes a great to-do about Betts’s omission of a sentence that revealed that the “small” nailers were whipped for truancy–- in Jefferson’s absence and without his knowledge. How can he know that Betts “deliberately” suppressed this sentence, in what was a compilation of excerpts, not full letters? Especially when it was Betts who first published the letters that describe troubling events in which Jefferson himself was involved: the flogging of James Hubbard, the selling south of Cary “in terrorem” to his fellow nailers, the addition to capital through slave childbirth. Wiencek fails to mention Betts’s pioneering editorial contributions.

I am angered by Wiencek’s distortion of history as well as disappointed that, with all his talents, he didn’t probe still-unexplored corners of the story of Jefferson and slavery. He has instead used a blunt instrument to reduce complex historical issues to unrecognizable simplicities.

Lucia (Cinder) Stanton 

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