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'Master of the Mountain' Re-evaluates Thomas Jefferson

A candid look at slave-holding founding father

Aug. 20, 2012
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When one thinks of Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence surely comes to mind. Jefferson's words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” cemented the foundation of the United States. But in Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), esteemed historian and author Henry Wiencek (An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America) argues that the founding father did not necessarily practice what he preached, ironically profiting from institutionalized inequality and injustice. Through the use of financial records, the architectural design of Monticello and other archaeological findings, Wiencek creates a detailed, poignant analysis from Jefferson's younger years as an emancipationist through his later years as a slave-trade profiteer.

The author repudiates apologetic notions regarding Jefferson's involvement with a trade that used people as poker chips. He argues that Jefferson's holding of slaves was not simply a product of contemporary circumstances but, instead, a carefully calculated financial enterprise that guaranteed profit. Many of the third president's peers, including Quakers and American and French revolutionaries, attempted to persuade Jefferson to speak against the treachery of slavery. Jefferson refused, realizing the “silent profit” that slavery provided him, his family and the debt collectors knocking on the door of his mansion. Wiencek vividly illustrates a story in which money plays the traditional role of the devil, as Jefferson exchanges his morals for personal gain.

Jefferson kept all of Monticello's financial records, including mathematical proof offering insight into the key role that slaves played in the success of the estate. Wiencek highlights the process, determining that each slave provided 4% profit. Jefferson's “4% formula” allowed his family and their guests to live in constant luxury, evocative of the British royalty that the American Revolution ostensibly fought to defeat.

Despite the crucial role the slaves played at Monticello, Jefferson did everything in his power to ensure that the ugliness of slavery remained hidden underneath the shadows. It was no accident that the slavery-driven infrastructure, while mostly hidden, ran smoothly and efficiently, Wiencek asserts. Jefferson went as far as having secret passages built throughout the mansion to ensure that the slave labor used to cook and deliver elegant feasts remained behind closed doors—or, more literally, rotating doors.

One particular slave family sticks out in the findings at Monticello: the Hemings family, who claimed relation to the president. Wiencek convincingly compiles evidence supporting the contested claim that Jefferson held slaves who shared his blood. How could anyone, especially such a beloved actor in American history, keep his own kin as property?

Master of the Mountain
is a well-written, intelligently constructed account that captures years of controversy and debate surrounding one of the most revered founding fathers. Wiencek brilliantly and comprehensively re-evaluates the revolutionary-turned-slave-owner's reputation, questioning why America holds Jefferson as a pillar in its moral composition. Jefferson did not heed the requests of his peers to free his slaves, and, now—two centuries later—he is exposed as a beneficiary of America's selective historical memory.


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