Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slavesby Henry Wiencek
Is there anything new to say about Thomas Jefferson and slavery? The answer is a resounding yes. Henry Wiencek’s eloquent, persuasive book—based on new information coming from archaeological work at Monticello and on hitherto overlooked or disregarded evidence in Jefferson’s papers—opens up a huge, poorly understood dimension of… See more details below
Is there anything new to say about Thomas Jefferson and slavery? The answer is a resounding yes. Henry Wiencek’s eloquent, persuasive book—based on new information coming from archaeological work at Monticello and on hitherto overlooked or disregarded evidence in Jefferson’s papers—opens up a huge, poorly understood dimension of Jefferson’s world. We must, Wiencek suggests, follow the money.
So far historians have offered only easy irony or paradox to explain this extraordinary Founding Father who was an emancipationist in his youth and then recoiled from his own inspiring rhetoric and equivocated about slavery, who enjoyed his renown as a revolutionary leader yet kept some of his own children as slaves. But Wiencek’s Jefferson is a man of business and public affairs who makes a success of his debtridden plantation thanks to what he calls the “silent profits” gained from his slaves—and thanks to a skewed moral universe that he and thousands of others readily inhabited. We see Jefferson taking out a slave-equity line of credit with a Dutch bank to finance the building of Monticello and deftly creating smoke screens when visitors are dismayed by his apparent endorsement of a system they thought he’d vowed to overturn. It is not a pretty story. Slave boys are whipped to make them work in the nail factory at Monticello that pays Jefferson’s grocery bills. Parents are divided from children—in his ledgers they are recast as money—while he composes theories that obscure the dynamics of what some of his friends call “a vile commerce.”
Many people of Jefferson’s time saw a catastrophe coming and tried to stop it, but not Jefferson. The pursuit of happiness had been badly distorted, and an oligarchy was getting very rich. Is this the quintessential American story?
—Publishers Weekly [HC starred review]
—Kirkus Reviews [HC starred review]
“Narrator Brian Holsopple does an excellent job. This audiobook provides a troubling aspect of a complex man and the skewed moral universe in which he lived; recommended to all listeners.”
As an engrossing investigation into Jefferson's change of heart and mind, Master of the Mountain is narrative history wrapped around an incendiary device: surely, political pundits and Jeffersonians will be wrestling over Wiencek's explosive interpretations of the historical evidence--some of it newly discovered--for years to come . . . One of the incontestable strengths of Wiencek's book is the way it transports readers deep into the hierarchical world of Jefferson's Monticello.
[Wiencek's] account of Jefferson's evolving and convoluted position on the subject is all the more damning for his restraint . . . Every American should read it. As depicted by Wiencek, the older Jefferson resembles a modern-day 1-percenter . . . We try to persuade ourselves that the author of some of our most inspiring political works was not a self-serving hypocrite. But given the bountiful evidence offered in Master of the Mountain, it's now impossible to see him any other way.
Wiencek carefully probes the historical record, parsing the enormous body of Jefferson literature. His work is a thoughtful and well-documented contribution, offering a powerful reassessment of our third president.
[Wiencek] reviews Jefferson's record like a prosecutor, hammering away at the evasions, rationalizations, and lies that have preserved Jefferson's reputation as a profoundly decent man trapped by the conventions of his own times. In Master of the Mountain, Wiencek does not reargue the tawdry details of the Sally Hemings affair. Rather, he invites readers to reflect seriously on one famous man's stunning refusal to provide moral leadership for a nation that desperately needed it.
Esteemed historian and author Henry Wiencek . . . creates a detailed, poignant analysis from Jefferson's younger years as an emancipationist through his later years as a slave-trade profiteer . . . 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 reevaluates the revolutionary-turned-slave-owner's reputation, questioning why America holds Jefferson as a pillar in its moral composition. . . [Jefferson] is exposed as a beneficiary of America's selective historical memory.
Master of the Mountain is a remarkable re-creation of Monticello's economy and culture . . . Whether you agree or not with Wiencek's provocative analysis, it's a book worth taking seriously as we continue to struggle with slavery's legacy.
Henry Wiencek's Master of the Mountain is the most important challenge to Jefferson on slavery since DNA suggested a link between him and Sally Hemings. Arguably it is even more significant, because it uncovers wider secrets about Monticello than a possible sexual liaison. Not everyone will accept all of Wiencek's arguments, but no one who would understand our history can ignore this pathbreaking exploration of our foundations.
Master of the Mountain is bound to cause a firestorm. It completely upends our view of Jefferson and his attitudes on freedom, slavery, and wealth. It's a tough-minded book by a master craftsman, completely convincing and a joy to read.
Master of the Mountain is wonderful! Eloquent and carefully researched, this invaluable book takes us behind the curtain of Jefferson's familiar public words and shows us Jefferson the Virginia planter, committed to slavery because he was utterly dependent on it for all his wealth, status, and power. Henry Wiencek's insights help to debunk the whole myth of the 'humane masters.
[A] brilliant examination of the dark side of the man who gave the world the most ringing declarations about human liberty.
In this deeply provocative and crisply written journey into the dark heart of slavery at Monticello, Henry Wiencek brings into focus a side of Jefferson that Americans have largely failed--or not cared--to see. This book will change forever the way that we think about the author of the Declaration of Independence.
[A] commanding stud[y] of a central area of American history, and [a] pioneering work[ ] in an ongoing battle for justice. Wiencek provides more detail about Thomas Jefferson's history of slaveholding than has ever existed in one place before, making an important adjustment to a bowdlerized historical record.
Compelling and utterly damning.
Read an Excerpt
Master of the Mountain (Chapter 1)
The thunderstorm that shook the mountain during the telling of Peter Fossett's story passed. We tourists were deposited back into the present, with shafts of sunlight illuminating a peaceful scene--a broad pathway stretching into the distance, disappearing over the curve of the hillside. Jefferson named it Mulberry Row for the fast-growing shade trees he planted here in the 1790s. One thousand yards long, it was the main street of the African-American hamlet atop Monticello Mountain. The plantation was a small town in everything but name, not just because of its size, but in its complexity. Skilled artisans and house slaves occupied cabins on Mulberry Row alongside hired white workers; a few slaves lived in rooms in the mansion's south dependency wing; some slept where they worked. Most of Monticello's slaves lived in clusters of cabins scattered down the mountain and on outlying farms. In his lifetime Jefferson owned more than 600 slaves. At any one time about 100 slaves lived on the mountain; the highest slave population, in 1817, was 140.1
The labyrinths of Monticello mirror the ambiguities of its maker. As you approach the house, you are taken in by one of Jefferson's cleverest tricks: through the artful arrangement of windows he achieved the illusion of having his three-story building appear to have only one floor. He had to have a house like the ones he'd seen in Paris when he was the U.S. minister there. "All the new and good houses are of a single story," Jefferson said, in the tone of someone who has discovered a new law of physics.
So in the 1790s he tore apart his first house--eight rooms, two floors--and began work on a twenty-one-room mansion, ingeniously concealing its bulk. Its innovations included skylights, indoor privies, and a system of drainpipes and cisterns to capture rainwater. He brainstormed on novel solutions for ventilating smells and smoke, such as tunnels to carry away the odor of the privies and an underground piping system to direct the smoke of cooking fires away from the house. He built the privy tunnels, through which a slave had to crawl once a month, for a dollar, to clean them; he dropped the idea of the underground pipes, considered smokestacks in the shape of obelisks, and finally settled on just having chimneys.2
One feature that Monticello does not have is a grand staircase, usually the centerpiece of a Virginia squire's entrance hall. A waste of space, Jefferson thought, and in any event he didn't need one, because he rarely went upstairs. He had everything he needed in his private, L-shaped suite of rooms on the main floor--the bedroom, the study or "cabinet," the book room, and the greenhouse, with its access to a private terrace and the lawns. A visitor called this spacious domain Jefferson's "sanctum sanctorum." His extended family--beloved daughter, impecunious son-in-law, widowed sister, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews--packed themselves into the second and third floors, reached by an extremely narrow, steep, and winding staircase--a treacherous ascent for anyone and doubly dangerous for someone carrying a load or a squirming infant. Jeff Randolph recalled the cramped quarters allotted him as a child: "I slept a whole winter in an outer closet."3 The granddaughters, desperate for private space where they could read and write, improvised their own sitting room out of an architectural gap over a portico, contending with wasps for control of the room.4
Jefferson grasped the ways geometry talks to the eye and mind, and in his hands that arid specialty yielded visual music. He imparted an uncanny sense of motion to the inanimate mass of bricks, glass, and wood, playing variations on geometrical themes. The facades of Monticello and many of its rooms have no real corners, which puts the eye, expecting right angles, off-balance. (His design for his country retreat, Poplar Forest, which he started in 1806, called for a pure octagon containing a cube.) Today we are accustomed to skylights, but in his time people did not expect to stand indoors in gentle sunlight coming from above, banishing the expected shadows and making others.
So innovative and eccentric in its irregularities and geometric illusions, Monticello not only baffled but irritated people of Jefferson's time, who expected something more conventionally pompous. "This incomprehensible pile," grumbled one visitor, calling the house "a monument of ingenious extravagance...without unity or uniformity." Another visitor, granted a rare tour of Jefferson's private suite of rooms by the master himself, pronounced herself "much disappointed in its appearance, and I do not think with its numerous divisions and arches it is as impressive as one large room would have been." Having heard the murmurings, Jefferson had to acknowledge that his "essay in architecture" was derided as being "among the curiosities of the neighborhood."5
Then as now, people were charmed by gadgets, and Monticello was full of them. "Everything has a whimsical and droll appearance," said one guest.6 One enters the parlor through an automatic double door in which both doors open or close when just one is pushed, being linked by an unseen chain under the floor. A visitor to his sanctum sanctorum would have found telescopes, a microscope, thermometers, surveying equipment, and an astronomical clock for predicting eclipses. "His mind designs more than the day can fulfill," a visitor remarked. Laid up one day with rheumatism, Jefferson passed the hours "calculating the hour lines of a...dial for the latitude of this place."7 To satisfy an omnivorous mental appetite, he designed an ingenious revolving book holder that accommodated five open volumes at a time. Reclining on a chaise, he composed his voluminous correspondence at a polygraph, a two-pen, two-sheet proto-copying machine that produced a duplicate of a letter as it was written. Even his bed is an item of interest. He placed it in an alcove with open sides--on one side lay his dressing room, on the other his study--but the reason for the open alcove arrangement was not to provide convenient access to one room or the other from the bed but to create a "breezeway" through which the cool night air would flow with increased speed. It is often said that he invented the polygraph, which he did not, and to this day the rumor persists that his bed could be raised on ropes into a hidden compartment in the ceiling--a false story that expresses the abiding belief that Jefferson practiced all manner of disappearing tricks.
Indeed, a great deal went on here out of sight. In designing the mansion, Jefferson followed a precept laid down two centuries earlier by Palladio: "We must contrive a building in such a manner that the finest and most noble parts of it be the most exposed to public view, and the less agreeable disposed in byplaces, and removed from sight as much as possible."8
The mansion sits atop a long tunnel through which slaves, unseen, hurried back and forth carrying platters of food, fresh tableware, ice, beer, wine, and linens while above them twenty, thirty, or forty guests sat listening to Jefferson's dinner-table conversation. At one end of the tunnel lay the icehouse, at the other the kitchen, a hive of ceaseless activity where the enslaved cooks and their helpers produced one course after another.
During dinner Jefferson would open a panel in the side of the fireplace, insert an empty wine bottle, and seconds later pull out a full bottle. We can imagine that he would delay explaining how this magic took place until an astonished guest put the question to him. The panel concealed a narrow dumbwaiter that descended to the basement. When Jefferson put an empty bottle in the compartment, a slave waiting in the basement pulled the dumbwaiter down, removed the empty, inserted a fresh bottle, and sent it up to the master in a matter of seconds. Similarly, platters of hot food magically appeared on a revolving door fitted with shelves, and the used plates disappeared from sight on the same contrivance. Guests could not see or hear any of the activity, nor the links between the visible world and the invisible that magically produced Jefferson's abundance.
Looming above Mulberry Row was a long terrace where Jefferson appeared every day at first light, walking alone with his thoughts. A slave looking up from Mulberry Row would see a very imposing figure outlined against the magnificent architectural features of his mansion. Jefferson was a tall man, over six feet two inches, well muscled, and "straight as a gun barrel," his overseer Edmund Bacon said; "he had an iron constitution and was very strong."9 One of his slaves, the blacksmith Isaac Granger, remembered his master as "a tall, strait-bodied man as ever you see, right square-shouldered...a straight-up man, long face, high nose."10 Jefferson owned a spring-driven strength tester called a dynamometer that he imported from France to gauge the force needed to pull a new plow he was designing. He and his neighbors decided to test their own muscles on this proto-Nautilus machine. His son-in-law Colonel Thomas Mann Randolph could out-pull all contestants, but Jefferson beat him.11
From his terrace Jefferson looked out upon an industrious, well-organized enterprise of black coopers, smiths, nail makers, a brewer, cooks professionally trained in French cuisine, a glazier, painters, millers, and weavers. Black managers, slaves themselves, oversaw other slaves. A team of highly skilled artisans constructed Jefferson's coach. The household staff ran what was essentially a midsized hotel, where some sixteen slaves waited upon the needs of a daily horde of guests.
Below the mansion there stood John Hemmings's* cabinetmaking shop, called the joinery; a dairy; a stable; a small textile factory; and a vast garden carved from the mountainside--the cluster of industries Jefferson launched to supply his plantation and bring in cash. "To be independent for the comforts of life," Jefferson said, "we must fabricate them ourselves." He was speaking of America's need to develop manufacturing, but he had learned that truth on his plantation.12
Jefferson looked down from his terrace onto a community of slaves he knew very well--an extended family and network of related families that had been in his ownership for two, three, or four generations. Though there were several surnames among the slaves on the mountaintop--Fossett, Hern, Colbert, Gillette, Brown, Hughes--they were all Hemingses by blood, descendants of the matriarch Elizabeth "Betty" Hemings, or Hemings relatives by marriage. "A peculiar fact about his house servants was that we were all related to one another," Peter Fossett said. Jefferson's grandson Jeff Randolph observed, "Mr. Js Mechanics and his entire household of servants...consisted of one family connection and their wives."13
At dawn the cooks Edith Fossett and Fanny Hern would already be at work preparing breakfast for the household in the kitchen beneath the terrace, right below Jefferson's feet. When he was president and they were teenagers, Jefferson had personally selected them to live in the White House as apprentices to his French chef. Edith was the wife of the blacksmith Joseph Fossett, the son of Mary Hemings.
Mary Hemings's younger sister Sally would be cleaning Jefferson's private suite, removing the chamber pot and the tub of cold water in which the master soaked his feet every morning upon awakening. In the other rooms of the mansion, Jefferson's daughter's family was stirring. He had asked them to move into Monticello when his presidential term ended--Martha had been with her father in Washington and before that in France--so in 1809 Monticello became the residence of Martha and her husband, Colonel Randolph, and their eight children, with three more children to come in the next few years.
Jefferson's grandchildren knew the slaves on the mountaintop very well. They were devoted to John Hemmings and he to them. John and his wife, Priscilla, had no children, but to the presidential grandchildren Priscilla Hemmings was "Mammy" and John Hemmings "Daddy." The grandchildren felt perfectly at ease descending on "Daddy" Hemmings in his joinery. "All other amusements failing," one granddaughter remembered, "there was a visit to 'Daddy' in the carpenter's shops to beg for nails and bits of wood, or to urge on the completion of 'a box for my drawings,' or a table, or stand, or a flower box. 'Yes yes! my little mistises, but Grandpapa [Jefferson] comes first! There are new bookshelves to be made, trellises for the roses, besides farm work to be done.' This reply brought a clamor of tongues and 'You know Daddy you promised!'"14
A relic of one of these visits turned up in an archaeologist's sieve. In Hemmings's joinery the diggers found a three-inch-long, jagged shard of broken slate, inscribed with an enigma, a passage of cursive writing:
As ugly B....
The slate had snapped apart, leaving only those words of a text that might have been part of a poem. Jefferson's grandchildren taught some of the slaves to read and write, and this might be a remnant of a lesson in the carpentry shop. Jefferson countenanced his grandchildren teaching the favored slaves (sixteen-year-old Cornelia gave John Hemmings a dictionary!) but did not entirely approve of it.15 "He was in favor of teaching the slaves to learn to read print and no more," one slave remembered; "to teach them to write would enable them to forge papers [and] they could no longer be kept in subjugation."16 But writing was more than a tool for would-be escapers. It was the era of the Enlightenment, and "the very idea of writing oneself free was typical of the eighteenth century, when writing seemed to be the visible sign of reason and imagination," writes one historian.17 Archaeologists have found writing slates and pencils all over the mountain, suggesting that many people tried to make themselves literate there.
For decades archaeologists have been scouring Mulberry Row, finding mundane artifacts that testify to the ways life was lived in the workshops and cabins. They have found saw blades, a large drill bit, an axhead, blacksmith's pincers, a wall bracket made in the joinery for a clock in the mansion, scissors, thimbles, locks and a key, and finished nails forged, cut, and hammered by the nail boys.
A large fragment of animal bone showed the marks of a gouge used for punching out buttons. It had been partly used and then discarded, evoking the image of a particular day in the distant past when someone had her bellyful of making buttons and just threw the damned thing away.
There were marbles, dominoes, and a toy tea bowl left by the children--perhaps by Peter Fossett--as well as part of a Jew's harp and part of a violin neck. One Christmas, Cornelia was walking outside when she was stopped short by music. She turned and saw a "fiddler as he stood with half closed eyes and head thrown back, with one foot keeping time to his own scraping in the midst of a circle of attentive and admiring auditors."18
The archaeologists also found a bundle of raw nailrod--a lost measure of iron handed out to a nail boy one dawn. Why was this bundle found in the dirt, unworked, instead of forged, cut, and hammered the way the boss told them? Once, a missing bundle of rod had started a fight in the nailery that got one boy's skull bashed in and another sold south to terrify the rest of the children--"in terrorem" were Jefferson's words--"as if he were put out of the way by death."19 Perhaps this very bundle was the cause of the fight. But the whole episode, showing the underside of the smoothly functioning plantation machine, is for later in this book.
Weaving slavery into a narrative about Thomas Jefferson usually presents a challenge to authors, but one writer managed to spin this vicious attack and terrible punishment of a nailery boy into a charming plantation tale. In a 1941 biography of Jefferson for "young adults" (ages twelve to sixteen), the author wrote: "In this beehive of industry no discord or revilings found entrance: there were no signs of discontent on the black shining faces as they worked under the direction of their master.... The women sang at their tasks and the children old enough to work made nails leisurely, not too overworked for a prank now and then." It might seem unfair to mock the misconceptions and sappy prose of "a simpler era," except that this book, The Way of an Eagle, and hundreds like it shaped the attitudes of generations of people about slavery and African-Americans. Time magazine chose it as one of the "important books" of 1941 in the children's literature category, and it gained a second life in America's libraries when it was reprinted in 1961 as Thomas Jefferson: Fighter for Freedom and Human Rights.20
In describing what Mulberry Row looked like, William Kelso, the archaeologist who excavated it in the 1980s, writes, "There can be little doubt that a relatively shabby Main Street stood there."21 Kelso notes that "throughout Jefferson's tenure, it seems safe to conclude that the spartan Mulberry Row buildings...made a jarring impact on the Monticello landscape."
It seems puzzling that Jefferson placed Mulberry Row, with its slave cabins and work buildings, so close to the mansion, but we are projecting the present onto the past. Today, tourists can walk freely up and down the old slave quarter, and they have computer-generated images and sounds magically transmitted into their smartphones. But in Jefferson's time guests didn't go there, nor could they see the cabins from the mansion or the lawn. Only one visitor left a description of Mulberry Row, and she got a glimpse of it only because she was a close friend of Jefferson's, someone who could be counted upon to look with the right attitude. When she published her account in the Richmond Enquirer, she wrote that the cabins would appear "poor and uncomfortable" only to people of "northern feelings."
There is a scene from the construction of Monticello that would make an excellent diorama, one of those old-fashioned museum exhibits that make you feel you are actually looking through a window into the past.
Jefferson moved onto Monticello Mountain as a twenty-seven-year-old bachelor in November 1770. During a snowstorm on a bitterly cold day he went to observe the digging of a cellar. Wrapped in a coat, the young master watched a sixteen-year-old girl dig into frozen clay. The crew consisted of four men, two sixteen-year-old girls, and "a lad"--all slaves hired by his contractor.22 He wrote a description of the work, taking note of the crew's output for the day, which lasted about eight and a half hours in the frigid weather. Half-frozen, the slaves took frequent breaks to warm up by a fire. An instinctive engineer and calculator, Jefferson measured their output, a hole about 3 feet deep and 132 feet square. He was not commenting on slavery but making engineering and labor notes, setting down for future reference how much digging could be accomplished by youthful laborers on a terrible day.
Our diorama depicting the harsh reality of slave labor--teenage girls and a boy digging frozen clay in a snowstorm to make the cellar of a great mansion--might stir a sense of injustice in our modern breasts and inspire us to wonder what the young Jefferson might have thought about this scene.
Perhaps we think we know the answers: he inherited slavery; it was the accepted system; he believed that black people were inferior; it was impossible to get anything done in Virginia without slaves. Attempting to quiet debate on this vexing, politically charged subject, Dinesh D'Souza echoes this sentiment when he writes, "Jefferson and the founders faced two profound obstacles. The first was that virtually all of them recognized the degraded condition of blacks in America and understood it posed a formidable hurdle to granting blacks the rights of citizenship."23
But if we push an imaginary button on our imaginary diorama, we will hear a voice-over narration in Jefferson's own words. After describing the work in his notebook, he wrote down a verse from Alexander Pope expressing his own condition: "Let day improve on day, and year on year; / Without a pain, a trouble, or a fear." So it might seem that D'Souza was right, that Jefferson had no moral qualms about what he saw. But the voice-over continues: after copying Pope's optimistic, forward-looking verse, Jefferson wrote an aphorism in Latin--"Fiat justitia, ruet coelum"--"Let there be justice, even if the sky falls."24 Years later he would call this his guiding maxim.
Violent contradictions roil the pages--a turmoil of doubts, loathings, self-recrimination, all vying with the imperative to create a productive plantation and the imperative to have peace and justice on the mountain. Jefferson had lately read a savage indictment of slavery by the English poet William Shenstone, a subversive, damning attack by a troublesome foreign intellectual, an attack on the American system that Jefferson did not ignore or rebut but copied into his notebook. He copied out the lines proclaiming that the country of the slave master is "stain'd with blood, and crimson'd o'er with crimes." He copied the sentiment that the master is "the stern tyrant that embitters life." In Shenstone's poem, the voice of a slave, torn from his native land, denounces the masters, their cruelty, and their hypocrisy: "Rich by our toils, and by our sorrows gay, / They ply our labours, and enhance our pains."
The pages of Jefferson's notebook offer a diorama of the young man's psyche--the architect and planter struggling against the moralist, seeking a way to absorb this foul, repugnant system into his interior landscape and into the exterior landscape he is shaping. Jefferson planned a mountaintop cemetery where he would bury both blacks and whites in common ground--"one half to the use of my own family; the other of strangers, servants." The graveyard would pay everlasting tribute to the slaves: "On the grave of a favorite and faithful servant might be a pyramid erected of the rough rock stone, the pedestal made plain to receive an inscription."25 He wrote out an "Inscription for an African Slave" using Shenstone's verse that calls the master a tyrant, making a monument of self-denunciation.
It is highly ironic that Jefferson planned a common burying ground for blacks and whites. Much of the bitterness over the question of Sally Hemings and her relation to him arose from the wish of some slave descendants to be buried in the Jefferson family cemetery on the mountaintop--a request that was rejected by the "documented" Jefferson descendants who own the cemetery. Yet their distinguished ancestor had envisioned everyone resting together for eternity. As it turned out, Monticello ended up with separate cemeteries.
Jefferson's inner debate continues in the pages of his notebook. His copying a passage from Horace, the great Roman poet of the pastoral life, suggests that he is taking moral refuge in the knowledge that he was an heir to classical slavery. "Happy the man who, far from business cares...works his ancestral acres."26 Horace's character, a moneylender, retires to the countryside after a strenuous, stressful life. The future that Jefferson envisions for himself at Monticello is like that of Horace's Roman in his villa: "what joy to see the sheep, hurrying homeward...to see the wearied oxen...and the home-bred slaves, troop of a wealthy house."
Jefferson had grown up among "home-bred slaves." As a child, he had been conditioned to feel safe among the black household servants, enveloped in a relationship of trust, loyalty, and intimacy. They were his guardians. He preserved a memory, from the age of two, of being lifted into the arms of a slave who held the young master safely through a long journey--"he often declared that his earliest recollection in life was of being...handed up to a servant on horseback, by whom he was carried on a pillow for a long distance."27
Archaeology has yielded an insight into the psychology of the slavery Jefferson grew up with. From his mountaintop Jefferson could look down on the site of his old family home, Shadwell, a modest frame house. Marks in the ground show that a fence separated it from four slave cabins housing some thirty people. A handful of trusted slaves lived in a cabin and kitchen building within the pale, but fences and gates kept most of the slaves at a distance.*28 Jefferson wrote down a vivid recollection of someone bullying or beating a slave: "The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities." He did not identify "the parent," but the scene is so vividly described that it was likely Jefferson's own mother or father.29
As he grew into manhood, Jefferson said that he'd felt virtually alone in believing that the Africans were more than just the equivalent of livestock. He wrote in 1814 to a fellow Virginian:
From those of the former generation who were in the fulness of age when I came into public life,...I soon saw that nothing was to be hoped. Nursed and educated in the daily habit of seeing the degraded condition, both bodily and mental, of those unfortunate beings, not reflecting that that degradation was very much the work of themselves & their fathers, few minds have yet doubted but that they were as legitimate subjects of property as their horses and cattle. The quiet and monotonous course of colonial life has been disturbed by no alarm, and little reflection on the value of liberty.30
A Virginia law enacted in 1723 forbade owners to free a slave "upon any pretence whatsoever," with one exception. A slave who performed some meritorious service could be freed, but the manumission had to be approved by the governor and the governor's council.31 Though slaves were private property, the government interfered with an individual's right to manumit that property because private choice could undermine the institution of slavery. If owners could free slaves at will, there would be no stopping the growth of a class of free blacks. Thus the maintenance of slavery required the imposition, by the government, of rigid class discipline among the slave owners. The Virginia government, entirely controlled by slaveholders, policed their peers to ensure that no emancipationist mavericks rose up among their number.
Jefferson determined to do something about a system that treated people like cattle. After his election in 1769 to Virginia's House of Burgesses, as he writes in his autobiography, "I made one effort in that body for the permission of the emancipation of slaves." In his 1814 letter he describes what happened:
In the first or second session of the Legislature after I became a member, I drew to this subject the attention of Colonel Bland, one of the oldest, ablest, & most respected members, and he undertook to move for certain moderate extensions of the protection of the laws to these people. I seconded his motion, and, as a younger member, was more spared in the debate; but he was denounced as an enemy of his country, & was treated with the grossest indecorum.32
He blamed a hidebound mentality for the vociferous rejection of his emancipation idea. The lawmakers were deaf to principled argument: "during the regal government, nothing liberal could expect success."
Jefferson made his emancipation proposal around the same time he took on an intriguing legal case, Howell v. Netherland, that illuminates the shifting, increasingly ambiguous racial borderland in colonial Virginia, where strict enforcement of racial laws could have the effect of making white people black.
In the winter of 1769, Samuel Howell, a mixed-race indentured servant who had escaped from his master, sought a lawyer in Williamsburg to represent him in suing for freedom. His grandmother was a free white woman, but his grandfather was black, so Howell had become entrapped in a law that prescribed indentured servitude to age thirty-one for certain mixed-race people "to prevent that abominable mixture of white men or women with negroes or mulattoes."33 Howell, aged twenty-seven, was not indentured forever, since he would be freed in about four years, but nonetheless Jefferson felt angry enough over this denial of rights that he took Howell's case pro bono.
Jefferson later became famous for his diatribes against racial mixing, but his arguments on behalf of Howell, made more than a decade before he wrote down his infamous racial theories, suggest that the younger Jefferson harbored doubts about the supposed "evil" of miscegenation. The word "seems" in the following sentence suggests that he did not quite accept the prevailing racial ideology: "The purpose of the act was to punish and deter women from that confusion of species, which the legislature seems to have considered as an evil."
Having just one black grandparent, Howell probably appeared very nearly white. But with the full knowledge that Howell had African blood, Jefferson argued to the justices that he should be immediately freed. He made his case partly on a strict reading of the original law, which imposed servitude only on the first generation of mixed-race children and could not have been intended, Jefferson argued, "to oppress their innocent offspring." He continued: "it remains for some future legislature, if any shall be found wicked enough, to extend [the punishment of servitude] to the grandchildren and other issue more remote." Jefferson went further, declaring to the court: "Under the law of nature, all men are born free," a concept he derived from his reading of John Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers, the concept that would later form the foundation of the Declaration of Independence. In the Howell case, Jefferson deployed it in defense of a man of African descent.
Jefferson's close reading of the statutes and his invocation of the law of nature left the justices unmoved. At the conclusion of Jefferson's argument the opposing attorney stood up to begin his response, "but the Court interrupted him," as Jefferson recalled, and issued a summary judgment against Howell.
The young Jefferson was not finished with his campaign against "unremitting despotism." In a few short lines he sketched out a solution: free the slaves and make them citizens. "The abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in those colonies, where it was unhappily introduced in their infant state. But previous to the enfranchisement of the slaves we have, it is necessary to exclude all further importations from Africa." So wrote Jefferson in the summer of 1774. He wove that declaration into a statement intended for presentation to a gathering of Virginia's dissidents, then to a national congress of colonial representatives, and ultimately to King George III. It rehearses many of the points Jefferson later put into the Declaration of Independence. As he worked through the process of writing the nation into existence, he envisioned not only freedom for the slaves but also their "enfranchisement," their incorporation into the citizenry. Given his later history and the tenor of his times, the formula sounds preposterous, but that is what he proposed. He was trying to pull the people far beyond where they thought they could go. His cousin Edmund Randolph, who heard the document read aloud in Williamsburg, commented that "it constituted a part of Mr. Jefferson's pride to run before the times in which he lived."34
A moment of political crisis had inspired Jefferson. Virginia's royal governor, Lord Dunmore, had just dissolved one legislature for its radical tendencies and was refusing to seat another, so the legislators decided to meet unofficially in Williamsburg. A gathering of freeholders in Albemarle County chose Jefferson as one of their two delegates to the Williamsburg conference and voted their approval of a set of resolutions he laid before them. He forged these talking points into a fiery manifesto, A Summary View of the Rights of British America.
Jefferson's "glowing sentences" in Summary View, observes Dumas Malone, were "written in the white heat of indignation." Declaiming the doctrine of natural rights, Jefferson "regarded himself as the spokesman of a free people who had derived their rights from God and the laws."35 Ascending to a "prophetic" tone, Jefferson "grounded his argument on the nature of things--as they were in the beginning and evermore should be." Jefferson was not in a compromising mood, and his statement, Malone says, "left no place...for tyranny of any sort."36
Jefferson himself said that Summary View was "penned in the language of truth" and free from "expressions of servility."37 In his passionate defense of liberty he staked out an extreme position. Edmund Randolph thought that Summary View offered "a range of inquiry...marching far beyond the politics of the day."38 A modern historian concurs: "Broader and even more prescient are references to the rights of 'human nature,' which Jefferson daringly ascribed even to the chattel slaves."39 Summary View makes no mention of exiling the blacks after freeing them. The clear implication is that people of African descent had natural rights and deserved a place in this country as free people.
Randolph reported that some sections of the document were received with enthusiasm, others not. "I distinctly recollect the applause bestowed on [most of the resolutions], when they were read to a large company.... Of all, the approbation was not equal." But the whole document was embraced by "several of the author's admirers," who paid to have it printed and circulated as a pamphlet.* 40 Summary View, its incendiary provision about slavery intact, won Jefferson a wide reputation as an eloquent spokesman for liberty and led to his selection to write the Declaration of Independence.
The Howell case and Summary View cast light on the enduring question of the meaning of the phrase "all men." When Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal," could he have possibly meant to include the slaves? The usual answer is no. It has seemed evident that Jefferson expected the word "white" to be silently added before "men." But when he wrote Summary View, he included the Africans under the law of nature, and when he argued for Howell, he declared that all men are born free, without qualification.41
In his original draft of the Declaration, Jefferson denounced the slave trade in terms that summon to mind the two-step process of emancipation he had proposed in Summary View: first, the abolition of the slave trade; second, the "enfranchisement of the slaves we have." John Chester Miller writes: "The inclusion of Jefferson's strictures on slavery and the slave trade would have committed the United States to the abolition of slavery." 42 Thus when the Continental Congress deleted Jefferson's attack on the slave trade, it drained out the full implications of "all men are created equal."
Jefferson had overthrown millennia and set everyone free. He had undone Aristotle's ancient formula--"from the hour of their birth, some men are marked out for subjection, others for rule"--which had governed human affairs until 1776.43 In search of "original intent," we can gather evidence from original hearers. Massachusetts freed its slaves on the strength of the Declaration of Independence, weaving Jefferson's language into the state constitution of 1780, giving it the force of law. A court in Massachusetts affirmed this end to slavery in 1783 because the state constitution had "ratified the doctrine that all men were created free and equal," as John Chester Miller writes.44 The Vermont Constitution had abolished slavery even earlier, in 1777.
The meaning of "all men" sounded equally clear, and so disturbing to the authors of the constitutions of six Southern states that they emended Jefferson's wording. "All freemen," they wrote in their founding documents, "are equal." The authors of those state constitutions knew what Jefferson meant, could not accept it, and sought to nullify the Declaration's intent within their borders.45
As Edmund Randolph observed, it was Jefferson's pride "to run before the times in which he lived." We do not quite grasp how far in advance of his times he was running. We tend to look at Jefferson backward, projecting his later statements onto the young man; but the young Jefferson was a firebrand. Jefferson's first two public declarations of natural rights were both linked to the rights of people of color. His third pronouncement, the Declaration itself, flowed from the first two. The celestial notion of natural rights gained sufficient hold over him to overpower any aversion he had to what Virginia law called "abominable mixture." The racial barrier had been breached long ago, and it was "wicked" to defend it any longer.
Another, more personal absolute may have weighed on his conscience. For two years, since his marriage in 1772, he had been the owner of his wife's blood kin, for Martha Jefferson had six slaves who were her half siblings and therefore now his in-laws. This was an absolute of blood, a parallel genealogical reality of in-laws not recognized in law. His marriage had thrust him very deeply into the realm where people had the "double aspect" of being both humanity and property. This erased any clear-cut sense of separation between the races and any comfortable notion of who was destined to be a slave and who was destined to be free.
MASTER OF THE MOUNTAIN. Copyright 2012 by Henry Wiencek.
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